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Why a Masterpiece of Romantic Nationalism was a Bummer — 3/22/14

Posted by Silvia Barisione, filed under Wolfsonian Collection


The so-called Geneva Window by Harry Clarke, one of the masterpieces in The Wolfsonian’s collection, was a bummer when in 1930 the Dubliner artist presented it to his client, the Irish government.

In 1926 Clarke was commissioned by the recently established Irish Free State to design a large stained glass window as a gift to the League of Nations, as a way to mark and celebrate its new independence. The window was to be installed in the newly built International Labor Office in Geneva.

A leading figure of the National Romantic movement in Ireland, Clarke had few rivals in the stained-glass field. Adapting the folk tradition to construct a country’s identity, Romantic Nationalism was expressed in Ireland by the Celtic Revival, which had its roots in the 1880s. Imbued with Irish mythology and folklore, it sought to evoke pride in the Irish people, their language, their stories, and their artistic heritage.

In his eight-panel stained glass window Clarke decided to represent scenes from the work of fifteen modern Irish writers, most of them—Yeats, Synge, AE, and Lady Gregory in particular—identified with the Celtic Revival. Yeats, who had just received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, helped him in the selection.

Because Clarke knew that both political and religious leaders would find some of his literary choices problematic, he attempted to be careful. For example, for Joyce, he avoided a quote from Ulysses, and chose the poem "Chamber Music" instead.

Nevertheless, when the window was presented, though the press and government ministers acknowledged it as a masterpiece, it was blocked. Some of his literary themes were considered of dubious moral character. For example, Joxer from Juno and the Paycock, the play by Sean O’Casey set in the working class dwellings of Dublin during the Irish Civil War period, was perceived as a representation of Ireland as a land of drunkards.

President Cosgrave wrote a letter to Clarke asking that the O’Flaherty panel, depicting Mr. Gilhooley, would need to be replaced. The main character, holding a glass of whiskey in one hand and a cigar in the other and leering at the sensuous half-naked female dancer, was considered offensive. The government could not afford to displease certain influential groups, such as the Catholic Church.

Instead of evoking pride in the Irish tradition and folklore, the window illustrated literary themes that did not correspond to the image the Irish government meant to project about its national identity.

The window was eventually rejected and never installed in Geneva.

Silvia Barisione is a curator at The Wolfsonian.

Caption: Stained glass window, commissioned 1926, completed 1930 (never installed,) for the International Labor Building, League of Nations, Geneva. Harry Clarke. Clarke Studios, Dublin, maker. Stained glass, lead cames. The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

Note: This post is based on the presentation for The Wolfsonian: Collecting Complaints on March 21, 2014.