I was visiting a friend in Belfast this weekend, and I was delighted we could fit in a visit to the Ulster Museum. Their art exhibitions are fantastic, and I haven’t been doing enough gallery-going lately.
Here are a few highlights from my visit.
Bare Life: Abstraction and Figuration in 20th Century British Art
This exhibition explored modernism, and the opposing modes of abstract and figurative art. There was a mixture of paintings, photographs and sculpture.
The highlight of this exhibition for me was the Duncan Grant painting Interior at Charleston (1918) which shows Vanessa Bell and David Garrett at Charleston, the house the three of them lived in. Bell is shown painting a still life and while Garrett is translating Dostoevsky. It offers a glimpse into the world of the Bloomsbury group, an avant garde group of creatives that I have a great interest in.
This is an essay I wrote about the art of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.
The New Past: Irish Art from 1800 to 2016
I loved this exhibition. There was a wide selection of Irish painting on show, with works by such artists as Paul Henry, Sir John Lavery, Jack B Yeats, Margaret Clarke, Louis le Brocquy and Sarah Cecilia Harrison to name but a few. The exhibition is divided into sections – Invention, Theatre, Myth and After the Past.
Highlights of the exhibition for me included the wonderful Margaret Clarke self-portrait, Robin Redbreast. It was so different from other works by her I had seen (Stringbergian (1927), one of her better known paintings is also in the exhibition). This work was more realist in style. She has painted herself wearing a red waistcoat, part of the traditional dress of the Aran Islands. Her expression is so compelling; she looks directly at the viewer and is quite vulnerable. I was captivated by this painting.
One of Sir John Lavery’s many portraits of his glamorous wife Hazel, The Green Coat (1926) was another highlight of the exhibition for me. It is a large scale work, and Hazel’s height is accentuated. She looks off into the distance and has an almost mystical quality about her, like a fairy queen.
Rita Duffy’s Titanic (2002) was another work I hadn’t come across before. It’s a small mixed media work, echoing the texture of the metalwork of the ship. This aspect of the work recalls engineering and industry in Belfast and the presence of the storm and the iceberg point to the tragic outcome of the voyage.
Another modern work I enjoyed was Elizabeth Magill’s Chronicle of Orange (2007). Her landscapes have quite an eerie, almost mystical quality yet details like electricity lines firmly ground them in the contemporary. The influence of Romantic painting is there, as is the influence of photography. Her use of colour is stunning, and I always enjoy her work.
If I had to pick an overall highlight, it would be Alicia Boyle’s Potato Washers (1949). It was a delight to see this as I had researched her sketchbooks as an intern in the National Gallery of Ireland a couple of years ago. Having seen some of the sketches for this work it was a real joy to see the actual painting, especially unexpectedly! I loved the vibrant use of colour and expressive brushwork.
There are many more wonderful artworks in both exhibitions, I would highly recommend a visit if you’re in Belfast. The Elements exhibition was also very interesting, particularly the part about poisons! Several great murder mystery ideas there…