Ulster Museum

Joanne Savage is stupefied by beauty while perusing 20th century Irish art at the Ulster Museum

How do you get your head around 170 artworks spanning four centuries of artistic modes and styles? Well, you don’t really. You emerge from Visions - Spectacular Art from the Ulster Museum, stupefied by beauty, glutted on art.

Drawn from the Museum's permanent collection, Visions is a sweeping collection, encompassing work from the Renaissance and Romantic periods through to post-Second World War international art. The exhibit is gathered into seven sections; information on historical context and the inspiration behind individual works is provided in each cluster. On this visit, I focus on 'A New Order: 20th Century Irish Art'.

One of the most captivating pieces in this collection is 'The Green Coat' (1926) by the Belfast-born painter Sir John Lavery. Lavery was a fashionable portrait-painter of his day, having studied in Paris at the height of ‘plein air’ vogue, when mastery of light and its shifting hues was so important to a painting’s vitality. He settled in London and was commissioned to paint the Royal family in 1913, moving easily in the upper echelons of society.

This stunning painting is of Lavery's second wife, Hazel Martyn, an American of Irish extraction. Her expression and mien are as inscrutable and beguiling as the Mona Lisa. But there is a melancholy to her features, an air of mystery and solitude that sets her above decadence and sensuality. Lavery immortalised Hazel elsewhere as Cathleen ni Houlihan, WB Yeats’s famed symbol of Mother Ireland.

Moving from Louis le Brocquy’s 'Girl in White' (1941), a portrait of reserved femininity in ivories, greys and pale blues, you find such treasures as JB Yeats’s 'Return of the Wanderer' (1928), Gerard Dillon’s symbolically rich 'Yellow Bungalow' (1954) and Edward McGuire’s now iconic 'Portrait of Seamus Heaney' (1939).

Daniel O’Neill’s 'The Blue Skirt' (1949) owes much to Modigliani’s elongated faces and Gauguin’s celebration of primitivism. The reclining female nude has a raw power and mask-like face, set against a pastoral backdrop. It’s modernism with an Irish twist, a topless siren to rival Gauguin’s Tahitian women.

For me the most thought-provoking piece in the New Order section is Colin Middleton’s surreal comment on Christianity, 'Christ Androgyne' (1943). This dark and unsettling oil depicts a Christ with flowing hair, pouty lips and one breast. Christ is neither male nor female – a kind of hermaphrodite or androgyne – both sexes and neither.

The misshapen body merges with the wooden cross and the traditional icon of Christian belief becomes a grotesque distortion. The painting obviously suggests a crisis of belief but also – by re-sexing the figure of Christ – presents a challenge to the patriarchal bias of Christendom.

Middleton, who was born in Belfast and trained at the Belfast College of Art, was one of the forerunners of Irish surrealism, adapting the subconscious-probing terrain of de Chirico and Dali when most around him where still engaged in strait-laced realism. 'Christ Androgyne' is a startling work, a view of the crucifix that might be occasioned by an acid trip spent reading The Second Sex and Vatican II.

Many of the usual suspects are also on display here, including Neil Shawcross, Basil Blackshaw, William Conor, TP Flanagan, Paul Henry and William Scott. The collection zigzags between Victorian representationalism and modern and postmodern abstract expressionism - no shortage of masterpieces and unexpected gems.

An addendum to the New Order section is Willie Doherty’s looped video installation, Ghost Story, which was displayed at the Venice Biennale in 2007. It moves along eerie, deserted country lanes and remote back allies, whispering about victims of the Troubles, hands being bound with wire, people lurking under bridges.

The sense of foreboding is augmented by the pitch black of the room. So dark is it, in fact, that one woman initially mistakes me for a chair, and when I turn to point out that I am sentient, lets out a yell. My attempts to affirm that I am not part of the artwork are drowned out by her screams.

There is much to be swept away by in the New Order collection, but you’ll find me, during rare hours of recreation, for the next month at least, staring at Lavery’s portrait of the haunting Ms Martyn. She seems like the kind of woman who the love poetry of WB Yeats should have been written to (instead of that chinful old bellows Maud Gonne), full of 'high lonely mysteries' and a beauty that is not natural in an age like this. It’s worth visiting the exhibition to see this masterpiece alone.