September 2012 will see the opening of Seán Keating and the ESB: Enlightenment and Legacy at the RHA. The exhibition is features work from the ESB collection and is kindly sponsored by the company. Keating’s paintings of the ‘Shannon Scheme’ (1926-28) and ‘Poulaphouca’ (1939-40) were made at a time when the monumentality of the phoenix-like engineering was analogous with his personal hope in Ireland as it emerged from its colonial past. The curatorial focus of this exciting exhibition is to emphasize Keating’s central artistic concern while working at Ardnacrusha and at Poulaphouca; to literally paint Ireland’s post-Civil War quest for modernity as it developed before his eyes. Although he was not commissioned, Keating definitely hoped that his work would eventually find an appreciative audience. As a result of his vision and determination, along with the assistance of a few men who were central to the decision to purchase the works, the ESB now have one of the largest, and certainly the most significant collections of the artist’s contemporary history paintings in the world.
Seán Keating’s images of Ardnacrusha and Poulaphouca are astonishing. He focused his artistic gaze on the sheer might of structural engineering in the belief that the work represented a new beginning for the nation; a move forward from the darkness of the past to a future of enlightenment. The images well-demonstrate the artist’s capacity to visually document the modernity of the projects: as the exhibition will highlight, he used a systematically contemporary artistic approach that was in parallel with the engineering of the developments. Keating is well-known for his series of politically inspired paintings made between 1915 and 1924, and it was his aspiration to continue to paint emerging history in the post-Civil War years. Thus, the paintings represent specific moments in Keating’s career, in the history of the ESB, and in the foundation of the Irish Free State. The exhibition will feature Keating’s oils, watercolours and mixed media paintings made while at Ardnacrusha and Poulaphouca. The works will be shown alongside original film footage of the machinery at work at Ardnacrusha in the 1920s, thereby by giving greater meaning to Keating’s artistic aim, and at the same time, bringing to the RHA something of the modern, noisy atmosphere that the artist experienced while on site.
Originally from Limerick, Keating was former student of the Technical School of Science and Art in the city. He completed his training at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (DMSA) between 1911 and 1914. While he became a well-known figure during his lifetime, the nature and extent of his major contribution to Irish cultural life as an artist, art activist, commentator, broadcaster and writer, had, to date, been sidelined or entirely forgotten. But now, in the twenty-first century, a re-evaluation of his career is under way, the nature of which is exemplified in Seán Keating and the ESB: Enlightenment and Legacy.
The exhibition is curated by Dr Éimear O’Connor HRHA with generous support from Malcolm Alexander ESB, Brendan Delany, Archives Manager, ESB and Patrick Murphy, Director of the RHA. There will be a colour catalogue with curatorial essay by Dr Éimear O’Connor HRHA and an outline of the history of the ESB by Brendan Delany (Archives and Heritage Manager, ESB). A series of lectures to coincide with the exhibition will be presented by artists Robert Ballagh and Mick O’Dea RHA, and by Professor Kathleen James-Chakraborty (UCD), Dr Sorcha O’Brien (Kingston University, London), Brendan Delany (ESB Heritage and Archives Manager) and Dr Éimear O’Connor (TRIARC-TCD).
Seán Keating and the ESB: Enlightenment and Legacy is one of two exhibitions of the artist’s work on show in 2012. Seán Keating: Contemporary Contexts, also curated by Dr Éimear O’Connor HRHA, opened at the Crawford Gallery in Cork 13 July and runs until 27 October 2012.