At the Ulster Museum, my method is to head straight to the lift and go to the fifth floor, avoiding the history sections; it’s gotta be fine arts for me. My motivation today was the Francisco Goya exhibition, The Disasters of War, which I learned about in an art history module at university. I remember being fascinated about the documentation of the horrors of war. Goya’s illustrations are a kind of pre-camera war photojournalism.
But I was thrown off now by a desk of catalogues: where these of the Goya exhibition? No, they were of the 135th annual exhibition of the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts.
“Can I help you?” asked a woman sitting behind the table.
“I’m here to see the Goya exhibition,” I replied.
“Yes, everyone wants to see the Goya exhibition. It’s behind you.”
* * *
Perhaps out of a tinge of guilt, I decided to walk forward and inspect what the RUA had to offer. It was a collage of paintings, sculpture and other artwork by RUA members. The red dot stickers on some of the title placards told me that they were for sale.
So my heart skipped a beat (or two) when I saw Joseph McWilliams’ The Governors of Anguilla, Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands and the Last Governor of Northern Ireland. I had seen this is several art books, but never the original.
And here it was, it all its brash, bold, colourful glory, with its projection of historical and social significance.
Surely this couldn’t be for sale. But here it was, lot 225. I made a note of it.
I continued walking along the perimeter of the rooms. Many accomplished examples of fine art, but now my barometer was The Governors of Anguilla. A few of my favourites were Mirror Mirror (2) (by Dave Mardigan) and Cake in Jar (by Stephen Johnston); I liked their play of reality, nods to surrealism.
Back at the exhibition reception desk, the woman was gone, and I had a quick browse of the catalogue book. My desired artwork conspicuously had no sale price in its listing.
The woman returned and asked if I was interested in any of the items.
“Oh yes,” I answered, “but I see that The Governors of Anguilla is not for sale.”
“The Joseph McWilliams piece. That’s because he’s dead. That is on the ‘obituary wall’, of our members who have died this year. Sorry for any confusion.”
“I thought it was too good to be true,” I replied.
“You would have considered buying it?”
“Well, I can only imagine the price. But it is an outstanding piece of art.”
Now satisfied by my curiosity of the RUA exhibition (I picked up some leaflets to learn more about the academy), as well as relieved of any financial consideration of fine art beyond my means, I proceeded to my original planned destination.
* * *
On display were 40 of 80 illustrations of The Disasters of War, which Goya created between 1810 and 1820. However, likely because of fears of censorship, they were not published until 1863, 35 years after Goya’s death. These are on loan from the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, and a museum steward informed me about this Irish-American mining magnate’s strong interest in drawings and Orientalist art.
This body of work is made up of three sections — the brutality of warfare, the famine in Madrid (1811-12), and a series of dream-like scenarios — and are shown sequentially. The lighting is understandably very low, and you need to get close to see the detail in these A5-sized drawings.
It seems everyone has a favourite illustration. No se puede mirar (One cannot look at this; plate 26), has figurative piercing of the executing rifles’ bayonets in the right frame of the image. But for me the most provocative is Tampoco (Not (in this case) either; plate 36), with the general slouching against a large rock in the field of war, inspecting his handiwork of death, a man hung at a tree.
It is rare to be able to view The Disasters of War. As a student, I regretted not going to the Museum of Fine Arts to see them on slides. But until 4 June 2017, they are here for all to see in our own backyard. They are significant and important to experience.
* * *
I carried onto the next room, which presented work under the title, Bare Life, which is reference to how the human form has been applied artistically. I was pleased to see the medium of photography included, Woman and Child (2005) by local artist, Paul Seawright. Mat Collishaw’s self-portrait on a backlit transparency is very good, challenging our confirmation bias of dress and costume in portraiture.
* * *
The New Past of Irish works since 1800 in another room shows the known and lesser known works of Irish artists. I have to say that most do not excite me, in that many just tell me of someone’s competency in a particular style of art, whether neoclassical, impressionist, abstract. An exception is Willie Doherty’s Ghost Story (2007), which is a powerful mixture of prose (poetry?) and moving images that submerge you:
* * *
The lift down to the ground level plonked me at a part of the building that I wasn’t familiar with. I could see more paintings through the window panes of a double set of doors, so I let my now compulsive desire for more artistic stimulation drive me forward.
This was Texaco Children’s Art exhibition, showing artwork by those under 19 years of age, throughout the island of Ireland. All entrants are to be commended for their time and devotion to their work, which hopefully was more joy than a piece of school work.
Here the items were even more densely spaced on the wall than the RUA exhibition. There was a wide variety of styles, which was good to see — artistic freedom at play.
There were three pieces which made me want to meet the young artists.
Ellie’s Drawing of a Vase of Flowers, by 5-year-old Ellie Giblin, is an explosion of colour, yet in comprehendible form. That is, it’s neither an attempt to draw flowers literally, nor scratchings of crayons. It is worth a promotion from the refrigerator door to a museum’s wall.
Nutella Sachet, by 14-year-old Robert Madden, is a fine application of colour and texture. For example, there is a thick strip of paint along the packet’s side, where the artist has etched the words, ‘BEST BEFORE’. It evokes tactility. And I’ve never seen a painting of a sachet of Nutella before!
And 17-year-old Marta Turalska’s My Grandma with Grape is wonderful — a demonstration of excellent technical skill in drawing and colour, with fun through a personal subject.
Mr Ulster had a good afternoon at the museum. There is a broad range of excellent art to experience right now, and I’m glad I made the visit.