The sculptor’s funeral

The death of Imogen Stuart represents the passing of an Ireland that built, rather than destroyed

Artillery Row

The chisel of the Irish-German sculptor Imogen Stuart has fallen silent. 96 years old, she died last week surrounded by four generations of her family in Dublin. The President of Ireland paying tribute to an artist he admired and knew, said that the nation is “deeply indebted” to her. And so it is – but the Ireland that Imogen Stuart came to in 1949 was not the Ireland that mourns her now. That Ireland is lost, as lost as the Weimar Germany into which she was born in 1927 is lost.

 The Second World War overshadowed Stuart’s childhood but the tumult also threw up opportunities. At 18, she began a one-on-one apprenticeship with Otto Hitzberger. He taught Sculpture in Berlin for decades until the Nazis included his work in the Exhibition of Degenerate Art along with other German Expressionists. Stuart’s father, an art critic and champion of these very “degenerates”, went into hiding for the war’s duration.

Hitzberger’s fall from grace landed him in rural Bavaria where, in the hungry post-war years, the master (as he still insisted on being called) made ends meet carving grave crosses. It was a practical way for the young Imogen to learn her trade. She relished it, fondly remembering “five years of studies with a great man and artist and all that entails: the philosophy of life; the love of life; the knowledge of the craft; the sophistication of a past generation.”

The best way to see the mark she left on Ireland is a pilgrimage

German Expressionist painting is known for wild distortions, garish colours and sexual solipsism. In sculpture, in contrast, it is often a return to the simplified forms of Medieval art. Ernst Barlach, perhaps Expressionism’s greatest proponent in sculpture, died in 1938. Young artists like Stuart carried the tradition into a world with little time for old things. The first tentative carvings she produced belong to this self-consciously reactionary tradition. In the decades to come, while acquiring an increasingly refined technique, she continued working in this idiom, well into the 21st Century. 

This remarkable stability, according to The Irish Times’ critic Brian Fallon, left her, “basically out of step with the times.” If Stuart’s style is constant, her story took a fateful turn when Hitzberger accepted another student, an Irish lad. 

Ian Stuart’s Gaelic charm, “casual and leisurely”, together with the rebel songs he sang, proved irresistible to Stuart. They married in 1951. “I never intellectualize” she later said, “the eyes and senses dictate my hands directly” – but it is easy to see that 1950’s Ireland was an unspoiled world to a cosmopolitan war-weary Berliner.  While recognising that Ireland was “marred by poverty”, she loved it with abandon, and was particularly taken by its strange strain of Christianity. 

She admired the “clever craftsmanship” everywhere apparent in the ruined churches of Glendalough, where the couple first settled. She also appreciated how the Celtic Church had acted as Civilization’s custodian through the Dark Ages. Fleeing darkness, she knew the value of fidelity. True, Stuart’s Ireland was one that few inhabit: after she married the grandson of Maud Gonne (unwilling muse of WB Yeats), they lived in a castle – albeit one without electricity. But what sets her apart from artistic contemporaries, then and now, is more profound.

Raised a Lutheran, she converted to Catholicism as soon as she could. Her oeuvre demonstrates that the faith she chose was a lifelong inspiration. While still studying with Hitzberger, she carved her first Madonna. One of her first Irish subjects is a relief of St. Brendan Discovering America. Fortune had brought Stuart to the right place. The St. Brendan carving sold in the Annual Exhibition of Dublin’s Royal Hibernian Society. As the historian John Turpin notes, this was a period in Ireland when, “a substantial number of large new churches and buildings were designed, leading to a crescendo in 1950s”.

In stone and wood and bronze, Imogen Stuart embellished these churches. The best way to see the mark she left on Ireland is a pilgrimage. 

Begin at the top, up in Donegal with the stark Lifford Crucifix. Race around the Stations of the Cross at Ballintubber Abbey in Mayo. For luck, rub the doors of Galway Cathedral. Rest your feet in Limerick and admire the carved curves of St. Brigid at Mary Immaculate College. Down in Cork, dip your fingers in the baptismal font in the Honan Chapel in University College. In Wicklow, listen as the door of Newcastle Church of Ireland tells the story of St. Francis and the Wolf. In Dublin, her first public commission, the Fiddler of Dooney dances on in Stillorgan. Our penultimate stop is Maynooth College and her monument to Pope John Paul II. Before our pilgrimage ends we must cross the border, to kneel beneath another idiosyncratic Crucifix at Armagh Cathedral. 

