Monday, December 09, 2013

Hughie O'Donoghue - Red Remembered Fields

Hughie O'Donoghue (Paddy Benson)

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 8 December 2013.

It's a long long way from the manicured playing fields of Eton to the melancholy bog-lands of Erris.  But Hughie O'Donoghue can traverse imaginatively this distance and find inspiration in both locales.  He is currently artist-in-residence at Eton College, working on a Somme series for the centenary of the Great War, in which the casualties included many from that school.  And last week his exhibition Gort Rua opened at the Oliver Sears Gallery.  This show is based on his memories of childhood summers in North West Mayo - an area that itself suffered many casualties during the Great Famine.

Given his bifurcated background, and his constant moving between Ireland and England, you might think that O'Donoghue would share the Anglo-Irish malaise expressed by  Elizabeth Bowen - feeling "Irish in England and English in Ireland".  On the contrary, the artist is quite at home in either place.  You sense that this modest, soft-spoken, and amiable man would be at ease wherever he went.  Speaking to him in Dublin recently he told me that "complexity of origin is something I'm proud of - it's like a mongrel dog - they're usually quite intelligent".  Here's a painter steeped in childhood memories of rural Ireland, with an Irish name, an English education (that he much appreciates) and lingering traces of a Mancunian accent.  He was born in Manchester to a mother from the shores of Lough Carrowmore and a father who was born in England of Irish parents.  He's proud of his father's Kerry roots and mentions family encounters there with both Collins and De Valera.  Though formally educated in England, his school years were punctuated by annual summer trips to his mother's birthplace.  His childhood reveries were also stimulated by frequent trips to the Manchester City Art Gallery encouraged by his father. Paintings there such as Van Gogh's Pear Trees in Blossom and Veronese's Baptism lingered in his consciousness as did the rivers and fields of the West of Ireland.  His father also took him to Old Trafford to watch Matt Busby's team create its own masterpieces.  O'Donoghue remarked on the death the previous day of Bill Foulkes, one of his heroes from that era.

O'Donoghue holds both UK and Irish passports and is content to be claimed by both countries.  He sets little store on nationality.  He sees himself as a citizen of the inclusive world of art and culture.  A world that transcends the narrow boundaries of nationhood.  He and Sean Scully are unique among Irish artists in being members of the Royal Academy and of Aósdana.  He may also be unique in having his work hanging in the Royal Collection at Windsor and in Áras an Uachtaráin.

O'Donoghue's career took a few twists and turns before he found the righteous path. With his father's active encouragement he drew and painted from an early age.  However, rather than going to art college, which involved staying at home an extra year and taking a mandatory foundation course, he choose the freedom of getting out and doing a teacher training course.  After graduating he spent six years as a secondary school teacher, teaching art.  He ended up in the tiny town of Goole in the East Riding of Yorkshire.  He continued his painting and occasionally exhibited at group shows.   In 1982, he was offered his first solo show at the Ferens Gallery in Hull.  Encouraged by this he decided, at the age of 29, to quit his tenured position and focus on his art.  His wife Clare was a strong advocate of this courageous move.  "It was absolutely Clare's call" he emphasised.  She had just landed a job teaching in a middle school so they had a safety net.  He quit his remote outpost in Goole and headed to Goldsmiths College in London to do an MA in Fine Art.   Goldsmiths at that time was hardly the most sympathetic environment for someone who aspired to be a painter.  Duchamp was God and art was more about theory than practice.  For someone who was influenced by the Old Masters and loved the physical act of painting it was a shock to the system. There were positive aspects to it however for the aspiring artist:  "it intellectually toughened me up in terms of being able to articulate what I was doing".

Immediately after leaving Goldsmiths College he got a residency at Drax Power Station. His benefactors were none to pleased with his depictions of black smoke billowing from chimneys that allegedly emitted only steam.  These days Drax has the reputation of being the UK's single largest emitter of carbon dioxide so maybe O'Donoghue was posting an early warning.  This gig within the dark satanic mills was followed by a heavenly residency at the National Gallery in 1984.  There was huge competition for this residency and O'Donoghue was thrilled and somewhat bemused to have been awarded it.  Perhaps the London art mandarins decided to add a little northern grit to the mix.  This residency took on greater significance when the National Gallery found itself with spare marketing space on the London Underground due to a cancelled project.  It decided to use these prime locations to advertise their artist in residence programme. The ads featured a photograph of O'Donoghue in his studio.  A trickle of interest in his work turned into a flood as visitors crowded his studio in the National Gallery.  This son of a railwayman father, and a mother who had worked as a bus conductor, was accorded yet another favour by the gods of public transport.  At the end of his tenure there he was allocated a gallery space within the National Gallery for his concluding exhibition.  This was a singular privilege - previous incumbents had to hold their shows within the inferior studio spaces.

His brief at the National Gallery was "to take something out of the Old Master tradition and make it my own."  He encountered Francis Bacon while there and his engagement with figuration gave O'Donoghue the confidence to follow a similar path.  Bacon's work "had a human dimension" and it encouraged him to make "ambitious figure paintings".  His concluding exhibition there was called Sleepers.  It featured figures being consumed by the earth - harking back to bogs around Erris where his grandfather was reputedly buried.  Commercial success didn't follow immediately.  A few galleries came to see the work and loved it but he was told that it was "too dark, too heavy, too serious".  The art appetites of the time called for irony and humour - the quick fix.  O'Donoghue's art is not for the frivolous.  It demands time and concentration.  It's portentous in the best sense of that word - full of substance and meaning. A chance encounter with Fabian Carlsson at a London show a few months later got him up and running.  Carlsson took in all his work and paid him a princely retainer of £2,000 a month.  Riches indeed for an artist who never earned a penny previously.

In 1986 a "seismic" event was to occur that set his career on a path that he still retains some ambivalence about.  An American investment banker called Craig Baker commissioned O'Donoghue to embark on a series of paintings based on the Passion that were to take up the next 10 years of his life.  "This took me out of the mainstream art world which was certainly a negative".  The positive aspect of course was that he was given the time and space to create a series of 39 masterly paintings on which his reputation as a major artist was established.  Subsequently Baker bequeathed these paintings to IMMA for the delectation of the Irish nation.

O'Donoghue and his wife moved to Kilkenny after he completed the Baker commission in 1996 and they were to spend the next 15 years there rearing their family.  Now that their children have flown the nest the couple are free to move around a bit more.  He maintains a base in London and intends to spend time there every year keeping abreast with the metropolitan art scene and contributing to the activities of the Royal Academy.  He is currently coordinator of its Summer Show.  He also has a house and studio near Bangor-Erris where he can flee the hurly burly of the London scene.  "A good place for the gestation of ideas" he maintains.  He is planning a larger studio there and this will be his artistic base.  In the meantime the couple are enjoying a peripatetic life.  After his Eton residency he will take on another residency at Ballinglen in January 2014 - down the coast from his Erris base.

His latest show at the Oliver Sears Gallery is a contrasting take on ground he covered in 2001 in his Naming the Fields exhibition at the Rubicon Gallery.  The current paintings are lighter and brighter in tone, although Moonlight Marine is an exquisite exception.  They reflect O'Donoghue's  observation that "more recently my focus has shifted to colour".  Also, there's not a figure in sight unless you count the occasional dark intrusion of a raven.  The title of the show, Gort Rua, is a reference both to the intense red fields in the paintings and to the vivid nature of memory itself.  But this doesn't look like Tir na nOg.  The fields seem somewhat ominous - especially those shadowed by the presence of the looming raven.  "They are never carefree my paintings" he told me, but he doesn't see these birds as portents of doom.  For him the Fiachra or raven is an emblem of the subconscious and the bird’s flight represents the imaginative journey of the individual.  The name is also a harking back to the ancient tribe that occupied the area.  A disused cottage is the only indication of habitation in these works.  This building recalls his mother's home and the adjacent hay barn.  But the paintings are not aiming to recreate topographical landscapes but rather to recapture childhood memories.  "I remembered Erris as a mysterious and magical place as a child and this is what I wanted to convey in the paintings."

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Brief Interlude in Stratford

Shakespeare as Plump Burgher
It being that dreary time before the fully-fledged December debacle we headed over to Stratford-upon-Avon on Friday last to see the RSC do Antony and Cleopatra at the Swan Theatre.  Getting there involves a flight to Birmingham and then, if you're brave, a rented car the 30 mile journey to Stratford.  This trip involves a nightmarish criss-crossing of the spaghetti junctions around Birmingham so the expense of a taxi might be best for the well heeled or the nervous. We made it thanks to the excellent GPS aboard my Audi A4 - a most unexpected surprise from Herz.  They must have been out of Astras.

If you're just going for a short trip you might as well large it so we stayed in the Arden Hotel, a beautiful boutique hotel directly across the road from the theatre.  It has fine old photographs of RSC alumni in the reception area and I was drawn to a striking one of Helen Mirren in her prime.  There was also a moody shot of Vivien Leigh - an equally alluring woman.  The rooms were large and luxurious and the wi-fi worked - so no complaints there.  They did a pre-theatre dinner for our party which allowed us to eat two courses before the show and come back afterwards for cheese and dessert. Civilised stuff.

