Irish Exhibition of Living Art
History and Foundation of the IELA - Alternative Venue and Forum to Royal Hibernian Academy in Ireland.

Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA) (1943-1980s)

The ILEA was founded in 1943 by a group of (largely) upper-middle class Dublin artists including Norah McGuinness (1901-1980), Mainie Jellett (1897-1944), Evie Hone (1894–1955), Fr Jack Hanlon (1913-1968), Louis le Brocquy (b. 1916), and Margaret Clarke (1888-1961). Its aim was to liberate visual arts in Ireland from the dominant grip of the 'traditionalists', whose advocates included such outstanding painters as Sean Keating (1889-1977), Leo Whelan (1892-1956), James Sleator (1889-1950), Diarmuid O'Brien (1865-1945), Maurice MacGonigal (1900-1979) and Sean O'Sullivan (1906-1964). Its annual show was conceived and run as a forum for new types of art styles: generally less academic and more modernist than those favoured by more traditional painters, critics and administrators. Despite its different approach however, many Irish painters and sculptors exhibited their works both in traditional forums - eg. the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) - as well as at the IELA.

Evolution of Conservatism in Irish Art (1920s-40s)

The espousal of abstract art during the 1920s, by modernists like Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone (see also Abstract Artists: Ireland), collided head-on with a newly independent Irish Free State bent on promoting a unique, traditional 'Irish style' of fine art. Religion too was a force for such a traditional approach, which saw little merit in newly emerging European modern art movements like Cubism, the anti-art Dada, De Stijl, Surrealism, Dada and Expressionism. Instead, the ruling hierarchy in educational as well as professional art organizations in Ireland, favoured a more conservative, academic approach to Irish painting and sculpture, which emphasised representational art, celebration of the Irish culture and heritage, and traditional methods of learning. Although a valid approach in the late 1920s, a decade later this conservatism had - in the eyes of many professional artists - become somewhat fossilised and retrogressive, as perhaps exemplified in the works of Sean Keating, whose earlier hopeful social-realist paintings portraying the ambitious plans of the new State, had given way to pictures which over-idealized rural Ireland. One of Keating's followers - Maurice McGonigal - executed several important paintings (eg. Cois na Farraige, 1938; and Bean agus a Naoidheanán, 1942) in a similar celebratory vein, which bore little resemblance to reality. This approach echoed De Valera's complacent vision of Ireland at the time - a country moreover in which debate - eg. over the importance of women artists - was made more difficult by the influence of its all-powerful Catholic Church.

Appearance of White Stag Group

The establishment in 1939 of the White Stag Group in Dublin by London artists Kenneth Hall and Basil Rakozci added to the growing tension between the two opposing groups. The White Stag became a focus and an encouragement for dissent, and the refreshingly international flavour of its shows was a novelty, not previously experienced in Dublin. In particular, its open-minded attitude to visual art inspired several artists (eg. Nano Reid, Patrick Scott, Gerard Dillon and others) to strengthen their protest.

Formation of The Irish Exhibition of Living Art

Thus, as World War II began to bite, the Dublin art world was divided between those who favoured the traditionist status quo, and those who sought a more open and modernist line. Battle lines were drawn in 1942, following an outspoken attack on the RHA by Mainie Jellett, which caused the selection committee of the RHA annual exhibition to reject 'The Spanish Shawl' by Louis le Brocquy, a leading avant-garde painter and Francophile, as well as numerous other modern works. The 1942 rejection of Rouault's 'Christ and the Soldier' by Dublin's Municipal Gallery was another provocation. Such events led the following year to the founding of the IELA. At the launch, Mainie Jellett, Louis le Brocquy, Jack Hanlon and Norah McGuinness joined together in le Brocquy’s Dublin studio to announce: "owing to a growing demand we hereby constitute ourselves a committee, to organise a public exhibition to be called, ‘The Irish Exhibition of Living Art"... "the function of the exhibition shall be to: make available to a large public a comprehensive survey of significant work, irrespective of School or manner, by living Irish artists." At a stroke, there was an alternative forum for painters and sculptors who did not agree with the "blinkered" vision of the Royal Hibernian Academy.

