The early twentieth century saw drastic changes in Ireland’s political, social and economic conditions. These changes are sharply represented in the works of Limerick artist, Sean Keating (1889-1977). The latest Crawford exhibition, Sean Keating: Contemporary Contexts, explores the works of Sean Keating and how his representation of hardship and struggle relates to the work of other artists from the period, but also his relevance in today’s society. While this exhibition features many of Keating’s renowned paintings, there are also a few little-known examples. There are also a few works that were lost but were documented, and have now been re-discovered. Keating captures and comments on Irish culture and life through paint, photography and film, and whether you are familiar with Keating or not, this exhibition is a must see.
Sean Keating is more widely known for his commissioned works, such as his commemorative works of the hydro-electric dam at Ardnacrusha. However, he was an opinionated artist, and a critical edge can be seen in many of his paintings. Keating was also involved in writing and broadcasting. While much of his work is in the medium of paint, his work in broadcasting saw him adopting the use of the epidiascope (an opaque projector), camera and cine-camera (the predecessor of the video camera) during the 1930s. This exhibition not only features Keating’s paintings, but also papers, broadcasts, artefacts and photographs. Overall, this exhibition shows how his media varied and his works were sharp, opinionated and powerful.
This exhibition is curated by Dr Éimear O’Connor, who is an expert on Sean Keating and who completed her PhD on the artist. She has also curated another Sean Keating exhibition in Dublin based on his works for the ESB. I asked Dr O’Connor a few questions in relation to her work on the exhibition:
The subtitle of this exhibition is “Contemporary Contexts”. How do you feel Seán Keating’s works relate to today’s society?
“His later allegorical works, such as Economic Pressure, have relevance at a time when emigration has returned yet again. They are a sad reminder that nothing much has changed since Keating’s time. Secondly, I think that an examination of the context in which a work is made is very important. Artists don’t work in splendid isolation. Keating was inspired by his context. So too were the other artists in the exhibition. They all contributed to creating a new visual identity in post-Civil War Ireland”.
Seán Keating’s is often regarded as a political painter having lived through a turbulent period in Irish history. Is this evident in the exhibition? If so, which works highlight his political opinions?
“All of them! But particularly Men of the West, Men of the South and The Ambush, On the Run; War of Independence, And of course, Portrait of Sean Moylan. But my argument is that Keating’s work was always political! His citizen heroes in the exhibition exemplify that. So too his portrait of Fr Michael O’Flanagan, and indeed, his large scale mural work. So – all of the work on show is political.”
This exhibition also features works from other Irish contemporary artists, such as Jack B. Yeats. What effect does this juxtaposition of works have on viewing Keating’s paintings and films? Is the effect to heighten Keating’s political standpoint, as Yeats was not as politically active?
“I think that Yeats was politically active in his art, but not in as confrontational a way as Keating. The concept of the exhibition is to celebrate Keating, and the other artists included in the show, as painters of the political and indeed, of the modern in Ireland, no matter what mode of expression they used.”
Finally, Keating’s cine-film of the Aran Islands is an interesting combination of tradition and modernity. Why do you think Keating adopted the use of film and other media in later life?
“He began using a camera very early in his creative career. He purchased a cine camera when he could afford to do so. Keating was always interested in technology and machinery. The technology helped him to formulate his work. I think he would have loved mobile phones and iPads!”
Three works in this exhibition caught my attention. The first was the screening of Sean Keating’s cine-film of the Aran Islands. I personally was unaware of Keating’s use of film. Keating was introduced to cinematography though his friend Robert Flaherty, who was filming a documentary about the inhabitants of the Aran Islands. Keating was a regular visitor to these islands, and would often spend months working there. The footage demonstrates Keating’s romantic view of tradition, but also his adaptation to modernity. The exhibition also includes paintings inspired by various stills from Flaherty’s film, as well as photographs the artist took from around the islands.
The second work worth taking note is Keating’s painting Sacred and Profane Love. This work is lighter in tone than his more politically charged paintings. This painting is a snapshot of Irish life at the time, and includes characters from all walks of life, both young and old. The theme of this work is love, as demonstrated by the mother and son, the flirting young women, and the movie poster of the film Camille (1936), or Seventh Heaven (1937). What is more interesting is that mother and son were modelled on Keating’s own wife May and son Justin, adding a more personal touch to the painting.
Finally, Keating’s most famous work Men of the South (which is on permanent display in the gallery) has been incorporated into the exhibition, and is situated alongside the work of other artists, such as Jack B Yeats, John Lavery and Colin Middleton. This painting is a depiction of a flying column is the second version of Men of the South, and differs from the original in its exclusion of Sean Moylan and Mick Sullivan, as they had become wanted men at the time. The painting features members of the Cork brigade and the Old IRA, and was composed from photographs taken in Dublin by Keating. The reason for this was that it was unsafe to have all members in the same room. This work shows the men as heroic, noble and courageous (for more information about this work, check out Dr O’Connor’s YouTube video about the painting).
Overall, this exhibition lives up to its subtitle of “contemporary contexts” by encouraging a re-evaluation of Keating’s work in relation to other artists from his period, and also in relation to today’s society. So whether you are familiar or not with Saan Keating, or with Jack B. Yeats, John Lavery and Colin Middleton, this exhibition will throw up some new ideas and themes. The exhibition shows Keating as a political artist, a modern man, but also a painter who valued tradition. The exhibition reveals Keating as a patriot, and his works show his efforts to capture Irish life during the early twentieth century. But above all, this exhibition is a celebration and commemoration of one of Ireland’s most prominent and noteworthy artist.
Sean Keating: Contemporary Contexts runs in the Crawford Art Gallery until October 27. Admission is free.
Image From: Seán Keating, The Crawford Gallery