“If the Ground Should Open” at the IMMA


Another journey over the Irish Sea to spend a week working in Ireland. I caught the fast ferry from Holyhead that would get me over to Dublin for 2 o’clock and planned to drive out a short distance for a walk along the coast. But after a rough crossing I arrived to heavy rain showers with bursts of sunshine so decided to change tack and instead drove over to the Irish Museum of Modern Art.


It wasn’t so long ago since I last visited the IMMA and one of the main exhibitions of works from their collection was still running. The exhibition in the other wing had finished and the next one hadn’t been installed. Two small exhibitions, The Plough and other stars curated by Kate Strain and Historica – Republican Aesthetics curated by Sumesh Sharma, had recently opened. I had a look around and although there were some pieces of interest they didn’t particularly “rock my boat” (mind you I’d had enough of rocking boats a few hours earlier!)

The third new exhibition was on the ground floor in the Courtyard galleries (a series of four interconnected rooms).

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Described as a “new video and sound installation” I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It was created by Jakki Irvine, an Irish born artist and

Her works in film and video, whether in single-screen format or in more complex multi-screen installations, weave together enticing, though ultimately elusive narratives in which image, voice-over and musical score variously overlap, coalesce and diverge.  (Source here)

Although there are some video art works that I have found I liked, in general I’m not a big fan of them. Too often they’re not done well. But that was certainly not the case in this instance.

It’s difficult to describe the work but I’ll try.


In each of the four rooms there were two “boom box” video screens. Music or spoken words were coming from the speakers with accompanying images of musicians playing their instruments, singing or speaking with occasional text. The sound playing and images showing from each “boom box” were different but were all part of a musical piece. It was as if there were 8 musicians spread out across the room. But the viewer/listener, rather than taking this in from a fixed position, could move around the galleries leading to different perspectives of the music and visuals.


There were 11 songs in all, played sequentially. They were inspired by the story of two working class women Elizabeth O’Farrell (a midwife) and Julia Grenan (a furrier and dressmaker), “lifelong companions” who were participants in the Easter rising along with more than a hundred other women who performed key roles as couriers, delivering dispatches and ammunition, and nursing the wounded. The majority of them have been ignored by history. Yet Elizabeth performed a significant role at the end of the Rising, delivering Padraig Pearse’s surrender to General William Lowe on Moore Street under gun fire. She stood beside Pearse as he capitulated in person to General Lowe.

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The songs are performed by 9 musicians – all women – and reference aspects of the Rising counterpoised with references to meltdown of the “Irish Tiger” economy, in particular, the collapse of the Anglo Irish Bank.

The eleven tracks were composed by Irvine using the canntaireachd system – originally developed as an oral scoring system for Scottish Highland pipes. The basic musical motif in classical piping (piobaireachd) is called ‘the ground’ of the piece, which is then built upon with additional notes and melodies. In If the Ground Should Open… the names of women involved in the 1916 Rising, form the ground. In this way they are performed and remembered, becoming part of the ground we walk on in 2016.  The project was also developed from the leaked Anglo-Irish bankers taped conversations. (IMMA website)

and Jakki Irvine tells us

“the legacy of 1916 is reconsidered in the light of a contemporary Ireland broken by corporate greed. Both the past and the present are reflected through a lens that is complicated, joyful, furious and hopeful”.

I found the work very moving and inspiring, and enjoyed picking up different aspects of the songs as I moved around the galleries.

Unfortunately there are no recordings of the work available – but there will be a live performance in the Chapel at the IMMA in December. I’d love to see this, but won’t be in Dublin. However the exhibition is on until January and as I’m likely to be over in Ireland again before then, and would like to see the Lucien Freud exhibition that opens there at the end of October, there’s a good chance that I’ll revisit.


There’s a recording of the introductory talk by Jakki Irvine on the IMMA Soundcloud channel and an interview with Jakki who talks about Elizabeth O’Farrell, Julia Grenan and the other women who participated in the Easter Rising in the Irish Independent.

The performers are – Vocals Louise Phelan, Cats Irvine, Cherry Smyth, Bagpipes Hilary Knox, Piano Izumi Kimura, Violin Liz McClaren, Cello Jane Hughes, Doublebass Aura Stone, Drums Sarah Grimes.

Art? In Wigan?

