A major exhibition of 20th-century European painting, including the work of both Modern Masters and contemporary artists, opens to the public at the Irish Museum of Modern Art on Wednesday 26 June. The Pursuit of Painting has been selected by the distinguished British-born painter Stephen McKenna and is based on works by 26 artists, born between 1867 and 1952, who have been his “cultural mentors over many years.”
The exhibition comprises more than 70 paintings and includes works by some of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century. Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935) and Francis Picabia (1879-1953) represent the new and revolutionary art which developed in the first 20 years of the century. Fernand Léger (1881-1955), André Derain (1880-1953) and Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) all returned to or re-emphasised the traditional classical values of painting: the study of the Old Masters and the perfection of their craft.
A later generation, including Bruno Goller (b. 1901), Jean Hélion (1904-1987) and Balthus (b. 1908) who went their own and decisive ways, is also included. Hélion moved quickly through a variety of contemporary influences, including abstraction, eventually arriving at a new figurative style which was flexible enough to contain his wide interests and philosophy. Goller found the motifs for his paintings in his immediate domestic environment: the woman, the cat, the hat, the decorative cloth, the household utensil. Balthus’s refusal to follow the prescribed paths was the result of an awareness of how limited they were in comparison to the achievements of the past. The exhibition also includes works by several Irish artists – Jack B Yeats, Sean Scully, Felim Egan, Richard Gorman and Ciarán Lennon – whom McKenna sees as connected to the tradition he is exploring.
Stephen McKenna was invited to select the exhibition following a lecture given by him at the time of his own retrospective exhibition at the Irish Musuem of Modern Art in 1993. In that lecture he explored the influence of a classical tradition of painting which was central to European culture, a principle which has had a strong influence on his own practice. Commenting on the importance of the exhibition for the museum’s overall programme Director Declan McGonagle said: “If art is contested rather than consensual it is important that such a strong polemic in support of a classical approach to painting is presented to a wide public. Stephen McKenna has pursued these ideas in his own work, which has been seen regularly in Ireland, and is well placed to represent the argument for a classical tradition as expressed in the work of 20th-century painters, acknowledged masters and contemporary artists alike.”
By definition, the exhibition represents a particular point of view articulated through a choice of particular paintings. Stephen McKenna describes his aim as being: “To bring together paintings which exemplify the central purpose of painting: to make reality visible by presenting objects, figures and spaces on a canvas. The works range from the figurative to the abstract, the working procedures from the analysis of form to poetic intuition … The primary common ground among the artists is the obvious fact that they are all painters; that they have taken a deliberate decision to accept the art of painting as it is, without attempting to transform or distort it into another branch of the ‘visual arts’, or to reduce it to a primarily illustrative or iconographic role in the service of political or sociological concerns.”
A fully-illustrated catalogue (produced in association with Lund Humphries Publishers, London), with a substantial text by Stephen McKenna exploring some of the ideas provoked by the process of selecting the exhibition, accompanies the exhibition. Price £18.95, with a special exhibition price of £15.00.
The Pursuit of Painting continues until 2 November.