A Terrible Beauty is born by Robert Ballagh, currently on display in the Hunt
WHEN I was in secondary school, Robert Ballagh was in my art history book. He was one of the first living artists I’d ever become familiar with – which is difficult to understate just how important that is to a young person.
And as the years went by, I didn’t just know Ballagh as a person who made artworks but someone who believed in the responsibility and possibilities of artists getting involved with politics.
Ballagh has been an active participant of Irish political life, taking part in political talk shows and radio programmes, and was even rumoured to be a potential Presidential candidate in 2011, for Sinn Fein and the United Left Alliance. Now Ballagh is on my doorstep, with a solo exhibition in the Hunt Museum which runs until August 28.
It’s difficult to overstate just how important Robert Ballagh is in the history of Irish art. Born in 1943, Ballagh came to prominence by bringing a Pop art approach to Irish painting. Pop art exploded onto the world stage in the 1950s and 60s, with notable artists such as Warhol and others who borrowed from the eye catching styles of advertising and comic books. It was shocking then to see the products of the mass media in the gallery space, treated as art.
Despite the similarities in the strongly graphical styling, Ballagh has a distinctly political subject matter which is grounded in history. The exhibition in the Hunt Museum is a great example of all this and more; there’s numerous portraits of key figures in the Irish Republican movement, and the paintings make reference to the variety of coins, letters and banners made since to commemorate history – and even, a series of paintings hung in the shape of a cross. Throughout, the faces and names of the influential figures of 1916 can be seen.
There’s a lot of lessons to be learned within this exhibition; from the complicated and messy layers of conflict and idealism that make up Irish Republicanism, to the influence of international developments on Irish artists.
The story of Robert Ballagh goes beyond just Pop art coming to Ireland, but is a larger question about the influence of developments in art abroad on the Irish scene. Irish artists working within this style and approach are not just coming to terms with the visual saturation of TV, advertising and product packaging, but are also making a conscious effort to contribute to on-going discussions in a larger context. Today it’s commonplace for artists to naturally work in a manner familiar to the international art scene – yet this was not always the case, and importantly, much of Irish history reflects this tension between a local identity in an international artistic debate. The differences between then and now shed greater clarity on the particularities of today.
I grew up knowing of Robert Ballagh the artist, Robert Ballagh the public figure. His place in the history of Irish art is weighty, and places a kind of challenge and responsibility on the shoulders of us early career artists. Whenever you’ve read or heard of an artist before encountering their work there exists a challenge to overcome – making the step from understanding to experiencing is not a small thing. Coming to terms with the artwork as a thing in itself, separate from it’s story, is an on-going process, but the legacy he and others have set down before me remains.
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