Irish Museum of Modern Art
30 November 2023 – 21 April 2024
IMMA’s ‘Self-Determination: A Global Perspective’ is a complex, ambitious, and timely exhibition. It draws on how art responded to the seismic political and social changes of 1913 to 1939, when the German, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires were reconfigured and when Ireland also gained partial independence. Concentrating on Europe and the near East, as far as Turkey, Palestine and Egypt, it includes work from Ukraine, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Finland and Ireland, amongst other states and regions.
The exhibition prioritises the impact and deployment of the forces of modernity across its themes and structuring. For example, the space devoted to ‘Cross Currents’ encapsulates how the complex networks of empire continued to influence interaction with the wider world. Mary Swanzy’s Samoan Scene (1923), a Gauguin inspired work by the Ukrainian artist, Zola Bielkina, who had not ventured abroad, and Alan Phelan’s sculpture of Roger Casement peering out of an exotic houseplant, share the room with Dragana Jurišić’s 2013 series, ‘YU The Lost Country’, in which the artist revisits the now non-existent Yugoslavia via Rebecca West’s 1941 travelogue. The complex interaction of these works raises questions about how economic and political systems unconsciously impact our worldview.
‘Extractive Industries’ focuses on the construction of hydro-electric schemes in the 1920s and 1930s in Ireland, Poland and Ukraine. Seán Keating’s paintings of Ardnacrusha, familiar to Irish visitors, are contextualised by the work of international artists and by Declan Clarke’s film, and as a result, a more critical reading is apparent. His take on the Siemens project in which Irish workers, especially the Irish speakers, were underpaid and mistreated is alluded to in the minutiae of their onsite living conditions. Dnieper Dam (1932) by Dmytro Vlasiuk depicts the imposition of this gigantic modernist structure into the pastoral setting of Ukraine. The dam was part of the expansion of the Soviet Union, then in control of the region. Concentrating on agricultural workers, the painting alludes to the ways in which the industrial scheme caused the flooding of acres of farmland and the displacement of rural land dwellers. A neighbouring dam at Kherson Oblast made headlines in June 2023 when it was blown up by the Russian Army as part of its campaign to retake Ukrainian territory. Rafał Malczewski’s Building of the Roznow Dam (1938) refers to the development of an industrial infrastructure of the Second Polish Republic, founded in 1918. The bright mountainous landscape is latticed off by wires and the geometric constructions of the dam, in a work which accentuates aesthetics over politics.
In the Garden Galleries, the theme moves from a state perspective to that of the citizen, including those marginalised by new regimes. Aesthetics seem more to the fore or perhaps this reflects the move away from official ideologies. The impressive pairing of William Conor’s cartoon for the mural, Ulster Past and Present (c. 1931) with Kristjan Raud, City Under Construction (1935) refers to how the ruins of the past were revisited to create national mythologies. Conor connects ancient Ulster warriors with the factory and shipyard workers of the new Northern Ireland, while Raud’s work alludes to the Estonian national epic, Kalevipoeg (1857). This folktale, like those of Ireland, equates the construction of ancient tombs and landmarks with the heroic deeds of the past and provides a sense of pride in the nation’s ancient prowess for its modern citizens.
The basement of the Garden Galleries is given over to the delightfully irreverent ‘Reconciliations’, presided over by Phelan’s De Valera with his tongue out. Here, dances and social gatherings of all kinds and in all styles bring in the carnivalesque, perhaps most evident in the juxtaposing of two of William Orpen’s depictions of celebrations of Armistice Day in Arras with the bizarre Village Wedding (1926) by the Slovenian painter, Tone Kralj. The drunken antics of Orpen’s traumatised celebrants contrast wonderfully with the metallic embracing peasants of Krajl’s nuptial festivities. In both the war casts its shadow. Krajl’s deployment of modernist forms, ultimately derived from cubism, is echoed throughout the exhibition in works by artists who lived in Paris or who learnt about it second hand. Several artists including Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone studied there with André Lhote, and there are some startling comparisons to be made with other regions here, such as the works of the Serbian artist, Sava Šumanović, another former Lhotean, who was executed in 1942 after the establishment of the pro-Nazi Croatian state in Serbia. Many of the paintings by the Ukrainian artists were banned under Stalin in the 1930s and were only allowed to be displayed after Ukraine achieved independence in 1991. Now these works are again in storage, except for those in this exhibition.
Contemporary artworks provide a crucial element of reflection and disruption to what might otherwise be a pedestrian art historical display. Minna Henriksson’s wall drawing, Limits of the State (2023), traces the comparative experience of women in Ireland and Finland in the aftermath of independence, when in both cases, their role was defined in terms of home and family. This freehand, transient plotting of legislation could be seen as a metaphor for the entire exhibition, revealing how fragmented and arbitrary the division of power is, and how necessary research and uncovering of facts has become in our relationship to our national and global histories. The playful works of Ursula Burke, Alan Phelan and Array Collective punctuate the monumentality of much of the older works and bring in contemporary skepticism towards official histories and national myths.
Sasha Sykes’s Trove III (2023), an ivy, wood and hessian construction of an imagined ruined chimneypiece, a relic of the Ascendancy House, is a reminder of the vagaries of history to which we are all subject. Larissa Sansour’s film, Familiar Phantoms (2023) creates a narrative of her family’s complex history of displacement and enduring trauma of exile from Palestine. Jasmina Cibic’s Beacons (2023), a film set in a series of isolated buildings, re-uses the rhetoric of transnationalism to consider the position of women and the soft power of architecture. Situated at the end of the exhibition in the main building, it is perhaps an opening to the wider repercussions of self-determination in the era of globalisation. This is a stimulating and challenging exhibition, its theme more relevant now than ever. It makes a case for the need to look beyond the borders of our own state and to situate ourselves within a broader constantly evolving history. ‘Self-Determination’ asserts art’s role in imagining the nation but equally reminds us that its task is also to critique the boundaries of the state and its often-rudimentary ideologies.
Dr Róisín Kennedy lectures in the School of Art History and Cultural Policy at UCD.