Monday, December 17, 2012

Recent Reads - December 2012

The Necrophiliac by Gabrielle Wittkop
A weird masterpiece. It's similar to Lolita in its beautiful language and its depiction of an obsession. Nymphets are replaced by putrefying bodies however.  It introduced me to bombyx. Not for the faint-hearted, but a must read for anyone who appreciates fine writing.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D. T. Max
A sad and revealing account of a truly tortured talent.  He never seemed happy in his own skin despite his huge success. Very good on his academic career and on the parallels between his life and Infinite Jest.  

Beckett Remembering by James and Elizabeth Knowlson
A variety of creative types (Aidan Higgins, Paul Auster, Billie Whitelaw) and personal friends recount their memories of Beckett - not always, but mostly, positive.  He got less difficult as he got older it seems.

Philip Larkin - Letters to Monica edited by Anthony Thwaite
The great curmudgeon unmasked.  These epistles reveal a little-Englander given to moments of tenderness with his lover, and a lot of shy-making tweeness.  The outside world gets short-shrift - Yeats comes in for dog's abuse - and wogs of course at Calais.

Terra Incognita by Nabokov
Three little gems by the maestro, elegantly written and psychologically astute.

Farther Away by Jonathan Frenzen
Book reviews and essays that usually hit the spot.  He's still evidently cross with his friend David Foster Wallace for his suicide.  His fulsome review of The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim sent me off to research a name new to me.

The Boys by Christopher Fitz-Simon
A gossipy biography of Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir.  It's great fun reading of their frenetic life in the theatre  - always on the go, always short of money.  Being rescued regularly by Terence de Vere White. It was only after The Importance of Being Oscar that they could relax financially. Coy about their sex lives.

Review of Harry Kernoff Biography

A slightly shorter version of my review (below) of Kernoff's biography appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 16th December 2012:

Liberty Hall by Harry Kernoff

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Brazen Persistence on the Vico Road

Phantom Gallery
The Donnellys are nothing if not brazenly persistent. The application to have their phantom gallery on the Vico Road rezoned for residential use has been firmly rejected by DLR on multiple grounds - not least the fact that the land was originally zoned for recreational use only. However, they are now appealing to an Bord Pleanala on the basis that their edifice has great architectural merit and that they will provide art from their personal collection for public delectation in some other gallery in the borough. The architect in question has, it seems, designed building for Armani and Kayne West. They also mention the fact that Bono created his drawings for Peter and the Wolf on the premises.

There are a number of problems with all this. Whatever the merits of the architecture (and I think it's brutal), the building can only be seen properly from the sea, or maybe glimpsed from the beach at White Rock.  So it's not as if the honest burghers of DLR are going to able to feast their eyes on its minimalist charms as they go about their daily round. The idea of loaning paintings for public viewing suggests that anyone who disagrees with a planning decision has merely to come up with a suitable way of compensating the council to gain a reversal. The planning laws only apply to the little people, the wealthy can find a way around it. Not a popular message these days I feel. As for Bono's activities, I think we can forgive him and move on.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sleeping with Emma - Barcelona Weekend

Las Meninas - Picasso
We escaped the mid-Winter doldrums for a weekend in Barcelona.  No specific agenda except a little light tourism and some shopping and eating.  We found a decent hotel between Passeig de Gràcia and d'Aribau - away from the Ramblas frenzy.  It was called Room Mate Emma and had a sign in the window asking "Do You Want to Sleep with Me".  This marketing come on led to the occasional misunderstanding.  I met two bewildered Russian men outside one night who clearly assumed it was a particularly brazen brothel.  Far from it.  A clean well-run place with a modern kitschy feel to the design, and the grace to serve breakfast until midday. The staff were mostly very helpful young women - all fluent in English.

Passeig de Gràcia nearby is Barcelona's equivalent of Regent Street, or 5th Avenue, lots of expensive stores but also fine design and craft to be found.  Its broad pavements boasted some excellent sidewalk cafes from which you could view the local ladies parade their charms. Long straight dark hair, strong features, and a generous arse seems the standard issue. 

The Sagrada Familia is nearby we decide to check out progress - it's been 12 years or so since I last saw it.  There's no question of going in as there's a queue right around the  building - anyway the exterior is the most interesting part.  There's far more building activity this time - cranes on the go and workers spread all over the site. There's been many colorful additions (fruit clusters) and lots of fresh looking stonework.  But the whole area is circled by huckster's stalls and stressed-looking tourists doing the dutiful thing so we move on after a cursory circuit.

We have been using the Metro so we head off to the Picasso Museum near the Jaume 1 station - on the east (and less-populated) side of the Barri Gotic.  There's enough in there to divert you for a good two hours.  It's laid out in strict chronological order so you can trace his development as he moves from Malaga to Barcelona and ultimately Paris. However there it stops (somewhere in the 1920s) until we are suddenly cast into the midst of studies for Las Meninas in the late Fifties. There's only occasional evidence of Cubism aside from his take on Velasquez's masterpiece - no bad thing maybe. I was particularly taken by the beautiful minimal and poignant Dying Horse.  A notable curiosity was his copy of Velasquez's Philip II.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Kidney Trouble

So the first opportunity to look at our rugby team after the New Zealand debacle.  This was a second string South Africa at the end of their season, so surely we should have a good chance - we're fit and fresh after a couple of Heineken rounds.

But what a poor and disappointing encounter.  The spirited physicality couldn't mask the tactical cluelessness. Did we ever even come close to scoring a try?  No we didn't despite having about 60% possession.  Our lineout misfired and our scrum surely creaked but in general our forwards manned up and matched the Boks physically. The backs however lacked all creativity against an admittedly stifling South African defence.  Nary a one of them played well.  Zebo kept missing touch with his much vaunted left foot, Bowe and D'Arcy were anonymous (a few fine tackles mind you), Trimble was fumblingly out of sorts, Earls huffed and puffed to no avail (and made mistakes), Sexton took his goals but otherwise seemed out of it and as usual Murray was way too bloody ponderous.

