Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Birth of Modernism in Irish Art

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times on 21 April 2019

David Britton’s fascinating survey on the development of modernism in Irish art covers a period when our writers were part of the European avant-garde. Our visual artists however were inclined towards the safe and conventional both in form and subject matter - catering to the taste of the newly-emergent Catholic middle-classes. A taste that favored benign landscapes, rustic idylls and artists such as Paul Henry and Sean Keating. The writ of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) ruled. But in the 1920s things began to change. A number of artists, often Protestant, Anglo-Irish and female began to travel and the old regime was assailed as new forms of art began were explored. The 47 artists chosen by Britton represent the old and the new order. He juxtaposes works by advocates of modernism such as Basil Rákóczi, Mainie Jellett, and May Guinness with more conventional paintings by James Humbert Craig, Maurice C. Wilks and the shamelessly folksy William Conor.

In 1923 Mainie Jellett and her bosom friend Evie Hone returned from Paris full of the joys of cubism – following their sojourn with Albert Gleize.  That year they exposed Dubliners to this brave new world in a group show. This was followed by their two-person exhibition the following year. Dubliners were not impressed. The Irish Times described Jellett as “a late victim to this artistic malaria”. But Jellett persisted with her vision throughout her short life in her teaching, writing, and painting.  She could be seen as the heroic mid-wife who presided over the difficult birth of modernism in Ireland. Jellett’s zeal had a missionary flavour. She maintained that “the art of a nation is one of the ultimate facts by which its spiritual health is judged and appraised by posterity." Evie Hone was a constant ally. She and Jellett along with Hilary Heron, Louis le Brocquy and others founded the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA) in 1943 – arguably the single most important initiative in breaking the hegemony of the RHA.

It is striking how influential the female artists were in introducing European trends into this moribund Irish scene. An important factor was the Taylor Art Scholarship that expanded the artistic horizons of many female artists by allowing them to travel. Before Jellett and Hones’s formative stint in Paris, May Guinness and Mary Swanzy had made their forays into France. Swanzy is represented by the exquisite Sunny Landscape near St. Tropez that shows her at her brilliant best. The males were less adventurous than these pioneering women. One exception was Roderic O’Conor who went to Paris in 1886 and became a close friend of Gaughin’s and a circle of French artists.

One of the show’s charms, and it has many charms, lies in introducing us to some of the forgotten or lesser-known figures in Irish art such as Joan Jameson, May Guinness, Nevill Johnson and the wonderfully named Georgina Moutray Kyle. It also reminds us of some tragic figures like Kenneth Hall who killed himself and Dan O’Neill whose career was blighted by alcohol and bad luck. And who is now familiar with the paintings of Thurloe Conolly? Born in Cork in 1918, he was once considered “in the very first rank of our advanced painters”. He joined the White Stag group and had a successful career showing in New York, Los Angeles, London and elsewhere in Europe. He is represented by A Very Powerful Queen – a weird and wonderful piece that shows the influence of Paul Klee and African art. Cecil ffrench Salkeld is another notable character. In 1924 he took himself off to Kassel in Germany at the age of 17 to study art under Ewald Dulberg. He went on to become a major contributor to the gaiety of the nation in the 1940s and 1950s. He set up the Gayfield Press and in 1954 Founded the National Ballet. His unabashedly erotic Leda and the Swan would certainly have caused fluttering in the dovecotes of de Valera’s prim Ireland. Micheál Mac Liammóir’s Monte Carlo (influenced by Beardsley) might also have raised eyebrows amongst the more discerning. Initially it seems like a harmless trifle with its promenading toffs but when you look closer it’s replete with coded gay references. To punters used to the homely world depicted in James Humbert Craig’s Races at Waterfoot, Maurice C. Wilks stiff and stagey Cottage Interior, or William Conor’s The Street Fiddler these works would have truly shocking.

Sculpture gets a modest look in with four small pieces. We are reminded of the somewhat neglected Hilary Heron. She is another artist whose extensive travels exposed her to outside influences. A contemporary critic applauded her for bringing “ something fresh, diverting, and also very genuine to our inbred world of sculpture.” That something involved African and Sumerian influences and clear indications of knowing her Picasso.

