High art, low art: folk culture in the Irish Revival

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Although largely overlooked today the visual and material culture that accompanied the Irish Literary Revival of the early twentieth century was deeply dependent upon the re-invention of folk art as, in the words of W.B. Yeats, a system that ‘refuses what is passing and trivial’ as ‘it has gathered into itself the simplest and most unforgettable thoughts of the generations, it is the soil were all great art is rooted’ (1902; p.139). The high art aspirations of the Revival, in establishing a literary canon in the grand European tradition, was accompanied by a visualisation of a unique vernacular (low) culture that was by then passing into history. Yeats’ fascination with ‘faerie and folklore’ was no better visualised than in the work of his contemporary Beatrice Elvery (1883-1970). More than any other artist of the period Elvery created a uniquely visual world of an imagined ancient Ireland in her designs in bronze, silver, clay, glass and wood, her work for the Yeats’ sisters at the Cuala press and in her illustrations by books by Revivalist writers such as Patrick Pearse, K.F. Purdon and Violet Russell. Although Elvery ceased working by the First World War and resumed painting only in the 1930s her work had been central in helping establish a visual culture of new Irish nation. Take for example, a small print that Elvery made for Cuala in 1910, entitled Virgin Ironing, which was subsequently made into a small domestic stained glass panel at An Túr Gloine (Tower of Glass), and when shown at the Irish Fee State’s Aonach Tailteann in 1932 was widely praised in presenting an image of contemporary Ireland in terms of humour as much as modernity.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished online - 25 Nov 2022
EventFolk Cultures in Everyday Objects - Online
Duration: 25 Nov 202225 Nov 2022


ConferenceFolk Cultures in Everyday Objects
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