It's hard to know where to go from here with our backs.  Kearney's return will help, but D'Arcy is over the hill, so perhaps is O'Driscoll now, and I still can't see Earls as an international centre.  Bowe and Trimble haven't played well for a while and Murray is too slow, it's only a matter of time before his predictable box kicking ends in disaster.  As a short term measure I'd play O'Gara at out half, Sexton and McFadyean in the centre and Earls and Bowe on the wings.  And Reddan of course at scrum half.

And another thing, Jamie Heaslip is living on past glories.  O'Brien, Ferris and O'Mahoney (at 8) should be our back row in the 6 Nations, with Henry on the bench.

And yet another thing, Kidney is clearly past his sell by date.  Why do Leinster do so much better than Ireland with many of the same personnel?  The Pres boy is sadly lacking in attacking ideas. Being a good manager is not enough.  Oh Warren Warren why did we forsake you.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Mutual Adoration

Writing is a hard and lonely business and I salute all who strive to make a living from it.  However we do expect critical objectivity when we read our book reviews. In last Saturday’s Irish Times (3 Nov) Edmund White reviews Colm Toibin, and is fulsome in his praise.  Meanwhile, in the Wall Street Journal on the very same day, Toibin describes how his friend White introduced him to the delights of gay internet dating sites (!). Too close for critical comfort I would opine.  Also, in the same edition of the Irish Times, John Boyne respectfully admires Roddy Doyle latest novel.  A cursory exercise on Google will show you that Doyle and Boyne interesect regularly on the tight little circuit of Irish writing festivals.  Maybe we're just too small to presume upon balance and objectivity.  Anybody  you might ask is likely to have intersected with the subject of the review at some stage.  Maybe the trick is to stop working authors reviewing one another.  Enlist academics and media folk instead.

STOP PRESS:  I see Amazon has just banned authors from reviewing fellow authors.  Maybe the Irish Times should follow suit.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Man Bites Dogs

Richard Humphreys
Has Labour councillor Richard Humphreys been bitten by a rabid dog? How else can one explain his unprovoked attacks on the Dogs Unleashed organisation. His frothing effusions can be found in the current edition of LifeTimes (South-East) and on his web site:

 He characterises Dogs Unleashed as a "highly organised, well-heeled minority" who generate a "loud volume of noise and misinformation", and later refers to them as "those who scream the loudest". All this about a group that is merely exercising its democratic right to canvass Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown County Council (DLR) about proposed changes to its beach bye-laws.

This decent and responsible group are representative of a wide cross-section of society - and are far from "well-heeled" in most cases (a crime it seems in Humphreys' book). Dog lovers are in fact an amiable and democratic bunch who come from gated mansions, solid middle-class estates, and council-houses.  Far from "screaming", they presented their case in a coherent and well-argued fashion, complete with endorsements from leading vets. A fine example, I would have thought, of local democracy at work.

 The most disturbing part of Humphreys' triumphalist rant is that it fails to mention that the final decision by DLR last week represented not a complete victory for either side but a compromise. Both sides had to make concessions. Dogs Unleashed lost the battle for Seapoint (and its equally well-organised swimmers) but won the right to exercise dogs off leash on Killiney Beach.

Dogs Unleashed has over 5,000 members in DLR. A public meeting in Killiney Castle Hotel drew over 700 attendees. All of them felt strongly about the proposed new bye-laws and did what they could to change them by canvassing their local councillors. This I believe is what democracy is all about and should be applauded by our public representatives, not decried and sneered at. The Labour party is in enough trouble without alienating citizens who express views contrary to one of its councillors. His intolerance of democracy in action, and Tory Boy antics, would seem more suited to some right-wing group.
Tory Boy

Sunday, October 21, 2012

On the Road - directed by Walter Salles

Salles comes with a decent pedigree having directed The Motorcycle Diaries - and this film has the same epic scenery thanks to cinematographer Eric Gautier, who worked on both. The score is also impressive, all jazz and blues with Son House, Slim Gaillard and Ella Fitzgerald to name but a few. Of course the essence of On the Road is unfilmable. It's an unstructured stream of consciousness that only occasionally yields glimpses of coherence. It's largely unreadable. Everybody had a copy in the Sixties but not many did more than dip into it. The idea of the road and the freedom it entailed, especially sexual freedom, was the attraction. The sad fates of both Kerouac (died an alcoholic back living with his mother) and Cassady (dying by a railway track after yet another party) helped puncture that myth. The book was an extended love letter from Kerouac to Cassady and the film does capture this aspect of it. It's also quite dark in places and Salles depicts much of the revelry as forced and desperate. However it ends in bathos with the tramp-like Cassady encountering the newly successful Kerouac on a New York street. This bears no relation to how things ended between them. They grew apart because Cassady was disgusted with the drink-sodden Kerouac and Kerouac in turn reckoned that Cassady had been ruined by LSD. Also, the two lead actors ere far too collegiate and glamorous looking. Cassady and Kerouac were more blue-collar than Ivy League as the photo above shows. All in all though it's mildly diverting.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Portraits of the Artists 3: John Shinnors

This is my profile of John Shinnors first published in the Sunday Times Culture Magazine on 7 October 2012.

John Shinnors 
In October 2003 the University of Limerick unveiled Sean Scully’s monumental Wall of Light at the entrance to the university.  Senior academics from the university, local government officials, and members of the upper echelons of the Irish art scene graced the splendid occasion.  The great man himself was there, closely attended by Barbara Dawson from the Hugh Lane Gallery.  After the various speeches, certain notable guests proceeded to a grand dinner in Plassey House, the president’s domain – a handsome art-bedecked building on campus.  As Limerick’s leading artist, John Shinnors was of course invited to join this select group.  But he was having none of it.  It was time for his nightly trip to the Spotted Dog – his local in Roxborough.  While Shinnors doesn’t bite the hand that feeds him, neither does he bother to give it the occasional lick of affection.  

John Shinnors is arguably one of Ireland’s most successful artists.  All the indicators are in place:  Aosdana, the RHA annual show, the Gandon profile with laudatory essays by Brian Fallon and Aidan Dunne, the IMMA permanent collection, the Crawford collection in Cork, many important private collections, and a substantial RTE documentary: Michael Garvey’s Split Image – John Shinnors in 1997.  He has had a series of sold-out shows in Taylor Galleries over the years, oneof which involved well-documented squabble between patrons jockeying for precedence as the truck carrying the work arrived from Limerick.  Even more significantly his work sells well at auction, unlike many of his contemporaries.  Yet Shinnors remains a maverick on the Irish art scene, someone who doesn’t quite belong. This may be partly to do with the resolutely unclubbable nature of the man – it’s difficulty to imagine him enjoying a bibulous dinner at the RHA for example.  Or maybe it’s something to do with his refusal to take his role as an artist too seriously.  He sees it as a job rather than a vocation and doesn’t engage in too much navel-gazing about the meaning of his work.  Although, ironically, the work itself with its provocative and ambiguous motifs is ripe for speculative analysis.
Shinnors is a popular and respected figure in his native city.  He frequently features in the Limerick Leader and is an active participant in the life of the city – as evidenced in a recent spat with local councillor Tom Shortt.  Comedian Pat Shortt’sbrother was not amused by Shinnors description of some public art as “moronic”.  You will find his work at the university, in the Hunt Museum and of course in the drawing rooms of the Ennis RoadTony Ryan of GPA and Dessie O’Malley were early supporters.  A visit to the National Self-Portrait Collection in the University of Limerick provides an opportunity to see his magnificent, moodily lit, self-portrait.  The template surely for his scarecrows’ noses.  And it’s not all one-way traffic in Limerick.  He sponsors an annual art scholarship, the ShinnorsCuratorial Scholarship, at the Limerick College of Art.  He is also a well-known figure on the streets.  On a recent trip to the Limerick City Centre Post Office to enquire about the whereabouts of his historical paintings (Sarsfield and other heroic local figures) that used to hang there, I met two customers who claimed to know him well and offered suggestions as to the whereabouts of the missing paintings.
The art itself reinforces his outsider status.  It defiescategorization.  He’s certainly not an abstract painter in the Tyrrell mould, nor is he part of our standing army of landscape artists.  He has no truck with the neat “isms” used by critics.  “I’m Shinnorist” he jokes.  You can look at his early surreal work and see the influence of Jack Donovan, or trace the lineage of his chiaroscuro to Georges de la Tour and Caravaggio, as some critics have done.  But his mature style is truly unique.  Figurative elements emerge slowly from what seem initially to be abstract compositions mainly in black and white.  (Shinnorshas famously claimed to use five different blacks.)  He’ll cheerfully talk you through the hidden elements in each piece but it’s more fun to see what you can uncover on your own.  It takes multiple viewings to fully decipher a piece.  Over the years certain tropes recur.  The ominous magpies and the free-wheeling swallows, the disturbing scarecrows, the looming lighthouses, and the looping kites.  And always the stripes: badgers and cats, railings and washing lines.  The best of his work has a dark expressive quality – haunted and mysterious.  What the critic Brian Fallon referred to as “spookiness”.  This is particularly true of his scarecrow heads with their gaping socketsThe series of these heads he completed in 2002 are one of the highlight of his career, and one of the most impressive achievements in contemporary art in this country.  Unfortunately they have disappeared into a corporate collection and have barely been viewed by the general public.  Occasionally there is a purely decorative piece, such as Cat’s Home (1999) or some of his Friesian paintings, but these are exceptions.  He’s no formulaic artist rehashing a bunch of worn-out motifs.  He is constantly breaking out in new directions, finding fresh inspiration around him.  His regular visits to DunAengus inspired a series of large paintings that captured the striking beauty of that magical place from a unique birds-eye perspective.  This was a literal work (no shadowy ambiguity),simple and powerful.
When asked about influences he paraphrases Monet: “what I see around me is my guide”.  He is inspired by those sudden visual encounters that can happen anytime and will be the catalyst for aseries of paintings.  Shinnors is keen to assert that his recurring motifs are grounded in real-life incidents – as if he is eager to dispel any fanciful interpretations of his work.  The scarecrow was first spotted in a neighbour’s haggart, the kite on a holiday in Kilkeeand the lighthouse on a day trip to Loop Head.  He encountered the migrating swallows trapped in an old keep where they were rescued, he tells us, by our brave artist and his Harris hat.  His stimulus could be a herd of Friesians, a line of black-clad waitresses, or a magpie circling St. John’s Cathedral.  Or it could be (as in his current show) a circus tent glimpsed through railings on the Roxborough Road.  
Shinnors spent 18 months at the Limerick College of Art under the loose tutelage of Jack Donovan.  He left prematurely for London – for freedom and for financial reasons.  After the London hiatus and a variety of casual jobs he returned to Limerick and began to paint.  Initially he was strongly influenced by Donovan’s style.  “That’s the way I wanted to paint”.  He submitted works to the network of small commercial galleries that proliferated in those days – Goodwin’s Gallery was a particular favourite.  These solo forays were reasonably successful and he made a modest living supplemented by some teaching hours at the alma mater he had deserted.  His big break came in 1984 when he won the GPA Emerging Artist award.  The awards ceremony was attended by John Taylor of Taylor Galleries and he was impressed enough to offer him his first Dublin show in 1987.  
His current show in Taylor Galleries (until the 27 October) is his first one-man show since 2007.  It consists of a mere seven paintings, although one of these is the enormous Hoarding and Small Circus, weighing in at a massive 69 x 114 inches.  The other six are all oils on linen measuring 11 x 11.5 inches.  The small pieces frequently focus on nocturnal encounters along of the Roxborough Road, railings and hoardings, a splash of white from a circus tent, shadowy cat slowly emerging from darkness, tail erect.  Shinnors had been reading Jean Renoir’s biography of his father last year and he saw parallels between the influence of the Provencal sunlight on the impressionists and the influence of the artificial light on his own painting.  Hence the subtitle of the show:  Electrical Impressionism.  There are pools of various coloured lights emerging from the darkness:startling red traffic lights, orange sodium lighting, and a variety of lights from the old railway works.  The shocaptures his impressions of the world revealed by these lights. Surprisingly,he mentions Whistler’s work as a possible parallel.  Knowing this you see the connection immediately in a piece like Nocturne San-Giorgio and even more so in Nocturne in Gray und Gold -Chelsea Snow.  Although Shinnors paintings, especially Art Van Leaving (see image)are more confrontational and dramatic than Whistler’ muted work.
Having failed to track down the Shinnors paintings that used to hang in the Limerick Post Office, I eventually met up with the man himself in his studio on O’Connell Street.  I asked him what happened to the missing paintings.  He claimed that he had destroyed them and taken the stretchers for reuse.  When he was starting off as an artist he wasuffering from public indifferenceand eager to get himself noticed.  He had a family to feed.  He spoke to his patron Dessie O’Malley who arranged to get hiswork into that prime location.  When I bemoaned theirdestruction, he smiled at me, “They had served their purpose”.  

Monday, October 08, 2012

Alice Maher: Becoming at IMMA

Silly Hedge 
This exhibition is termed a mid-career retrospective. A description that seems a tad presumptuous about mortality and longevity. In fact on meeting Ms. Maher on the way in I was struck by how fragile and unwell she looked.  The lighting throughout was turned way down rendering moot the labels for each piece. Unless of course you had downloaded the iPhone flashlight app - as I had. It also caused some clumsy blundering about in the darkened warren of rooms.  I'm sure it was planned as part of the overall experience but I'm not sure it worked too well.  I also expect many social plans got disrupted as people failed to find each other in the murk.

But heigh-ho on to the work.  Alice Maher is as avant garde as we get in Ireland.  She specialises in shock and awe and is rarely less than interesting.  I've no doubt many of her pieces are based on esoteric theories from Gaston Bachelard and others but these references are lost on me. I just submerge myself in the visual abundance:  An elegant confection of snail shells, a necklace of sheep tongues, a large ball of brambles filling a cell-like room, etched ostrich eggs as precious as Fabergé, lots of hair, and a damn silly hedge that I nearly fell over. My favourite pieces were the video animations - there were three of them, two going simultaneously on opposite walls of one room - why I don't know.  Initially I tried to watch them like a tennis match but it was too much for me, so I just watched them both separately.  They were all very sexual with a lot of violence thrown in, especially decapitations.  A Freudian analyst would have had a field day.  Disturbed and disturbing - absorbing stuff.

Overall it was good fun but bring a torch and arrange to meet your date outside.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Profiles of the Artists 2: Donald Teskey

This is my profile of Donald Teskey first published in the Sunday Times Culture Magazine on
26 August 2012.

Donald Teskey

Maurice Desmond: The Last of the Munster Romantics

This is an unedited version of my profile of Maurice Desmond first published in the Sunday Times Culture Magazine on 12 August 2012.


Back in the early Seventies, sitting in Henchy’s pub with the late and much lamented Sean Lucey, poet and professor of English at UCC, talk turned to Maurice Desmond’s work. Lucey memorably referred to him as “the last of the Munster Romantics”. When Lucey used the term romantic it was very much the Romantic poets he had in mind. Poets such as Aogán Ó Rathaille with his elegies for the dispossessed, or the English Romantics such as Wordsworth. A man well versed in poems such as The Prelude saw a link between Wordsworth’s pantheistic universe (a world of malevolent nature, of looming cliffs and clutching vegetation), and the dark, existential landscapes of Maurice Desmond.

Back then Desmond did appear the very model of the Romantic artist. His dress was uniform like in its strict adherence to black or dark blue. The moody ensemble capped by the shoulder-length black hair, solidly based on a pair of substantial black boots, and often accompanied by the swagger of a long, black leather coat. Cork’s own man in black. And like the Romantic poets Maurice Desmond was much possessed by death. For many years the suffering of those embroiled in the Second World War – especially those who died at Auschwitz and Treblinka, influenced his work. He created visual elegies and adagios that suggested the very earth and sky were stricken by man’s cruelty and inhumanity. This was more than pathetic fallacy. Desmond felt deeply about these matters. He found troubling Theodor Adorno’s declaration that “after Auschwitz it is barbaric to write poetry”. But he overcame his artistic hesitancy abiding by Adorno’s subsequent assertion that “perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream”.


Desmond’s work was not always thus. When he lived on Sherkin Island in the Sixties he produced a series of golden nudes and later there were waterfalls and Byronic figures set against dark landscapes. You would never describe him as having had a bright palette but the images were more Romantic than tragic. As time passed his vision has grown darker. In his latest show Flanders Fields, running in the Vangard Gallery, Macroom, until the 8th September, Desmond’s concerns move back from the Holocaust to the horrors of the Great War. Over the past number of years he has visited the sites of some of its bloodiest battles, the killing fields of Ypres, Passchendaele, and the Somme. He also immersed himself in the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon. Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est had a particular resonance for him. It nailed the myth that it is sweet and noble to die for your country. It is ugly, grotesque and painful. And a whole generation suffered this fate thanks to blinkered politicians and incompetent generals.


If in some smothering dreams you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,— My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.


Wilfred Owen


These encounters with poetry and place have inspired a suite of paintings that capture the pain, anguish and desolation of those terrible times. In Flanders Field light is crushed between the bloodied earth and a black sky. You can see vague hints of chaos and destruction in the bottom half of the painting, black streaks against the blood soaked earth. A pink mist rises over the gory field, then a band of watery light topped by the doom- laden sky. These paintings cost Desmond an expense of spirit. His attitude to the exhibition is not one of achievement or exhilaration but rather one of relief. He has got it off his chest. The paintings may not be as direct as Goya’s Disasters of War, or the Great War etchings of Otto Dix but they possess the same tragic power.


There is something essentially tragic about all of Desmond’s later work. This is particularly true of this Flanders Fields exhibition. The paintings have a real brooding presence; you encounter them rather than see them, as you do Mark Rothko’s later work. They may seem dark and troubling initially but give them time and you will find solace in them. Nietzsche wrote about this phenomenon in The Birth of Tragedy:


"The metaphysical solace (with which, I wish to say at once, all true tragedy sends us away) that despite every phenomenal change, life is at bottom indestructibly joyful and powerful."

Like Greek tragedy, like the music of Mahler, or Shakespeare’s King Lear, the paintings of Maurice Desmond provide the tragic encounter that results in this metaphysical solace.”


