Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

The essence of light, the essence of cool

One of the minor but intense glories of Impressionist painting, influencing those French artists who painted landscapes out of doors in the last quarter of the 19th Century, were the memorable snow scenes. They were not accidental.

Between 1865 and the 1890s severe snowfalls became a regular feature. In the winter of 1867 the River Seine froze over and this happened during cold snaps in subsequent years. Traffic was disrupted, trains were stopped by drifts and had to let passengers out into deep snow to find their own way to safety. There was epic coverage in the illustrated journals tracking a phenomenon that had a rich artistic harvest.

The principal artists who responded were Monet, Renoir, Pissaro, Sisley, Caillebotte and Gauguin. Did they paint snow because it was there and they were cheated of normal landscape? Or was it a different force at work, one that derived from profound changes in the way light works on scenery when snow is on the ground? The illustrated journals suggest the first reason; the paintings, through the magnificence of observation, suggest the second.

It was a new world, intense while it lasted, but ephemeral. The paintings tell us that the white days had a captivating appeal that could not be ignored. And however cold it was, standing or sitting before an easel in sub-zero temperatures, Monet and Sisley knew they were bringing the new-found plein-air approach to landscape into a magical domain that has left us enriched by what they found.

Snow is rare these days and particularly so in Ireland. It was therefore a welcome discovery to make at the Royal Hibernian Academy show that snowfalls earlier this year attracted the attention of Carey Clarke and Brett McEntagart in a forceful way, producing, in Clarke's Snow Scene in Wicklow, the finest work in the exhibition.

Light operates in snow in an inverse way, the sky often grey with heavy clouds, the snow-covered white ground becoming the source of light. This effect is compelling in itself and for most people it additionally stirs memories. This gives to such paintings -- and it is true of these two -- a powerful impact, one that reassures us that painters still go out and use their eyes to see and record the beautiful and unusual.

The RHA exhibition has vastly more conventional work than snow scenes, which recorded weather that, after all, came and went intermittently in periods of two or three days. There is a good deal of invention, a fine room full of sculpture, many excellent portraits including the one shown here by Mick O'Dea. His work is bold and impressive. He can even infuse an interior with aggression.

James Hanley has what are often thought of as 'official' portraits, meaning commissioned, but no less perceptive in their purpose and effect. He shows this year a stern-faced General Stapleton, the former Chief of Staff, and a portrait of Professor Gerard O'Sullivan, former president of the Royal College of Surgeons, done for the college. Another commissioned portrait, this time by Carey Clarke, is of Garret FitzGerald and painted for the National University of Ireland.

There are other much less formal portraits, among them Colin Watson's Marrakshi and Una Sealy's A Boy on Main Street. She also has a witty picture of domestic life, an untidy bedroom with wardrobe stuffed with clothes and a doorway leading to further domestic chaos. The picture is entitled Marriage. Her work has steadily become reliably good, perceptive and inventive without conceding to the conventions of art that used to be associated with RHA shows.

The same can be said of many other familiar painters, with sections of walls in the various excellent galleries displaying half a dozen Anita Shelbournes here, a trio of plangent views of his beloved Dun Laoghaire by George Potter, the colourful landscapes of Desmond Carrick and James Nolan and the mixed works of Thomas Ryan showing a studio with a painter at work -- not himself -- a couple of flower studies and an interior of the Palm House in the Botanic Gardens.

The Royal Hibernian Academy is the great survivor of art exhibitions, the biggest show of the year and its setting as enjoyable as it has ever been. It conveys the essences of Irish art, more diverse than ever but underpinned by those old standby abilities in art -- the skill of the academic, the rewards in painting of hard work and study and the richness of competence with pencil, engraving, oil, acrylic, watercolour and of course sculpture. Long may this continue.

The show opens ne