Shaping Irish religious and secular statuary

Second Reading

EXUBERANCE CAPTURED The Fiddler of Dooney, by Imogen Stuart, is a much-loved fixture in Stillorgan shopping Centre, Co Dublin. It was inspired by the WB Yeats poem of the same name, and the children the sculptor saw dancing on a windswept beach.

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

A few weeks ago the ‘Tablet’ magazine listed ten female artists who have made a significant contribution to the architecture and decoration of Christian churches in Britain and Ireland. Amongst them was the sculptor Imogen Stuart, a native of Germany who has spent most of her life in Ireland.
The theologian, Paul Tillich, once wrote that it is the task of church architects and artists ‘to create places of consecration where people feel able to contemplate the holy in the midst of their secular lives’. Imogen has devoted herself to this task.
She was born in Berlin in 1927 to Bruno and Katherine Werner. Her father was an art critic and editor of a cultural journal. In an interview some years ago with Brian Fallon she evoked memories of an idyllic childhood, though from the mid-1930s the menacing cloud of Nazism hung over it.
When the Second World War broke out she was shopping in Grenfels, a high-class Berlin store. As the hostilities worsened she, her mother and sister were evacuated first to Bavaria and later to Vienna. Her father, who was half Jewish, had to go underground to evade capture by the Nazis.
From her teenage years Imogen was interested in sculpture. When the war ended, her father arranged for her to study with Otto Hitzberger, a renowned sculptor. She spent five ‘heavenly’ years with him. From him she learned the grammar of sculpture; a basis of firm draughtsmanship combined with a degree of expressionist freedom and a love of sculpture tools and materials. She developed the skills that enabled her to work in a variety of media – wood, bronze, stone, stained glass and terracotta.
In 1948, a young Irishman, Ian Stuart, joined the Hitzberger Studio. They fell in love and married in 1951. She converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism. Through her marriage she became part of an Irish family in whom many political, literary and artistic streams merged. Ian’s father was the novelist Francis Stuart and his mother Iseult was daughter of Maud Gonne.
After her marriage she came to live in Ireland where she has remained. She and Ian separated in 1970. In 1988, she experienced personal tragedy when her daughter Siobhán was killed in a car crash.
Though Imogen’s style is uniquely her own it does show influences of German expressionism, Egyptian sculpture, primitive art and ancient Irish stone carving and metalwork. The Celtic beehive oratory at Gallarus on the Dingle Peninsula captivated her. She has written that ‘there are times when the light breaks through certain small openings, that to me is like the light of God shining through human suffering’.
She has produced a significant body of religious art. Her arrival in Ireland coincided with the last great wave of church building and renovation that lasted until the 1970s. A number of enlightened architects, notably Michael Scott and Liam McCormack, employed her to embellish their church buildings.
Among her major works are ‘Stations of the Cross’ at Muckross, Ballintubber Abbey and Firhouse, the bronze reliefs in Galway Cathedral, the altar in the Honan Chapel in UCC, the Madonna in the Lady Chapel of Christ Church Cathedral, the meditation beehive hut in Knock and the Lough Derg crucifixion scene. One of her most distinctive pieces is of Pope John Paul II embracing children which is in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. The critic, Peter Harbison, has offered this assessment of her work:
“While combining the best of her German background and the traditions of ancient Ireland, she is nevertheless uniquely herself in her work. Together with only a very few other fellow craftsmen, she was managed to transform the world of the Irish church interior furnishings into a new and vibrant art form, and it is fortunate that the architects she worked with, gave her a fairly free rein in expressing her own invigorating personality and her own passionate feeling for style and design in the churches she embellished.
“With her flair and enthusiasm and the courage of her convictions, she has changed Irish ecclesiastical statuary out of all recognition in less than half a century and for that the world should be eternally grateful to her.”
Imogen’s secular sculptures are also impressive. Her ‘Arch of Peace’ in Cavan town is striking. I like her sculptured three school-going children in Tyrellspass in County Westmeath which is a memorial to IRA veterans of the War of Independence. She persuaded the organising committee to sponsor the images of children, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of the struggle for freedom, rather than another statue of a soldier. Youth, innocence and joy are exuberantly expressed in her ‘Fiddler of Dooney’ sequence in Stillorgan Shopping Centre. In her seven decades in Ireland Imogen Stuart has carved a significant niche in the story of our art.