Talking of formidable women, I noticed Hilary Mantel sitting at a nearby table when we came into the bar.  I know her husband from an old technical writing gig I did in Winchester so I went over to say hello.  She was very amiable telling me about two plays based on her recent novels that are forthcoming at the RSC - so this was a scouting visit for them.  My erstwhile colleague had slipped his technical writing yoke to become her manager.  She has extraordinarily bird-like features. Very short and very lady-like.  A bit Womans Ownish in demeanour.

We had prime tickets for the play - sitting within spitting distance of the action just  above the circular stage.  The show began with an arful nude scene where Cleopatra bathes in milk (I think - it was done in subdued lighting).  She's a well upholstered black actress and she plays the role as a woman of fleshly appetites rather than a seductive siren with political motives.  A Juillard graduate called Joaquina Kalukango, she seems very young for the part.  Antony is played as a posturing stud (sort of sub Erroll Flynn) by Jonathan Cake, who has form in Desperate Housewives.  There's a live orchestra above the stage and there's plenty of dance, colour and life in the production.  The text however is cut and minced in a fairly radical manner.  I recognised a few lines - but not many. Good fun but hardly a classic production in every sense of that adjective.  And you certainly never felt the real shock and awe that tragedy should engender.

Breakfast the next morning was entertaining (oh and the food was superb).  Most of our fellow diners had the vaguely raffish look of actors, or former actors - the age profile suggesting the latter.  One larger than life character came down in expensive white pyjamas and dressing gown and elaborately kissed his waitress before settling down to breakfast.  His booming delivery ensured we heard his every utterance to the mute and chastened looking woman who joined him.  Later he appeared in the lobby in an ankle length astrakhan coat - still booming away.  A Michael Gambon type but not the man himself.

After breakfast I went across the road to watch the early morning rowers on the Avon - mostly women doing their double sculls training amid the many swans.  Girls in smart leggings pass by on their way in to the RSC building - presumeably rehearsing for the next show.  Next stop was the Holy Trinity church nearby to have a look at Shakespeare's grave.  Not much to see really, just a flagstone in the chancel with the famous words inscribed - and reproduced rather shoddily in an adjacent sign.  Above the grave in an alcove was a plaster bust (much restored) of the great man.  Its supposed to be a good likeness. If so, he looked like your average middle-aged burgher with good capon lined. Hardly a romantic figure.  Who knows?  Who cares?  His legacy is secure.  The town teemed with tourists but our work was done and we hit the road back to Birmingham.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Half Light at Hillsboro Fine Art

Lamb Series

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 17 November 2013.

Paddy Graham is one of the great old warriors of Irish art. His canvases are battlegrounds marked by the blood, sweat and tears he expends in the act of creation.  Religious iconography, nudes, pages from sketchbooks, cryptic phrases, and traces of earlier endeavours jostle for position. The man from Mullingar is still struggling with the sacred and the profane but this exhibition also shows a more meditative side. The Half Light series consists of three large diptychs inspired by the sea off the coast of Mayo.  These are not conventional seascapes but rather recreations of the feelings engendered by Graham's coastal encounters. They invite contemplation in much the same way as Mark Rothko's (a painter much admired by Graham) work does.  Two of the works are predominantly grey and formidably austere.  The third is an ethereal lime green with a jagged grey gash in the middle. The accompanying Lamb series comprise six smaller pieces where grey again predominates but this time the austerity is compromised by sacred hearts and gaping crotches. The Lamb of God contending with the sins of the world.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Portrait of the Artist as a Girleen

Eimear McBride

A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 3 November 2013.

Irish writers seem to thrive in exile, the farrow who escaped the sow.  Joyce in Zurich, Beckett in Paris, and Wilde in London are but a few examples.  Eimear McBride, the latest star in the Irish literary firmament, has fetched up in Norwich.  Her technically daring and profoundly disturbing first novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, is one of the favourites for the Goldsmiths Prize, to be announced on 13 November.  McBride has been described "as that old-fashioned thing, a genius", and time may show it's not too fanciful to align her with these illustrious predecessors.

She is an ardent admirer of Joyce and her stylistic daring was inspired by the maestro's example.  In common with Joyce she experienced a peripatetic childhood.  Her parents were from the North of Ireland but they moved to Liverpool, before she was born, to escape the sectarian violence.  When she was three the family moved to Tubercurry in County Sligo and after that to Castlebar.  McBride does not have warm romantic memories of the West of Ireland.  She is particularly exercised by the primitive attitudes towards women and sexuality that she experienced there.  "Being an Irish woman I am very interested in issues around sexuality.  Growing up there as a female was a very difficult thing."  The utterly apposite term "girleen" which recurs in her book encapsulates perfectly these attitudes - the double diminutive speaking volumes.  She went to London at 17 to study drama and has only returned for family visits.

Prior to moving to Norwich, McBride spent four years in Cork.  This was not without its own difficulties.  She found our second city very insular and clannish. "It was very hard to get to know people.  If you weren't related to them or went to school with them they didn't want to know".  Also, her dealings with the local arts scene didn't go too well: "everyone is so bloody territorial, nobody wants to help anyone else out".  McBride found Norwich much more welcoming and quickly gained friends and contacts within its arts community.  She is settled there with her young daughter Éadaoin and her husband William Galinsky, who is director of the prestigious Norfolk and Norwich Festival.  She has no desire to go back to Ireland but would at some stage love to return to London where she spent 12 years:  "it's the only place I ever felt at home".

Ask the average Irish person about Norwich and you'll probably find that Alan Partridge and Norwich City FC are as much as you'll glean. Our diaspora is snagged by Liverpool and Birmingham long before it gets that far east.  Once the second city of England, Norwich boasts a magnificent 11th century Norman cathedral, and, notwithstanding the philistinism of its famous fictional son, is a thriving centre of culture and the arts.

I travelled there recently to talk to McBride.  While hardly the only Gael in town, McBride maintains that she doesn't know of any other Irish people living there apart from Graham Linehan. And she's never met him. But this move to Norwich launched her literary career.  She had finished her novel nine years ago while living in London and hawked it around the publishing circuit.  While she garnered fulsome praise and admiration from all sides, none of those she approached were willing to take a chance on such a stylistically challenging work.  It blushed unseen in a cupboard at home for years until a chance encounter with Henry Layte at an arts event in Norwich brought it forth.  He was a director of Galley Beggar Press, a small local publishing house.  He offered to read it, immediately saw its potential, and promptly published it.  First novels come and go like mayflies but McBride's book grew legs thanks to a couple of very high-profile reviews.  David Collard sang its praises in the Times Literary Supplement.  He described himself as "seduced by the beautiful syncopations of McBride’s prose".  This was followed by an uncommonly lengthy and even more enthusiastic review by Adam Mars Jones in the London Review of Books.  His three page paen referenced Joyce, Beckett, Hemingway, and even Roberto Bolano in his detailed analysis of the book.   He concluded his review with the words "when this little book is famous".  So far so literary.   An even more influential review, from a readership perspective, was one by Anne Enright in the Guardian.  She described it as "an instant classic – an account of Irish girlhood to be set alongside O'Brien's The Country Girls for emotional accuracy and verve".

Someone reading her novel might expect its author to be an Irish version of Virginia Despentes, a hard-bitten habitué of the wild side.  Or, even a radical feminist, given to espousing the Andrea Dworkin line on sexual relations.  However, before we met we had exchanged a few emails that suggested otherwise.  They spoke of a "toddler" and conventional baby-sitting concerns.  Also, she had arranged for us to meet at a gastro pub called the Mulberry on Unthank Road - a cosy choice in a nice middle-class area.  In person she turned out to be friendly, open and totally lacking in any overt angst, or arty preciousness.  Her accent is Irish but neutrally so - it's hard to pin a county to it.  While I wouldn't say she had a sunny disposition, she was easy company, talked freely, and has a good sense of humour.  Her mood only darkened when the subject turned to some of the themes in her book: sexual mores in the West of Ireland and the death of her beloved older brother.  Her father died when she was just eight and she still remembers him affectionately as someone who taught her to read and guided her towards books. His death when she was eight did not affect her as deeply as that of her older brother Donagh who died at 28, just after she finished her drama course in London. She found his death following a protracted battle with cancer "very devastating" and admitted that "it shattered my confidence".  This event, which is fictionalised and transmuted in her novel, threw her into turmoil about her direction in life.  "Acting had been protection" she says, and now she was facing existential truths.  She travelled to Russia and after a period of reflection there she decided to abandon her theatrical ambitions and try her hand at writing. With the support of her husband and a string of temping jobs in London she completed her novel in six months. A burglary which resulted in the loss of all her hand-written preparatory notes only spurred her on to finish it.  There things rested until that chance encounter in Norwich brought it blinking into the light of day.

