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Representations of the Famine at the Irish Museum of Modern Art

An exhibition bringing together some 20 works dealing with the Irish Famine of 1845-48 opens to the public at the Irish Museum of Modern Art on Wednesday 24 September. Representations of the Famine is drawn from the relatively small body of visual depictions of the subject and highlights the often inaccurate nature of these representations, the reasons for this and ongoing sensitivities about dealing with the Famine in visual art.

Representations of the Famine includes a small number of paintings from the 19th and early 20th century and also pieces, in a variety of media, by contemporary artists who have taken the Famine as a key subject. These are shown alongside a body of new work by women from Voices from the Tower, a community arts development project based in Knocknaheeny, Cork. The exhibition was developed as part of the Museum’s National Programme and has already been shown in Belfast, Cobh, Castlebar and Derry.

Representations of the Famine explores the ways in which artists have dealt with the Famine in their work and the particular problems which that subject brought with it - the difficulty of recounting the full horror of the event while showing respect for its victims and the political sensitivity of representing Irish hardship in a colonial context. Daniel McDonald’s The Discovery of the Potato Blight is one of only a handful of responses by visual artists who lived through the disaster. McDonald overcame difficulties and resistances which prevented many other Irish artists from addressing the subject.

Henry Jones Thaddeus and Lady Elizabeth Butler are much better known as painters of picturesque Breton fishermen or calls to arms than for the spectacular but rare eviction pictures shown here, while Daniel McLise’s watercolour for the monumental painting The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife can be read as an overtly political commentary on Anglo-Irish relations in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Erskine Nicol’s paintings and the graphic illustrations from Punch magazine demonstrate the official disregard of the authorities and the unsympathetic climate in contexts to which many of the survivors fled.

Commenting on the exhibition Catherine Marshall, Senior Curator of the Museum’s Collection, said: “The historical works were exceptional in their time. For well over a century the horror of the event and the guilt of the survivors meant that the Famine was rarely represented visually. Only now is it possible to claim the dead as ours, to suffer with them as Geraldine O’Reilly does in Register and Emigrants Letter, to mourn for them as Alanna O’Kelly does in Sanctuary Wasteland and the women from Voices from the Tower in A Famine Cry. The somewhat strained relationship between art and the Famine is an indication of the importance of bringing a particular selection of works together, both in terms of remembering the Famine and its history, and understanding a change in the role of the visual artist.”

Representations of the Famine continues until 11 January.

 

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