On an uncharacteristically warm Irish Sunday, a pleasant stickiness filled the halls of the Crawford Art Gallery. Carpeted hallways and the occasional creaky step gave me the sense that I was walking through somebody’s home, peering into a private collection. This small art museum in Ireland’s second largest city, Cork, feels intimate and inviting. Almost every exhibit is instructive on some moment in Irish history or captures aspects of Ireland’s cultural personality.
The Gibson Bequest acts as the heart of the museum. The exhibit brings together broad cultural significance and Joseph Stafford Gibson’s personal touch. Gibson kept Cork, his city of birth, close to his heart even as he travelled abroad for much of his life. He gifted his collection of artworks to the Crawford Art Gallery upon his death in 1919. The exhibit is stylistically eclectic, organized into the categories of “Home & Away,” “Portraiture,” and “Landscape.” “Home & Away” presents the international scope of Gibson’s painting collection. The artwork serves to refute the notion of Ireland as disconnected from international affairs that resulted from the country’s neutrality during World War II.
I found myself lingering in the sunlit room dedicated to the Gibson Bequest’s landscape paintings, struck by the various interpretations of the Irish landscape and the people who are so much a part of it. Romance, turbulence, and darkness all accentuate one another against the blank museum walls. I was surprised to find that some very everyday scenes could hold political undertones, such as Jack Butler Yeats’ Off the Donegal Coast. The simple choice to depict the Irish landscape as he saw it in 1922, a year after the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty that established the Irish Free State, affirmed a young national identity.
From the intimate, old-fashioned spaces of the Gibson Bequest exhibits, I was drawn to a spacious, sparsely decorated room next door. I found myself wandering through an imaginative play space. At first, I assumed the vast room was an art space meant only to be viewed, not touched. I was thrilled to discover that everything in the room was designed for interaction, with a space on the wall for visitors to contribute their own writing or drawings. My sense of the accessibility and potential of the space was altered in a moment by a description on the wall, reminding me of the power of museums to shape our perceptions.
The play space invites children to be “Seen, And Heard,” before visitors descend into Crawford’s newest exhibition, Seen, Not Heard. The exhibit takes on a theme at once specific and universal: children in art. The exhibition itself boldly acknowledges the complexity of the internal lives of children, and the infinite ways their experiences can manifest in art. It also explores the complicated relationship between childhood and adulthood. Bernadette Doolan’s painting, When I Grow Up, stood out to me because the pain and strength in the child’s face is surrounded by blank space. To me, this blank space represents the enormity of the world’s possibilities from the perspective of a child – an enormity that is at once empowering and frightening.
Other current exhibits in the Crawford Art Gallery span from casts of classical Greek and Roman sculptures to a video exhibit on the history of Irish indentured servants in Jamaica. The Gallery demonstrates a commitment to a variety of works as well as a constant reexamination of Irish identity and its relationship to the international community. The personal, the local, and the global come together in this cozy gallery in the center of Cork.