In a thoughtful opening speech to the exhibition, Peter Murray, director of the Crawford Gallery, spoke of Desmond’s “existential landscapes”. He compared Desmond’s work with that of Francis Bacon (also inspired by horror at what man is capable of) and Dan O’Neill; and pointed to interesting parallels with the French artist Pierre Soulages. Murray also noted the introduction of verticals into Desmond’s normally horizontal universe. These verticals are crosses and blasted vines – evidence of the carnage of the Great War. He also saw the “ghost of destruction rising from the ground”. In tackling this theme an added resonance for Desmond may have been the connection with his late partner’s work. Deirdre Meaney died suddenly in France around 10 years ago, amidst the poppies that were her favourite artistic theme. The evanescence of all life and love is captured in a moving poem The Chateau written by Theo Dorgan about their relationship after Deirdre died:


Look with me to the door. Breathe in my mouth and press my lips,

My poppy lips. Remember me, such a rich and true life as we made,

Be proud of me as I have been proud of you, remember these poppies,

This lush and darkening field, this oncoming starry rush of night.


Theo Dorgan


 Henchy’s pub in St. Luke’s is a shrine to the art of Maurice Desmond. There are prime examples of his work hanging all around the pub, accompanied by a couple of pieces by Deirdre Meaney. More than frequently the creator of this work can be found sitting beneath them enjoying a pint of Beamish. Desmond is a witty and articulate companion, with strong opinions on matters political and artistic. On more than one occasion he has been denied entry to Henchey’s for some infraction of the code of conduct that governs this fine Cork establishment. He languishes outside while the paintings console us for his absence. Being denied entry is a recurring theme in Desmond’s life. Despite being one of Cork’s best-known artists, with sell out shows, and a long, and illustrious career there, he is barely known elsewhere. The late Jim O’Driscoll, owner of one of the best contemporary collections in the country (now dissipated through auction) had dozens of pieces by Desmond. His work hung amongst the Le Brocquys, O’Malleys and Croziers that O’Driscoll collected. The merchant princes, doctors, and lawyers of Cork prize his work. But outside Cork, the Irish art establishment is benignly indifferent. He had a couple of successful shows in the Hallward Gallery (now closed) in Merrion Square in 1995 and 1998, and occasional pieces in group shows. Otherwise he has not registered on the Dublin art scene – unlike such Cork artists as Dorothy Cross and Eilis O’Connell. He has never shown at the RHA. After one rejection, this fiercely proud man refused to submit again. The Academy’s loss as well as his. There have been a few efforts to get him into Aosdana, initiated by his southern peers, but these have been defeated by the Dublin/NCAD/RHA nexus that guards entry as fiercely as Cerberus guards the gates of Hell. But Dublin’s loss is Cork’s gain. The Rebel County has always gone its own way, oblivious to the currents of fashion in the capitol. Artists are also regarded differently in Cork. Its standing army of poets, musicians and painters figure prominently in the daily life of the city. People such as Ricky Lynch and Thomas McCarthy are respected contributors to its cultural wealth. An artist can feel appreciated and fulfilled without ever leaving. Years ago I asked John Taylor of Taylor Galleries why he hadn’t shown Desmond’s work. A lot of his Cork clients would have been admirers. Taylor’s response was that “Maurice is a Cork artist”. At the time that seemed a slur, suggesting that he is a provincial artist, but now I see the truth of it. The sensibility is different down south. While Dublin and the Irish art establishment looked across the Irish Sea to the UK or across the Atlantic to the US, Cork has always been more involved with what’s happening in Europe, in France and Spain particularly. The merchant princes that built the city favoured commerce with the Continent, and so do its artists and art lovers. Peter Murray’s perceptive reference to Pierre Soulages, and the more intuitive forms of expression favoured by movements such as Tachisme, place Desmond’s work in the mainstream of European art, outside the Anglophile consensus that dominates elsewhere in the country.


Desmond is a very independent man. He has never been an Arts Council grant sniffer, or wanted that cushy teaching job, or played the networking game. He followed Schopenauer’s dictum “do not degrade your muse to a whore”. Art to him is a vocation, not a job. When the conceptual artists, the video jockeys, and the slap dash charlatans have gone with the winds of fashion, Desmond’s work will endure. Get on the road to Macroom, stop at Quinlan’s high-class craft emporium, climb up the stairs to the Vangard Gallery and behold the work of a European master.

Maurice Desmond

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Donnelly's Folly

Coming home from Killiney Beach after walking the dog I usually take the scenic route along the Vico Road.  The other day as I passed the discreet entrance to the Donnelly Art Gallery I noticed a planning permission notice on the gate.  Bemused I stopped and checked it out.  It appears that Marie Donnelly has applied for planning permission to change the use of the building to residential.

Planning permission for these premises was originally granted by DLR on the basis that it was to be an art gallery, for use by the public.  This palpably did not happen.  It would have been easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than to gain access to the alleged gallery.  Many tried and many failed.  Phoenix Magazine regularly elaborated on these failures.  And I don’t recall a single exhibition ever taking place there.  

The owners should never have been allowed build such an architecturally brutish structure in such a scenic location in any case (think German gun emplacements at Normandy).  They now seek to compound their aesthetic insensitivity, and failure to provide the promised amenity, by changing its official use to residential.  

Monday, September 10, 2012

John Banville and Esther Freud

Esther Freud by Lucien Freud
These two did readings at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire, last Saturday as part of the Mountains to Sea Book Festival.  There was such a predominance of women in attendance that I was forced to ask the usher whether it was a women only occasion.  The book club phenomenon I suppose - although women are more tolerant in general of the pretentious twaddle that sometimes obtains at these affairs.  I was encouraged by Banville's presence as he usually provides a cold douche of realism with a tincture of world-weary cynicism.  He didn't let me down.