Many readers first reaction to her book is to baulk at the twisted syntax, the cryptic language, and above all the sexual violence.  The rape scene and the escalating sexual abasement portrayed in the book are designed to shock and confront the reader.  McBride concedes that these scenes are deliberately cranked up and exaggerated to make her point about the attitudes to women she encountered in the West of Ireland.  There is also a feminist agenda.  She believes that "casual sex was sold to women as a form of liberation" and her protagonist is depicted as acting on this to an extreme that would satisfy the Marquis de Sade.

While her heroine's escapades may be far removed from the bovine carnality of Molly Bloom, McBride's stylistic idiosyncrasies owe  a direct debt to Joyce.  She makes no bones about her admiration for his cavalier attitude towards punctuation and conventional language. When she was writing Girl (as she terms her novel, an uncharacteristically luvvie lapse) she kept a quotation by Joyce (from a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver) over her desk:

"One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot."

This is Joyce's variation on Emily Dickinson's:  "Tell the truth but tell it slant".  McBride followed this dictum in creating a uniquely effective language to recount her tale.

A number of reviewers, while praising her work, have suggested that it might be a one-off masterpiece.  Its style and content are so shockingly original that it might be difficult to emulate.  McBride has no such reservations herself.  Her second novel is nearly completed and although she wasn't prepared to tell me too much about it she conceded that it was set in London and smilingly added that there would be lots more sex.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Hen Abuse at the Hayward Gallery

Ana Mendieta
I've always felt that Carl Andre got away with murder.  Those bricks in the Tate Museum all those years ago were a fine demonstration of brazen chutzpah but little else.  Brutal in fact.  And nothing he's produced since has changed my mind.  I had forgotten about him until a trip to the Hayward Gallery in London yesterday reminded me of a more palpable crime with which he had been associated.  On show was the work of Cuban/American  artist Ana Mendieta who was living with Andre when she fell to her death from the 34th floor of their New York apartment.  Andre claimed ignorance of how she fell but scratches on his face and arms and the existence of a witness who heard  cries of "no" and "please don't"  led to his trial for second-degree murder.  She had been gathering evidence for a divorce from the artist and it has been suggested that she confronted him before the fatal fall.   However, having opted for a non-jury trial, he was found not-guilty by the presiding judge on the grounds that the evidence was not conclusive.  He continued through his art to fool enough of the people enough of the time to carve out a lucrative career.

Mendieta's work is angry and confrontational - there's a lot of blood and a lot of nudity.  Its appeal isn't compromised by her beauty.  It's mostly video and photography of installations and scenarios she set up.  A couple of works feature her nude and bloodied body simulating a rape and murder scene.  Apparently she invited unwary punters along to apartments and outdoor locations where they'd happen upon her apparently lifeless and abused corpse.  Now that's art that'll shake you up.  The most disturbing piece for me was a video where a nude Mendieta is handed a just decapitated chicken and she holds it (gingerly) by the legs while the unfortunate fowl bleeds out after some increasingly feeble flapping of its wings, and the occasional slow fall of a poignant feather.  Another piece shows her lying under a bloodied sheet with a large cow's heart on top.  (Shades perhaps of Alice Maher - certainly they share more than the same initials.)  This last image is a disquieting harbinger of her ultimate fate.  There are other pieces suggestive of her interest in Cuban voodoo - Santeria, and a lot of images and sculptures of her body imprint in wood and earth.  I exit the Hayward shaken and stirred and when I lunch at the BFI nearby I eschew the chicken option.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Not Bitter just Bemused

Scatter Dice Confounds the Punters
Betting on horses is a cure for incurable optimists. Ask any bookmaker or check Paddy Power's share price.  It's best to approach it as  entertainment with occasional highs and regular lows.  There are also ways of reducing the randomness of the whole thing.  Stick to the bigger meetings (Ascot, Newmarket, Goodwood, Sandown) and avoid all Irish racing, apart from the Curragh.  Follow trainers who can be relied upon to be trying with their horses.  These include John Gosden, Roger Charlton and Aidan O'Brien.  If you study the form, take cognisance of the going, and keep a special eye out for course specialists, you can do reasonably well.  Also, Twitter has become a source for up-to-date intelligence from stables and courses ("the going has changed to soft at Ascot").

Every now and then however a result comes around that renders moot all calculations and all intelligence.  Such result was Scatter Dice's 66-1 win in the Cesarewitch last Saturday.  He had never won over the course, or the distance, and in fact last won 15 months earlier in a much shorter race on much different going.  In his previous two races he was placed last of 13 and a fourth of 7.  The great Pricewise declared that if he had 30 picks from the field of 34 he would not have selected Scatter Dice.  "Not even Nostradamus could have predicted this result" he opined.  To compound the freakish nature of the result, Scatter Dice was left at the start of the race and lost 10 lengths on the field.

By the way, I had backed the second (Waterclock) at 33-1 and the third (Lieutenant Miller) at 14-1.  Each way of course.  So more bemused than bitter.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Tony O'Malley at Taylor Galleries

Tony O'Malley:  Bahamian Butterfly
The Tony O'Malley centenary show in Taylor Galleries is remarkable in many ways.  Primarily it is a celebration of the artist - with some of his finest work on display.  It ranges right across his career and there is a nice contrast between the bright Bahamian works downstairs and the dark brooding work from the mid-Sixties upstairs.

It's surprising that such a large number of these impressive works are for sale.  Where have they been hiding?   I suspect that O'Malley's widow Jane has been holding on to them as her pension fund.  Whatever the reason it's a great opportunity for someone with a few bob to get a classic O'Malley.  I'd be looking for one of the large dark pieces he did in St. Ives around 1965 - The Watching Windhover or Winter Hawk.

Make sure you get a catalogue when you visit the show.  There's a wonderfully perceptive essay by Brian Fallon who was a close friend of O'Malley.  It's particularly good on milieu and influences.

The show ends on the 9th of October - a lamentably short run for such a smashing exhibition. Catch it while you can.

It's Official - I Despair

When two evenly matched teams (like Leinster and Munster last Saturday) meet up, the one that is hungrier and more passionate usually prevails.  So it was with the Seanad referendum.  The No side cared more about the result.  The Yes team were complacent and largely didn't bother making any case other than here's an opportunity to bash a few politicians.

But now, despite all the guff about reform, we will be left with the status quo.  As Arthur Beesley phrased it in todays's Irish Times:  We "saved an elitist bastion with a tiny franchise, little real power and a craven history of subordination to the Dail".  Well done folks.  Or as a letter writer in the same paper put it, we have voted to keep a political institution for which 99% of the electorate is not eligible to vote.

Let's see where all those who urged us to vote No for reform get between now and the next General Election.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

I'm Voting Yes

Forget the earnest debates by the concerned, forget the polls, forget the hysteria about democracy, and above all forget the pleas for reform (mere prevarication in our benighted land).

The resolution to abolish the Seanad will be successful because the plain people of Ireland will take this opportunity to show their contempt for all politicians by sacking the few they can get their hands on.

Having abolished the Seanad let's turn our attention to the Dail.  It's not to late to make a republic out of this sick little oligarchy.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 15 September 2013.

Eimear McBride's first novel is not for the faint-hearted.  They'll be reaching for the smelling salts in the book clubs of South County Dublin.  When you get get over the shock of the radical style you'll find yourself immersed in a world that is disturbingly violent and sexually transgressive.  It took nine years to get into print.  Publishers loved it but couldn't see a market for its twisted syntax and its dark, dark themes.  Eventually a small English publishing house took a punt and it has been rewarded with critical acclaim in such august literary organs as the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books.  A lengthy review by Adam Mars-Jones in the latter is positively effusive in its praise.

It took me three abandoned attempts to get past the first few pages.   But I stuck with it and around page nine lost my fear and began to enjoy the strange and exhilarating ride.  There are Joycean touches.  The early baby-talk has echoes of Portrait of the Artist and the limited punctuation (not a comma in sight) and stream of consciousness suggest the concluding soliloquy in Ulysses.  But it's a long long way from the bovine carnality of Molly Bloom.  Beyond the stylistic strangeness, beyond the familiar tropes of repression and depression in rural Ireland, beyond the absent father, the  violent mother, the handicapped brother, and the abusive uncle lurks the story of a country girl relishing her sexual abasement.  We get an early hint of it in her ambivalent reaction to her uncle's opening foray when she was fifteen. Mixed in with the violence and pain of the rape were occasional darts of pleasure.  And subsequently she became complicit in her uncle's selfish and relentless pursuit of gratification.  Maybe the violence associated with her sexual awakening became a requirement for satisfaction.  Either way, the book describes an escalating scenario of sexual violence that would do the Marquis de Sade proud.

A thread running through the book, and one of the sources of the narrator's angst is the plight of her older brother.  Afflicted with cancer as a child his development has been impacted by various operations leaving him with mild mental and physical handicaps.  She observes and is made wretched by his plight as they both grow up.  One particularly poignant scene in the schoolyard sees the eager but inept boy being sneered at by his peers during a football game.  But the nihilism and the alienated sexual freneticism of the narrator are not fully explained by anything depicted in her bleak background.

