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REVIEW: ‘Crossroads’ exhibit at Art Institute makes compelling case for 18th century Ireland patriotism, faith


Irish taste in arts, crafts and decor is surveyed in “Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840” at the Art Institute. If the 328 items on view offer slight interest as artworks, they supply an archaeology of the upper crust. The historical theme “celebrates the Irish as artists, collectors, and patrons.”



When: Through June 7

Where: Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan

Info: (312) 433-3600; www.artic.edu

Recently opened, the exhibition begins with national totems: a rack of 10,000-year-old Irish Elk antlers, a green gilt catgut harp, and “Portrait of a Lady as Hibernia,” Robert Fagan’s canvas of a woman baring a breast and playing a harp. Its “broken strings,” notes a wall text, “possibly allude(s) to the loss of Irish independence.” Upon exiting the exhibition, you can quaff Guinness Draught at the museum’s three cafes.

Christopher Monkhouse – chair and curator of the museum’s European Decorative Arts – curated the 2009 exhibition “A Case for Wine: From King Tut to Today.” Now he and assistant research curator Leslie Fitzpatrick organize ten galleries with an aptly traditional layout unlike the more inventive “Shatter Rupture Break,” the Art Institute’s current exhibition in its Modern Series.

John Egan, "Portable Harp," c. 1820. The O’Brien Collection. Photo: Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics.

John Egan, “Portable Harp,” c. 1820. The O’Brien Collection. Photo: Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics.

Although there’s a first edition of Edmund Burke’s 1757 book “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” in a vitrine, the wall texts, audio tour and catalogue focus more on the cultural terrain, than the aesthetics of the objects.

The curious array of skillfully crafted artifacts includes: beer jug and cream jug, chandelier, cither, crucifix, crystal, epergne, flask, gorget, monteith, napkin, salver, scroll salt, toaster, and wine cellarete and wine cistern.

Who owned all these things? Monkhouse says the “wealthy Irish” and “super-rich.”

How did they decorate their city and country houses? In the illustrated catalogue published by Yale University Press, Toby Barnard weighs their taste in pictures: “it is hard to know whether buyers consciously chose secular rather than sacred topics, or Irish rather than foreign scenes.” But such questions of class, faith and patriotism are the crux of “Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840.”

Acoustiguide commentary on a 1680 portrait of Sir Neil O’Neill, 2nd Baronet of Killyeagh, interprets its symbols: “The imagery here was unambiguously pro-Ireland, readily understood as a defiant reaction to English rule.”

Scattered historical details are compelling. We learn that Irish-made muskets armed British regiments dispatched to quell unrest in the 13 colonies, instead of Ireland’s 32 counties. After portraying the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, American painter Gilbert Stuart would start his famous unfinished painting of George Washington in 1796.

John Kirkhoffer, Secretary Cabinet, 1732. Dublin, Ireland. Art Institute of Chicago. | ROBERT HASHIMOTO PHOTO

John Kirkhoffer, Secretary Cabinet, 1732. Dublin, Ireland. Art Institute of Chicago. | ROBERT HASHIMOTO PHOTO

The museum uses “material culture,” an anthropological term, as a rubric for the diverse imported and made-in-Ireland items here, many related to dining customs. (No relation to the new “Materials Science” exhibit opened at the Museum of Science & Industry.) That perspective may track with the Irish exhibition’s corporate sponsor: The Kerry Group, a “global ingredients & flavors and consumer foods group” based in Tralee, Ireland.

At the exhibition’s entrance, a wall text advocates a defensive agenda. The organizers claim for Ireland “a cosmopolitanism at odds with the common view of Irish culture as rural and insular.” The curators resourcefully assemble a “artistic diaspora” of works, even getting some private donors to kick in shipping costs.

If artisans outnumber artists, the outcome indeed documents the consumerism of the Irish elite. Discovering the political, religious, sociological and even geological factors that contextualize all these precious domestic furnishings is the main draw. Connoisseurs of antiques may disagree.

Bill Stamets is a local freelance writer.