Thence by family descent
‘Irish Tourist Board Exhibition’, New York, 9-28 October 1976, catalogue no. 9;
‘Land/Eire’, Boston College, Massachusetts, 2002
Ernie O’Malley used to loan paintings under his alias Bernard Stewart as that was the name he gave to the British authorities when he was being cross-examined by them in Kilkenny and Dublin C...Read more
Ernie O’Malley used to loan paintings under his alias Bernard Stewart as that was the name he gave to the British authorities when he was being cross-examined by them in Kilkenny and Dublin Castle in December 1920.
At first glance Éire is a typical late-Jellett abstract composition but a closer look reveals the clever use of illusionistic space within the painting. Jellett delivers the Cubist aim of a flattened-out picture plane, particularly at the centre of the picture. Into this she masterfully inserts passages of three-dimensional space, such as those that describe the cottage at the centre-right and mountain peaks at the top. This has the effect of creating optical shifts where the eye moves in and out of the abstract and figurative planes. This optical shifting also functions to create visual puns where the audience can play the game of identifying some of the symbols that might describe Ireland: the cottages of the west, the mountains of the south, the waves of the Atlantic, the rain-laden clouds, the green fields or the Irish Harp.
By the time Mainie Jellett painted this picture she was the acknowledged doyenne of Irish modernism. Following her studies under masters in Paris in the early 1920s, she returned to Ireland and exhibited works of pure abstraction that attracted almost universal derision. This merely served to strengthen her resolve and she proselytised for modern art: teaching students from her studio, giving lectures, engaging in public debates; all the while developing her personal style alongside the artists Evie Hone and Albert Gleizes. All three were deeply devout people, and from the mid-20s she began to integrate religious images into otherwise purely abstract compositions. Her stylised crucifixions, depositions and other scenes used the art that was most recognisable and available to the ordinary people of Ireland (e.g. in churches) and married it to contemporary developments in Modernism. This had the effect of making abstract art more intelligible to an Irish audience.
Her desire to communicate to a wide audience meant that within a decade her work was embraced by the Irish establishment. Although the government under de Valera is most commonly associated with the realism of Seán Keating, they also recognised the value of appearing ‘Modern’ and outward-looking on a world stage and in 1939 chose Jellett and Hone, among others, to represent Ireland at the New York World’s Fair. This political alignment is relevant to a reading of this picture because alongside its playfulness it has a serious tone. Éire is a telling title for Jellett to use for it is not the merely descriptive ‘Ireland’ nor the poetic ‘Hibernia’ but after 1937 it denoted the political name of the new state. In 1940 when this work was painted that nation was in a state of emergency and the outcome of the war far from certain. Éire is a picture of a land under siege surrounded by stormy seas and foreign foes. This gives poignancy to the devices used by the artist for the very existence of the way of life that they symbolised was under threat.
Curator of Exhibitions, IMMA
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