The pair were introduced by a luvvie called Dearbhla Crotty in a bright red dress. She was palpably nervous.  Surprisingly for an actress she needed cue cards to perform this perfunctory role.  The format was simple, each writer did a brief reading (around 10 minutes) and this was followed by a Q and A session.  Freud, a leggy, attractive and very English girl went first.  She's Lucien Freud's daughter and I'm afraid I couldn't get her naked image out of my head - I'd seen his painting of her at his recent show in London.  She read from Lucky Break her 2011 novel set in the theatre world, which she knows from experience. Worthy stuff and mildly entertaining I'm sure.  However the problem is in the juxtapositioning.  Banville steps up to the plinth and it's clear immediately that we're in the presence of a vastly superior wordsmith.  He reads from his recent book Ancient Light.  His language is fresh, forceful and free of cliche: "soften the wax of sealed convictions", "wisps of intimation" or when he refers to swallows "inscribing in the sky a series of ideograms".  The mismatch reminds me of that famous back stage scene in the Dylan documentary Don't Look Back when Donovan's fey rendition of Catch the Wind is blown out of the water by Dylan's riposte: an all-guns-blazing version of It's All Over Now Blue. 

And afterwards we get the Q and A where Banville (mainly) responds to soft lobs from the adoring audience.  One or two insights emerged into the man and his writing.  He doesn't do multiple drafts - he refines and polishes each sentence before he moves on, and then the refines and polishes each paragraph.  So when he reaches the end of his first draft, he's pretty well finished apart from a copy edit.  He also claimed not to be interested in character.  All the voices are his own.  He has little interest in humanity, considering it a virus upon the earth that could well be gone in fifty years time.  The only character he expressed affection for was a dog called Rex.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Pauline Bewick at Taylor Galleries

Pauline Bewick is one of those artists at whom the cognescenti sneer.  Graham Knutell could also be included in this category.  They both however share the ability to sell well.  Bewick is not shy about marketing herself.  Even in her seventies she remains a tireless self-promoter - and an amiable old bird to boot.  Her latest wheeze is to get Graham Norton to open her show - not the Taylor Galleries style generally I'd say.  The show itself can be divided into three parts:
  1. There's the usual fauns in fairyland and big-bosomed women, usually in states of extreme languour.  There's plenty of bland wild-life: birds, cats, foxes and even horses. These are all style and no substance.  The kind of stuff that dreamy adolescent girls might draw before they grew up and got sense.  In fact the pastel colours and facile lines suggest children's books to me.
  2. Upstairs we get a bit of a fashion show in one room -  dresses, jackets and suits in bright colours with some decoration. Entertaining if you're interested in fashion and more engaging than what gives downstairs.
  3. The other room upstairs features around 20 minimal line drawings.  This is Bewick showing off her characteristic sinuous curve - to little avail.  One called Leaning Back did catch my eye but not I fear for the right reason.
Overall impression: triteness losing the run of itself.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

This Sporting Life – September 2012

Now that the pumped-up, crotch-centric, jingoistic farce that was the Olympics is over we can focus on ordinary decent sporting activity.

 It is time officially to despair of the Tipperary hurling team.  They are clearly talented (look at John O’Brien’s ball skills) but they lack what Nietzsche referred to as the Will to Power.  Kilkenny have now overpowered them twice in consecutive years with a team no more talented but palpably more driven and determined.  Maybe it’s a case of leadership.  Sheedy won an All-Ireland with much the same team.  Is Declan Ryan just too decent a chap to unleash the beast in this group?

Frankel appears to be an equine freak.  Having carried all before him as a miler he has now come out and demolished a field of superior middle-distance horses (St. Nicholas Abbey amongst them) over ten furlongs in the Juddmonte International.  There is talk of the Prix De L’Arc and moving him up again to a mile and a half.  I would love to see him clash with Camelot but fear that the dreary economics that rule the Coolmore operation will prevail.

Soccer is back and while I despise the whole over-blown farrago in general, I do retain a sentimental affection for Everton, managed (on a shoestring) by that decent skin David Moyes. They have got off to a reasonable start and seem to have a settled squad so who knows.  We will be satisfied with a top 6 finish.

I was idly watching a rerun of the Sopranos recently – the one where Tony’s gambling is getting out of control – he’s losing on football, blackjack, roulette etc.  He’s gets pissed off each time he loses, but the most pissed off he gets is when he doesn’t bet on a game where he had predicted the winners.  How true that is for anyone who has gambled seriously.  It’s the ones that got away you remember.  The same is true of women of course.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

As Through this Life You Travel ...

Isn't it amusing how childishly competitive many really successful men are - successful in the eyes of the world that is.   I can think of a number of CEOs of major companies, chairmen of high-profile boards, and many well got barristers who demonstrate this trait.  It can manifest itself in sport, especially sailing or golf, but it also springs up around art acquisition, or even who gets the last of the canapes. They just can't stop themselves trying to win all the time.  My house, my car, my yacht, my gorgeous second wife.  And they also respond very badly to any questioning of their sheer superiority in all matters.  Petty petulance is always close to the surface.

I was at a party last week in a very smart part of ***.  The attendees included an arrogance of barristers, the chairman of a semi-state, a famously scruffy film director, a once famous property dealer and a host of glamorous women  - a number of them second wives to fat cat husbands.  My involvement with these people was peripheral - I was there as a friend of a friend.  During a lull in the conversation I provocatively asked if anyone in the company had been responsible for a particularly insensitive piece of development that had spoiled the lines of a nearby group of houses. A canopy had been built over a terrace. A small fat man to whom I'd spoken earlier said that it was his doing and what of it.  This guy is *** of *** and well known in *** circles.  When I opined that it was an aesthetic disaster he rejoined that he didn't give a hoot about the opinions of the hoi polloi.  I let it pass for a while.  As he was leaving I stopped him and asked was he going home to polish his canopy.  He seemed to get annoyed at this and said he wasn't interested in the views of troglodytes.  I do tend to react badly to hubris so I moved towards him threateningly (but theatrically) saying "don't fuck with me fat boy".  At which he turned tail and scuttled off to his desecrated domicile nearby.  A chastened chairman.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Cork is the New Athens

Following Maurice Desmond's auspicious opening in the Vangard Gallery, Macroom - his first exhibition since 2005, an exhibition by Donald Teskey of his Gearagh paintings opened in the Town Hall Gallery up the road.  Twenty-two evocative paintings of that mysterious watery wonderland.  And this was closely followed by Eilis O'Connell's exhibition at the Allihies Copper Mine Museum on the Beara Peninsula.  A collection of 20 pieces mostly in bronze or copper in keeping with the region's heritage. Every work a testament to her impeccable aesthetic sense - all well wrought, some mysterious (see image).

