2nd June - 2nd July Hamilton Gallery
27th July - 23rd August. Hyde Bridge Gallery
1st September - 1st October Hamilton Gallery
Hamilton Gallery invited Ireland’s leading contemporary artists to create an image 20cm x 20cm inspired by W. B. Yeats’s poem Easter, 1916. The exhibition A Terrible Beauty is Born features the work of over 70 visual artists. It is a dynamic, provocative and comprehensive response, 100 years on, by the shapers of our contemporary visual arts culture to the events of 1916, with W. B. Yeats' iconic Easter, 1916 poem used as a springboard.
by Professor Margaret Mills Harper
Seventy-two different images: small like individual people in big historical events (seeming small, that is, but in fact creating those events and history itself), multiple and varied like Ireland, both in 1916 and a hundred years later. This exhibition layers difference upon difference: many artistic responses to a strong poem about a complicated event. In that poem, Easter, 1916, Yeats turned the Easter Rising into art, enabling this country and the larger world to imagine what happened and what it meant and means. This is a complex business, dealing with power and ethics in risky ways. The poem is multivalent: part elegy and part commemoration, part wrenching confession and part pensive meditation, sometimes taking a long, philosophical view and sometimes coming close enough to insert personal history and to name names, “MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse.” The poet lays out his own ambivalences: were his executed or imprisoned friends deluded in their self-martyrdom, “Bewildered” to death, seduced away from the ever-changing world? Or did they grasp a great secret of power—were they somehow like magicians, invoking and drawing down something unimaginable? Is starting a rebellion like making art—and what are the moral implications of saying this in a poem? Yeats’s great oxymoronic phrase “terrible beauty” sums up his compelling vision of the violent and creative firestorm that started in April 1916.
A range of media, style, form, and conception mark this exhibition. The works range from image to tumbling image, some specific, some symbolic, some realistic, some abstract. They use paint, drawing, print, collage, written text, and other media—even gold leaf and human blood. They borrow from Yeats’s poem visually or riff away from it into other visions, or into colour or light.
Some emphasize pattern, some emotion; some are personal, some political. In one frame, a bright pink man’s face stares at us out of the canvas, mouth covered like a silenced victim of torture. Another interprets “Terrible” as the Ten Commandments on a disposable coffee mug. A “Little Nurse” has bright red hands and stands, looking at us from a red world that stains her cheek with a bloody tint. An image of a dead crow illustrates Yeats’s self-correcting lines “What is it but nightfall? / No, no, not night but death.”. The “vivid faces” in the poem become faces of geometric planes, vivid in black and white and shadow.“Terrible Beauty” is a distant fire reflected in the sheen of a wet country road or the shape of a red egg or worn stone suspended in darkness. There are a number of stones, drawing from Yeats’s central image: “Hearts with one purpose alone / Through summer and winter seem / Enchanted to a stone / To trouble the living stream.” A hundred years on, art keeps troubling us, insisting that violence and glory, history and change, terror and beauty, are disturbingly close to each other and to us: we too “have met them.”
Margaret Mills Harper is Glucksman Professor in Contemporary Writing in English at the University of Limerick. She is an expert on Yeats, Irish literature, and modern and contemporary literature, and is the author or editor of six books and numerous articles. From 2013 to 2015, she was the Director of the Yeats International Summer School.