One Last Thing...

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

The Item.
Irish artist Harry Clarke completed this stained-glass window in 1930 (a year before his death from tuberculosis) for the Republic of Ireland government. The then-new government commissioned the window in 1926 and planned to install it in the International Labor building at the League of Nations in Geneva. The window’s panels depict scenes from works by George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, and 12 other Irish playwrights, authors, and poets who were Clarke’s contemporaries.

Its Significance.
At least one of Clarke’s depictions was too steamy for the Irish government, which rejected the window after he finished it. Lennox Robinson, a poet, playwright, and friend of Clarke’s whose work is represented in one of the panels, noted that the scene from the Liam O’Flaherty novel Mr. Gilhooley generated the most outrage. "The bottle of Guinness was not seriously objected to," he wrote, "but did not the Playboy’s tight breeches show him a little too virile; was not the female’s clothing in the Gilhooley panel slightly too diaphanous?" The government returned the window to Clarke’s widow in 1931 in exchange for the fee the artist had been paid.

Its Owner.
Mitchell Wolfson Jr. founded the Wolfsonian, a museum in Miami Beach that features decorative artworks and propaganda items from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1997, he donated the 56,000-square-foot museum building and its 70,000-piece collection to Florida International University (FIU), which subsequently renamed the museum the Wolfsonian-FIU. Two years ago, in Genoa, Italy, Wolfson opened the Wolfsoniana, a museum that concentrates on propaganda art.

The Acquisition.
Wolfson purchased the window in 1988 from the Fine Art Society gallery in London. "It’s a perfect icon for the collection because of its tragic destiny," Wolfson says. "Clarke felt that it represented Ireland and Irish literary traditions. However, it was rejected because it depicted some scenes that were thought lewd. And of the authors he chose, more were Protestant than Catholic, or they were failed Catholics. If you saw the window, you wouldn’t think it would cause great offense. But Ireland was then a brand-new country that was looking for an identity that was not just acceptable to its own people, but which would be seen by outsiders as heroic. The Irish government did not want to be represented by such a window."

The Collection.
The Wolfsonian-FIU’s contents are eclectic and border on the eccentric. They include a chrome-plated steel pitcher from the French ocean liner Normandie and a mural that the Works Progress Administration commissioned for a rural Rhode Island post office but never installed. In addition, the museum contains 45,000 books, periodicals, and ephemera such as a Cuban railroad timetable from 1915. "My collection tells the story of a period—1885 to 1945—and it’s meant to be a reflection of those times and places," Wolfson says. "Each piece plays a part in the whole, and all are absolutely key to the story. Luckily, I have curators who edit and make sense out of it."

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