McBride is a dark pointillist.  Her short sentences, frequently merely a word or two, coalesce to create a horrific world where religious superstition and bullying are the norm and sexual encounters are nasty, brutish and not short on violence.   The rat-tat-tat of these sentences are like drum beats cranking up your emotions.  There's an incantatory feel to them.  The absence of conventional syntax, of subject, predicate, and object, gives your imagination room to roam within the cryptic dabs of meaning.  It sounds flakey but works in practice.  The book will arouse powerful emotions in anyone who accords it the respect of reading it with attention.

This cry of pain from the halls of hell is a tour-de-force.  It's difficult to see where McBride can go next - if anywhere.  This might be a one-off masterpiece rather than the first step in a literary career.  More Harper Lee perhaps than Edna O'Brien.

I know little about McBride or her background.  She grew up in Ireland and lives in England, and had a brother who died relatively young. After finishing the book it was relief to see that she has listed her mother among the acknowledgements.  First novels can be autobiographical but it ain't necessarily so.  You'd be horrified to think that the author has come close to some of the experiences delineated in this powerful and disturbing book.  Fiction can sometimes be just that.

Galley Beggar Press
Pages 205

John P. O'Sullivan

Monday, September 02, 2013

The Dublin Galleries - Strategies for Survival

Sean McSweeney and Writer (Photo:  Paddy Benson)

The epicentre of the Irish art market is a car park off Kildare Street in Dublin 2.  Park your car there and you will find most of the major players within a radius of 200 metres.  These include the big three auctioneers: Adams, de Veres and Whytes and three of the most prominent commercial galleries:  Taylor Galleries, the Kerlin Gallery and the Oliver Sears Gallery.  The RHA is nearby and the lower end of South Frederick Street has a cluster of smaller galleries including the Leinster Gallery where I once picked up a gem by George Campbell.  As well-fed and watered barristers wend their way back to their Mercs from the clubs and restaurants around Stephen's Green they may be distracted by the sight of a Paul Henry in the window of Adams; or further down Kildare Street they might catch a glimpse of one of Sean McSweeney's moody bogscapes in Taylor Galleries.  Lubricated for artistic appreciation and careless of cost some may arrest their progress to add to their collections.

During the good times the juxtapositioning of these auction houses and galleries formed a lucrative nexus.  The auction houses made money both from dead artists, like Yeats and Dan O'Neill, and from the resale of such popular living artists as Robert Ballagh and Donald Teskey.   A Ballagh painting entitled My Studio was sold at Whytes for €96,000 in 2004.  At the galleries prices were adjusted upwards (mostly at the artists' behest) to reflect what they were achieving at auction.  And so the art boom was born.  Such was the feeding frenzy that the government was forced (Ballagh was a prominent advocate) to introduce a droit de suite scheme (artists get a percentage of auction price) to redistribute some of the largesse from the auctions.  The scheme was confined to living artists however and to work sold for more than €3,000.  Its net result was to make rich artists richer.  An irony not appreciated, I suspect, by the left-leaning Ballagh.  The single biggest beneficiary from the scheme was the hardly impecunious Louis le Brocquy (while he was still alive).

But those halcyon days are over.  The former profitable symbiosis between gallery and auctioneer has broken down as both parties struggle to capture their share of a dwindling market.  The recession has hit very hard.  Slower to slump than the property market it has now surpassed it in the severity of the decline.  Most involved would agree that prices have dropped by more than 50%.  The hardest hit has been work by living artists (there are exceptions, Basil Blackshaw's work continues to do well), and of those the more abstract suffer the most.  For example, a Felim Egan bought for €10K in 2007 sold recently at de Vere's for €3.5k.

But the hard times are much harder for the galleries.  Art continues to sell briskly at all the auction houses - albeit at sharply reduced prices.  The same is not true for commercial galleries selling contemporary art.  Galleries cannot just reduce prices for prominent artists as to do so would cause real problems with previous purchasers of these artists.  Some galleries will sustain the illusion of maintaining prices but will be quick to do a deal at a substantially reduced cost.  Face has been saved, and reputations secured.  However, the buying public in general are looking for bargains at auctions and neglecting the galleries.

So how are the galleries dealing with the sharp downturn in their fortunes?  Surprisingly there have been few casualties in Dublin.  The Rubicon has moved the centre of its operations to Brussells but still maintains a Dublin office.  Otherwise all the main Dublin galleries are still trading although many have cut down the number of solo shows and there has been a plethora of group shows featuring gallery artists - a kind of greatest hits approach.  Cork has not been so lucky.  Its two commercial galleries, the Fenton and the Vangard have perished in this chill wind - although other factors influenced the Fenton's closure.  These galleries frequently hosted sell out shows during the boom times - showing artists such as Tony O'Malley, Charles Tyrrell, and Sean McSweeney.  It's a sad sad situation that our second city, and erstwhile European City of Culture, can't sustain a commercial gallery.

The galleries that have survived have had to adapt.  It was customary for Taylor Galleries to sell out shows by its celebrated roll call of artists.  These days the red dots are sporadic at best, although there's still the occasional exception such as Sean McSweeney's last show.  John Taylor acknowledges the decline in the market and maintains that both his gallery and many of his artists are "living off the fat" of the good days. .  He relies on the Irish market almost exclusively and has had to devise strategies for the changed times.  He is reluctant to reduce prices as he feels this would be unfair to earlier buyers.  However some of his artists are changing to smaller formats to make their work financially accessible.  He also plans to open an original print section some time in 2014.  This would sell etchings and lithographs made by gallery artists and selected outsiders.

Hidden behind a discreet door in a lane off South Anne Street, the Kerlin Gallery is (according to Lonely Planet) "the ultimate statement in cool".  It doesn't exactly employ a barker to draw in the casual passerby.  Art for them is a serious business.  I remember an early visit when I was puzzling over some work by abstract artist Sean Shanahan.  "This is not for beginners" I was informed by director David Fitzgerald.  And he wasn't joking. Inside you'll find mainly conceptual and abstract art from a mixture of Irish and international artists.  Sean Scully is the jewel in their crown but you'll find work by fashionable conceptual artists such as Liam Gillick also.  A lot of the work it shows is more suited to museums than the domestic market.  You could surmise that the Kerlin has been the least impacted by the recession of all the Irish galleries.  It has always looked abroad for sales and it regularly attends art fairs in London, New York and the European mainland.  They are currently showing work by Willie Doherty, Liam Gillick and others at Art Basel and by Sean Scully in Mougins in the South of France.  They also have a  substantial backer in share holder Patrick McGillen, which may insulate them from total dependence on the market place.  Requests for information about how they're managing in the current climate are ignored by director John Kennedy.  Their published accounts take advantage of the veil available to small companies.

The Oliver Sears Gallery is the new kid on the block.  It has taken over the old Ib Jorgensen premises on Molesworth Street - opposite the Masonic Lodge.  The gallery opened in 2010 in the teeth of the economic gale.  It has built up a stable of substantial contemporary figures such as Hughie O'Donoghue, Colin Davidson, Patrick O'Reilly and Donald Teskey.  The latter has been one of the best-selling artists in the country over the past five years.  Although trading has been tough they have still managed to turn a profit in 2012 - albeit a "modest one" according to its owner.  Sears is not afraid to mix his media, frequently showing furniture and recently putting on an entire craft-based show.   A straw in the wind for a change in the market direction may be the opening of SO Fine Art Editions beside Keogh's on South Anne Street.  This is being run jointly by Sears and Catherine O'Riordan, late of the Graphic Studio Gallery.  It specialises in original prints, photography and sculpture.  The owners are hoping that art lovers loath to make the big investment in oil paintings can find satisfaction in these less expensive options.

Outside the Golden Triangle around Stephen's Green (or now perhaps, as Oliver Sears suggests, the Bermuda Triangle) other commercial galleries are trying different things.  The Kevin Kavanagh is increasingly looking abroad for sales as is the Green on Red - attending art fairs and putting in the hard yards.  The Cross Gallery, on Francis Street, has opened a coffee shop to get people onto the premises.  Hillsboro Fine Art in Parnell Square is not solely dependent on the Irish market or on Irish artists.  Over fifty percent of the artists they sell are non-Irish and include such luminaries as Anthony Caro and Gerhard Richter.  Of their Irish artists Michael Warren continues to sell well in Europe.  Also, owner John Daly finds that his core Irish buyers remain loyal and continue to snap up certain artists - he cited Paddy Graham as an example.  Other artists attached to his gallery are working on a smaller scale, or on paper, to keep prices down.  Daly's biggest financial headache is his handsome property which he bought at the height of the boom.

