A selection of works from the Hugh Lane’s permanent collection are examined in relation to three recently acquired works unlocking new interpretations.
Tableaux Vivants is a single-room exhibition in the Hugh Lane gallery, curated by the gallery’s acting Head of Collections Logan Sisley and the artist Niamh McCann. The show centres around three of McCann’s artworks that originated with her Furtive Tears exhibition in 2018. These works have been recently acquired by the Hugh Lane for their permanent collection, and are what the American artist Robert Rauschenberg would have called ‘combines’, that is, artworks that feature both painterly and sculptural elements in equal measure. The focus of McCann’s imagery is a hand that is positioned in various gestures, set against a background of pure aquamarine. Due to the uniformity of the aesthetic of the images and the isolation of the hand from its bearer, McCann’s paintings have an almost instructional flavour, as though they were designed for a visual encyclopaedia that deciphered hand-signals. The metalwork sections of McCann’s combines appear to correlate with the gestures of the painted figures; the shape and direction of the material is fashioned in such a way as to mimic the positions of the hand. The three artworks in McCann’s Sculpture Picture Furniture Gesture series are thus explicitly consistent with one another, interpreting the same theme with only minor adjustments, each iteration in close proximity stylistically to the others, and this consistency in turn provides a firm basis for creating new alliances with the other artworks that McCann and Sisley have chosen to include in the exhibition.
According to the programme material, one of the key motivations for staging Tableaux Vivants was to stimulate a kind of dialogue with another exhibition, Studio & State: The Laverys and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which is a collaboration between the Hugh Lane and the National Museum of Ireland and currently on at Collins Barracks. As germane as the period of revolutionary Ireland is to Tableaux Vivants, this act of inter-exhibition dialogue is a fact that fits into the narrative about how the show developed and why it was organised when it was – it is not meant to instruct the audience to visit Studio & State beforehand in order to understand the show. The actual source of cohesion, anchoring and grouping the disparate works together, comes from McCann’s combines. In fact it is more correct to say that the simple selection and arrangement of the artworks, with McCann’s Sculpture Picture Furniture Gesture #1-3 as their focal point, is what creates all of the interesting dynamics of the show. The exhibition is effectively a collage – every item has been removed from its original context and repurposed to comprise a completely new entity, to take on new meanings and create new aesthetic resonances. While her combines are the guide rails for the exhibition, this process affects McCann’s work as much as any of the others. The specific providence of her series – the rationale for their origin in her 2018 exhibition, inspired by statues of James Connolly and Edward Carson – is put to one side, and all that matters is how these artworks interact with the whole.
The gallery text is refreshingly minimal, encouraging visitors to interpret the show in whatever way strikes them best. It does emphasise that “gestures inherent in the artworks selected for Tableaux Vivants were variously used to convey authority, surrender, to dismiss or to rejoice,” which is a useful rubric for unlocking the exhibition. The same thought is repeated by Niamh McCann in the emails we swap after I view the exhibition. She refers to the exhibition’s “interplay of gestural dynamics” as an interesting tool for revealing the “residues of historical narrative, meaning and power.” With this in mind, I think that the arrangement of the artworks can be meaningfully divided into three groups. Each group is tied together by three factors: their physical proximity; their relatedness to a theme or set of similar ideas; and their relationship to one of McCann’s Sculpture Picture Furniture Gesture artworks, which also contribute eloquently to staging the theme that groups the artworks together.
One group, centred on McCann’s SPFG #1, seems to harbour a libidinal, eroticized charge, which is simultaneously disaffected and moribund. Dorothy Cross’ Midges (2000) and Henry Scott Tuke’s To The Morning Sun (1904) make the biggest impression here. Another group, the largest, seems to be concerned with violent antagonisms in society, including a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln, an Abstract Expressionist portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan, and Robert Ballagh’s magisterial interpretation of a Goya painting, which references the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The last group is the most explicit in conjuring impressions that relate to the incipient Irish Republic, so let’s linger on that one. On the eastern wall of the room, McCann’s SPFG #2 depicts a hand turned upward, the palm and fingers relaxed, as though ready to catch something that might fall from above, or, better yet, as though raised to the sky in hopeful supplication. This interpretation is reinforced by the religious and spiritual imagery that populates this group. Among these artworks are Margaret Clarke’s St Patrick Climbs Croagh Patrick (1932) and John Lavery’s The Blessing of the Colours (1922), equally monumental oil paintings that feature icons of the Irish Catholic church, and which also transact in the kind of ideological aesthetic that nation-building projects require. Clarke portrays Ireland’s patron saint enjoying a beatific moment of inspiration on the mountainside, while Lavery materialises the religious component of Republican patriotism in a scene that involves a young Irish soldier kneeling in front of the Archbishop of Dublin as he blesses the tricolour flag.
So far, so good. However, the simple thematics at work in this group are unsettled by William John Leech’s The Cigarette (1915) and Isobel Gloag’s The Woman with the Puppets (1915). In the former a young woman in a black satin dress stares confidently at the viewer, her right hand held at head height, fingers extended rigidly, clasping a cigarette. In the latter, a nude woman reclines on an unkempt bed, her eyes half closed, holding a strangely lifelike male puppet in her left hand, which is clothed in an elegant suit (more such puppets perch listlessly in the foreground of Gloag’s painting). At first blush, neither of these paintings seem to coincide with the criteria for mythologising nationhood that characterise the dominant artworks in their group.
This initial impression, however, is unseated by the marked similarity of the Archbishop’s hand in Lavery’s painting to the hand that holds the cigarette in Leech’s painting; the position and deportment of both hands are so similar that one could be swapped unnoticed for the other. The discovery of this symmetry is deeply pleasing and is like an anchor, instilling a reflective attitude in the viewer, sustaining the desire to explore the meaning of this and other connections further. One thought that came to mind was that this affinity stages the development from an early form of authorial recognition to the contemporary. This realisation, if I can put it in those terms, is certainly apt, reflecting the shift in modern Ireland’s national identity from de facto theocracy to progressive, liberal democracy, where members of the clergy are no longer desirable as agents of benediction. The selection of Gloag’s painting lends to this narrative of the re-appraisal of political identity by artworks of the past: her blissful feminist protagonist collects and organises men as playthings, revealing that the basis for their social status (profession, wealth etc.) is superficial and absurd. It is as though the message these women were carrying was placed in a time-capsule, waiting for the passage of decades to be brought to light. Social conventions have utterly transformed, and the religious militarism of the other paintings no longer functions as a political representation of an ideal public sphere in contemporary Ireland. A soldier and a saint now look like puppets.
Or so my own thinking went. When it comes to an exhibition such as this, we all have to interpret in our own ways. My only advice is to sit a while and take the work in slowly – I’m certain that the rewards for your contemplation will be substantial.
Words: Tom Lordan
Tableaux Vivants is at the Hugh Lane Gallery until April 24.