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James McKenna exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art

The first major retrospective of the work of James McKenna, one of the most celebrated Irish sculptors of the 20th-century, opens to the public at the Irish Museum of Modern Art on Wednesday 28 November 2007. Comprising some 80 works, it covers McKenna’s entire career, including both large and small-scale sculptures, as well as a small selection of his drawings. It also makes reference to his work as a playwright, with masks and photographs from the period in which he founded and directed the Rising Ground theatre group. The exhibition will be opened at 6.00pm on Tuesday 27 November 2007 by the poet Desmond Egan.

Born in Dublin in 1933, McKenna had an interesting career, combining the visual arts with literature – he was also a poet and a playwright – until his death in 2000 in Co Kildare. McKenna studied at the National College of Art in Dublin in the early 1950s where he specialised in sculpture, particularly in 19th-century classical figuration. Carving and clay modeling from life and the antique formed a large part of the training. Modernist sculpture was ignored – a surprising fact, considering the dominance in Britain of artists such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth; yet this was symptomatic of the conservatism and insularity of the art establishment in Ireland at that time.

On completing his diploma, McKenna was awarded a Macaulay Fellowship, which allowed him to travel to Florence for eight months. There he studied the works of the great Renaissance masters, particularly Michelangelo, whose work influenced him throughout his career. The affinity he had with Michelangelo’s David, a sculpture presenting the biblical hero at more than twice life size, and a symbol of Florentine freedom, is reminiscent of McKenna’s Oisín i ndiadh na Féinne/ Oisín Alone after the Fianna (1971) in scale, pose and the anatomical proportions. David and Oisín can also be seen as metaphorical self-portraits, combining political and poetic consciousness.    

Political events also informed McKenna’s works. Men Entering a City, was made in 1965, the eve of the 50th commemoration of the 1916 Rising in Ireland. McKenna said of this piece that … the leaders of The Rising had …to answer a riddle, the riddle of Nationalism, and they did so through a mixture of physical and moral force. The marrying of Classical and Celtic mythologies with Irish Revolutionary history is characteristic of McKenna’s work. He introduces figures such as Aegisthus and Agamemnon, or Ferdia and Oisín; often juxtaposed with revolutionary figures like Pádraig Pearse or Wolfe Tone. This can be seen in works Citizens’ Tree (1966), Oisín (1971) and Metamorphosis (1993).   

McKenna also made works in response to contemporary political events such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the later Hunger Strikes, for example his wooden sculpture, By the Rivers of Babylon: Lament for the Hunger Strikers (1992). McKenna’s humanity is palpable as he represents their political struggle in an empathic way, the strength ebbing from their bodies.   

McKenna, a founding member of both the Independent Artists’ Group and the founder of the Rising Ground theatre group, was elected to Aosdána in 1983. He exhibited widely and his work was included in many international sculpture shows in the 1980s and ‘90s, a retrospective of his work took place at the Riverbank Arts Centre, Newbridge, Co Kildare, in 2002, and its principal gallery is named after him – the McKenna Gallery. He is well known for several of his public and private commissions including his large limestone monument Resurgence at the University of Limerick; Female Figure and Tree (1979), at the Central Bank in Sandyford, Co Dublin, and the Gerard Manley Hopkins monument in Monasterevin, Co Kildare. He was also a noted playwright of The Scatterin’, At Bantry, and other works, along with a volume of poems.

The exhibition is curated by Seán Kissane, Curator: Exhibitions, IMMA.

On Tuesday 27 November at 7.00pm a dramatisation of The Wreck of the Deutschland by Gerard Manley Hopkins adapted for the stage by James McKenna and produced by the Gerard Manley Hopkins Society will take place in the Chapel, IMMA.

Curator’s Talk
On Tuesday 27 November at 5.00pm Seán Kissane, curator of the exhibition will present a gallery talk in the New Galleries. Admission is free but booking is essential on Tel: +353 1 612 9948; Email: [email protected].  

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue with texts by Seán Kissane and Susan Daniel McElroy, former Director of Tate St. Ives and a foreword by Enrique Juncosa, Director, IMMA.

James McKenna continues until 2 March 2008. Admission is free.

Opening hours:
Tuesday to Saturday: 10.00am – 5.30pm
except Wednesday: 10.30am – 5.30pm
Sundays, Bank Holidays, 28 – 30 December and 1 January 2008: 12 noon – 5.30pm
Mondays, 24 – 27 and 31 December: Closed

For further information and images please contact Monica Cullinane or Patrice Molloy at Tel: +353 1 612 9900; Email: [email protected]

16 November 2007