After a week mixing with (and grilling) visual artists, curators and public relations advisers to galleries etc in London, happy to recommend my pick of a large bunch, should you be passing through anytime soon. With the exception of Klimt at the RA, the exhibitions are in private galleries, and scattered throughout London. If you like what you see, and want some more info, please get in touch. Enjoy.
The current exhibition, opened throughout the Bank Holiday weekend, by artist Serena Caulfield at the Vine Restaurant, Main Street, Wexford, is bifurcated into studies of the classical and a revisiting of the natural.
Irrespective of the medium, artists dice with the challenge of stabilising an impression or conveying their take on transience. In this Wexford Festival exhibition, Fragments,the smaller paintings are the outcome of a contemporary artist studying key apotheoses in sculpture and architecture in Western antiquity: the Elgin Marbles in London and the Pantheon in Rome.
As their etymology suggests, both are joined at the hip, the Pantheon – which still stands – was intended as a temple of all the Gods whereas the Parthenon, which is in ruins and from which the Elgin Marbles were stolen, was dedicated to just one, Athena.
Where they differ is in narrative: the Pantheon, whilst paying homage to the Gods, was intended primarily to be a symbol of the greatness of Rome. The Romans invented an ingenious special effect, which still works today, to display divine omniscience: the temple is illuminated by a circular shaft of sunlight, admitted through an opening in the hemispherical dome.
Caulfield’s depiction of the oculus in the Pantheon eschews the temptation to be overawed by the brilliance of the light, and instead the interior of the brightly lit dome becomes a study of something else: the relevance is perhaps less what is happening within, than the source from without.
In ancient Egyptian or Roman cultures, the sky was the destiny of the deceased emperor turned into a god, so Caulfield’s oculus is an orbit of blue.
In her series of oils emanating from her study of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, Caulfield is attracted to the energy of movement within the marble: one horse from the chariot of the Moon, with flaring nostrils, is exhausted.
Other studies here from the Elgin Marbles derive from the fractured pedimental groups of the Parthenon. Caulfield, like the original sculptors, uses the visual memory to mimic gait, and the postures are thus convincing.
The much larger canvases in Fragments are the verdant distillations of perceptions accumulated by the artist in her many visits to South East Asia: the palette is more effusive because the artist paints what she feels and the subject amplifies and fills the canvas, like O’Keefe. The narrative couldn’t be further from the Pantheon or Parthenon studies. Caulfield sees the work as transmissions of a way of seeing.
1993 was a seismic year for conductor Fergus Sheil: he was honing his craft with the annual Wexford Festival Opera, and Wexford Sinfonia held its first rehearsal.
The opera to which he was attached, Ferdinand Herold’s Zampa, left a lasting impression on the young conductor, so much so that he opened Sunday afternoon’s concert with its rousing overture.
1993, in retrospect, was a vintage year for artistic director Elaine Padmore and the Festival: she unearthed the Canadian conductor Yves Abel – who conducted Zampa – and resuscitated a little known opera, but a gem, Cherevichki, by a composer who was also on Sunday’s programme, Tchaikovsky, directed by the soon to be great Francesa Zambello, at her fourth and last outing at Wexford.
Revisiting the overture again, you can see the attraction for Sheil: it is infectious, lively, spontaneous, which explains its almost universal popularity – it has been recycled incidentally often in animation, Banquet Bust, The Band Concert and Two Gun Mickey – and is best described as happiness in eight minutes and 54 seconds, or there about. And because it opens at 90 mph, both orchestra and conductor are connected instantly, and the enthusiasm swiftly engages the audience, as the triumphal fanfare is addictive. Shame, however, about the rest of the opera.
The first time I saw violinist Ioana Pectu-Colan perform, outside of Ensemble Avalon, was with Philip Glass in Dundalk, and the last time was at Wexford Opera House, soloing in Glass’s Fifth Symphony, conducted by, who else, Fergus Sheil. She returned on Sunday for a musical mano e mano with Beth McNinch, in Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major KV 364, in which Mozart specified that the viola be tuned up a semi-tone and played in D major to counter balance the brilliance of the violin.
