Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Rancid Ruminations: February 2013

Would you listen to all the guff about the new Croke Park agreement. It's all about looking after the senior public servants as always. And don't forget our TDs are in that category. Nothing fundamental will be done about the basic problems of grossly inflated pension provisions, lack of selective redundancy, and absolutely no consequences for inadequate performance. Like Benchmarking, and like Croke Park 1, it's all about keeping one sector happy. This government is throwing sops to the public by merely tinkering with the issues and upsetting the lower echelons like nurses who actually do useful stuff.

Usually the best team win rugby matches, unlike soccer where it's more difficult to score. Ireland however managed to do just that against Scotland on Sunday. How on earth did this happen? Let me count the ways: Jackson couldn't place kick, Heaslip is not a leader, Earls makes one bad decision, Best's lineout accuracy deserted him in the face of concentrated Scottish disruption (new one on me all that waving and distracting), and a number of our experienced players such as Kearney did not perform. At the rate we are going we'll hardly get a player on the Lions first team - maybe O'Brien and Healy.

What the hell is happening with Tipp hurling? It's unspeakable after that abject failure against Kilkenny last August that they should start the League with a dismal capitulation against a callow Cork team. This is the Tipp team that won an All-Ireland a mere 2 years ago and still retains its youthful core.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Portraits of the Artists 5: Brian Bourke

An edited version of this profile appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 24 Feb 2013.

Brian Bourke in his studio - February 2013
There's always been something of the outsider about Brian Bourke.  He was thrown out of NCAD as part of the annual cull and later thrown out of St. Martin's College of Art for deviations from the planned programme of studies.  So he went his own way, unburdened by what was current and fashionable in the art world.  His art school expulsions encouraged him to cut out the middle man and learn directly from the great masters.  He spent his free time at the National Gallery, the Courtauld and the other richly endowed galleries and museums of London.  An encounter in the National Gallery with Antonio del Pollaiuolo's Apollo and Daphne was a seminal moment - it confirmed for him the path he would follow.  And those laurel trees took root in his imagination.  In London he also discovered the newly published Beckett and developed a taste for absurdity. This is an artist so independent that he quit the Independent Artists group because they introduced a selection policy akin to the one he despised at the RHA.  He occasionally courts this outsider image identifying himself with the exiled Sweeney, and the deluded Don Quixote. But there's nothing deluded about Bourke.  He has carved out a successful career in art and supported himself and his large family for nearly fifty years.  Nor is he showing any signs of slowing up.  His new show, opening in Taylor Galleries on 28 February, consists of 43 new paintings - all interesting some masterful.

In 1968 the Cold War was at its bitterest as Dubcek's attempt at liberalisation in Czechoslovakia was crushed ruthlessly by troops from the Warsaw Pact countries.  As war clouds gathered Bourke was going about his business in a forest studio in Bavaria not far from the Czech border.  His sombre paintings of the trees around him from that period were given a sinister edge by the inclusion of low-flying Starfighters.  These Allied fighter planes were keeping a watching brief on Germany's border and as Bourke painted they roared overhead intruding on his sylvan studies.  They were a daily reminder of the fragility of our existence at that time and an intimation of mortality as significant as the skulls he loves to include in his work.  His new show also features aeroplanes flying over woods.  These however belong to model plane enthusiasts in Belmont, County Offaly where one of his sons lives.  They provide a peaceful and playful echo of that fraught earlier period.  

Brian Bourke's first one-man show took place in the Dawson Gallery way back in 1965.  That fabled gallery was run by the late Leo Smith and his youthful assistant was John Taylor. Nearly 50 years later Bourke continues this relationship around the corner at Taylor Galleries in Kildare Street.  Bourke has seen the ebb and flow of the art market, the periods of being in fashion, and of being beyond the artistic pale.  It has been a precarious existence at times. When I spoke to him recently he described feelingly a period at the start of the Eighties when he lived "half-way up a mountain in Connemara, with no electricity or running water".  Bourke and his wife Jay (a fellow artist) had a new baby and the art market was stagnant.  Just when things were at their bleakest, the Aosdana scheme was launched.  With one bound our hero was free.  Colm O'Briain, chairman of the Arts Council at the time, was an admirer of Bourkes.  He helped the artist to surmount the hurdles that led to membership and, crucially, qualification for the Cnuas.  Bourke's career has been punctuated by such timely financial boosts.  The cottage he lives in outside Moycullen was bought over 20 years ago with the proceeds of his involvement in the Gate's Samuel Beckett festival in 1991.  The well-heeled international audience the festival attracted were quick to buy Bourke's associated work which was on display in the theatre.  A past connection with the Gate had given him this opportunity to display his wares and reap the rewards.  He spoke nostalgically of the relationship between artists and theatre folk in the old days.  He was a big admirer of James McKenna's work ("a very underrated man" he opined) in both spheres and of Deirdre O'Connell late of the Focus Theatre.  He pointed out a treasured portrait of O'Connell in a corner of the studio.  Another outsider resolutely following her star.  