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It’s well known (by me, at least) that Wigan is something of a cultural black hole. It’s a great town for sport but the Local Authority have no real interest in art and culture (unlike Wakefield, a very similar town over the other side of the Pennines). They closed the only gallery in town a few years ago.So I was surprised to pick up a leaflet advertising and Arts Festival in Wigan. Turns out that it was organised by a local Arts group based at the Old Courts building at the back of the Parish Church. One of the things they’d organised was an exhibition of works by local artists, so last Saturday I popped in to take a look.

It wasn’t a large exhibition, and I wouldn’t say that any of the works were ground-breaking, but there were a number of pictures I liked.

This painting by Mike Fahey – Mill Girl Wallgate 1907 – referenced the town’s history as a centre of cotton production. I like the way he’s superimposed his figure and cotton spinning machinery on top of a map of the town.


This mixed media abstract landscape by Sharon Barnes – Sylvan Twilight  – is based on the coast at Sefton (Formby and Southport). I like the way she has incorporated found objects and the colours are very atmospheric, suggesting a stormy afternoon.


This Untitled work by Joyce Carlton is made from folded paper. The individual pieces are perhaps a little slim to represent books. But they rather reminded me of my collection of vinyl record or, possibly, CDs.


A sample of other works on display

Crompton’s Nog and acrylic painting by David Stanley


Shrinkining Shelters – Tripytch by Georgia Marlowe


Over mountain and dark sea, the sun made our wings bronze by Elaine Philips


I enjoyed the exhibition and hope the Old Courts group can build on their efforts. Good luck to them!

Penone in the Garden



Last year, when we were in Amsterdam for a short holiday, we saw an exhibition of sculptures by Joan Miro in the gardens of the Rijksmuseum. This year there was another exhibition of works by the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Penone. There were 18 sculptures displayed in the garden, with another 4 inside the main building.




Penone’s work – both his early performances, his sculptures, drawings and numerous writings – from the beginning of his artistic career (in 1968, as the youngest member of the Arte Povera movement), expresses a deep connection with nature and its inexorable forces. He is particularly fascinated by natural growth and processes of change, which are often obscured by people’s frenzied existence. Trees are the most important and recurring motif in his work, and also play a leading role in the Rijksmuseum exhibition.

And the “connection with nature” was clearly evident in the works on display which featured trees and rock








In this piece the marble has been carved in a way to resemble twisted tree roots or blood vessels which appear to be part of the stone. A fusion of animal or vegetable with mineral



This tree, cast in bronze, looks as if it has been struck by lightening revealing an inner golden core


Thunderstruck tree

An upside down tree


The leaves of root

This one was a little creepy


To breathe the shadow

These were my favourites pieces – Vegetal Gestures – anthropomorphic sculptures cast in bronze which made so it looks like they’re formed from bark




Japanese:Modern at the Rijksmuseum

The Riksmuseum has a wing, a relatievly new extension, devoted to Asian art. Currently they’re showing a temporary exhibition of Japanese prints from the first half of the twentieth century, the Elise Wessels Collection.


There is a long tradition of woodblock print making in Japan, known as ukiyo-e, which translates as “pictures of the floating world”, it flourished from the 17th century. Japanese prints had a strong influence on the Impressionists as well as Post-Impressionists including van Gogh. This exhibition featured prints from the 20th Century when there was a revival in print making with the established techniques applied to both contemporary and traditional subjects.

The exhibition website tells us

early twentieth century saw the emergence of two new artistic currents known as Shin hanga (‘new prints’) and Sōsaku hanga (‘creative prints’). Artists within these two movements each applied traditional woodcutting techniques in their own specific ways. Shin hanga artists used time-honoured methods and pictorial content that dovetailed with Japan’s centuries-old printmaking tradition, choosing subjects such as idealized female portraits and evocative landscape prints. Sōsaku hanga artists, by contrast, were avant-gardists with innovative ideas about the role of the artist and the creative process, whose subject matter revolved around the modern world, city life and industry.

One popular subject for traditional prints was the landscape. There were examples of the techniques used to depict modern scenes



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One important strand in tradional ukiyo-e were prints of idealised, beautiful women. This was continued in the 20th Century – no doubt because they continued to be popular subjects for collectors. There were many examples in the exhibition





with some more contemporary approaches


and this one clearly influenced by European Art Nouveau

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with some traditional style prints in more contemporary poses


and a modern take on the erotic pictures that were popular with a particular type of collector

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Besides the prints, the exhibition features kimonos



lacquerware and posters, on loan from the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo.

