The Crossings of Art in Ireland

by Ruben Moi (Volume editor) Brynhildur Boyce (Volume editor) Charles Armstrong (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection VIII, 311 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 53


The essays in this volume explore interartistic connections in Irish literature, drama, film and the visual arts. Within modern and postmodern culture, innovation is often driven by surprising interrelations between the arts, and this book offers a discussion of this phenomenon and analyses a number of artworks that move across disciplines. Several contributors examine the concept of ekphrasis, looking at how Irish writers such as Seamus Heaney, John Banville, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Patrick Kavanagh, W.B. Yeats and Samuel Beckett have responded to the visual arts. Others explore interartistic ‘crossings’ in the drama of Brian Friel, in James Barry’s eighteenth-century Shakespeare paintings and in contemporary Irish film. Together, the essays present a fresh perspective on Irish artistic culture and open up new avenues for future study.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Brian Friel’s Performances: Meaning in an Intermedial Play
  • I
  • II
  • Between Text, Video and Performance: Landscape in Pamela Brown’s ‘Ireland Unfree’
  • I
  • II
  • ‘True Gods of Sound and Stone’ – The Many Crossings of Patrick Kavanagh’s On Raglan Road
  • Analysis of ‘On Raglan Road’ – Versions, Performances and Variorum Lyrics
  • The Fallen Angel Trope Remediated
  • Ironic Counter-ekphrasis
  • ‘All this must come to an end. Through talking’: Dialogue and Troubles Cinema
  • Filmography
  • Visual Tectonics: Post-millenial Art in Ireland
  • Revisioning the Past: Trauma, Cultural Memory and the Archival Turn
  • Re-placing Ireland in a Global Context
  • James Barry’s Shakespeare Paintings
  • Proud and Wayward: W. B. Yeats, Aesthetic Engagement and the Hugh Lane Pictures
  • John Hewitt and the Sister Arts
  • The Christ Disbelieved by Beckett: Christian Iconography in Samuel Beckett’s Work
  • Image References
  • ‘A Momentous Nothing’: The Phenomenology of Life, Ekphrasis and Temporality in John Banville’s The Sea
  • ‘A Shabby Old Couple’: Seamus Heaney’s Ekphrastic Imperative
  • Verse, Visuality and Vision: The Challenges of Ekphrasis in Ciaran Carson’s Poetry
  • The Adoration of the Maggot: A Muldonic Coronation
  • I
  • II
  • III
  • IV
  • V
  • VI
  • VII
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii → Acknowledgements

The editors wish to thank a number of persons and associations who have facilitated the publication of this book. First and foremost, we would like to thank Professor Irene Gilsenan Nordin for her incessant work for Irish studies in the Nordic countries and further afield. Her research and inspiration are matched by her many years as President of the Nordic Irish Studies Network and her establishment of Dalarna University Centre for Irish Studies, both of which have contributed to conferences and networking leading up to this publication. We would also very much like to extend our gratitude to Dr Eamon Maher for the Reimagining Ireland series, and for all his assistance with this publication. He forms a perfect team with Christabel Scaife, Peter Lang’s commissioning editor for Ireland, who has monitored the editors’ work with swiftness and precision. Finally, we appreciate the financial support of the Nordic Irish Studies Network, the Department of Education and the Border Aesthetics research group at the University of Tromsø, Norway, and the Faculty of the Humanities and Pedagogy at the University of Agder, Norway.← vii | viii →



The arts are on the move. They are plural and diverse; they continuously explore their own definitions, depths and boundaries; and they tend to intermingle with increasing frequency. This is particularly evident, at the moment, within the framework supplied by the digitization of media. The crossings of art take many forms, however, occurring not only as a result of technology, but also between and across the arts themselves, as well as across temporal gaps, geographical spaces and contested border zones. Arguably, this state of flux and movement creatively facilitates the imaginative panorama and the critical engagement with and development of the contours of changing cultures in a myriad of intriguing new ways. Ireland’s role in this process may not be unique, but it is noteworthy, as Irish crossings of art issue out of a long tradition of Irish multilingualism and cultural diversity. The use of Gaelic, Latin, French and English has nurtured linguistic sensibility, and a variety of artistic outlooks and translations from other times and other places continue to energize and nurture the various traditions in Ireland.

Over the last fifty years, these developments have received an important impetus from post-structuralist and deconstructive recalibrations of our understanding of the arts. In the wake of a profound theoretical questioning of essentialism, self-identity, generic integrity and institutional power, many tendencies in contemporary art derive much of their energy from transdisciplinary transitions. These processes have been both inspired and challenged by the new world of technological media. Interart exchanges, within both old and new media, provide ebullient energies for artistic metamorphoses and emergent art forms. They spur innovation within established forms, as well as challenging their own limits and redefining ← 1 | 2 → their mutual interaction. Here one might mention specific Irish figures: the spirit of Samuel Beckett, for instance, still looms large in meditations upon transnationality, in the transitions from modernist to postmodernist aesthetic orientations, and in the experimental explorations of new technologies, just as Brian Friel’s Translations still remains an exemplary encapsulation of key linguistic, cultural, historical and cognitive crossings.

In a notable essay titled ‘Why Are There Several Arts?’, Jean-Luc Nancy links the diversity of art to the issue of technology: we have several arts, he claims, precisely because there are manifold forms of production. They are engaged in what he portrays as a ceaseless process of mutual insemination, as ‘the arts or the senses of the arts endlessly metaphorize each other’.1 In this turbulent process devoid of literal or fixed identities, Nancy notes the important role played by what he calls ‘the extreme tension between art and technics – a tension whose pathos itself oscillates between repulsion and attraction’.2 Arguably, the link between art and technology is currently going through a phase of unprecedented intensity. This does not, however, mean that technology has not already played an important role for a long period of time (as, for instance, a key dimension of modernity), nor do technological paradigms suffice as explanatory frameworks for how and why the crossings of art are currently so heightened and widespread. One need not share Nancy’s Heideggerian wish to identify ontological depths beyond the realm of technology, in order to see that the arts’ restless will to develop is not in itself the result of our current new technologies. For motion, as distinct from stasis and rest, is often deemed to be characteristic of a distinctively modern art: the will to change and experiment is indeed typically singled out as providing a key to the essence of modernity.

The notion of a crossing is related to such dynamism, but has its own singular features and provenance. A crossing takes place from one place to another: you ferry across Liffey, Lagan or Mersey – or across Charon – for instance, in order to move from one shore to another. In other words, the ← 2 | 3 → idea presupposes the existence of different territories or, more abstractly, different fields of knowledge or action. Classical mythology and religion are full of narratives concerning the dangers, rewards and metamorphoses involved in movements between the mortal and immortal realms. Without such different territories, one is cast into the night where not only all cats are grey, but all unique places give way to undifferentiated spatiality. With the advent of postmodernism, some theorists claimed that such a change – often conceived of in terms of a fluid form of textuality – was either imminent or had in fact already taken place. Later, postmodernism has been accused of abetting the capitalist agenda of globalization through an uncritical embrace of all forms of transgression and movement, to the detriment of the integrity of the subject and nation.3

This book has been born out of a conviction that while dynamism and change may take place at a steadily increasing speed, there is nonetheless no reason to give up on analytical distinctions. Quite to the contrary, a relevant understanding of the current situation is only possible on the basis of a detailed understanding of the complex imbrication of the differing terrains and realms involved. To give the more concrete spatial dimension of this question due credit: processes such as globalization and post-nationalism are only comprehensible within the framework of a historical analysis of the interrelationships between particular places, regions and nations. The complex set of interrelationships and activities that go towards making up the Irish nation are no exception to this observation. Keohane and Kuhling have documented, from a sociological viewpoint, how contemporary Irish people experience their everyday lives as a negotiation of different borders and limits:

The local and the global, community and society, tradition and modernity, are not forms of life that supersede one another in linear historical progress, but that exist contemporaneously and interpenetrate with one another, collide and collude with one another, in the time/space of contemporary Ireland. Borders and boundaries between local and global, community and society, tradition and modernity are ← 3 | 4 → permeable. We have a foot in both – in many! – camps, and the experience of living in contemporary Ireland is that of living in an in-between world, in-between cultures and identities, an experience of liminality.4

As Keohane and Kuhling go on to remark, this kind of experience is far from being unique to Ireland. Yet the controversies and complex negotiations concerning the border between Eire and Northern Ireland – together with large-scale immigration during the passing adventure of the Celtic Tiger, and the varying relationship between the island and the Irish diaspora around the world – have perhaps led to a particularly heightened sense of liminality. It has even been suggested that the ‘territorial’ notion of the Irish nation is in the process of being replaced by ‘an ex-centric and virtual one’.5

The poetry of the Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney may be taken as a case in point. Heaney’s work is acutely conscious of both geographical borders and how his own writing situates itself between art’s more or less internal proclivities and the responsibilities and pressures that come from without. In his Oxford lecture on ‘The Redress of Poetry’, for instance, Heaney negotiated between two very different conceptions of poetry: on the one hand, he recognized its ability to provide ethical compensation and take on responsibility; on the other, he paid tribute to its attempts at ‘finding a course for the breakaway of innate capacity, a course where something unhindered, yet directed, can sweep ahead into its full potential’.6 The urgency and vitality of Heaney’s example is to a large degree down to how he has balanced these two impulses: the pressures of the Northern Irish Troubles provoked him to stand up for the independence of the artist, even as he also sought to come up with a measured and humane response to the political situation. Exemplary and inspiring as Heaney may be, however, this does not mean that his position provides any resolution ← 4 | 5 → to the troubled relationship between art and politics. For there is a sense in which this position seeks to have its cake and eat it too: how can the autonomy of the work be preserved, if the artist chooses to allow a given historical situation to direct his or her utterance? Is not artistic integrity forfeited at the border, once he or she decides to emigrate to the region of good intentions? And, concomitantly, does not a crossing from the ethical to the aesthetic realm leave the true and good subject to irresponsibly ludic and ambivalent forces? Heaney’s own defence of his highly controversial bog poems – on the basis of these being more or less purely instinctual works of art, not properly subject to the claims of reason or propriety – indicates that there has not always been a seamless transition in his own work. Poems such as ‘From the Frontier of Writing’ and ‘From the Republic of Conscience’ indicate that aesthetics and ethics mutually interrogate one another in Heaney’s work, but they also suggest – by allegorically playing on the border crossing motif – that these artistic and ethical concerns nevertheless constitute separate realms in their own right. If Heaney as a poet is an eminently ‘dual citizen’,7 this does not mean that he has the power to fuse or obliterate the borders between the realms in question. As Jacques Rancière puts it: ‘politics has its aesthetics, and aesthetics has its politics. But there is no formula for an appropriate correlation’.8

Art’s desire to transcend itself, and enter into politics, makes for a troublous crossing that will be repeatedly addressed in this study. Another concerns the way in which the work of art may straddle, or wander between, several media. The history of intermediality, or rather, the history of its reception, is one of chops and changes, a series of aesthetic theories championing, reconfiguring and disputing the notion of a connection between the arts. The culmination of these debates was arguably the insistence, amongst certain practitioners of modernism, upon medium-specificity: the decree, that is, that each art form be kept distinct and autonomous and, as such, remain true unto its own medium. Samuel Beckett, himself the subject of ← 5 | 6 → an essay in this collection, is often regarded as the high priest of modernist medium-specificity: his well-known insistence that his work be performed as written, and concomitant refusal to allow particular works to be adapted for other art forms, was thus apparently compounded by an opposition to any kind of media-merging. He disliked opera and ballet, for instance, for their subordination of music to words and gesture respectively, declaring that ‘[i]f we can’t keep our genres more or less distinct, […] we might as well go home and lie down’.9 This call for generic purity was perhaps most radically and influentially articulated by the art critic Clement Greenberg, who stated that

a modernist work must try, in principle, to avoid dependence upon any order of experience not given in the most essentially construed nature of its medium. […] The arts are to achieve concreteness, ‘purity’, by acting solely in terms of their separate and irreducible selves.10

Greenberg’s essentialist proclamation was echoed and extended by Michael Fried, who warned against intermedial contamination, on the grounds that artistic authenticity resides in a work’s fidelity to the essence of its particular art form: ‘[t]he concepts of quality and value – and to the extent that these are central to art, the concept of art itself – are meaningful, or wholly meaningful, only within the individual arts’.11

This perspective has its roots in the Enlightenment-Romantic aesthetic theories advanced by G. E. Lessing and G. W. F. Hegel, whose accounts of art – bookending key pronouncements made by figures such as Immanuel Kant and F. W. J. Schelling – established a hierarchical separation of the arts. While Lessing, in his Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766), was primarily concerned with differentiating between the discrete laws and principles governing the visual arts and poetry, he effectively created a systematic hierarchy of art forms. Thus, he argued that ← 6 | 7 → the spatial relations of painting impose greater material limitations than do the temporal relations of poetry, and found the latter to produce more complete, and superior, creative insights. Hegel likewise viewed poetry as the highest of the art forms, raised above, in ascending order, architecture, sculpture, painting and music. Language, he argued in his Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, is the most spiritual, least material of the artistic media, and poetry is therefore best able to fulfil the primary tasks of art, those of conveying beauty and expressing the human soul. The more immaterial the art form, so the argument goes, the more spiritual its expression; and just as poetry has, in this regard, been privileged over painting, so music has been championed at the expense of linguistically mediated art, most notably by Arthur Schopenhauer, for whom music – free from all conceptual constraints – provides ‘direct cognition of the essence of the world’, in contrast to the merely denotative capacity of words.12

Such normative systems tend, in other words, to pit the individual artistic media against one another, in order ontologically to determine which reigns supreme. Each art form is shown to possess a particular quality, sphere of expression and range of effects, which are demarcated by the physical limitations and conventions of its medium, and to which, the argument goes, it should hold itself. Moreover, each art form tends to be intrinsically linked with a particular sense: ‘the difference between the arts has to do with the difference between the senses’, as Nancy puts it in his discussion of the multiplicity of the arts.13 Yet it was not always thus. Once upon a time, the arts were – in practice if not on principle – not differentiated ← 7 | 8 → in such a manner. In striving towards a common, ecclesiastical goal, they shared the task of giving expression to God. Thus they worked within the same domain to achieve the same effect. In the philosophy of such early thinkers of the Christian Church as St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, this task corresponded to the expression of beauty: that which is beautiful, they maintained, is composed of the godly properties of unity, proportion and order, such that ‘aesthetic experience at its highest passes into religious wisdom’.14 This emphasis on beauty led to the pre-Enlightenment view that all art forms are equivalent – since their true material is the imitation of what is beautiful in nature – and that poetry and painting, in sharing this ‘single principle’, are ‘sister arts’.15 It was this undifferentiated account, in turn, that the aesthetic systems of Lessing and Hegel were designed to rectify.16

Such categorical systems tend to argue either for or against the unity of the arts: that is to say, they argue either that the arts share one extrinsic subject matter, or that they are meaningful only when dealing with the nature of their own medium. What these systems fail to address is the arts’ need for one another: each is defined by its relation to other media forms, in the sense that they pull both against and towards each other. On the one hand, as Daniel Albright explains, ‘[t]o allege that all media are one may serve, paradoxically, to call attention to their recalcitrance, their distinctness, their refusal to cooperate’.17 The German Romantic theory of the Gesamtkunstwerk – or total artwork – provides a paradigmatic example of ← 8 | 9 → the simultaneous synthesis and separation of art forms.18 The music, text, stage set and lighting of an opera, for instance, work together towards a common end, and yet at the same time may, through the particular materialities of their discrete media forms, contradict one another and undo the unified impression being created.

