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Presented in conjunction with Me Jewel and Darlin' and the appearance of Harry Clarke's The Last Hour of the Night on O'Connell Street, The Geneva Window is an exhibition curated by Isobel Harbison presented at The LAB, Foley Street from 27th January to 26th February 2011. Artists featured are Dara Birnbaum, Steven Claydon, Lewis Klahr, Mark Leckey and Elodie Pong.

 

The Geneva Window

Exhibition endnote and a curator’s introduction

Isobel Harbison

Harry Clarke, Juno and the Paycock, 1927, preparatory sketch

Courtesy Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane

‘Those who love Harry Clarke never forget where they first encountered him’, wrote Kevin Myers in The Irish Man’s Diary, published in The Irish Times, December 14th 1989. My first time was at Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, where a series of his preparatory sketches for The Geneva Window were on display. Clarke’s illustration of Sean O’Casey’s character Joxer Daly from Juno and the Paycock along with its caption ‘Give us wan of those shut eye ones’ remains with me. The inebriated Joxer, in his Dublin tenement with a whiskey bottle in his pocket, and gramophone behind was rendered with incredible detail in a vibrant palette of watercolours, later set in stained glass. The portrait is intoxicating.

Harry Clarke, The Geneva Window

The Geneva Window history has been extensively traced by journalists and academics, from its acquisition in 1988 by an American collector to the pre-history of its sale, the earlier details of its censorship, the technicalities of its fabrication and the nuances of its literary beginnings. A stained glass window that illustrated scenes from Irish literature written between 1900 and 1925, it had been commissioned by the Irish government in 1926 to represent the country in the inaugural International Labour Organisation building of The League of Nations in Geneva.

League of Nations building, Geneva

As well as technical wizardry, Clarke was internationally regarded for his signature style, influenced by a variety of contemporary international currents from the costume design and fabrics of Sergei Diaghilev’s touring Ballets Russes, Japanese Katagami stencil design, the gaunt protagonists of early German expressionist cinema and the Art Nouveau illustrations of Aubrey Vincent Beardsley. Like his other sophisticated compositions, The Geneva Window was not the colloquial image of a single country’s landscape, but the compound of many creative literary and artistic imaginations that passed through it, a synthesis of images, fabrics and cultural identities brought together in coloured glass.


Ballets Russes, costume

Aubrey Beardsley, The Dancer’s Reward, 1894

 

Nosferatu film poster, 1921

Clarke’s illustration of Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Edgar Allen Poe published in 1919

With government approval, Clarke had decided upon the culturally significant ‘modern Irish writer’ as inspiration for his piece. With the assistance of W. B. Yeats, he selected passages by fifteen writers, including Yeats himself, George Bernard Shaw, Lady Gregory, J. M. Synge, Seán O’Casey, Liam O’Flaherty and James Joyce. Each pane was composed of portraits of their literary protagonists embedded with small written extracts. The result is a storyboard of Irish literature drawn from the imagination of Clarke himself. But by the window’s completion in 1930 several of the illustrated passages had been censored. The government rejected the window; they would not present any unfavorable image or negative national stereotype to foreign eyes, however knowing the source material or clear the draftsman’s skill. So, the images of the stories that made the object collide in time and The Geneva Window never travelled to where it was first intended.

Liam O’Flaherty’s panel of The Geneva Window

After almost sixty years in the artist’s estate, the Geneva Window was sold to a US collector and is now displayed at the Wolfsonian Museum in Florida, in a room with other ‘propagandist objects’. Since its sale and export, occasional articles in the Irish press flare with discontent at its ‘loss’ to the nation. But, within the cycles that images both make and break, perhaps its greatest value is still with us. The Geneva Window is the story of an object made of images that tells of the impossibility of fully capturing an identity, national or otherwise, as history continues to be made.

Catalogue cover from the Fine Arts Society, London, 1988

Of interest to me are not only the different accounts of its history but the extra-ordinary number of forms The Geneva Window has taken over the last 100 years. It is a story of change; it was never sent to Geneva as its title suggests but now lives in America, continuing to moonlight in Irish political, literary and art history. It is an object; a stained glass window. It is a series of images; images emerging from Clarke’s visualizing of literature. And before it became any of these things, it was a collection of different encounters and experiences, sewn by the imaginations of fifteen writers into modern Irish Literature.

Steven Claydon, The Ancient Set, 2008

Courtesy the artist and Hotel, London

With what artist Steven Claydon calls, ‘the infidelity of materials’, this stain glass window has excited, contradicted and escaped all those who have encountered it, from the early Irish government who first commissioned it, to the artist who laboured over it, to its subsequent guardians, its many admirers, and those like myself who have only imagined it. This window based on an image of Ireland, failed to represent the country in 1930 at The League of Nations building due to literary censorship, but following a reappraisal of its content now does so in a museum of Propagandist Art in Florida, validated by its complicated story.

Lewis Klahr, Daylight Moon, 2003.

Courtesy the artist and LUX, London

I have never seen The Geneva Window but my relationship to it is tangible and real. How it represents a country in all its forms is now truly multi-faceted and perhaps therefore more successful a representation than any one fixed image or object could hope to achieve. How Ireland presents itself to the world today is different than five years ago or fifty years ago, and five years before that. Self-presentation is always in flux.

Mark Leckey, Cinema In the Round, 2006-8

Courtesy the artist and Cabinet, London

Adopting the story and title of Clarke’s Geneva Window for an exhibition of contemporary art was not intended as a lament but rather as an open analogy. The inherent complications of trying to represent any one identity fully seems perfectly exemplified by this particular stained glass window, and an issue that is addressed in different ways by the artists in the exhibition. Gathering their works under this title, rather than risking stifling them with art theory or curatorial rhetoric, seemed a consistent and worthwhile endeavour.

Dara Birnbaum, Kiss The Girls: Make Them Cry, 1979.

Courtesy the artist and LUX, London

The artists who generously agreed to participate in The Geneva Window were not aware of this history when making their work, nor are they concerned with the intricacies of its local politics but were nonetheless enthusiastic to show works within this complicated rubric. Over several decades Dara Birnbaum’s seminal works have re-evaluated the mechanics and politics of how images are presented in the media and their knock on effects in shaping public perception. Lewis Klahr is a highly regarded avant-garde filmmaker, whose imaginative animated films use the familiar symbols and soundtracks of American film noir, in an innovative and very open-ended fashion. Bringing together many familiar symbols and materials from Ancient Greece to contemporary Britain, Steven Claydon’s works burlesque the idea of a flat linear history in favour of a suspended one that might be constantly re-hung. Turner Prize winning works by Mark Leckey present the artist’s assimilation of two-dimensional images in advertising and popular entertainment, their impact on his perception and its effects on his self-presentation back to the world, in an endless cycle. Elodie Pong’s works delight in the impossibility of a final image and a conclusive ‘End’.

Elodie Pong, Endless Ends, 2009

Courtesy the artist and Freymond-Guth & Co. Fine Arts, Zurich