Cowen starts a row over naked portraits

DUBLIN — Ireland has a reputation for political satire going back three centuries to Jonathan Swift, who famously recommended, in “A Modest Proposal,” that Ireland’s poor should sell their children as food to the rich.

Cartoonists today regularly depict politicians in the newspapers as bloated, stupid, incompetent or crooked, and sometimes all of the above.

“Political satire is part and parcel of our democracy,” said Enda Kenny, leader of Fine Gael, the main opposition party in the Irish parliament.

Kenny's comment comes in the midst of a political furore over the latest, and quite brazen, attempt at satire: a depiction of the Taoiseach (prime minister), Brian Cowen, as an emperor without clothes.

Several days ago, two unflattering paintings showing Cowen semi-nude (in one he held his underpants in his hands, in the other he held a toilet roll), were hung by an anonymous prankster in the National Gallery and the Royal Hibernian Academy in central Dublin. They were taken down after security officers were alerted. The story was reported on the evening news on RTE, the national broadcasting organization.

There the matter might have rested but for a complaint from Cowen’s office that displaying the portraits to television viewers was insulting and in bad taste. This resulted in an apology from RTE the following evening for any offense taken by Cowen or his family. That started a debate on political interference in the broadcast media.

Then Dublin radio station 2FM reported that after announcing on air that it had received emails from the artist, a police officer arrived to demand (in vain) that the emails be handed over, citing pressure from “the powers that be.” The officer told the program producer there were three possible charges being considered, incitement to hatred, indecency and criminal damage to the wall.

The notion of the police being used to pursue an artist at a time when national outrage is directed against the banks, developers and politicians that have got the country into a mess touched a nerve. No fewer than nine letters pouring scorn on the government appeared on March 27 in the letters page of The Irish Times, an infallible arbiter of the national mood.

The letter from reader Harry Leech was typical: “With our economy in tatters, our education and health care systems decimated, more people unemployed than ever before, and cronyism and corruption rife in Irish life, it takes two satirical portraits of Brian Cowen in the nip, and the ridiculous attempts to censor the coverage of them, for people to finally realize that the emperor has no clothes.”

Somewhat against the grain, Irish Times columnist John Waters opined that the works were “crude, unfunny, vindictive, without intrinsic content and wholly lacking in artistic merit,” and that they debased public discourse.

The artist has been identified as a 35-year-old Dublin teacher, Conor Casby, who is now cooperating with the police. There are some serious questions to be asked, not about his paintings, but about the ease with which someone could penetrate the security of two of Ireland’s most important art galleries.

An intruder carrying a picture in a satchel and affixing it to the wall beside other works at the National Gallery without being noticed might just as easily have walked out with one of the masterpieces on display.

The gallery has some important works, including a Renaissance masterpiece by Caravaggio, Impressionist paintings by Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso, 17th-century Dutch masterpieces by Jan Vermeer, paintings by British artists Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, and examples of the best of Irish artists Jack B. Yeats and Hazel Lavery.

If any one of these items had been taken, it would constitute a real crime, thought not perhaps on the scale of the notorious theft of “The Scream” by Edvard Munch from the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway in 2004, or the stealing of Goya’s “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington” from the National Gallery in London in 1961.

As the controversy rumbles on, Cowen might come to reflect that his biggest mistake was to show that he had thin skin. As another letter writer in The Irish Times, Muiris O Raghallaigh, put it, “If the Taoiseach had any sense (of humor), rather than making a complaint about the portraits, he’d have made an offer for them. Who knows, it might have started a bidding war, the proceeds of which could have helped the public finances.”

For more GlobalPost Dispatches on Irish politics:

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Interview: Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin