Artsdesk: Self-Determination – A Global Perspective at IMMA

Posted 2 months ago in Arts & Culture Features

DDF apr-may-24 – Desktop

One of the largest exhibitions in IMMA’s history focuses on the nation-states that emerged in the wake of the First World War, exploring the role of art and artists in relation to the expression of national identities, nation-building, and statecraft. 


In February 1918, following the end of World War I, the American president Woodrow Wilson made an address to Congress in response to peace declarations made by his German and Austrian counterparts. In his speech, the victorious Wilson proclaimed that “national aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. ‘Self determination‘ is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action.”

The concept of national self-determination – its expression and development through cultural and artistic spheres – is at the heart of this major new show at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. At the outset, a curatorial text explains that IMMA’s team have worked on developing this show for three years. The scale of effort that this commitment implies is evident throughout: walking through room after room in the East Wing and in the Garden Galleries, it’s impossible not to be impressed by how replete the walls and spaces are, filled to the brim with umpteen artworks (mostly paintings and sculptures) and explanatory curatorial materials.

According to Nathan O’Donnell, lead researcher for the exhibition, the director Annie Fletcher conceived the idea for the show several years ago. Given the historical and conceptual framework involved, the project was a good fit for the government’s Decade of Centenaries programme, which helped to fund the initiative.

In the opening antechamber, a long and detailed timeline dominates three walls, identifying key dates and events in the fractious history of the period between 1913 and 1939. The timeline is split into two levels: on the bottom level is global history and on the top is Irish history. This simple design sets an interesting commentary in motion, reconfiguring international dilemmas, incidents, and paradigm-shifts in the context of our local politics, and vice versa. Some of the confluences are striking, though how meaningful they are is left to you to decide: Eamon de Valera was elected a member of parliament the same year that the Russian Revolution took place; the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed several months after Hitler took power of the Nazi party; and in 1927 Constance Markiewicz died, the ESB was formed, and Leon Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party as Stalin rose to dominance.

Of course, in addition to being interesting for its own sake, the bifurcated timeline serves a wider purpose – setting the stage for the duality of the exhibition. Self-Determination faces in two directions at once: it examines the artworks of international figures belonging to the inter-war period – whose work in some sense contributed to the establishment or galvanisation of a national identity – and it also examines artworks of Irish artists from the 20th and 21st centuries, which similarly attest to Ireland’s culture and statehood. The local and international artworks weave together like musical accompaniment, one element supporting and nuancing the other. The logic of the exhibition, then, is that the vicissitudes of Ireland’s cultural sphere over the last 100 years is a productive lens through which to understand the narratives and mythologies of other newly founded nation-states, and vice versa. As Ireland separated from the British Empire, new nations were growing out of the collapse of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. As O’Donnell puts it, the aim was “to consider the history of revolution, partition, and the emergence of the Free State in Ireland within an international context.” A captivating premise.

At the start, I have to admit that I was surprised at how narrowly the exhibition constrains its focus. It quickly becomes evident that the majority of the show’s international artwork comes from Estonia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland and Turkey. A handful of other countries are represented, but they appear very sparingly. Given the general language around the history of self-determination, I had assumed that, while artworks from the new nations would predominate, there would nonetheless be visual references to other major European and western cultural traditions that were in one way or another relevant touchstones for national myth-making projects of the period. But, as I say, this assumption was mistaken.

Once I had wrapped my head around the parameters of the exhibition, I began to relax and enjoy the dynamic at play between contemporary Irish work and the period work. One of the most noteworthy, albeit somewhat predictable, contrasts between our peers and predecessors is the degree of seriousness with which nationalist themes are expressed. When one is confronted by Seán Keating’s landmark Men of the South (1921) or the Finnish Expressionist Tyko Sallinen’s theatrical Study for the Fight III (1920), for instance, one can’t help but feel moved by the raw intensity that suffuses their scenes: the painterly subjects bear the traces of a society marked by armed struggle and resistance. The solemnity of these works is quite at odds with subversive artworks like Alan Phelan’s Roger Should Have Stayed in the Jungle (2006) or Niamh McCann’s Stream of Consciousness (2022). In the latter, the artist studied the nose of a 1949 marble statue of Michael Collins, and then rendered it in bronze. The isolated organ sits atop two large curved beams, which may either be supporting or skewering the nose, depending on your interpretation.

Another element of the show that comes across strongly is the prevalence of the modernist ‘Futurist’ style. One of the few Polish artists included in the exhibition is Jerzy Hulewicz, whose magisterial Charge (1932-1939) is housed in the Garden Galleries. This large-scale painting is a fantastic example of the style sweeping through the artist populations of Eastern Europe and Russia – Hulewicz depicts the Polish Legions, a famous cavalry troupe, being led into battle.

The geometrical configuration of the spatial relationships between the figures, and the abstract characterisation of bodies hurtling at speed through the terrain, evident here, are familiar tropes from the Futurist playbook. Charge is an immersive work of art, and compels the attention of everyone who steps into the room. By contrast, the Irish painting conventions of the period are more naturalistic, though there were some far-sighted individuals, like Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone, who made the case for modernist abstraction despite almost “universal derision.”

This last point leads to a critical component of the show. In many instances, IMMA’s curatorial team interrogates the underlying presuppositions of the nation-building efforts of the post-WWI period. At various points in the exhibition, historical hypocrisies and paradoxes are put under a spotlight. According to O’Donnell, the critique embedded in the fabric of the show seeks to highlight the injustices of the Paris Peace Conference and the League of Nations, which re-inscribed colonial and racist power structures. Arguably, ‘self-determination’ was a mechanism of containment, aiming to neutralise the seismic waves of revolutionary energies and international solidarities emerging globally at this time.

A gargantuan and multifaceted exhibition that deserves attention.

Self-Determination: A Global Perspective runs at IMMA until Sunday April 21.

Words: Tom Lordan


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