Most of the works in the show come from private collections and so will be unfamiliar to many art lovers. Jack B. Yeats’ enigmatic We Are Leaving Now is being exhibited for the first time in 50 years. It was painted in 1928 and is believed to be a reference to the problem of emigration – a stretch I’d say. Roderic O’Conor’s portrait of his wife Rene Honta is hardly his finest hour – she seems depressed. Maybe it’s because her nose looks as if it was clumsily affixed with a palette knife as an afterthought. Contrast it to the warm and characterful portrait of his wife Madge by George Campbell or the chutzpah of May Guinness’s La Parisienne. There are two striking surrealist pieces by Colin Middleton and Nevill Johnson that owe a debt to Dali. Dan O’Neill’s dramatic homage to Van Gogh, and a tasty William Scott are amongst the many other delights on view in this absorbing exhibition. It runs until August and anyone who has any interest in art should not miss it.

State Apartments Galleries, Dublin Castle

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Lighten up Girls (and Boys)

I’ve been reviewing books and art for seven or eight years now – mostly in the Sunday Times and Irish Arts Review, and occasionally in the Irish Examiner. In that period I have rarely received any hostile response. Indeed I’ve frequently been thanked for my modest efforts. There were a couple of exceptions to this tranquil state of affairs – both relating to book review rather than art reviews. There was an issue with the much lamented Eileen Battersby a few years ago when I described the heroine of her novel as a “prig” and there was also some disagreement about her character’s taste in music – letters were exchanged in the letters page of the Sunday Times. Battersby showed more sensitivity than one would have expected from a hardened and frequently stern critic. There was also some quibbling about a piece I did on a book about the Hunt Museum. Some woman saw Nazis under the bed that were not evident to me and also suggested that I was denigrating her academic credentials – again mild enough stuff.

So nothing had prepared me for the avalanche of insult, abuse, calumny, detraction and downright vilification that descended on me a few Sundays ago following a book review I had written. The review was generally favorable and contained phrases such as: “Her entertaining and briskly-paced debut novel”. Before publication I had shown it to a well-qualified literary friend of mine and his verdict was that the author would be well-pleased with my positive response – notwithstanding a few digs at the overtly feminist agenda (men were responsible for all the evils of the post-apocalypse world depicted). Thumbing through Twitter later on the day of publication I came upon a veritable river of vituperation flowing in my direction. The initial source seemed to be a hint of displeasure from the author who deemed me “sexist” – a view echoed swiftly by her business partner. The main issue seemed an arcane one – at least to someone not versed in the details of post-Apocalypse films. I was accused of being sexist because the headline used my reference to the heroine as a “Mad Maxine” – a nod towards the post-apocalyptic hero Mad Max. However, having only seen the original film I was unaware of a more recent female character in the Mad Max franchise (Imperator Furiosa) to whom I should have compared the heroine. On such trifles apparently do the serried ranks of the sisters go to battle. After the author and her business partner had signaled their displeasure a great army of trolls joined in – all it seems banging the feminist drum. Some of them were male, including the great-bearded  “fiancée” (a quaint old-fashioned concept for a feminist) of the author. Such shows of fealty are routine on Twitter. However, they served to unleash amongst their followers increasingly strident and hysterical abuse. The wild inaccuracy of much of it suggested that not alone had most of them not read the just-released novel but few of them had bothered to look at the review either. One of them accused me of calling all women slave-owners (because I had foolishly responded to one of the male abusers - calling him an “Uncle Tom feminist”) - a stretch I’d say.

