Art Institute to Present IRELAND: CROSSROADS OF ART AND DESIGN, Opening 3/17

By: Feb. 20, 2015
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Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840, will open at the Art Institute of Chicago on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 2015, with a special ribbon-cutting featuring bagpipes and local dignitaries. It will be the first major exhibition to showcase the decorative and fine arts of 18th century Ireland, bringing together more than 300 objects - many never before seen in public - lent by public and private collectors across North America. The exhibition, which continues through June 7, 2015, will provide an extraordinarily rich overview of Ireland's creative legacy. To add to the Gaelic atmosphere of the show, a temporary Irish pub will be created in the museum's Café Moderno where guests can hoist a beer after they visit the exhibition.

The seeds for the exhibition were first planted by historian Desmond FitzGerald, the Knight of Glin, who in his 2007 book Irish Furniture outlined his vision for "a major exhibition on Ireland's Decorative arts of the 18th century, which would include furniture [and] bring together the common threads of the different fields. ... A show of this stature would waken up the world to a staggering array of art that was manufactured in Ireland during this period."

Ireland expands on FitzGerald's vision to also include paintings, sculpture and architecture as well as ceramics, glass, furniture, metalwork, musical instruments, and textiles. Such an exhibition has never before been undertaken on either side of the Atlantic.

Organized thematically in 10 galleries - from portraiture to landscapes, from Dublin to the Irish country house - the exhibition celebrates the Irish as artists, collectors, and patrons. Through this exhibition and its accompanying catalogue, these often little-known and mostly privately held objects will be shown together for the first time.

The exhibition begins in 1690, the year of the Battle of the Boyne, and ends in 1840, a few years before the onset of the Great Famine. Galleries will explore the harp as a symbol of Ireland; portraiture in Ireland; Dublin as a center of government, commerce, and education; Irish landscapes and tourism; and the material world of the Irish country house (with particular attention to Carton House, County Kildare, and Headfort House, County Meath). A series of "Made in Ireland" galleries will feature objects in all media highlighting Dublin, Belfast, Cork, and Waterford as centers of production and consumption, and will also include amateur arts such as needlework and cut paper. Objects representing more than 24 of Ireland's 32 counties will be on display.

The exhibition, organized by Christopher Monkhouse, Eloise W. Martin Chair and Curator, European Decorative Arts, was conceived with an American audience in mind, so one curatorial goal was to identify potential loans from public and private collections in the U.S. The Art Institute's own important Irish holdings serve as the nucleus of the exhibition. Added to those works are important objects with an Irish provenance, many never seen in public, from private collectors, as well as from major institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the National Gallery of Art; and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection.

"We hope this exhibition will present Ireland as a multilayered mix of artistic cross-currents," said Monkhouse, "and we are grateful to those collectors and institutions whose objects are enabling us to present a thorough view of this rich period of Irish creativity."

Notable items in the exhibition represent the breadth of Irish decorative arts practiced during the 18th century. The image of the harp became a key symbol of Ireland during this period, and Dublin craftsman John Egan was well known for his gut-strung Portable Irish Harps, one of which appears in the exhibition. Other musical instruments on display include a cither viol, also called a Sultana, and an upright piano, an Irish invention.

A broad selection of paintings and works on paper are on display, including Irish landscapes, still lifes and portraiture. Examples range from Robert Fagan's titillating Portrait of a Lady as Hibernia to a rare group portrait of officers and Belfast literati, Joseph Wilson's The Adelphi Club, Belfast. Neoclassical artist Adam Buck is represented by a self-portrait with his family, which includes a poignant marble statue of a deceased child that presents a stark contrast to the elegant setting and Buck's fashionable clothing.

Two of the highlights of the exhibition are from the museum's own collection: One, a fine example of Irish furniture, is a marquetry desk and bookcase made by John Kirkhoffer. The other is an important piece of silver by Dublin silversmith Thomas Bolton, a large monteith, or bowl, used for cooling wine glasses or serving punch.

The exhibition catalogue features essays by leading scholars including Toby Barnard, Tom Dunne, Finola O'Kane, Kevin Mulligan and Brendan Rooney. Published in association with Yale University Press, it will create a lasting record of the Irish objects that have made their way to North America. Other media prepared for the exhibition include a special audio tour and a CD of Irish music by fiddlers Liz Knowles and Chicagoan Liz Carroll.