The key difference between the auction houses and the galleries is that art is purely a commodity to the auction houses.  They are not interested in developing and nurturing the reputations of living artists.  A vibrant gallery scene is important for the continuing health of Irish art.  Without them our artists will blush unseen and many will become discouraged.  Times like these separate the dedicated from the dabbler.  Living off the fat of the good years is not a viable long-term model for the galleries.  They must  now work harder to promote their artists.  Most have upgraded their web sites to extend their reach internationally.  Searching out markets abroad and providing less expensive options for buyers are the primary strategies for survival.  It's too early to tell whether these are sustainable tactics.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Bob and Roberta Smith at the Butler Gallery

Soap Box at the Butler Gallery

This review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 25 August 2013.Bob

Bob and Roberta Smith is one person - the English artist Patrick Brill.   This may seem a tedious affectation except that he did at one stage collaborate with his sister, who is indeed called Roberta.  So in a display of lingering filial loyalty he has retained her name, along with his own pseudonym.  Clear?

He is showing at the Butler Gallery until early October and at various other locations in Kilkenny during its arts festival.  Consciousness raising is his game and the tools of his trade are text-based paintings in vivid colours.  Ar these merely "the written hectoring slogans of any half-educated urban dweller" as one critic has stated?  Or will they change your life as the curator has intimated?  Decide for yourself.  Participation is encouraged.  Jump on the inviting soap box and make a speech. Marvel at the misspellings in the letter to the UK education minister Michael Gove.  Be affronted by the juxtaposing of Rosa Luxembourg and Julie Burchill as feminist icons.  Appreciate the respect for the wonderful Louise Bourgeois.  Bring the kids, they'll enjoy the bright and playful nature of the show

Butler Gallery
Mon-Sun: 10am-5.30pm

John P. O'Sullivan

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Mary Lavin's Reputation

Mary Lavin

A slightly edited version of the following article appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 25 August 2013:

The pellucid perfection of James Joyce's Dubliners has set the gold standard for Irish short story writers.  The genre has been mined productively for the past hundred years by such major writers as Frank O'Connor, Seán Ó Faoláin, Elizabeth Bowen, William Trevor and John McGahern.  Recent years have seen Kevin Barry unearth the twisted and violent denizens of his netherworlds.

Is Mary Lavin a major writer?  Time has not been kind to her reputation and I doubt that this book of essays, edited by Belgian academic Elke D'hoker, is going to restore it - notwithstanding some fine contributions and an introduction (albeit a slight one) by Colm Tóibín.  The causes of her slide from favour are various.  Her small domestic dramas were perhaps washed away by the feminist tide.  Frank O'Connor's suggestion that she wrote about "the life of the kitchen" can't have helped.  She was largely apolitical, arriving in Ireland after the nationalist ferment had died down, so she ceded that ground to O'Connor and Ó Faoláin.  She had a good solid middle-class upbringing so she was denied access to working-class colour.  Her world was narrow and circumscribed.  She described the petty concerns of small-town Ireland: the lives of quiet desperation where appearance and respectability were more important than freedom.  From a post-feminist perspective she hardly rocked the boat - maybe her jaundiced view of the emotional development of the average Irish male was too subtle for the sisters.  Also, the central role of the priest in her world now seems quaint.  Some of her stories have not aged well - the language often seems strained and the conclusions contrived.  Character and colour were the focus rather than plot and language.  In A Wet Day, for example, the character of the smug priest is well wrought but the plot device of the mislaid thermometer is improbable.

The most impressive essay in the collection is a review of her oeuvre by Maurice Harmon, an English professor at UCD.  He quotes Seán Ó Faoláin's sobering conclusion that writers as great as Chekov and de Maupassant will be remembered for a mere handful of their stories.  The same, he avers, is true of Mary Lavin and suggests that the stories of hers that endure include: The Will, Happiness and The Becker Wives.  Lavin herself considered The Will to be her best story.  Some may find the heroine's hysteria a little unconvincing but then the torments of Purgatory don't seem as alarming to us today.

Lavin's own story is an interesting one.  Born in the USA in 1912 to Irish parents, and transplanted to rural Ireland when she was ten, Lavin retained an outsider's beady eye for the foibles of the middle-classes in our small towns.  She enjoyed a conventional education in Loreto College and afterwards at UCD.   After a spell teaching she married William Walsh.  He died in 1954 a mere eleven years after their marriage and left the writer with three young daughters and a farm in County Meath.  She was so overwhelmed with grief that she was unable to write for the next four years.  After 15 years of widowhood, and stories about widows, she married her childhood sweetheart Michael Scott, a laicised priest.  The next 20 years or so were the happiest and most productive of her life.  Her mews in Lad Lane became a haven for writers as disparate as the lionised Frank O'Connor and the young, unpublished John McGahern.  She was a familiar figure around Baggot Street, stocky and serene, always dressed in flowing black.  After Scott died suddenly in 1991 she went into a steep decline and died in 1996.

Although she had a modest reputation at the time her first husband died, the real change in her fortunes came when she began to have stories accepted by the New Yorker in 1958.  This happened through an intervention by an unlikely source.  She had been writing to J. D. Salinger about the American market and he encouraged her to submit stories to them, just as Frank O'Connor and Maeve Brennan had done.  In addition Salinger, a made man at this stage, wrote to William Maxwell the fiction editor suggesting Lavin as a contributor.  This resulted in 16 of her stories being published by them over the next 18 years.  The essay by Gráinne Hurley on her relationship with the New Yorker gives a fascinating account of the degree of intrusion that they practised and she permitted.  That she had to abide by its rigorous house style is not unexpected.  That she allowed wholesale excisions (15 pages in one case) is surprising.  But that she actually removed or changed characters at her editor's behest is a tad disturbing - turning some of her stories into virtual collaborations.  I suppose a young family trumped artistic preciousness.

She used her own family and circumstances as source material right through her career.  Happiness is a prime example.  In it a widowed woman with three daughters enjoys a close relationship with a priest, who visits regularly and even stays overnight occasionally.  The family are not in awe of him and treat him like any regular man.  In a racy touch, unusual for Lavin, the widow even moves around the house in her slip in front of him.  Lavin famously was never banned, unlike almost every one of her worthwhile contemporaries.  This deviation from her usual decorum may have been as close as she ever got.

Mary Lavin's centenary year in 2012 passed with barely a ripple.  There were a few low-key events in Navan Library.  The death of her daughter, the journalist Caroline Walsh, may have cast a pall over any planned celebrations. Her Selected Stories is out of print. This is a shame.  It would have been a good time for an enterprising publisher to produce a new selected stories and so help to revive interest in this neglected chronicler of small-town Ireland.

Irish Academic Press
222 pages

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Hunt Mueum and the Nazi Hunters

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 11 August 2013:

John Hunt
The Man, the Medievalist, the Connoisseur

The mean-spirited, and unsubstantiated attack on John Hunt's reputation by the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) has already been repulsed by US academic Lynn Nicholas's report - commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy in 2007.  This book routs any stragglers.  The original attack came in 2003 in the form of a letter from the SWC to President Mary McAleese.  It suggested that the Hunt Museum contained items looted by the Nazis from Jewish families.  Various investigations and reports failed to find a single item that substantiated this accusation.  Nicholas's report in 2007 described the SWC's allegations as "unprofessional in the extreme".  President McAleese administered the coup de grace when she declared that "The SWC had diminished the reputation of the late Simon Wiesenthal".

But the SWC weren't letting go.  In 2008 it published The Hunt Controversy:  A Shadow Report by Erin Gibbons, a BA in History and Archaeology, based in Galway.  This time the attack had moved from dubious artefacts to dubious friends.  A lot of the report chronicles the people with whom Hunt dealt over the years and infers that he shared their political beliefs.  One example (from numerous others) of the quality of the 'evidence' employed by Erin Gibbons and the SWC was the suggestion that Hunt was close to Adolf Mahr, Director of the National Museum of Ireland, and undoubtedly an ardent Nazi.  This closeness consisted of three letters exchanged between 1933 and 1939 concerning items Hunt was trying to sell to the National Museum.  Mahr dealt personally with all acquisitions so Hunt as an art dealer had no option but to deal with him.  He was also dealing with the directors of the Victoria and Albert and the British Museum during this period.  The Irish Military Intelligence files (all of Mahr's mail was intercepted) from the period do not contain any personal correspondence between the two.  Also, Hunt's name does not appear in Mahr's list of 43 "dependable friends" in Ireland.

The real mystery behind all this is motivation.  Why would they attack such a man?Certainly he made good money trading but even a cursory study of his life shows scholarship, dedication and enthusiasm far beyond mere avarice, and a benign indifference to political matters.  The art historian Ciarán McGonigal, who has a skeptical view of the quality and provenance of the Hunt collection, concedes that Hunt's love of archaeology and antiquities was genuine and that he was "a man of immense personal charm".  If there is a chink in the armour of righteousness that surrounds the Hunts it lies in their alleged involvement with a group of smooth operators from Sotheby's in the infamous dispersal of the Pitt-Rivers collection.  It's a murky story involving the making of copies and the selling of originals from the embargoed collection, which was housed in a Farnham museum.  Nicholas Shakespeare, in his biography of Bruce Chatwin, suggests that the Hunts had connections with this group.  Sotheby's remarkably maintained no archives prior to 1972 so much remains in the realms of speculation. Shakespeare also makes it clear that despite these dubious transactions the Hunts did not share Captain George Pitt Rivers fascist politics and that he was "not aware of any evidence of anti-Semitic views on their part".  On the contrary they had made repeated efforts to smuggle a Jewish family (Philip and Anna Markus) out of Germany before the war broke out.  A converted Catholic, Hunt was very religious and carried a crucifix on his person at all times.  The letters and testimony of friends confirm his utter integrity and various institutions around the British Isles can vouch for the generosity of his bequests.  Whither the villain?  And why the witch hunt?