On the other hand, as Julian Murphet points out, ‘the argument of aesthetic autonomy emerges most urgently from the moment in cultural history at which all culture is revealed as so much media product, […] with implicit material links between every sector’.19 This moment, he continues, was the advent of modernism, when the traditional arts met the emerging technical media, such as photography, phonography, radio and film, and not only were ‘infiltrated’ and appropriated – or as Greenberg and Friel would have it, contaminated – by these newer art forms but also incorporated, in turn, their mechanical materiality as content. Whether taking the form of extracompositional relations between works, as in the case of film adaptations of novels, or the intramedial amalgamation of media forms, such as radio plays’ inclusion of both music and the spoken word, the impulse towards an integration of art forms was prevalent. From the optical nature of Mallarmé’s symbolist poetry – strongly influenced by the new visual technologies – to the Brechtian technique of ‘gestus’, in which physical gestures assume the role of speech, the turn of the twentieth century marked, in many ways, a resolute turn towards intermediality.

Jean-Luc Nancy describes this mutual state of receptivity as being rooted in a fundamental state of connectivity between the arts and the senses: ‘each brings about a touch on the difference of the other (of an other or several others, and virtually of all others, but of a totality without totalization)’.20 ← 9 | 10 → As Erik Tonning makes clear in his essay on Beckett’s engagement with the visual arts, Beckett’s work presents no exception to this acknowledgment of the interrelation of media forms. Indeed, his oeuvre is rife with the conceptual presence of other media, from the musicalization of his early prose texts and the radiogenic awareness of his work for radio – described by Albright as a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk of the medium of radio’21 – to the ekphrastic underpinnings of his plays and novels. Beckett may thus be said to represent the modernist high point of, simultaneously, the autonomy and the convergence of the arts. What he objected to, it seems, was mere extramedial translation. What his work – and that of Heaney, W. B. Yeats, John Banville and others under consideration in this collection – showcases, on the other hand, is the highly productive nature of intermedial interaction.

The interaction between image and word is undergoing a particularly intense phase of development in Irish literature at the moment. The genre of ekphrasis (from the Greek ek, ‘out’, and phrazein, ‘to speak’) can be traced back to classical times. The genre was defined as ‘the poetic description of a pictorial or sculptural work of art’ by Leo Spitzer in 1955, and ‘the verbal representation of visual representation’ by James Heffernan in 1993.22 Heffernan accounts for key specimens of the genre from Homer to John Ashbery and – together with theorists such as W. J. T. Mitchell and Mieke Bal – revitalizes our understanding of this specific poetic mode in the wake of modernism and the intellectual interventions made into the philosophy of arts by Foucault, Barthes and Derrida.23 The intercourse ← 10 | 11 → between poetry and painting provides a privileged means of access to several key episodes of modernism, perhaps to the arrival of modernism itself. Baudelaire extolled the rapport of painting and poetry and modernity in France, Pound brought Imagism into focus, while Lewis – with some help from Pound – developed the notion of Vorticism. The avant-garde poets are prototypical border-crossers. In Ireland Yeats’s aesthetic achievement soldered the connection between verse and visuality, often in ways that are alternative and adversary to the approaches of Baudelaire, Pound, Lewis and the avant-garde of high modernism. Yeats states that he ‘learned to think in the midst of the last phase of Pre-Raphaelitism’, and his synaesthetic combinations – prominently in his masterpieces ‘Leda and the Swan’, ‘Lapis Lazuli’ and ‘The Municipal Gallery Re-visited’, but also in his critical essays – provide, in an Irish context, the modern point of departure for painterly poems that continue via Louis MacNeice and John Hewitt to Paul Durcan, Ciaran Carson, Paul Muldoon, Miriam Gamble and beyond. Elizabeth Bergman Loizeaux has provided the key theoretical elaboration of Yeats’s legacy in this field, while Edna Longley – in an important critical reading of ekphrasis in the Irish context – has proposed that Irish poets from Yeats to Medbh McGuckian excel in this particular genre.24 Still, as the transition from Spitzer’s ‘the poetic description of a pictorial or sculptural work of art’ to Heffernan’s ‘the verbal representation of visual representation’ hints at, the domain of the ekphrastic has been expanded over time. The representation of other visual media than that of painting – for example film, photography, video and digitized art – is also conducted in ← 11 | 12 → literature, and poetry is far from being the only literary mode that meets this challenge. In the union of the two arts, a third possibility occurs: the confluence of the poetic and the visual in films, videos and digitized art.

In line with the hierarchical strand of understanding intermedial art, much ekphrasis has taken place in an atmosphere of mutual competition or even jealousy between the arts. Heffernan, for instance, claims that since ‘it verbally represents visual art, ekphrasis stages a contest between rival modes of representation: between the driving force of narrating word and the stubborn resistance of the fixed image’.25 Although this paragonal conception of ekphrasis has proven to be useful – even to the point, in some cases, of being indispensable – there is now a tendency for crucial accounts of ekphrasis to supplement or contest an understanding of this genre as essentially a contest between two media. ‘Picture-making is the air I breathe’, Paul Durcan proclaimed in 1991, describing how his poetry is intimately connected to moving pictures as well as paintings: ‘Since 1980 I have regarded painting and cinema […] as essential to my practice as writer’.26 His poetic responses to paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland in Crazy About Women, in combination with the other half of his artistic diptych, Give Me Your Hand (a corresponding response to art in the National Gallery in London), mark an important instance of the juncture of the two co-inspiring sources of creativity. Although his practice may not live up to his ideals, Durcan’s privileging of the visual media points towards a new climate in the collaboration between literature and visual media. The same year, 1991, also saw the publication of An Leabhar Mòr, the astonishing collaborative project of poets and painters dedicated to honour 1,500 years of cross-creative Gaelic culture. Later, in 2002, A Conversation Piece presented the cooperation of the arts in the form of aesthetic interaction ← 12 | 13 → between fifty poets and fifty visual artists from the national museums and galleries of Northern Ireland. Other instances might also be cited: over time, such repeated evidence of reciprocal cross-fertilization between the poetic and the pictorial demonstrates a persistent obsession, an elective affinity that seems to provide an unceasing resource.


VIII, 311
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (January)
literature film innovation ekphrasis drama
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 311 pp,. 16 coloured ill., 3 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Ruben Moi (Volume editor) Brynhildur Boyce (Volume editor) Charles Armstrong (Volume editor)

Ruben Moi is Associate Professor at UiT The Arctic University of Norway. He has published widely on writers such as Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Derek Mahon, T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, Martin McDonagh and Irvine Welsh. Brynhildur Boyce holds a PhD in English Literature from Goldsmiths, University of London. She has taught at Goldsmiths and at the University of Iceland and has published a number of essays on Samuel Beckett, including an essay in Irish Studies Review that won the 2009 British Association for Irish Studies Postgraduate Prize. Charles I. Armstrong is Head of the Department of Foreign Languages and Translation and Professor of British Literature at the University of Agder. He is the author of Figures of Memory: Poetry, Space and the Past (2009) and Romantic Organicism: From Idealist Origins to Ambivalent Afterlife (2003). He also co-edited Crisis and Contemporary Poetry (2011) and Postcolonial Dislocations: Travel, History, and the Ironies of Narrative (2006).


Title: The Crossings of Art in Ireland
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