A most amiable joust, then. There are, as the programme noted, irrepressible high spirits, yet Wexford Sinfonia – no percussion – was sufficiently at one with Sheil’s sensitive guidance to embellish Mozart’s unstated poignancy, an enchanting palimpsest with the reversal of roles of the violin and the viola.
The composer intended that both instruments should soar, and Sunday’s concert was blessed by the performance of both Pectu-Colan and McNinch, the effortless virtuosity of whom was never in danger of being disassociated from the sensuous expressiveness of a large orchestra, from the opening tutti to the coda. In a word, magical, a performance framed by Sheil’s composure, which also attest to his warmth and breadth of vision.
‘Intense and personal,’ is how Martha Wainwright, daughter of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle and brother of Rufus, described her approach to song writing and performance in Wexford.
Bookending the Spiegeltent Festival, Wainwright, about whom I previouslu knew precious little, was phenomenal, in a sort of what you see is what you get type of way. Feisty and energetic, her voice has the crescendo bark of a wounded animal, and her syllables soar and extinguish like spent meteors.
Wexford was a launch pad for new work, most of which she didn’t introduce with a title, but she also dipped into a classic repertoire, with a powerful rendition of Everything Wrong, literally sculpting the lyrics with venom:
‘My husband’s been lyin’ and cheatin’
I turned my cheek and reason
I change my tune every day’
At heart, Wainwright is a storyteller, and each song is preceded by a walking preamble, occasionally too long, as in Radio Star, but when she finally switches gear, and croons
‘I’m at the controls in the big old chair
Nothing has changed except the atmosphere’
the magic is instant, passionate and animated, and her choice of mood and rhetorical affect produces that grimace of a fallen angel, a seductive combination in her performance of Jesus & Mary.
‘She’s the jewel in your crown
But I’m the goal that’s gonna weigh you down
I’ll keep you around this dirty old town.’
The Aldeburgh festival, started by Benjamin Britten in 1948, a few years before the Wexford Festival, is multi-faceted, and the emphasis is almost definitely on music andthe arts, and not just your average accumulation of exhibitions with dodgy depictions of floating swans, collies on amphetamines and jumping horses.
For example, facing Snape Maltings Hall, the main concert venue which is surrounded by the gorgeous and occasionally moody vistas of the North Sea and the tranquil River Alde, were huge images by Anya Gallaccio, inspired by Orford Ness, apparently the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe.
Because the aura of the sea is ever present, whether walking along the attractive Victorian hub of Aldeburgh, or, further in land, at Snape, the work of Gallaccio is a reminder that Orford Ness is tenuously connected to the mainland, just about four metres above sea level.
Symbolically, the relationship between the sea and the land, is in essence tenuous. No one knows when the sea might just throw a wobble.
There were many exhibitions and installations at Aldeburgh of the highest quality: Lily Hunter Green’s Bee Composed (a piano with an a busy hive of bees), John Cage’s Music-circus at the Peter Pears Gallery, Chikato Goto’s traditional Japanese woodcuts at the Pond Gallery, a nod perhaps to Britten’s 1964 church parable Curlew River(1964), when his conception of musical theatre took a new direction, combining influences from the Japanese nō theatre and English medieval religious drama.
The Suffolk coast is the most beautiful setting for a musical festival: Snape Maltings rises like a liner: it dates back to 1846, was converted into a concert hall in 1967 and it looks out upon heath and marsh and the great River Alde, a winding signature under a huge and expansive Suffolk sky.
Britten the composer of course was fond of allegory and Church themes: besides the aforementioned Curlew River, two other religious parables, The Burning Fiery Furnace(1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968), followed. An earlier church-pageant opera, Noye’sFludde (1958), made use of one of the medieval Chester miracle plays.
And then The Rape of Lucretia marked the inception of the English Opera Group, with Britten as artistic director, composer, and conductor. This undertaking gave rise to the Aldeburgh Festival, which slowly became one of the most important alternative English music festivals and, specifically, the centre of Britten’s musical activities.
The current director of Aldeburgh is Pierre-Laurent Aimard , who , according to a report in the Financial Times on the eye of this year’s Festival, stood accused of not being ‘quite English enough’, which can hardly be his fault.