It would be a shame to let this controversy overshadow Hunt's many achievements and his colourful life-story.  The O'Brien press have pulled out all the stops in a richly illustrated and beautifully designed volume.  While Brian O'Connell's take on Hunt verges on the hagiographical occasionally, he nonetheless has a fascinating tale to tell and is not afraid to dispel some myths.  He clears up any lingering doubts about Hunt's family origins.  Despite what was generally believed, and perhaps encouraged by a Brit living in Ireland in a politically fraught time, Hunt had no direct Irish antecedents.  After building up an antiques business in London, himself and his wife Putzel moved to Ireland before the outbreak of World War Two.  His wife was German and they feared, needlessly according to O'Connell, her internment.  They left their Buckingham mansion at Poyle Manor and moved into a modest nineteenth-century farmhouse on the edge of Loch Gur in Limerick where they lived for the next 13 years.  This was a convenient base from which Hunt could embrace his passion for archaeology.  He got involved in various excavations as an unpaid assistant to Professor Seán P. Ó Ríordáin from UCC (where he also completed an MA in Archaeology).  Following various digs he moved on to an ambitious scheme to renovate Bunratty Castle for use as a tourist attraction in the region.  He undertook this demanding assignment with no salary apart from the provision of rudimentary living quarters.  It resulted in an obscure ruined castle on the Shannon being turned into Ireland's biggest fee-paying tourist attraction outside Dublin.

But all the while he and Putzel were continuing their dealing in antiquities, and building up a formidable private collection.  A feature of Hunt's dealing life was the number of unsolicited gifts he made to various institutions, always aiming to house artefacts where they rightly belonged.  While you could argue that this was greasing the wheels for his commercial transactions with the same institutions, he was clearly not a money grubber.  His character, as evidenced by this biography and by the numerous letters and friends quoted, was one of extreme probity.  One example of this probity and generosity was the returning of a priceless miniature altar piece, once belonging to Mary Queen of Scots, to the Jesuits who had originally been gifted the precious object by the condemned monarch.

His final act of generosity was to bequest his personal collection to the State. The Hunt Museum in Limerick is a fitting monument to a gentle, scholarly, and hard-working man.  Looking through its collection recently it struck me how many crucifixes and Christian artefacts it contained.  Hardly the kind of objects you'd acquire through the looting of Jewish households.

The O'Brien Press
Pages: 335
RRP: €29.99

John P. O'Sullivan

Friday, August 09, 2013

Iris DeMent at the NCH

Iris DeMent with Pint and Fan
What a treat.  A simple unvarnished country gig from a singer who's up there with Patsy Cline - although she sees Tammy Wynette as her musical exemplar.  She cut an unglamorous figure - looking dumpy in a shapeless dress accompanied by the compulsory cowboy boots.  Her strong characterful face was hiding behind stern librarian's glasses.  She was clearly nervous at the start and said so.  She played piano mostly but did a few numbers later on guitar.  They were all her own compositions and largely new to me.  An 8-minute version of the slow and anguished Out of the Fire was the highlight, though Before the Colours Fade ran it close.  She hung around afterwards drinking a pint of Guinness and chatting amiably to her adoring fans.  (A full house by the way). A class act in every respect.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

National Calamity: Othello without Othello

Booking a matinee for a prestigous London theatre production with a star cast is always a risk.  There is the clear and present danger that one of the leading luvvies shirk the demands of doing two shows in a day. Precious pets.  Matinees also of course provide the opportunity to blood an understudy for future eventualities.  And so it predictably proved at the National Theatre in London last Saturday.  Near the entrance to the stalls as we made for our seats was a discreet A4 notice informing us that Adrian Lester, playing Othello, was indisposed and that a Zackary Momoh would be his replacement.  Now Zackary is a fine fellow no doubt but not the name that would have induced you three months earlier to book the play.  When you decide to book the theatre, your decision is based on the play, the company, and the cast.  Othello is essentially a two-hander so you look to the parts of Iago and Othello:  Rory Kinnear as Iago and Adrian Lester as Othello, brilliant, I'm going.

The play was still a delight - Shakespeare done to a turn.  Iago is the engine that drives the action and Rory Kinnear, playing it as a chippy subaltern, was superb.  It was staged in a 1950s style setting with the cast wearing Army style fatigues and acting very much like a bunch of British squaddies in Cyprus.  The set  design was a miracle of neat scene shifting  -  interlocking mini-stages rotating into the foreground.  But. But. Momoh declaimed his lines readily enough - although muffling some including, unfortunately, my favourite one about the "base Indian" throwing away a pearl richer than all his tribe.  However, he crucially lacked charisima.  How could such a tame presence have won the love of Desdamona with his tales of derring-do and impressed his Venetian master?

Checking out Adrian Lester's Twitter feed later I noticed that he would be doing the evening performance.  Nothing too serious then unfortunately.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Photographs from a Doomed Vessel

An slightly edited version of the following piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 4 August 2013:

Doug DuBois
It's tempting to look for parallels between Father Browne's recording of life aboard the Titanic in 1912 and the exhibition Uncertain State In the Gallery of Photography.  The doomed ship and the doomed ship of state.  Both disasters generated by greed and hubris.  However the judicious Jesuit departed his vessel at Cobh while the ten photographers in this show are stuck on theirs for the duration of the voyage.

These photographers are described in the attendant blurb as "photographic artists".  Whether photography can be considered art has been a  perennial question since the new medium emerged 180 years ago.  In 2012 the National Gallery in London finally gave the upstart its due with its first major photographic exhibition Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present.  Our own RHA began admitting photography less than 10 years ago and it has since grown into a major part of the annual show - with a dedicated room to itself.

But art photography is, in the words of photographer Jeff Wall, a "photo ghetto" of niche galleries, aficionados and publications.  Photography's universal appeal is as a recording medium and the emphasis in this show is very much on showing how things are without being artful.  In fact many of the images would seem banal if we were unaware of their context.  Only Una Spain's beautifully composed images and Doug DuBois'  stage-managed studies venture fully into that ghetto.

The show is arranged around ten themes, one per artist, mainly relating to our busted economy, our human rights abuses, and the sheer misery of being poor and urban. Nine artists are named but the tenth, responsible for Asylum Archive, remains anonymous - for good reasons perhaps.

Not all the themes address the state of our nation directly.  Pete Smyth's A View from the Dearth seems more to depict the ravages of time - albeit time lived on a council estate in Tallaght.  He photographed a number of residents in 1988 and returned 21 years later to record their current appearance.  Some were gone, some were dead, but a couple of those who remained seem to have had it tough in the interim. The cheerful equanimity of 20 odd years ago had been supplanted by a wary and world-weary resignation.  There is something prurient about depicting such decline.   You feel the lash of Susan Sontag's critique of photography which, she claimed, imbued people with a "chronic voyeuristic relation" to the world around them.

Eoin O'Conaill's Reprieve and David Farrell's An Archaeology of the Present tackle ghost estates and arrested development projects. O'Conaill deals with spaces where the ground has been broken but nothing has been built.  Traces of machinery tracks, or the odd irregular mound, suggest the passing of something intrusive that has moved on.  In some cases there is just emptiness - a flat, weed-littered space has the ironic title 32 Residential Units and 18 Apartments in 2 Blocks.   Farrell's estates have been built but are deserted and devoid of infrastructure.  Hotel, Murrisk shows us the beautiful view from the window of an abandoned hotel.  One piece by Farrell, Sixmilebridge, Clare, is a striking surreal image of a model cottage on a wooden jetty.  It doesn't seem to chime with his theme but maybe I missed a metaphor.  Paddy Kelly also displays deserted spaces in Bogland but these are locations where late the Provos trained.  One picture of dank wooded clearing enveloped in mist has a particularly sinister frisson.

The Asylum Archive is a disturbing account of a problem that gets little attention in the media.  There are 35 Direct Provision hostels around the country where the State provides basic food and shelter to those who seek refugee status in Ireland.  These unfortunates are cut off from the rest of society while their claims are processed.  Their only discretionary spending is the €19.10 a week they get from the Government.  The images show a series of bleak isolated buildings - some, like Ballymullen Barracks, suggestive of concentration camps.  These photographs indicate that our talent for institutional abuse isn't quite lying fallow.