Earth Pillow

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Golden Moments

Maurice Desmond hasn't had an exhibition since 2005 so it was good to see him back in the saddle at the Vangard Gallery in Macroom. The show is based on his reaction to visits to The Somme and Ypres and features his characteristic expressionist landscapes, only darker and more brooding.  The gallery is an impressive space above Quinlan's classy craft shop on the Killarney road. Sales were modest for an artist that usually sells out - sign of the times.  Although the show's sombre theme may not have helped.

The crowd was thin, but old familiar faces from Cork were in evidence.  The unfailingly amiable Ricky Lynch (keeping his hat on as always) and his son Reuben, Rory Kelleher psychiatrist, art lover and property magnate, a couple of notable rat-bags, and various family and friends. Peter Murray did a fine opening speech, even throwing in a little Gerard Manley Hopkins to add further grace to the proceedings.

Afterwards we headed for Golden's, opposite the Castle Hotel, as fine an old pub as you'll find in all of Munster. Good beer, good banter, and the most amiable of barmaids. I tried a pint of Murphy's, then a pint of Guinness, and finally a pint of Beamish.  All perfect.  The local Bakers (the Lynches) were in attendance, art lovers all.  We'll be back.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Come Down off Your Throne Frank Murphy

The brother got me a good ticket for last Sunday's Munster Final - Tipperary against Waterford at Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Good competitive match with Tipp's skill prevailing over Waterford's blood and sweat. I do wish Tipp didn't faff about so much in front of goal - often foregoing points by trying to score elaborate goals. The crowd were great, knowledgeable and generous. When Waterford stalwart Tony Browne was taken off late in the match the Tipp supporters gave him a warm round of applause. I noticed Frank Murphy (the legendary Cork County Board secretary) nearby in the VIP section. A vision in beige and white - scimitar snout a-twitch as he surveyed his domain.   I couldn't recognise half the players with helmets now being mandatory. Even the foxy and fiery John Mullane was not immediately apparent. I suppose I could have bought a program.

Cork people are proud of their GAA history - and with good reason. However they should be deeply ashamed of their appalling headquarters. Aside from the excellent pitch, the rest of the facilities are dirty, dismal, and potentially dangerous. The tunnel under the main stand that houses changing rooms, toilets and refreshment areas is way too narrow and unfit for the kind of crowds that attend big matches.  Does Cork not have a fire officer? The teams had to fight their way through the assembling crowd to get onto the pitch. A glimpse of one of the dressing rooms showed exposed wiring and tubing. Not to mention the gross disparity between the home and away facilities. Also, the seats in the stand were designed for midgets. I managed to squeeze myself in but the six foot plus guy behind me was nudging my back for the entire match.  The toilets were completely inadequate (lengthy queues, especially for the Ladies)  - and indescribably filthy. And check out the gym - is that a joke?  And what are the big dirty tyres for?

If Frank Murphy is the most powerful man in Cork GAA then maybe he should get his beige flannelled arse in gear, come down off his ridiculous throne (see below), and do something about this criminally decrepit heap.

Frank's Throne in Pairc ui Chaoimh

A Funeral in Kerry

A first cousin dies, on my father's side, the oldest surviving male from that branch of the family. (I'm next.) So I hie myself south dutifully - but also with curiosity as I see very little of my Kingdom cousins. We arrive in a packed funeral home in Tralee.  The corpse is on display - not looking too good. I'd have given him a bit of colour. Corpses leave me relatively unmoved as they are palpably shells. The family are arranged around the perimeter of the room and we (my two brothers are with me) do a circuit of hand-shaking - hard for us, tedious I'm sure for them.  I have no idea who many of them are - partners and children of cousins and nephews etc.  Then we proceed to a anteroom and wait for the lengthy line of sympathisers to travel the same via dolorosa. It's teeming down outside.

When the whole town has paid its respects (or so it seems), the doors into the viewing room are shut and last farewells are said. The doors open again and eight male family members emerge to shoulder the coffin and slow march down the street to the church a few hundred yards away. They are followed by the hardiest of the mourners. The rest of us divert to our cars and get there relatively dry. At the church we join the sodden funeral party to say a decade of the rosary and listen to a few readings. The main event will be tomorrow.

And then back to the son's house to a laden table (cake, sandwiches, fancy savouries) and an inexhaustible supply of drink. The smokers are undeterred by the cause of death (lung cancer) as they assume a position just outside the kitchen door where the cakes and ale are within easy reach.  A good night ensues.  All agree we should try to meet more frequently, and not just at funerals.  Although funerals may soon start getting more frequent.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Rancid Ruminations - July 2012

Aosdána eh, you have to laugh in order not to cry. What is it for? Maybe it helps out the odd indigent genius but by and large its sole purpose seems to be to piss off those who can't get in.The idea of an artist's union is essentially risible anyway. I like my artists as outsiders pouring scorn on the pragmatic preposterous world - not cosying together in cliques making sure no unruly elements get in. They meet and pontificate to no avail - as in their recent airy effusions on the hare-brained plan to yoke our various cultural institutions together. And their finest hour was surely the election of that irredeemable old fascist Francis Stuart to the position of tSaoi. In recent times I notice they're electing architects.  What's next, pastry chefs?

All this crap about McGuinness shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth. I for one am disgusted with him. How can you call yourself a republican and kowtow to this ridiculous lame-brained privileged anachronism. What's wrong with the Brits that they tolerate her and her ilk? Is it sentimentality for lost glory? How can you be happy to be a subject and refer to someone as "your highness"?  I like to believe that we're all equal and no man is my better by divine right. Confiscate her property and assets for the common weal I say - they need the money.  Give her a nice house and a nice pension (a few horses even) and trot her out to impress the tourists when required. For God's sake grow up.