Eventually all sculptors learn that the only secret is patience. The vast body of work that Stuart leaves is testament to the wonders that this uncelebrated quality, spread over decades, can accomplish. It seems unjust however that someone so patently accomplished has been noticed only belatedly. Brian Fallon, pondering this enigma in 2022, suggested that the problem is that for decades she “held no obvious place or role in Irish sculpture, or even in Irish art as a whole.” While she was “liked and respected”, her husband “generally stole the show without effort and for years she was seen as little more than his supernumerary.” 

Many female artists would say this is typical. It is but there’s more to it.

Fashion never bothered Imogen Stuart much

It would be folly to seek a common thread between Stuart’s self-effacing adherence to tradition and the performative vanity of conceptual artists like Tracey Emin. Stuart’s essential reticence is, I think, emphasised in one of her few self-portrait’s – a sunken relief carved in a rust-coloured French oak in 2011. She depicts herself unpretentiously. An anonymous carver, holding the tools of her trade – a maul and chisel – a short and stocky old woman wearing a shapeless sculptor’s smock. It is the kind of sign that a member of a medieval guild would hang outside their workshop.  It also demonstrates that modesty that will get you passed over while lesser louder talents, like Emin, get themselves heard.

A more fruitful comparison can perhaps be made with Stuart’s countrywoman, Inge King. King also studied sculpture under Otto Hitzberger, but when he was in his pomp in the Berlin Academy of Fine Art. Like Stuart, King was deeply influenced by Ernst Barlach but, after the war, they took different course. Stuart settled in Ireland; King, in Australia. While Stuart continued to mine Expressionism relentlessly, King took the conventional route for a mid-century Modernist, gradually lapsing into Abstraction. In the 1960s, King’s work becomes more geometric, more machine-like. This culminates in Melbourne in 1976 in the monumental wave-like structure “Forward Surge”. And there the invention ends. In the decades to follow, King oversaw construction of more steel rings and discs and cylinders. Professionally she flourished but the work became generic, indistinguishable from the countless abstractions found in every capital city by 1980s. It is an irony that a century which began by making a fetish of rebellion and experimentation ended with an army of artistic conformists.

Fashion never bothered Imogen Stuart much. A busy artist is a happy artist. The work was its own reward. She had her sorrows of course– she separated, inevitably, from her wayward husband and lost a daughter in car accident. Her solace was sculpture – madonnas, crosses, pietas, saints, angels, animals of all sorts, and the occasional bust – her eccentric portrait of her relative-by marriage, Sean MacBride, the IRA Chief of Staff who won the Nobel Peace Prize, is typically original.

In the last few years, a critical reappraisal gathered pace. I admired St Micheal Defeating the Dragon – the sculpture guarding the entrance of a church in Dun Laoghaire – long before I knew who made it. Many had a similar epiphany. The retrospective, simply entitled “Imogen” in Dublin Castle earlier this year was overdue. But she was hardly a household name and never rich. Hers was a succès d’estime. Today, many Irish people are only learning about this woman who went about, mostly unnoticed, in our midst. I count myself amongst the slow learners. 

Many, though, will continue to sniff and look away. If Europe’s intelligentsia are uniformly anti-clerical, they are fanatically so in Ireland. To this neo-puritans, someone who made a career making religious art is a perversely atavistic figure – difficult to understand and frankly not worth the effort. Judged against contemporaries, she is certainly an outlier. “The Holy Spirit,” she said, matter-of-factly, “is most definitely in my work”’ One can imagine a Claus Sluter or any medieval sculptor uttering these words but if a Hirst or a Koons made that claim it would be taken as outrageous sarcasm. The orthodox Modern Artist is a fanatical monotheist; his god is himself.

The historian Tom Holland recently remarked on the irony that, “Ireland in my lifetime has basically gone from being a Catholic country to one where the ruling ideology is a kind of godless Protestantism.” Many argue that this is for the best. Perhaps it is. But it necessarily cuts us off from our history and customs, replacing it with a culture that prefers slashing paintings and toppling statues to creation. Every age has its sacred cows. Will ours speak to future ages? Is our novelty-crazed age deep enough to produce anything as profound as the art that Stuart leaves behind?  Time will tell.

I mourn her though she was to me a stranger. For a great craftswoman to die without an army of apprentices ready to take up her chisel is to see a vast repository of memory lost.  A world of workshops and foundries, of techniques and tricks and lore handed from master to apprentice, from Käthe Kollwitz to Tilam Riemenschneider, from the Bauhaus to the Gothic, will be interred with Imogen Stuart. Ireland is poorer now. Ar dheis Dé go raibh sí.

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