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Imogen Stuart, sculptor


The art of keeping it simple

In 1951, Imogen Stuart came to Ireland, living in Laragh Castle near Glendalough with her husband, Ian Stuart (also a sculptor), his mother Iseult, sometimes visited by Maud Gonne, then a very old lady. In a fascinating biographical interview the artist also describes to Brian Fallon life before that, in Berline, as daugheter of art critic and novelist Bruno Werner. The family was forced to evacuate to Bavaria and then Vienna, and after the war she was apprenticed to the Bavarian master, Hitzberger, to learn what she particularly emphasises as the 'craft' of sculpture, and particularly carving in wood.

The narrative eases out the early influences on her work, including her father, and why, instead of focusing on the Gothic heritage of wood carving, in her essentially modern manner, she was inspired by the Romanesque, instilling her work with a sense of calm and order and deep inner peace even when most tragic. Her emotional response to Irish stone carving and to Celtic hagiography fused two strong traditions. The individual nature of the Irish artist, too, working alone rather than in schools, appealed to her.

A parallel may be seen in the work of Oisin Kelly, also trained in Germany, for whom she had a great respect, but she differed in her method of working, exploring each theme through a variety of materials from the cartoon through different kinds of wood to stone and bronze, and on widely differing scales. Fidelity to the organic nature of her material is her guiding force.

Her whole career is reviewed in this beautifully illustrated book, with essays from Brian Fallon and Peter Harbison, and a catalogue of her work. Her work, alas, is rarely seen in publications.

She received commissions at first from churches, and for new commercial centres and other public sculpture, and-a very important area undervalued even in this comprehensive study-portrait heads, unexaggerated renderings of acutely observed personalities. She is unusual in that she experienced no crisis of development.

The simplest of images seems to have been her aim from the start, through which, more and more down the years, a relaxed sense of joy and humour has permeated, elevating her subjects however serious. Her sculpture, even the smallest, is always true to its context whether this is described or not, just as her art has always been true to the deeply held tenets of her life.

Hilary Pyle, Irish Times, 20 April 2002.

'Imogen Stuart was born in 1927 in Berlin, a child of two art historians. The elder of two sisters, she was named from Shakespeare's Cymbeline. All the family survived the war and its privations. She studied sculpture under the traditionalist Otto Hitzberger, who later took as a pupil a young Irishman, Ian Stuart, son of writer Francis Stuart and his first wife, Iseult Gonne. The two students fell in love and in 1951 Imogen came to Ireland to marry. The couple had three daughters, later parting ways.

In this country Imogen Stuart has been much in demand, with a long list of church and public commissions. Some of her best-known work seems utterly Irish; a Celtic derived 'primitivism', though German carving traditions and German expressionism provide other obvious lineages. Other works, especially her animal pieces, are delicate, almost oriental. Her appeal is obvious; no explanations are required, she taps into a beating vein.

A number of people pay tribute here - archaeologist Peter Harbison, theologian Enda MacDonagh, critic Brian Fallon. The most unusual element is the long interview between the artist and editor Brian Fallon, which ranges over personal and artistic parts of her life. It's also an extremely handsome tome with unusually generous picture and white space. The photographs are excellent'

Carla Browne, RTÉ Guide.