I do despair of our politicians. Does anyone take anything they say and do seriously. Little Enda trotting around Europe acting as if someone over there gives a shit about Ireland's financial plight. And Gilmore at home suffocating us with blandness - socialist firebrand eh. The Croke Park agreement is a scam - agreed by one weak government, and confirmed by another weak government. It's inspired by fear of the public-service unions and the desire for a quiet life - it's Benchmarking Mark II. And it's palpably unsustainable. The culture in the public service (increments, everyone's great, sickies by right, inflexible work practices,  fat pensions etc.) will take generations to change. We need a purge now. Abolish this ludicrous agreement - let them strike. Courage mon amour.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Peerless Pirlo

Andrea Pirlo's penalty against England has to be one of the finest examples of chutzpah in the history of sport - or any other field of endeavour for that matter.  At the business end of a major tournament, with millions watching, he eschews pace or placement to chip the ball into the middle of the goal - right at the spot just vacated by the diving goalkeeper.  I'm not a soccer enthusiast but that for me was the moment to cherish from the overblown hype of this European championship.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Ostracisation of Michelle de Bruin

The advent of the London Olympics has highlighted again the shoddy treatment of Michelle de Bruin by the Irish media and the Irish sporting establishment. The campaign of vilification and the subsequent ostracisation was led by camogie-loving Tom Humpheries, late of the Irish Times. Some may question his right to occupy any elevated moral ground.  Humpheries was joined by Paul Kimmage whose indignant righteousness on all matters drug-related preclude taking anything he says very seriously - perhaps he is bitter about his mediocre, but drug-free, cycling career.

Here's what I think.  For a lengthy period -  maybe up to eight years ago - the majority of Olympic athletes were chemically enhanced in one way or another.  In some cases it may have been blood doping rather than chemicals.  In that famous Olympic final that Ben Jonson won, and subsequently lost, it was later established that the majority of the field had taken drugs of some kind. Recent Olympics have seen remarkable improvement in at least one British female athlete without any subsequent innuendo - apart from the odd whisper on sporting blogs. In the swimming arena the changing shape of female swimmers in the last thirty years suggested something more than hard graft.  As my mother used to say, they were all at it.  Closer to home our sainted cyclists Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche have both been exposed to more than suspicions about drug use, without the attendant boycotting suffered by de Bruin.

I was delighted to see a prominent figure like Eamonn Coghlan sticking up for her in a recent article in the Irish Times:

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Where There's Hope There's Life

I trekked along to the Forbidden Fruit festival at IMMA yesterday - mainly drawn by the promise of seeing Hope Sandoval and Mazzy Star. The portents were promising. It was a glorious sunny day and the concert site was showing no signs of distress after two days of inclement weather and hard partying. I noticed rubbish collectors in constant motion. The arena was colourfully bedecked with giant flowers and the perimeter lined with food outlets offering sushi, gourmet burgers and all kinds of other goodies. The crowd were mainly in their late 20s I'd say and there was almost no evidence of drunkenness - even late in the day.

We were early so we found a seat looking down on the main stage and settled back to enjoy the sun and the music. I had only heard of a few of the acts but was immediately impressed by Andrew Bird and his band - in fact we left our strategic perch to stand just under the stage. He sang, played guitar, violin, a glockenspiel and even whistled a bit. it's hard to categorise the music but it certainly rocked and he ended with a very impressive version of Townes Van Zandt's If I Needed You.

An amusing side show,  as we watched Bird, was an ever-expanding team of lesbians nearby. It started with a group of four, all in black, all short and sallow with some very ornate piercings (right ears mainly), elaborate head shavings, and bracelets. Two of them were strikingly beautiful. They looked like they had come from New Mexico or somewhere sunny, arty, and exotic. There was a fair amount of physical contact between them - beyond friendly. As time moved in they kept being joined by other small groups, including what looked like a couple of local apprentice lesbians - these lacked the style of the original group. They included one with an unfortunate resemblance to Elton John and a tall, pallid, cropped, very weird looking androgynous creature  - who radiated psychic unease.

Impressed by Mister Bird we stayed to the end and then moved on to the comedy tent. A mixed bag. The MC was plain unfunny - three very drunk, and very young,  girls tried to disrupt things but were crudely and rather cruelly put down. The highlight was a guy called Jarlath Regan - personable and intelligent stuff.

Then on to the smaller tent for the Mazzy Star gig. We got there early and bagged a spot just under the stage. The band as always are  relentlessly cool - incorporating a pedal steel guitar into their hypnotic grunge. As usual the back of the stage is used as a screen for a series of striking and surreal images. Time has not yet transfixed the flourish set on Hope Sandoval. She's still strikingly beautiful and retains that ethereal slightly other worldly presence. She rarely smiles and seems extremely self-conscious - hands on hips, hands behind her back, hands playing with the mike, hands occupied with a tambourine or the maracas. But such beautiful hands - long elegant fingers. And she rarely faces the audience - preferring a side on profile. The expression is one of slight alarm combined with an exasperation at her situation. She's famously shy.  For a flavour of her performance check out:  Try the Blue Flowers video especially.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Annual RHA Circle Jerk

Oh dear, it's that time of the year again. I keep going and I keep getting pissed off by the whole sorry saga. The problem is that it's the only game in town so you have to check it out in the hope that you'll find the odd jewel amongst the shite.

We're told by the bland and inoffensive Aidan Dunne that it's a "great show" and that invitations to members have "been cut back".  This is palpably not so. Thomas Ryan RHA and Brett McEntagart RHA have seven pieces each on display and a whole host of the members have four or five (Potter, Pye, O'Dea, Stein, Roche etc.). So there's the usual predominance of tired academic stuff augmented by the usual group of senior artists, often with NCAD connections. There are of course some new names but it's easier for the proverbial camel to get through the eye of a needle than it is for original talent to get in.

The incestuous self-regarding side of the show may never again reach the peak of a few years ago when there were numerous portraits of members by fellow members including two of the faintly ludicrous George Potter. However we still get Amelia Stein showing a photograph of her fellow member (and partner) Mick O'Dea while he returns the favour in a painting.

There are of course occasional moments of relief from the tedium : Teskey's Gearagh paintings (see image), a large moody Martin Gale and the usual classy work from Eilis O'Connell.