The charge sheet against him is petty: he is closely aligned in spirit with the postwar European avant garde, which Britten had little time for. But, if the opera cognoscenti didn’t split hairs over such trifling matters, it wouldn’t be the blood sport we have all come to admire.
The Festival proper runs for the second half of June, with operas, recitals, film, concerts, masterclasses and lectures, in a plethora of venues, including Blythburgh Church, Aldeburgh Church, Britten Studio, Jubilee Hall and the concert hall at Snape Maltings where I attended a performance by Ensemble 360, wandering at the interval, ice cone in hand, like a blithe spirit, among the reeds and water and Gallaccio’s photographs.
Like Telemachus, I find myself on the shore awaiting the telltale configuration of silhouettes on the horizon to signal the return home of those whose reputation was forged abroad. Since Ben Barnes informed me about WexFour earlier this year, the adaptation for the stage at Wexford Arts Centre in October of new work by four Wexford writers who continue to bestride the world, far and beyond the anadromous caul of Loch Garman, has had the swallow note of Odysseus’s lyre.
Why a swallow? As every dabbler of Homer knows, swallows migrate and return to the nest they previously inhabited. Ben Barnes was born a stone’s throw from the Arts Centre and got his short back and sides from Syl and Willie Carley at the bottom of George’s Street; Billy Roche’s first incarnation of A Handful of Stars – the raw The Boker Poker Club – was directed here by Patrick Sutton, with a very young Gary Lydon, last seen in the Arts Centre in Roche’s One Is Not a Number; Eoin Colfer’s first full length play, The Crescent, saw the light of day in the Arts Centre when he was still unknown, and both Colm Toibin and John Banville have given readings here.
Four celebrated Wexford alumni: Homer’s lyre also had four strings, and one knows that Barnes is best suited to pluck Toibin, Banville, Colfer and Roche to enable us to admire the multifariousness of the works you are about to see which – having read the text – will have an enduring hold on your imagination.
Nicky Furlong maintains that the riches of the many parishes of Wexford fertilise the proliferation of living characters, ‘many of whom choose to express themselves with urging pens.’ I have to imagine that for Barnes, Colfer, Roche and Banville, raised in Wexford, and Tobin, who was educated here, the soundtrack of an average year in the life of the town when they were young was a riotous cacophony of the musical and the theatrical on its streets, especially during the Wexford Festival which continues to segue mild autumn and cold winter.
Arias, declamations, perorations and proclamations would have cruised colourfully through the cloistered and multilingually-baptised streets and lanes, forever descending in cobbled free fall to where Wexford began, the sea, a recurring source of the cathartic and the catalytic in their novels, short stories and plays.
And being from Wexford, it is inevitable their paths would have crossed: Billy Roche sheepishly gave the manuscript of his first novel Tumbling Down to the eminent historian, the late Dr. Billy Colfer, for his perusal, only for his young son, Eoin, to borrow it first and gobble it up. When an older Eoin, a teacher in Coolcotts and a member of the local opera society, was on the cusp of introducing Artemis Fowl to the world, he shared a stage at a reading event with both Roche and Banville in the Talbot Hotel, the scene – eight years earlier in 1992 – of his first foray into playwriting, the one actStereotypes.
When Ben Barnes was appointed artistic director at the Abbey at 43, he had already directed 28 plays from the Irish repertoire and 20 premieres of new Irish plays, including John Banville’s adaptation of Kleist’s The Broken Jug; he initiated the adaptation of Toibin’s Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush for the stage (they were at St. Peter’s College together and played tennis against each other) and Barnes awarded the Abbey Writer in Association to Billy Roche, which would culminate with On Such As We at the Peacock, featuring Brendan Gleeson.
Is it too much to consider, in the context of WexFour, that the town which binds them together can consolidate their identity, if only for the duration of a performance? Writers, however, are not tethered to the same vernacular, so what is important, to paraphrase Colm Toibin, is that ‘the word somehow remains – the beauty of the word.’
Listen to the music in these lines:
With rasping sighs the breeze-brashed branches
fling their russetness
through churning skies to crust the ground
The leaves, which are not mentioned by name, just don’t cover the ground, they crust it, like a hardened layer.
Isn’t that a beautiful line: note how the poet used the alliteration of breeze-bashed branches to move the poem from a standing start to third gear.
And then these breeze-brashed branches fling their russetness through churning skies to crust the ground.
But the poet isn’t finished, not by a long shot: he is directing a film sequence for us to conjure…the breeze brashed branches/the churning skies/
And he continues
To crust the ground with autumn’s pall/ a detritus to delight us in the cough out calm that follows squall.
The poem is Walking on the Wind, the collection is Turn Now the Tide, and the poet is Joe Neal, from Wales but living in Wexford.
Joe is one of those poets, in the great Welsh tradition of Thomas and David Jones, who is concerned with the sound of the spoken word, and the relevancy of sound to form.
Theory aside, which most artists avoid, the progenitor of a still life deploys their gift to shepherd the eye to what they think is important. With the best will in the world, the artist’s ambition is impotent without an endowment of a special talent that is nursed, but not taught.
The evolution of Caroline Ward (pictured with her still life entry to the 2014 RHA exhibition) into one the Ireland’s foremost still life artists has been breathtakingly rapid: a trajectory from aquifer to surface in recent years has been marked by a technical virtuosity to match the broadening of her visual spectrum, from memento mori to the transience, both emotional and physical.
For Ward, light emerges as chiaroscuro, the gradation of contrasting tones, though her light is never harsh or dramatic. It has none of the aggressive voltage of Caravaggio’s tense tenebrism. Ward’s light is not the battleground of opposites. It is, however, despite its transience, a source of endless possibilities.
Her signature is instinctively recognisable: she has carved her own niche with a collection of work that is immediately distinctive, an intense study in metamorphosis, the remorseless quest to recapture the initial impulse of excitement and curiosity on the canvas.
Best bookshops in the universe? I’d recommend two in Bath: Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights and Topping. They are, as the crow flies, around the corner from each other and boast both readings by visiting authors (David Mitchell in Mr. B’s and Lee Child in Topping), and a plethora of signed books, with Topping offering the weary bibliophile free coffee. It is, however, difficult to find a bookshop quite like Topping of Bath anywhere. There are as many signed as unsigned novels, a genuine collector’s paradise. Further afield, I’d recommend the very pleasant and quaint The Yellow Lighted Bookshop in Tetbury, which also has author readings, Helen Macdonald etc.
I don’t know what’s happened to Summertime: 9A in the Tate. I normally visit it whenever I pass through London, but it wasn’t there this time. Maybe it’s on tour. An awful pity, really. Tate had located a seat almost as long as Summertime:9A, facing it, and if you turned round, there was a large Monet verging on abstraction from his late period. There is, however, the wonderful Yellow Islands (pictured), painted some years after Summertine:9A. If anybody knows where Summertime has gone, let me know. I feel bereft without the promise of seeing it again soon.
Sonja Landweer at the Greenacres Gallery
A piece of art needs to connect. And how it achieves this state of connectivity has as much to do with the input of the viewer as it has with the existence of an object. We cannot have one – a presence or the resonation of recognition – without the other – a piece of art which is the outcome of a conscious malleability.
Because clay or paint have their own ideas, the artist may not end up where they thought they were going. A shared conscious malleability is needed to segue the relationship between what the artist creates and exhibits and the individual sufficiently moved to acquire it. No artist sleepwalks to the easel or the kiln, and nor should we into an exhibition.
Acquisition or appreciation need not solve the mystery inherent in the transformation of an idea into something that is tangibly physical. From birth, our first instinct is to hold, to be tactile. And so it is with art.
Leaving the delectation of the senses aside for a moment, I have always enjoyed how Sonja Landweer’s work commands the arena of its space. Whether observing or clutching, I enjoy being led by a bronze, by a pot or a vase, by the striking colours and textures, so the relationship between the craft and the maker continues. This is how we connect, how we, to paraphrase Whitman, may contribute a verse.
Dutch-born Landweer is undoubtedly the most critiqued and documented potter in contemporary Ireland. You don’t have to cast your net too far nor too wide to find published reviews of her work and her career as she has been exhibiting since the 1950’s. Landweer has had over thirty solo exhibitions, has participated in twice as many group shows (she was a regular at the annual Art at the Vocational College during the Wexford Festival) and has been analysed and dissected and in the main honoured by some of the best critics and writers in Ireland and in Europe.