Una Spain displays two striking images enhanced by light boxes: a coil of unclaimed wedding rings - mostly similar gold bands - and two poignant pipes.  However the most fascinating part of her exhibit is the album of photographs from the disused St. Brigid's psychiatric hospital in Ballinasloe.  In addition to the various deserted cells and facilities depicted she has recorded extracts from old diaries and medical books of the period.  We are advised that "men are more prone to feeble-mindedness"  than women and that "self-abuse and any form of dissipation predispose to melancholia".  Useful to know.

It's not too often you see a Union Jack mop.  Lauren McGookin, a Belfast-based documentary photographer, takes us into the homes of the Loyalist community.  Amidst the photographs of domestic kitsch and playfulness we see the ugly clutter of an insignia filled hall. Aesthetics are not a priority in those parts.

Kim Haughton's In Plain Sight documents victims of abuse and some of the locations in which the abuse took place: a banal terraced house and a creepy country lane.  The victims themselves seem to share a kind of sad forbearance - it's hard to know if we  project this or if it's captured in the image.

Doug DuBois is an American photographer who has spent his summers in Cobh, recording teenagers on the cusp of adulthood.  Another kind of uncertain state.  His theme, My Last Day at Seventeen, depicts those lazy, hazy, crazy days before kids and jobs kick in.  The bravado that will pass.  These, along with Una Spain's, are the most artful images in the show.  Bonfire in Russell Heights shows a dark ominous cloud of smoke looming over a trio of teenage boys, turned away and unaware.

Paul Nulty's I'm Looking at Our Place is a study of disillusionment.  His mother, a long-term emigrant, returns to the Midlands from London only to find that she no longer fits in.  An ugly terrace of houses and an unhappy-looking woman standing on a pavement capture the broken dream.  The fair has moved on.

Uncertain State does not make for comfortable viewing.  The overall tone of the show is unrelentingly bleak: failed aspirations, blighted lives, dismal ends.  The tourist throngs sunning themselves outside in Temple Bar should absent themselves awhile from the  paddywhackery and come inside for a cold douche of the real Ireland.

Gallery of Photography
tel:  01-6714654

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Sun:  1-6pm

Monday, July 15, 2013

Gerard Dillon and His Friends

Gerard Dillon:  Self Portrait
The following article appeared in a slightly edited form in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 14 July:

Gerard Dillon wasn't gay, he was queer.  These terms from different eras signify a radically different attitude towards homosexuality.  To be gay is to celebrate your sexuality, to be queer is to harbour a guilty, and possibly criminal, secret. Dillon's homosexuality was evident to all who knew him but it was never something he was comfortable with, or open about.  The artist's grand-nephew, Martin Dillon, recalls that after his death he found a diary entry describing an encounter that place in the Dublin docks.  It reeked of guilt.  His sex-life was carried out furtively far from the salons and soirees of his art loving friends.   His hyper-religious mother was another good reason for extreme discretion.  It would have been anathema to her.  All this would be historical tittle-tattle if it were not for the fact that many of Dillon's paintings can be understood better when we are aware of his sexual orientation.  It may be overt in Catching Crabs and Curfew, and you don't need to be a super sleuth to get the in-joke in Cottage Gable, but elsewhere the indicators are more subtle.  His nephew believes that his homosexuality was "central to his art".  This may be an overstatement but it's certainly a factor worth bearing in mind.  The painting on the cover of the catalogue, Self Portrait with Cigarette, will be relished by all connoisseurs of camp.

Gerard Dillon's first one-man show took place in the Country Shop on Stephen's Green in 1942.  Now, just down the road from that location, Adam's is treating us to a compelling and extensive retrospective exhibition of his work.  The show will move to the Ava Gallery on Clandeboye Estate for the month of August, as part of the music festival there.  The theme of the show is art and friendship and Karen Reihill's illuminating and very well-illustrated catalogue essay (a taster for her planned book on the subject) traces Dillon's friendship with a wide range of fellow artists.  These included Mainie Jellett, Dan O'Neill, George Campbell, Arthur Campbell, and Noreen Rice.  Fine examples of the work of these friends are displayed downstairs while the Dillon show fills the upstairs room.

All of these friendships were platonic but very important to a gregarious man who never enjoyed a close long-term relationship.  However, in the case of Dan O'Neill the walls between Dillon's worlds were breached.  It's reasonable conjecture to suggest that Dillon was in love with O'Neill for much of his life. They shared the same working class background in Belfast, both worked in blue-collar jobs (Dillon as a house painter, O'Neill as an electrician) and they had the same artistic vocation. For a while they were very close.  That O'Neill with his matinee idol looks was an enthusiastic womaniser seemed not to be an issue.  However, when he married Eileen Lyle in 1948, Dillon was devastated and their relationship never fully recovered.  Over the years Dillon rebuffed numerous attempts by O'Neill to recapture their former closeness.  When O'Neill tried to visit him during his final illness, Dillon would not allow him in to the room.  O'Neill's alcoholism may also have been a factor in all this.  After his death, numerous photographs of O'Neill were found in his belongings.  These included some that had been cut painstakingly from group photographs.  In addition, he used O'Neill's likeness in many of his paintings (see The Cottage Window illustrated).  His friendship with the Campbells however was perhaps the most important and enduring of all his relationships.  He set George on his artistic way, holidayed in the West with him frequently,  and Campbell's wife Madge, while casting a cold eye on his sexual leanings, looked after his financial affairs for much of his career.

At the age of 18 Gerard Dillon left his Falls Road home in Belfast and moved to London to join his brother.  This was a flight towards freedom away from the narrow streets and narrow minds of pre-War Belfast.  Living with a strict religious mother and a weak alcoholic father cannot have been easy (although not necessarily a surefire recipe for homosexuality as James White suggests in his biography of the artist).  He joined his brother Joe who got him a room in the boarding house of the Italian family with whom he was lodging.  Dillon was introduced to the son of the family Pino Saglietti.  This was an auspicious encounter for the young house painter.  Pino, a hair stylist, was a man of culture.  He introduced him to the world of opera and of fine art, and was his guide around the manifold delights of London.   He also had an extensive collection of art books that Dillon was encouraged to explore. This was one of the key friendships in Dillon's life and it shaped his future.

A happy accident in London also pushed Dillon towards his destiny.  While painting an empty house one day he came upon an abandoned collection of oils and brushes.  He cleaned up the brushes and began to use oils for the first time.  Since childhood he had sketched and painted watercolours constantly but it was his first exposure to that medium.  Dillon returned to Ireland in 1939 for a holiday but found himself stuck in Belfast after the outbreak of the Second World War because of travel restrictions.  Moving down to Dublin he found a thriving artistic scene and became friendly with Basil Rákóczi (another homosexual artist) and the White Stag Group.  The influence of this encounter can be seen in The Dreamer which is more than similar to Rákóczi's Islander Inishmore.   It was around this time also that he met Mainie Jellett.  (the Adam's show features Two Elements, a particularly fine example of her work).  They shared an interest in Irish legend and Celtic iconography.  Dillon had visited the Boyne Valley and explored the monastic ruins at Mellifont and Monasterboice.  He was much taken by the Irish high crosses and subsequently these would appear regularly in his work.  Jellett was responsible for getting him his first show in the Country Shop.  The opening of the show coincided with the death of his mother in 1942.  A significant moment in his life.  The art world became his alma mater (in the literal sense of "nourishing mother").

Although Dillon enjoyed the company of fellow artists he was generally  independent in terms of style and technique, often to the detriment of his development as an artist.  He was largely self-taught and slow to seek guidance.  James White referred to this trait as an "obtuse refusal to learn from others"  It is often said of his style that it is naive and child-like.  Dr. Brian Kennedy, however, describes it as "faux naive", inferring that this quality was the deliberate intention of the artist.  His knowingness is demonstrated in little throwaway clues such as a Chianti bottle on an islander's dinner table, or the inclusion of tiny Mainie Jellett painting on the wall of a humble cottage.  Dillon has been quoted as saying that he wanted to paint with "a child's directness".   His independence and originality was also demonstrated on a trip to Italy with Saglietti.  When he was taken to see the great Italian masters in Florence he was not impressed.  "I only like modern art" he told his companion.

A seminal moment in Dillon's life was his first visit to the West of Ireland in 1939.  He was to return many times afterwards and spent a lot of time on Inishlacken island, off Roundstone.  One of his visits there was immortalised by James MacIntyre in his memoir Three Men on an Island.  There's an amusing story of the three (Dillon, MacIntyre and George Campbell) stranded on the island in rough weather without cigarettes and Campbell getting increasingly frantic as his addiction gnawed at him.  The West became Dillon's first great theme.  He was often accused of romanticising the West and peddling a stage Irish vision in these works.  His response to this was phlegmatic:  "Is not the West and the life lived there a great strange kind of wonder to the visitor from the redbrick city".

Dillon's life turned dark in the early Sixties and his art from that period began to reflect his increasing preoccupation with his mortality.  Three of his brothers died within the space of four years, between 1962 and 1966.  A painting from that period, The Brothers, shows three skeletons lying underground while a fourth figure, a pierrot, kneels in anguish above them.  The clown and the pierrot become fixtures in his later work and this period is particularly well represented in the Adam's show.  A pierrot is essentially a sad clown and it's a telling indicator of Dillon's state of mind in his latter years.  He was never one to explain his work, believing that the image should speak for itself.  However he had been dabbling in C. J. Jung's work and conceded that these pierrots represented his subconscious:  "They all come from the side of me that's over there".  Dr. Riann Coulter has also suggested that the pierrot's "most significant role was as a symbol of Dillon's identity as an artist and a gay man".  Whether Dillon, who studiously avoided historical influence, liked it or not, clowns and pierrots are also a staple in the history of art.  They go back to Goya and onward towards Ensor and most famously Picasso in the 20th Century.  Maybe he picked them up from the collective unconscious, stimulated by his Jungian readings.

For Dillon and the talented generation of Northern artists who were his friends, it all ended sadly and prematurely.  Dillon died first in 1971 after a stroke.  His intimations of mortality proving all too accurate - he had always said he would die at 55.  The Belfast troubles had a devastating effect on Dan O'Neill's career.  He began drinking heavily again and died tragically in the back of a Belfast taxi in 1974.  He was just 54.  And in 1979 the 62-year old George Campbell went suddenly from a brain haemorrhage.  Golden lads come to dust.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Seán McSweeney: Painter on the Shore

Seán McSweeney and author (Photo: Paddy Benson)
A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 7th  July.

Seán McSweeney hasn't fetched up badly for a lad born in a teeming tenement off Dorset Street. Since 1984 he has lived in the heart of Yeats country: a few miles West of Drumcliffe, near Lissadell.  In the background looms Ben Bulben while further to the south you can see the crested and mysterious Knocknarea.  The Atlantic is down the road.  It's a long way from the Georgian House in  Synnott Place where McSweeney grew up.  And yet it's also a return to his roots.   It's where his mother came from.  She once attended the National School in Ballyconnell that is now his studio.

McSweeney is approaching 80 but his enthusiasm for painting has not diminished.  He had a successful show last October in Taylor Galleries, bucking the general trend by selling 12 pieces, and is already planning a show to coincide with his 80th birthday in 2015.   "I still have a great appetite to make work" he told me on a recent visit to his studio.  "I love the shoreline and want my next exhibition to be based on sea fields and shorelines".  The only concession he'll allow relates to the size of his paintings.  He feels he has not got the strength or stamina to manipulate the larger works these days.

Don't be deceived by the mild and amiable exterior, and the low-key way he wears the mantle of artist.  McSweeney is a passionately engaged painter.  He is also the living embodiment of a tradition of Irish landscape painting that goes back to Jack Yeats and Paul Henry and was continued by Patrick Collins and Dan O'Neill.  McSweeney is unique in the intensity of his vision.  He sees the world, not in a grain of sand, but in the bog land and sea shore close to his studio in County Sligo.  He shows us, in the words of the American poet Tess Gallagher, "Not the cliche of the Celtic mists, but the sour, unpredictable, fecund brew the earth itself can be." He is the chronicler of its seasonal variations:  the frozen winter, the electric green shoots of spring, the festival of summer and the autumn riches. Those vivid splashes of colour in his paintings could be the iris, the orchid, or the ragged robin making their seasonal appearances.

McSweeney's father Patrick was twice a painter: a master painter by trade and a fine amateur artist.  He took night classes at the Metropolitan School of Art and studied under Sean Keating and Maurice McGonigal.  The artist speaks fondly of a painting of Ben Bulben that his father had painted while on holiday with his wife's family.  When McSweeney was five his father was electrocuted in an industrial accident at the ESB.  Compensation was minimal in those austere days:  his mother got £600 and the children had £100 each put into trust.   So the family of six struggled.  His mother found occasional work at the Irish Hospital's Sweepstake, alongside Patrick Collins' mother.   Her family in Sligo provided some respite in the summer months when the children were shipped off to run wild and free around Ballyconnell.  His affection for this part of Ireland is rooted in those childhood summers.

Kindled by his father's example, McSweeney's interest in art was fired at the Hugh Lane Gallery around the corner from his home.  The calm and beauty of this island of art providing a retreat from the hurly burly of life in a tenement shared with seven other families.  McSweeney recalls being particularly struck by Constable - "there was a whole wall of them".  While the imperative to earn a living overruled further education, McSweeney attended night classes at NCAD following his daily round and so began his tentative journey towards being an artist.  He has a strong belief in working at rote jobs that do not sap the creative energy required for art.  He subscribes to Schopenhauer's dictum: "do not degrade your muse to a whore".  Teaching or graphic design were eschewed, instead he found undemanding work as a disbursements clerk with Palgrave Murphy.

In his early career he worked in isolation from other artists.  He is a quiet thoughtful man, shy even.  He lacked the peer group that full time attendance at NCAD would have provided.  Nevertheless he had discovered his vocation and held his first solo show in 1958 at the now defunct  Cavendish Gallery opposite the Gate Theatre.  A seminal moment in his career was the acceptance of a painting at the annual Irish Exhibition of Living Art in 1962.  This was a shop window for contemporary artists and the place where you might be spotted by one of the commercial galleries.  His work was noticed by Cecil King who recommended him to Leo Smith, proprietor of the prestigious Dawson Gallery.  His career was in progress.  Apart from the kudos of being with Ireland's leading commercial gallery, it also provided McSweeney with a peer group - the stable of artists associated with the gallery.   Most of his friends had been childhood companions whose only interest in art was the free drink associated with openings.  The waspish Smith disapproved of freeloaders and at one opening reminded McSweeney that "this is my party not yours".  An early lesson in art politics.  McSweeney recalls seeing Jack Yeats at one of the Dawson's openings but was too shy to approach the great man.  A shame as their artistic connection is palpable.

Like many artists of his generation (before Aosdana and the grants industry) McSweeney did not have it easy in the early days.  After marrying Sheila Murphy (who had to relinquish her good job at the ESB) they moved to Hollywood in County Wicklow in 1967.  There they raised a family and got by without tap water or electricity: the trips to the well and the lighting of the Tilley lamps were daily rituals.  But his reputation began to grow and following a sell out show at the Dawson Gallery he gave up the clerical work to paint full time.  In later years, when sales sagged, he found domestic painting and decorating a relaxing way to earn a living without any psychic cost.  They moved to Sligo in 1984.

McSweeney has often given the impression that his images emerge as he works the paint around, seeking the visual mot juste.  So it came as a surprise to find he uses sketch pads extensively.  He always carries one with him as he wanders his watery domain.  These notebooks contain both sketches and notes relating to colour and to the flora and fauna of his local habitat.  He notes the changing of the guard as the different flowers make their entrances and exits.  He sees these sketch pads as a spring board into a painting.  They allow him to get back out what he took in on his saunters by the sea or the bog.

McSweeney is in the tradition of romantic landscape painters.  He mentions Paul Henry as an influence but it's difficult to connect the airy idealised  world of Henry with the teeming bogscapes of McSweeney.  He shares Teskey's absorbtion with landscape and the sea but he does not follow Teskey's practice of constantly seeking out fresh locales - preferring to continue mining the bog and shoreline outside his studio for images - letting the seasons differences provide him with inspiration.  The closest to him in essence is I believe Patrick Collins, also self-taught, and from Sligo.  While they shared a tendency to use framing rectangles, the American poet Tess Gallagher saw a difference between them also.  Collins would "purposefully blur access to his scenes, as if the world had thrown away its glasses"  McSweeney on the other hand "occupies the moment after Collins, when the world is fully present, yet still inexplicable, mysterious in a clear-eyed way."  Perhaps the closest to him in his feeling for landscape is the Cork artist Maurice Desmond.  They share that pantheistic feel for nature.  It's not picture postcard beauty.  It's teeming, living, dark, and mysterious.

McSweeney seems drawn to literary folk, and they to him.  Dermot Healy is a near neighbour and they meet regularly.  He spoke affectionately of the late Michael Hartnett: "he was afraid to give up the drink in case he lost his talent".  The American poet Tess Gallagher is an admirer and has visited him in his studio regularly.  He has even attracted the attention of that most magisterial of critics Helen Vendler.  Her admiration for his work extended to a poetic and perceptive catalogue essay for a London show in 2003.  She saw in him something beyond the local:  "the seasonal pulsations of the paintings are universal".

McSweeney is passionate about his locale and intense in his desire to record its beauty.  He reflects on the many generations that passed though the classroom where he now works.  There are echoes there of young feet on floorboards and sportive voices. McSweeney recalls one lad who was "master of the shore" - knowing the spots where the lobster lurked and the time to catch them.  Like many others in the area he left to work in the factories of North Acton - his revels ending far from his native shore in the hard-drinking bars of Harlesden.  As I was leaving, we stood outside his studio looking north to Ben Bulben.  I asked was he ever tempted to emulate his father and paint it.   "I'll tackle it some day." he replied, not very convincingly.  Meanwhile he has plans for the shoreline nearby.