P aris was the capital of Modernism in literature, the city where T.S. Eliot met James Joyce and James Joyce met Marcel Proust. But Anglo-American modernist literature spoke with an Irish accent: Shaw, Synge, Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett. On the centenary of 1922, Modernism’s annus mirabilis, 'Ireland/France: Art and Literature', at Sotheby’s Paris, celebrates the modern romance between Ireland and France and rediscovers a century of Irish painting.
Nineteen twenty-two was the year of Joyce’s Ulysses (February), the second part of Proust’s Sodom and Gomorrah (April), Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (October) and Eliot’s The Waste Land (December). The year began, however, with the World Congress of the Irish Race, which opened in the Hôtel Continental, Paris on 21 January. Designed to launch a newly-independent Ireland on the world state, the World Congress led with Ireland’s strong suit, its musicians, artists and writers. W.B. Yeats lectured on literature, and his brother Jack delivered his only public address on Irish painting. The centrepiece was a major exhibition of over 300 works at the Galeries Barbanzanges the Modernist and avant-garde gallery that had lately exhibited Gauguin and Modigliani, and would close out the year with Matisse and Raoul Dufy.
The exhibition featured paintings, sculptures and textiles from artists including Roderic O’Conor, Jack B. Yeats, Mainie Jellett, Sean Keating, John Lavery and Paul Henry. And this year, a century on from this ambitious event, Ireland/France: Art and Literature brings, on loan from private collections, two works from the 1922 exhibition back to Paris for the first time: Grace Henry’s The Rosary (ca. 1910) and Market Day, Mayo / The Long Car (1920) by Jack B. Yeats. The auction complements the 2022 Congress for Ireland, a comprehensive programme of events organised by the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris.
Sotheby's centenary exhibition commemorating the anniversary of that World Congress of the Irish Race is more than a retrospective. It is a revival in spirit of the old friendship between France and Ireland, and a wide-ranging survey of modern Irish painting.
“In terms of a survey of Irish art, nothing like this has happened in the last hundred years,” says Charlie Minter, Sotheby’s head of Irish Art. “There was a huge breadth of Irish painters who were doing great work and had a lot of French influence, but they’re not shown enough. And it’s perfect that Sotheby’s Paris galleries are in the same street as Galeries Barbanzanges was in.”
“In terms of a survey of Irish art, nothing like this [auction] has happened in the last hundred years”
On the day the 1922 exhibition opened, 15 January, the Anglo-Irish Treaty came into effect. The Irish Free State, the precursor of independent Ireland, was born from a revolt against the British Empire. As the first public statement of the new Ireland, the exhibition’s contents and legacy were defined as much by politics as art.
“Many of the artworks that were exhibited are in the canon today, like John Lavery and Grace Henry, and the French state bought a Paul Henry,” says William Shorthall of Trinity College, Dublin, one of the designers of the 2022 Congress for Ireland programme. “But the Paris show occurred between Ireland’s War of Independence and the Civil War that broke out in June 1922. It got squeezed out of art history.”
“Eamon de Valera [Ireland’s first president] was present, with a delegation of politicians from both sides, as well as the cultural delegation,” adds Nora Hickey M’Sichili of the Centre Culturel Irlandias. “It was a vision for the future of Ireland, so for this year’s exhibition at the CCI, we’ve updated it on similar themes, asking our key intellectuals and thinkers about their aspirations for Ireland. Arts and crafts becomes contemporary Irish design and art. The agriculture lecture becomes climate change.”
“It was a vision for the future of Ireland, so for this year’s exhibition we’ve updated it on similar themes... Arts and crafts becomes contemporary Irish design and art. The agriculture lecture becomes climate change.”
“What they did in 1922 was so modern,” William Shortall notes, “and what Nora has done is to respond as they did then, with exactly the same Modernist and aspirational feel.”
The arts were central to Romantic nationalism, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Ireland, where the Celtic Revival prefigured the political one. Shortall identifies a double paradox: “At home in Ireland, exhibitions emphasized Celtic and traditional imagery, but the new government’s Cultural Relations Committee sent Modernist work abroad. The agenda for Paris was different. It was about sovereignty, taking their place in the world with a self-proclaimed unique identity.”
That meant emphasizing tradition and Ireland’s historic links to the Continent. In Jack B. Yeats’ Market Day, Mayo / The Long Car, a man on horseback gallops out to meet an open cart taking men and women to the weekly market.
“They’re in traditional west-of-Ireland dress, almost wearing national costume,” Shorthall observes. “But it’s a million miles from earlier Irish genre scenes with bucolic knee breeches and tall green felt hats, or the simian and racist cartoons you’d see in the popular press.”
The literary rarities include a 1924 first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses, legendary typos and all, a 1959 edition of Beckett’s Samuel Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, and a manuscript of the third quatrain of W.B. Yeats’ poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree, whose opening words, “I shall arise and go now…”, are now printed in every Irish passport. Written in 1888, the poem is one of the masterpieces of Yeats’ Celtic Revival period. In this autographed sheet, signed and dated in 1905, Yeats has corrected an error in first line and slightly altered the third.
'For the artists and politicians of Ireland’s revival, it was an article of faith that Ireland’s remote west was the real Ireland, just as French painters might have looked to Brittany or Provence'
For the artists and politicians of Ireland’s revival, it was an article of faith that Ireland’s remote west was the real Ireland, just as French painters might have looked to Brittany or Provence. Another conviction, also emphasized in 1922 as a commonality with France, was Catholicism. In Paris, the Irish emissaries visited Catholic shrines as well as political shrines like the site of the Bastille.
“Grace Henry’s The Rosary shows a very traditional scene,” Shorthall says, “but the bright colours and her passion make it really modern. She’s in traditional western dress, and although you can’t see them, you can feel that the rest of the family are undoubtedly present. In the window, a small, light touch shows that night is falling, so the whole family would have assembled to pray the rosary. A painting like this showed the real Ireland, just as it was defining itself as a nation on the international stage.”
As the worldly Ignatius Gallaher says in Joyce’s Dubliners, “If you want to enjoy yourself properly, you must go to Paris. And, mind you, they’ve a great feeling for the Irish there. When they heard I was from Ireland they were ready to eat me, man.”
The 1922 World Congress Of The Irish Race is recreated at https://www.seeingireland.ie/
CCI director, Nora Hickey M’Sichili, annd researcher and Liam Swords Fellow, William Shortall, present the 2022 Congress for Ireland in Paris until June 28, 2022 at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, celebrating outstanding contemporary thinkers and authorities in their field to speak of their aspirations for Ireland’s future.
For more information on the commemorative States of Modernity series of interlinked cultural events and exhibitions taking place in the Midwest US, Ireland, and European capitals to reflect on the events of 100 years ago and experience a musical history of Ireland, visit Who Do We Say We Are? Irish Art 1922 | 2022: The Paintings and the Music