Yet the most prescient and discerning awareness of her work has not come from the pen of a critic, but of a friend. In Stepping Stones, Seamus Heaney recalls how Landweer as a fledgling artist was deeply marked by the cruelty of what happened to her father – murdered by the Nazis for helping Jews and the underground resistance – and by the beautiful windfall of a memory, emerging after a swim from the waters of the North Sea with the luminescence of plankton all over her body.
The dichotomy of these experiences were related years later by Landweer to Heaney, and were in turn revisited and reimagined by the poet at his desk in the privacy of his own smithy. Perhaps with an unconscious nod to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, he recasts Landweer as ‘a nymph of phosphorous by the Norder Zee.’ Heaney’s ekphrastic poems tend not to end up in anthologies of his work, but the poem inspired by his knowledge of Sonja Landweer, ‘To a Dutch Potter in Ireland’, was the first he recited at his acceptance of the Nobel Literature Prize in 1995.
I reference Heaney specifically because he was a close friend of Landweer and a frequent visitor to Wexford, where he read from his collection, District and Circle, in 2006, in the Talbot Hotel. His unerring eye for the detail that eludes others unearthed an aesthetic and anthroposophical essence to Landweer that has not atrophied one iota in the half century since their first meeting: a fierce conviction about the value and necessity of good and beautiful work. Art critics may have touched upon it, but Heaney articulated it best: ‘she lives at a high spiritual pitch.’
In or about 1960, Landweer had developed her batik technique on ceramics, with decorative motifs inspired by nature and Moorish influences: in contrast to the normal wax resist method where wax is directly applied to the once fired clay, Landweeer would immerse a bisque-fired pot in glaze and apply a wax decoration on some of the first layer of glaze. The process was repeated until it was put through one firing cycle.
Before committing herself to a future in Kilkenny in the mid-1960’s, the young Landweer enjoyed a peripatetic existence, visiting Finland, Lapland, Spain, England, Russia and indeed Ireland, staying in the Burren in 1959. ‘I loved the starkness of my first winter there. I loved it with a passion.’ She established her studio in Thomastown, ‘initially in a rambling Georgian house,’ with her partner, the artist Barrie Cooke, moving later to Jerpoint House. She had chosen Thomastown over Clare for logistical and practical considerations: the need to find a market for her work, proximity to the Kilkenny Design Workshop and access to good clay, which she sourced from within the country and further afield, importing a tonne at a time of her own composition from a factory in Holland.
Though she came to relish the dramatic and ever changing seasonal landscape of her rural existence by the River Barrow, she managed to hold nature, as an endless source of inspiration, at bay. The inspiration for her work came from deep within, the realm of instincts and archetypes: she is celebrated for her instinctive feeling for innate energy in objects, articulated seamlessly as an ensoulment.
Fortuitously, on the July afternoon I visited Landweer at her home and studio in the sylvan amphitheatre of voluptuous nature that is Jerpoint today, the Visual Centre for Contemporary Art in Carlow was hosting a lecture by Dr. Mark Wormald to mark the 40th anniversary of the first fishing trip upstream from Graiguenmanagh of Landweer’s friend, the poet Ted Hughes, and Cooke. As practitioners of their art – painting, poetry, pottery – they were saturated with the confidence that comes from knowing exactly what they wanted. Landweer is, contends Michael Robinson, the greatest artist in earth and fire yet to have worked in Ireland.
The exhibition at Greenacres is invaluable insofar as it makes the connection between the inviolable trinity of artist, subject and observer, the continuity of Landweer’s personal strength and integrity into that which she fires, which is beauty as truth, the edification of the individual within the artist, the unbridled celebration of what it means to think for yourself and to act accordingly, the ‘I am’ which makes the improbable possible in a studio, and finally the practice of art as the antithesis to the despoliation of nihilism. Art as hope.
