Irish Exhibition of Living Art

Client: National Irish Visual Arts Library (NIVAL)
Projects: Irish Exhibition of Living Art
Date: 2008
Website: http://nival.ncad.ie/INDEX.HTM

Irish Exhibition of Living Art - Programme

Irish Exhibition of Living Art catalogue, 1943. Courtesy of National Irish Visual Arts Library

Former Eneclann archivist, Ger Byrne, describes his involvement in processing the archives of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, which are held in the National Irish Visual Arts Library in Thomas Street, Dublin.

Louis Le Brocquy, Artist and founding member of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, and Elizabeth Curren, Secretary, Irish Exhibition of Living Art, standing in front of Le Brocquy's painting "The Spanish Shawl" at the IELA's 1943 exhibition Courtesy of National Irish Visual Arts Library

In the early 1940s the Dublin art world was somewhat divided between the traditionalists and those who favoured a more modern line. In 1942, the Royal Hibernian Academy had rejected numerous modern works including Louis Le Brocquy’s “The Spanish Shawl” for their annual exhibition.

One year later on the 12th of May 1943, Le Brocquy along with a number of other artists including Norah McGuinness, Mainie Jallett, Evie Hone and Fr. Jack Hanlon came together in Le Brocquy’s studio to form the Irish Exhibition of Living Art.

Photograph of the Exhibition of Living Art 1945 showing the exhibition hall with c.50 persons. Courtesy of National Irish Visual Arts Library

Their mission was to make available to the public a comprehensive collection of contemporary art by living Irish artists, through annual exhibitions in the National College of Art.

Four months later, crowds flocked to the college on Kildare Street for the first exhibition, which included works by both academic traditionalists and avant-garde modernists. Reaction to the exhibition was also mixed, with the Irish Times heralding it “the most vital and distinguished exhibition of work by Irish artists that has ever been held”.

In 2008, Eneclann was commissioned to process the archives of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art. This collection of archives is held in the National Irish Visual Arts Library (NIVAL), which is located in the National College of Art and Design, Thomas Street, Dublin. NIVAL has an ongoing commitment to document and provide public access to all aspects of 20th century contemporary art and design and as part of this commitment they wanted to open the collection to researchers.

Detail from a letter from Gerard Dillon, Artist, to Irish Exhibition of Living Art '...I am painting away...but I wonder why, sometimes it all seems so hopeless and can see it like a bad habit and nothing more. Who wants them?' Courtesy of National Irish Visual Arts Library

So in the summer of 2008, I spent six weeks in NIVAL working on the papers of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art. The collection comprises over 2,600 individual items in 12 boxes containing bound volumes (minute books, sales books, books of entry forms, a visitors’ book and diaries), loose documents (correspondence, artist biographies and press releases), exhibition catalogues and approximately 150 photographs. The material ranges from 1943 to 1972.

Remarks from the Visitors Book demonstrating the wide range of reactions Courtesy of National Irish Visual Arts Library

The processing of an archival collection usually begins with an initial survey of the material. By doing this survey I was able to begin to understand the type of documents contained within the collection and what and whom they related to. This is the first step in gaining control over the collection. Once this sort was completed, I was able to form loose categories or arrangement headings e.g. there was a lot of material relating to the IELA exhibition of 1966, as there were a number of invited artists from the UK exhibiting that year, and so I decided that this would be one of my headings. The actual listing (or cataloguing) of the items was done on a database – each item was given a unique identification number which was entered into the database along with a description of the item, the arrangement and the location of the item i.e. box number.

Below is an example of an item description (IELA/72)
“Letter from Ronald Alley, Tate Gallery, London, to Leslie McWeeney, Committee Member, Irish Exhibition of Living Art. Letter commences with apologies for not being able to come to Dublin and gives various reasons for same. He then gives a short explanatory essay on abstract painters for publicity “…you can tell them that the abstract painters all belong to what is sometimes called “post [paintely] abstraction” to distinguish it from abstract expressionism…At the same time, other artists have turned from abstract expressionism to a completely different kind of art, pop art. ”

Exhibition Catalogues Courtesy of National Irish Visual Arts Library

To process an archival collection however, listing and arranging are not the only concern that the archivist has. We also are responsible for the long-term preservation of the collection. This means ensuring that the collection will survive in the long term. To achieve this with the IELA collection, I made sure all paper was free of dust and other particulate matter. Also that all metal fasteners were removed and replaced with plastic alternatives as these will eventually oxidise and rust forms and this basically eats the paper. I also ensured that the collection was stored correctly within acid-free folders and boxes.

The collection which is a valuable source of primary evidence to researchers with an interest in the history of Irish contemporary art, is available for consultation in NIVAL. Access to the collection is free and available without appointment.

Further information is available from NIVAL 353.1.636.4347.

Acknowledgements:
Donna Romero, Edward O’Mahony and all staff of NIVAL and NCAD library.

See below for images of further items that are held in the archives.