Some four months later crowds poured into the National College of Art, Kildare Street, Dublin, for the first show of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art. It consisted of a wide cross-section of modern art, including both traditional and avant-garde art. Reaction was equally mixed, although most spectators clearly recognized that the exhibition marked a significant departure from the usual range of exhibits at the RHA annual show.

The Dublin Art World

Despite ongoing friction between conservatives and modernists, one should note that the Dublin art world was exceedingly small, being home to a limited number of important bodies such as the Royal Hibernian Academy, the Friends of the National Collections, the Haverty Trust, the Arts Advisory Committee for the Municipal Gallery, the Irish Exhibition of Living Art and so on. As a result, many of those involved in the visual arts often co-existed relatively happily on the same committees. For example, Mainie Jellett was a member of the FNCI and also on the Arts Advisory Committee; Norah McGuinness was a member of the FNCI and President of the ILEA. The academic still life painter and portraitist James Sleator was a member of the executive committee of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art as well as the selection committee of the Oireachtas art committee, and later succeeded Dermod O'Brien as President of the RHA. This necessary co-existence, together with the pragmatic approach adopted by the IELA ruling committee, whose members were keenly aware that their aims would be unattainable without the use of the National College of Art, nor the RHA who dominated it, nor the goodwill of the Director of the National Gallery of Ireland and the President of the RHA, ensured that the IELA received adequate recognition from the start.

Post-War Developments

If the RHA was able to co-exist with the more avant-garde attitude of the IELA - and during the post-war years the RHA itself became somewhat more open-minded in its selection of exhibits and Academicians - the same could not be said of the National College of Art. The latter remained much more opposed to modernism within its curriculum and campus. Fortunately, despite this educational conservatism and a bleak economic situation, the late 1940s and early 1950s saw a stirring of interest in Irish art among the public at large. In part, this was due to significant government initiatives in the arts during this period. For example, in 1948, the Minister for External Affairs set up the first Cultural Relations Committee to oversee a number of travelling exhibitions of Irish art. In addition, in 1951, the government established the Arts Council. This reflected a growing awareness that the visual arts were a medium through which to promote Ireland's unique heritage and identity.

Changeover at the IELA

It is rarely easy to maintain aesthetic consistency when one is faced with 'Living Art' - a concept which implies ever more modern forms of creative expression. In addition, today's avant-garde artists typically evolve into tomorrow's traditionalists! Perhaps because of this, in 1973, after three decades of effort, the committee of the IELA decided to hand over to a completely new committee of younger artists, in order to continue the task of embracing new art. During the 1980s, IELA extended its purview to include new contemporary art forms like video, installation and performance, showing works by Cecily Brennan, Eilis O’Connell, Helen Comerford, Aileen MacKeogh, Nigel Rolfe, Joe Butler, and many other emerging artists. It has also given full rein to the modern expressionist trend as exemplified by artists such as Michael Cullen, Patrick Graham, Patrick Hall, Eithne Jordan, Michael Kane, Brian Maguire, and Michael Mulcahy. As a result, one might even say that representational painting in Ireland is on the decline. Despite its ups and downs over the past 65 years, the Irish Exhibition of Living Art has - broadly speaking - succeeded in its aim of showcasing a wider range of significant art, including works of postmodernism, for the benefit both of Irish artists and, more importantly, for their audience among the general public. It has contributed immensely to the history of Irish art, not least because it helped to create the atmosphere necessary to the establishment of further supports like the Department of the Arts, Culture Ireland the Percent For Art scheme.

• For a review of landscape art in Ireland, see Irish Landscape artists.
• For a summary of portraiture, see Irish Portrait Painters.
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