The Dutch Golden Age at the Rijksmuseum

Not surprisingly, the Rijksmuseum has an extensive collection of works of art from the Dutch Golden Age, that period during the the 17th century, when the Netherlands were a world power and this was reflected Dutch trade, prosperity and achievements in science and art. Besides the paintings displayed in the “Gallery of Honour”, the second floor of the museum has many examples of paintings, sculpture, ceramics, furniture and other objects from the period.

I was particularly interested in the collection of genre paintings, especially those by two of my favourite Golden Age artists, Gabriel Metsu and Gerard ter Borch.

Metsu lived in Leiden until 1657, when he moved to Amsterdam, living in an alley on Prinsengracht. Most of his pictures are genre scenes but he also painted religious subjects portraits and still lives.  There were several works by him on display, including this domestic scene where a hunter is offering a bird he has shot to a young woman distracting her from her sewing.


The Hunter’s Present (c1658-61) Gabriel Metsu

According to the Rijksmuseum website, during the 17th century ‘vogelen’ (literally ‘to bird’) had a particular meaning so his intentions may not be entirely honourable!

I particularly liked this painting of an elderly woman


Old Woman Meditating (c1661-63) Gabriel Metsu

It has something of a photographic quality. Her face and hands are skilfully rendered and her expression suggests she is concentrating on the devotional text – or is she nodding off?

Gerard ter Borch was born in Zwolle and lived in Amsterdam and Haarlem later settling in in Deventer. His genre paintings often showed figures in domestic interiors making music, reading or writing letters, and drinking. I’d first come across his work at the “Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence” exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in January 2012.  I think he is particularly skilled at painting silks and satin, bringing out the sheen very effectively. His sister Gesina often modelled for him and I think she appears in both of these two paintings displayed at the Rijksmuseum.


Gallant Conversation, known as “The Parental Admonition” (c1654) Gerard ter Borch


Seated Girl in Peasant Costume (c1650-60) Gerard ter Borch

Finally, I’d seen the following picture before.


Woman at her Toilet (c 1655 – 60) Jan Havicksz Steen

It had featured in the “Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence” exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Besides the paintings there was a variety of other objects from the “Golden Age” which painted a picture of life during that prosperous period – at least for the wealthier classes.

The collection included three dolls’ houses that provide a detailed view of how affluent houses were once furnished. The most famous was one that was owned by Petronella Oortman of Amsterdam. It was seeing this very house that had inspired Jessie Burton to write her novel The Minituarist which is set in Golden Age Amsterdam.


The picture (from the Rijksmuseum website) doesn’t give a proper impression of the house which was at least 2 metres high. The website tells us that

In the 17th century, dolls’ houses were not toys; they were a hobby, the equivalent for women of the collection cabinets kept by men.

The wealth of the Golden Age was mainly accumulated through trade. The Netherlands was a major sea power (and rival to the emerging British Empire) with colonies overseas, particularly the Far East. There was a Gallery devoted to Dutch sea power on the second floor which included this magnificent model of a 17th Century warship, the William Rex


There was also a gallery full of models of ships on the ground floor of the museum


None as large as the William Rex, however.

Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum

There are only 34 paintings attributed to Vermeer. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has 4 of them – more than 10% of the total. They’re displayed in the “Gallery of Honour”, just a few metres from Rembrandt’s works. My early start to my visit meant I was able to see the paintings without being obstructed by too many people, but there was already a cluster of people, such is Vermeer’s popularity. This wasn’t always the case – he was largely unknown until the 1860s when French art critic and left-wing politician Théophile Thoré-Bürger published a series of articles eulogizing the painter’s forgotten works.

Vermeer’s works are very different from Rembrandt’s. They are much smaller for a start – which makes it difficult to get a look in when the gallery is busy. His brushwork is fine and meticulous, unlike Rembrandt whose brushwork in his later paintings was much coarser. His paintings are full of light and bright colours (with extensive use of the expensive lapis lazuli ultramarine blue) unlike the works by many of his contemporaries which are often rather dark and gloomy. And Vermeer didn’t go in for grandiose historical and biblical subjects, he concentrated on middle class domestic scenes.

Two of the Rijksmuseum’s Vermeers, like the one in the Irish National Gallery,  depict women reading letters

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Woman Reading a Letter (c 1663)


The Love Letter (c. 1669 – c. 1670)

He even painted domestic servants going about their work. This painting of a milk maid is probably one of his best known works.