Landweer is the liberator of the innate pulse held captive by the inanimate; she is the respecter of the holistic consciousness among the myriad forms of the earth which can soften like gossamer to her touch; she is a diving rod of what once was and what might become, the artist as a medium who extends her material beyond its boundary, or the limits we perceive, and becomes part of us.
And unlike other artists, Landweer gets to play with fire, she gets to both bring down the sun and bring up the earth, and this confluence of apparent opposites opens a door to a new way of seeing and a new way of being.
What a wonderful gift.
The catalyst in the metamorphosis from seed to flower.
‘The sun has never seen a shadow.’ (Leonardo da Vinci)
The indisputable achievements of twentieth century physics – general relativity and quantum physics – are segued by this dichotomy: they both make sense and yet contradict each other, which only serves to accentuate the function and value of science.
What Is Life (Wexford Co. Council and Wexford Arts Centre) is a noble and inspiring endeavour to connect the public with Carlo Rovelli’s the ocean of the unknown, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception or Lieutenant Commander Spock’s ‘it’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.’ Take your pick, because they all cover the same terrain.
And whether the world is curved space in the morning – general relativity – or flat space in the afternoon – quantum physics – reality is never less than interactive, and art offers the multi-disciplinary tools to explore this a little further.
The exhibition, curated by Deirdre Southey and Catherine Bowe, poses the question: what can art contribute to science, and vice-verse? On this evidence, artists stand to gain more, because the essential reality of the endless uniformity of space is that it is impossible to pin down, that it is indescribable.
We have yet to invent the language for what is at the other end of the Hubble telescope, but we are gifted with the imagination to probe. So, What Is Life’s selected artworks engage the viewer with concepts pertaining to the multiplicities of the here and now. Scientific responses nestle alongside each artist’s statement.
There are two strands: terra firma – the work of Fergus Doyle, Gerda Teljeur, Meadhbh O’Connor and John Cullen is rooted in the natural world – and terra incognita – Vera Klute, Bea McMahon, Andrew Kenny, David Beattie and Eleanor Duffin address the amorphous and the metaphysical, from alchemy to the paranormal.
Inspired by Erwin Schrodinger’s famous lectures in Dublin in 1943, the exhibits benefit from the incandescently illuminating interpretation by Cliona O Farrelly, Anna Wedderburn, Liam Hallinan and Colm Fives. As Schrodinger posited that the gene was a molecule of contradiction, What Is Life also poses the question, what is art? Maria McKinney’s dexterity with sculptures, installation and photography demonstrates how art can provide a platform to view a world which science is at pains to understand.
The correlation between art and science is also being explored presently at Sadler’s Wells in London by Wayne McGregor, who has composed 23 dance vignettes determined by an algorithm from his DNA, while the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh and Edinburgh University are tracing the relationship between artists’ response to space and scientific research, but I can’t vouch as to the efficacy or quality of either.
The wattage of What Is Life in Wexford is slightly diminished by splitting it between two venues, a small quibble, but if – like Hamlet – you believe there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of, this is a show for you.
Hanneke Van Ryswyk does not present landscapes au vif: she does, like Friedrich, rearrange the source.
Her current exhibition at the appropriately idyllic Norman Gallery, Rathnure, is both a visceral and visual revisiting of places she holds sacred: both the Welsh and Irish landscape.
Her school years were spent in a country far removed from the theme of this exhibition, Mynydd, (Welsh for mountain), namely Holland.
The linear Dutch landscape, much of it reclaimed from the sea and densely populated, left her with a yearning for the uninhabited remoteness and unruliness of hills.
It isn’t easy entrusting yourself to nature if you are an artist with the antennae of Van Ryswyk.
Leaving aside the baggage of tranquillity, eternity and infinity associated with traditional landscape painting, Van Ryswyk’s engagement demands uninterrupted reflection.
And this can take years. For the artist, not the viewer. Not the physical execution of the work, but the imaginative tremors prior to the eruption.
So Mynydd is but the latest step in a long gestation, and the outcome in this acrylic on wood panel series is mesmeric.
Hiroshige’s woodcut landscapes have the gift of not being dominated by specific forms, but what is concealing them. Mist. Diffused light.
Van Ryswyk’s mountains similarly are of this world and beyond it, and evoke something of the undiscovered.
