Bruce Arnold

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

Monuments to One Artist's True Genius

Edward Delaney: Irish sculptor who broke the mould

Edward Delaney, who died this week, was one of Ireland's foremost sculptors. He is best known for his large statues of Irish patriots that adorn the capital -- especially Wolfe Tone in Stephen's Green and the Thomas Davis fountain on College Green.

Born in Claremorris, Co Mayo, in 1930, Delaney studied sculpture at the National College of Art and Design and then in Munich and Rome.

He worked initially in bronze but preferred stainless steel for his later work -- a sizable collection of which stands in the sculpture park in Carraroe, Co Galway, where he lived in recent years. While animals were a favourite subject early on (especially horses), his later work grappled with more abstract themes.

In 1959 and 1961 he represented Ireland at the Paris Biennale. In 1960 and 1962 his work was included in the International Biennial Exhibition of Prints in Tokyo. He represented Ireland at the World's Fair, New York, 1965 and in 1968-69 he represented Ireland in the International Biennial Exhibition, Buenos Aires. He also helped set up Dublin's Project Arts Centre in the 1970s.

His son, Eamon Delaney, is publishing a book about his father's work this autumn entitled Breaking the Mould -- A Story of Art and Ireland. He says: "My father's ambition was to use the breakthrough period of the 1960s to revive the best of Celtic art forms with a vigorous European modernism."

Roderick Knowles, in his book, Contemporary Irish Art, publishes a reasonable account of Delaney's life and creative career and, in addition, puts in a short but very readable essay by the writer Wolf Mankovitz, who was then living in Ireland and got to know Delaney quite well.

He describes Delaney's approach to sculpture as "being closer to the wrestler than the intellectual". Visiting Delaney's home, sometime in the late 1970s, he describes a domestic atmosphere that is chaotic, though in the best sense of an artist struggling with children's bicycles mixed with his attempts to cast bronze. (Delaney always did his own casting, and did it at home while being in part responsible for the setting up of the Dublin Art Foundry.)

In Susan Stair's book, The Irish Figurists, Delaney does not feature at all. The book is about painters and this adds to the handicap under which modern Irish sculpture found its feet and made its way. The other problem for the art form was how to handle it as an exhibition proposition. In fact, Delaney made a powerful impact initially with monumental works -- his six-metre high Celtic Twilight, for instance, can be seen in the Belfield campus in UCD.

However, the first of the monumental works was in 1966 when he was commissioned by the then government to design a memorial statue and fountain to Thomas Davis for College Green. The same year he won first prize with his design for a statue and fountain to Wolfe Tone. This was later erected at the corner of St Stephen's Green, opposite the Shelbourne Hotel (the artist had to reconstruct the statue almost from scratch after is was was blown up in 1971).

In that seminal year for the artist he also had a show of smaller works in the David Hendriks Gallery, which I reviewed. The show was significant -- as far as sculpture shows may be --in that the catalogue measured works in two dimensions. Most sculptures, when shown, are described in height alone: an accurate, all-round measure of the volume is virtually impossible, certainly in respect of Delaney's figurative work.

What I said in that review included the following comment: "It would be laborious and difficult to give height, width and thickness, accurately, of many works of sculpture. It would be absurd too, because it would imply a 'front' and a 'back'. And this, surely, is a contradiction of what the sculptor intends. In Delaney's case, however, the two-dimensional, frontal approach is appropriate. His bronzes do tend to be constructed with definite front, back and side views."

This is particularly the case with the Wolfe Tone figure, ameliorated, in part, by the other standing group of figures. Curiously, though Thomas Davis is intended for all-round viewing -- not the case with Tone, who is backed by a high granite wall -- the effect of it is two-dimensional.

Ireland stumbled uncertainly into sculpture as an art form, both Delaney and John Behan, his contemporary, forging something that was designed to fit into the figurative definition of art. But it was a struggle.

We will unravel him further as a result of the IMMA exhibition of his sculpture which includes the work illustrated here, his Eve with Apple, which has been donated to the museum by the late Jack Toohey.

The tradition in which Delaney works is a far older one than the free-standing, Greek-style approach to sculpture. But fresco, panel or wall sculpture is essentially decorative and anecdotal, and this exhibition is quite a departure from these aims.

The exhibits date from 1958 and give a more rounded representation of Delaney's work, though still with the haunting gauntness that is almost inescapable in his vision of life.

Eve with Apple was inspired by scenes of post-war German poverty still prevalent in the 1950s when Delaney was based there at the Art Academy in Munich.

The artist described the scene near his lodgings in Munich: "There was a bench by the side of the street where a few old women sat, tired from long journeys in search of aid, worn and twisted, also, from old age. Every time they raised a hand in a gesture it seemed as if they were imploring the skies for assistance. I wanted to make statues so that he would never forget them and so that other people might see in bronze these symbols of the mystery of agony -- and life surviving in spite of agony."

Jack Toohey, who has made this gift, unveiled at IMMA last night, was an avid collector of contemporary art who lived in Co Galway. His widow, Agnes, was present for the event.