The Milkmaid (c. 1660)

The Rijkmuseum’s fourth work by Vermeer is a street scene


View of Houses in Delft, Known as The Little Street (c. 1658)

This is an unusual painting in Vermeer’s oeuvre, and remarkable for its time as a portrait of ordinary houses. The composition is as exciting as it is balanced. The old walls with their bricks, whitewash, and cracks are almost tangible. The location is Vlamingstraat 40–42 in Delft. Vermeer’s aunt Ariaentgen Claes lived in the house at the right, with her children, from around 1645 until her death in 1670. (Rijksmuseum website)

Four marvellous paintings.

Sunday Morning at the Rijksmuseum


After having visited Rembrandt’s house I thought I should go and have a look at some of his better known paintings, so a visit to the Rijksmuseum was in order. I was up early and after breakfast and checking out of my hotel, I took the tram into the city centre. The tram stopped directly outside the Rijksmuseum so I was there at about 9:30, half an hour after it opened. There were quite a few people around even at that early hour on a Sunday, but I didn’t have to queue for a ticket so I decided to make my way up to the “Gallery of Honour” on the second floor where the most well known paintings from the museum’s collection are on show before the hordes arrived.

The early start was definitely the right idea as I was able to get a good view of the paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer and spend some time contemplating. Only half an hour later that was much more difficult, particularly when the tour groups started arriving resulting in large groups gathering round the most well known works while the tour guide proceeded to discuss the paining. This made it very difficult to get a look in.


Everyone wanted to see the Night Watch, or The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenhurch, to give it it’s original name,  which is the centrepiece of the Nightwatch Room. My favourite of the Rembrandt paintings on display, however, was The Jewish Bride


Vincent Van Gogh is reported to have said

‘I should be happy to give ten years of my life if I could go on sitting here in front of this picture for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food.’

Well, I don’t think I’d go quite that far but I certainly spent quite a few minutes contemplating it, returning a couple of times for another look before it became obscured by the tour groups.

The Rijksmuseum website describes the painting

Two contemporaries had themselves portrayed by Rembrandt in historicizing costumes as characters from the Bible. The couple’s tender embrace is at the centre of this poignant painting: the man’s loving gesture is returned with a gentle caress. The figures and their poses agree with the study (No 67), only the figure of King Abimelech spying on them is missing. We, the viewers, assume his role as witnesses of their clandestine love.

However, not everyone agrees

most art historians believe that the couple represent Isaac and Rebecca. Another, more neutral explanation is that the man is declaring his love to his wife. In that case the subject of the painting would be the virtue of marriage. (Rembrandt House website)

Yet another interpretation is that the painting depicts

a Jewish father hanging a necklace around his daughter’s neck on her wedding day (Jewish Press Website)

I thought tht Rembrandt had certainly captured the man’s affection for his bride (if that is what she is) I also liked the way he had applied the paint. Looking close up it was possible to see that Rembrandt had applied the paint very roughly. The paint on the man’s sleeve is so thick that it seems as though Rembrandt used a palette knife to put it on. (Rembrandt House website)

Rembrandt produced more than 300 paintings. The Rijksmuseum, not surprisingly, have a number of them. I can’t say that I like them all. Sometimes the subject matter doesn’t appeal and sometimes they’re just too dark. Of the other of his works on display I liked three paintings that were hung in the same corner as The Jewish Bride.

One of these was The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, known as ‘The Syndics’,

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The individuals portrayed (all but the servant at the back would have paid to be included in the painting) have a real, lived in look about them. They’re not idealised. The older men have wrinkles. And I like the way they look out – it seems that they are looking directly out at the viewer, making you feel part of the scene.

The other two works hanging nearby were portraits. One of his son Titus dressed as a Franciscan Friar


His downcast eyes lend him an air of quiet introspection. His serene, pale face stands out clearly against a backdrop of green and brown vegetation.Solitary retreat into nature for prayer and reflection was of great importance to Saint Francis and his order. (Rijksmuseum website)

Finally  the only self-portrait where Rembrandt portrays himself as a biblical figure – in this case Saint Paul


Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul

There was a lot more to see in the museum, including 4 paintings by Vermeer in the Gallery of Honour, a few yards from the Rembrandts. I think I’ll save them for another post.