She is not a slave to the pulse of time, and thus her landscapes are not anchored in the safe terrain of photographic or forensic recognition.
It is easy and understandable to be seduced by the initial engagement with a work of art as focused as these small panels, because the colour amounts to juxtaposed harmony.
But there is more.
With patience, a distillation of the multiple provenances within each is triggered because each is revelatory in its own unique way.
And the use of colour, because it resonates with the artist’s imaginative realities – abstract textured suggestions – opens several doors at once. (The gallery is open by appointment: Tel 053-9254515)
Considering the tools of their trade, should archaeologists surprise us when they become embroiled in old fashioned mud-slinging?
The Quest for the Ancient Celt sheds extensive light on simmering tensions between archaeologists on either side of the Irish border in the 1930s, and has all the elements of a Spielberg adventure yarn.
The search for the genealogical soul of the new Irish nation was spearheaded by an Austrian-born civil servant, later dubbed by the Fianna Fail government which employed and promoted him as the most fanatical Nazi in Dublin.
At stake in the battleground for Irish identity was the original ‘hard’ border: researchers at odds with each other found themselves in a race to find evidence of a cultural frontier from prehistoric times between North and South.
And if, from the vantage of today, the border dispute can feel that old, this academic sniping, while not descending to the blows dished out by Indiana Jones to his nemesis Rene Belloq, was serious point scoring between two fledgling states, the North and the Republic.
The question of the first arrival of prehistoric man on Hibernia’s shores was imbued with political significance: if the earliest bones were discovered in the North, he must have arrived from Britain. But archaeologists were in danger, writes Mairead Carew, ‘of interpreting past cultural worlds and creating new ones simultaneously to reflect their current political realities.’
And the new reality was nationalism in action: countries, because of patriotic fervour, were anxious to trace their pedigree as far back in time as possible.
However, a far sinister background involved the United States and Germany. The Nazis, represented in Dublin by Adolph Mahr, the Keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum, were confident that Ireland and Scandinavia, having escaped the Roman mould, had pure racial affinities.
Ardent anti-Semite, Mahr rose swiftly through the ranks of the museum until De Valera appointed him Director in 1934. As the numero uno of the Nazi Ausland organisation in Dublin, he openly liaised with fellow expatriate fascists Fritz Brase, head of the Army School of Music and Heinz Mecking of the Turf Board, who would perish in Soviet captivity at the end of the war.
America, which had already dabbled with sterilisation of its most dependable and vulnerable with its ruling on Buck v Bell six years before Hitler became Chancellor, was interested in the racial affinities of the Irish because they made up one fifth of their population.
Historians can over egg the pudding of the importance of minor figures with walk-on roles in history, but Carew doesn’t have to: Mahr’s alliance with Harvard University’s quest for the mystical origin of the Irish, and the subsequent physical examination of thousands across the country, is the gift which keeps giving.
Harvard’s involvement is a curious affair. In 1927, when Mahr first landed in Ireland, the US Supreme Court ruled that Carrie Buck, a young mother described as ‘feeble minded’, should be sterilized by tube litigation, a decision justified by Judge Oliver Wendell Homes Jnr. ‘It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime…society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.’
Siddhartha Mukherjee covered the case extensively in his book The Gene, An Intimate History. With the sterilization of Buck, ‘the chain of heredity had been broken,’ he noted. The Nazis, lying in wait for power and always mindful of public opinion in America, took heed.
Against this backdrop, the Harvard Archaeological Mission to Ireland was organised by Earnest A. Hooton who viewed the country as culturally ancient but politically new, and he expected that the physical characteristics of the Irish would determine their unalloyed racial affinities.
Why was this relevant to Hooton? Two reasons. A country defined as white European Celt would be economically advantageous with the impending rise of a new political order in Europe, and Hooton, echoing Wendell Homes Jnr, had no qualms – on paper at least – about the legal removal of those doomed unfit from society.
While 12,000 Irish allowed themselves to be measured from head to toe by Hooton’s acolytes to determine their divine providence, the Nazis’ obsession with racial morphology progressed at an alarming rate. Secretly, they prepared the groundwork for Aktion T4, the euthanasia programme to eradicate quarter of a million genetic ‘defectives’.