I was at first pissed off by all this and eventually bemused at both the scale of the abuse and the manifest hatred and spurious rage expressed by this mob. It’s as if mass hysteria had taken over a segment of literary Dublin. I was somewhat mollified to receive an email from an acquaintance who reviews for the TLS expressing amazement at how such a favourable review could receive such a negative reception. My words had clearly ruffled some feminist sensibilities and this sin trumped the positive review – I had deviated from the path of righteousness. However, I believe another factor was also in play.  In the back-slapping world of book reviewing in Ireland, anything less than total reverence is deemed churlish. (Read the blurbs on every Irish novel published in the last 10 years and give yourself a good laugh at the recurring names that have been overwhelmed by the quality therein.) Perhaps I hadn’t been fulsome enough in my praise, I hadn’t gushed enough. But in truth I had gone easy on a first-time author who is hardly Margaret Atwood but would like to be. The novel was an entertaining read, in a Dan Brown page turning way, not a major literary breakthrough. Incidentally, the aforementioned Eileen Battersby was an exception to the mutual adoration society that is literary Ireland – her reviews were perceptive, honest, and unsparing. But she probably had the sense to stay away from Twitter and its standing army of the easily outraged.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Troubled Vision of Maurice Desmond

An edited version of this text first appeared as an introduction to Maurice Desmond’s work on the Lavit Gallery web site.

Maurice Desmond is much possessed by a sense of the tragic. His last show, Flanders Fields  in 2012, consisted of a series of brooding and evocative paintings that captured the atmosphere of that doom-laden place. These were deathscapes rather than landscapes. In this new show he continues to engage with the bleaker aspects of human existence. The skies are still eerie and troubled, the earth is still reddened with redundance of blood. These are landscapes without a consoling hint of the pastoral - they pulse with dark, entombed memories. But Desmond has always believed that the saddest songs are the sweetest and that we find, as Nietzsche asserted, “metaphysical solace” in art and music through the contemplation of the tragic. We find this in Greek Tragedy, in the music of Mahler, and in Shakespeare’s King Lear. You might think recent work inspired by a visit to Gougane Barra would bring some harmony and solace to counter this troubled vision. However what these new works indicate at best is the monumental implacability of nature – the stony indifference of the universe. While Desmond is now somewhat of an outsider on the art scene, he continues to create work that will endure beyond the current fads and fashions.

Lavit Gallery, Cork.
From 25th April 2019

John P. O’Sullivan
April 2019

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Cheltenham 2019 - Post Mortem

Apart from a freakish piece of good luck on the betting front it is hard to work up any enthusiasm for the final day.  In the first race Sir Erek, the hot favourite and a hugely promising horse, broke a leg in mid-race. The camera mercifully moved away quickly from the frightful image of the poor creature floundering - but it surely ruined my appetite for the rest of the day’s racing. The Gold Cup was of poor quality. The winner Al Boum Photo had won recently at Tramore - hardly the place you’d normally find Gold Cup horses running. It is owned by Joe Donnelly, a classmate of mine in CBC Cork. I commenced my betting career across the road from CBC in his father’s betting shop on MacCurtain Street. Native River ran disappointingly, maybe needing it softer and himself and Might Bite rather cut each other’s throats vying for the lead. Elsewhere I thought Minella Indo was way overpriced for the Albert Bartlett Hurdle so I had a modest each way bet on him and he won comfortably at 50-1. He once again demonstrated that trainer Henry de Bromhead is always a man to consider at Cheltenham. We Have a Dream came second for me in the County Hurdle at 20-1 - undone by his top weight.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Cheltenham 2019 - Day 4 Thoghts

Day 3 was very disappointing from a betting point of view though I made a small profit thanks to Sire du Berlais. My faith in Jessica was misguided. Walk to Freedom ran a stinker in the Pertemps - making multiple mistakes and never getting involved. Supasundae ran a decent enough race but clearly doesn’t stay three miles. Maybe she should have run her in the Champion Hurdle after all. He’s won two Grade 1’s over two miles.

Today I’m just having three bets. In the Gold Cup I’m sure all romantics will want Presenting Percy to win but he’s too short for me and his profile lacks the substance I’d expect. Nichols’ horse Clan Des Obeaux could continue his good run but I’m not sure he’s going too last the distance. I’ve backed Native River at 5-1. Not very original as he’s last year’s winner but he’s tried and tested over the course and distance and this race has been his plan all year. Elsewhere Sir Erek is apparently a certainty for the Triumph but not for me at odds of 4/5. I’ll have a nibble at the County Hurdle though. We Have a Dream is a class above the rest of the field and despite his weight is good value at 20-1. Again I’ll have a saver on Gordon Elliot’s Eclair de Beaufeu at 11-1.