What segued eugenics research in Germany to produce the Ubermensche befitting a thousand year Reich, and the Harvard Archaeological Mission in Ireland, was an underlying belief that physical anthropology and racial classification could justify discrimination and segregation, rife on both sides of the Atlantic.
Eugenics, coined a year after Charles Darwin’s death by Francis Galton, from the Greek prefix eu, meaning good, and genesis, was intended to mimic natural selection by human intervention. ‘Man has long sought to excuse his disregard of others’ rights by alleging certain biological differences which determine the superiority of his own race or nationality and the inferiority of others,’ enthused Hooton, by now a member of the heinous Committee of the Negro, which used comparative autonomy to divide humanity into races and compared African babies with young apes.
Meanwhile, the Harvard Mission lost no time in getting down and dirty the length and breadth of the country: from Meath to Sligo and from Waterford to Derry, they excavated crannogs and dormant burial sites for five years, in which thousands of objects were unearthed and probed for evidence of Celtic genius. Surveying over 600 artefacts at Ballinderry in Offaly, Hugh O’Neill Hencken, director of the archaeology team and a future American intelligence officer, compared Ireland favourably with Ancient Greece.
The classification of skulls at Knockast was deemed by the Harvard team to be especially significant, writes Carew, as a large cranium once contained a brain which, according to researchers’ notes, ‘from point of size is well above the average for modern Europeans.’
While the Harvard Mission did its best to overturn the Victorian caricature of the Irish as intoxicated simians, old prejudices were slow to change, stateside. Commenting on the discovery of a well-preserved Viking gaming board with ‘iron shillelahs’, the Herald Examiner in Chicago claimed the close proximity of smashed skulls ‘would seem to point at some ancient debate over rules.’
It is life-affirming to hear four musicians so in tune with each other as they pursue, in the words of Bert Seager, “the higher intentions of our musical purpose”. Tetraptych – Seager (piano/compositions), Hery Paz (tenor saxophone), Max Salinger-Ridley (upright bass) and Dor Herskovits (drums) – may be the latest thing in a long line of modern jazz saxophone quartets but they very much forge their own path.
A tetraptych (pronounced “Te-trup-tick”) is “a four-panelled painting where each panel can stand on its own. Seen together, the panorama of panels gives greater meaning to the interaction of the parts.”
Composer and leader Seager uses the term “collective improvisation” to describe the modus operandi of Tetraptych. While the quartet may have dispensed with road maps their unity of purpose and shared joie de vivre ensures that we are all happy to go along for the ride.
Under the Bostonian pianist’s light-touch leadership they take their time in laying out their wares. The music unfolds naturally and organically, never forced. They improvise because they can, and they do so in a way that is both seamless and sensuous. Listen to the sultry piano and sax foreplay of Distances and feel yourself slow-falling into the arms of a seductress!
The album opener, Welcoming The Water, is epic in both style and length. At 13.59 minutes it is the longest of the six tracks. It amply illustrates the cooperative and intuitive ethos which binds the four. The piano/sax conversation is one which invites eavesdropping. And what about Herskovits’ drum solo: every time I hear it I want to leap to my feet and punch the air. If this is improv bring it on!
Last Snow, with its tentative piano opening, coming on and falling away, resolves itself in successive layers of pastoral splendour. The straight ahead bebop of Blues You Can Use and the Star Eyes-inspired Star Wise shows the boys letting loose and having some fun. The latter, with its introductory prelude, shows the quartet’s attention to detail and eschewing of musical cliches even when dealing in well established formats.
Bert Seager wrote all of the songs on this recording except for the free improvisation Equanimous Botch. The band used this one to warm up at the start of the session. It affords the listener an opportunity to peek into the engine room and witness, up close, the inner workings of this fabulous self-propelling apparatus. What the output lacks in focus it makes up for in originality. As Hieronymus Bosch said: “Poor is the mind that always uses the inventions of others and invents nothing itself.”
All told this is a quietly confident opus which insinuates itself with lyrical ease into the deeper recesses of your heart. It will surely inspire others to put aside map and compass and rely, instead, on one’s innate sense of being. (Review: Senan O’Reilly)