Bourke is a great talker and unexpectedly a great mimic.  His stories of the old days in the Graphic Studio Dublin (GSD) are punctuated with hilarious imitations of some of James McCreery's many comic utterances.  He related an unrepeatable anecdote about Eelagh Brady (Charlie's wife) and a large handbag.  Bourke has retained an appreciation of the ladies.  There was a twinkle in his eye when he spoke of the late Mary Farrell Powers who was one of the founders of the GSD.  He painted her twice, showing her long legs to advantage in pieces that are downright erotic.  An attractive woman, many were "in lust with her" he remembered.  He also tells a story of Anne Yeats interrupting a printing session with him because she had to collect Ezra Pound from the airport and bring him to the Hibernian Hotel to meet her mother - the illustrious George, W.B.Yeats' widow.  On returning to the GSD, Anne Yeats described how Pound and her mother had sat in the lobby without a word for an hour or so and then went on their respective ways.  A scene worthy of Beckett.

Brian Bourke is both dyslexic and discalculate and it may be that these ostensible handicaps have helped to make him the artist he is today.  He is quite open about it and confesses his discalculia means an absolute dependence on Jay for managing the household finances.  Many famous artists were dyslexic, including Leonardo da Vinci, Rodin and Picasso. This is  hardly surprising since dyslexia means essentially that the right-hand side of the brain is stronger than the left. Therefore dyslexics are inclined to have more highly-developed visual skills.  In addition they often suffer in an academic environment and so turn to the practical.  He certainly has an appreciation of and enthusiasm for colour that marks him out from many of his more chromatically restrained peers.  I also got an illuminating demonstration of his practical skills.  Bourke uses his studio walls as easels for his larger works.  Our photographer asked him to pose against a couple of specific paintings which we didn't realise lacked the relevant screws for hanging on the wall.  Quick as flash he whipped out a drill, made the holes, inserted the screws and had the two large paintings in position before we could demur.

Occasionally the amiable anecdotalist gives way to pungently expressed opinions when something touches a nerve.  He has no time for alcoholic artists and is quite scathing about anyone who would glamorise that tendency:  Charlie Brady and Brendan Behan were cited.  He doesn't buy into the myth of the tortured genius damping down his fevered brain with drink.  He saw too much of it in Ireland during the Fifties and Sixties.  Another subject that gets him going is overpricing.  He has always striven to keep his prices accessible - even through the boom years.  There was an implicit rebuke here for certain artists who maintain unreasonably high prices even as the art market tumbles. 

When you consider Bourke's work across his career there is a surprising consistency between what he was doing back in the Sixties and what he is doing now.  The locales and the subjects have changed but the current show's major difference from those earlier shows is the general lightening of tone.  A painting such as Apple Tree, Ower, Autumn 2  is positively Arcadian compared to his early work.  He agrees that his palette is not as dark these days.  He worked in a lower key back then he maintains.  He likes to compare colour to keys in music, a comparison not surprising from one who wields a mean bodhran and counts Frankie Gavin amongst his friends.  All the Bourke tropes have endured however:  the preponderance of trees, the disturbed skies, the palette suffused with reds and green, the circular interludes to escape the tyranny of the rectangle (as in Small Apple Tree 1) and the painted frames. His portraits continue to be almost hieratic.  They have the stripped-down formalism of African art - examples of which abound in his County Galway cottage. They studiously avoid background detail, focusing on the sitter rather than dissipating their energy in attendant frippery.  His aim is to "avoid the Victorian".  There is also a series of exquisite minimal drawings notably Mother and Daughter 1.

There was a  hiatus in the otherwise consistent evolution of Bourke's work.  In the early 90s he was offered an apartment in New York with a view filled with the skyscrapers of Manhattan.  He painted a series of minimal, stylised and beautifully composed studies of these bleak buildings in golden and russet colours.  The show was a great success both critically and commercially.  They pointed away from Bourke's usual style and towards a more stripped down vision, not quite Mondrian yet but heading in that direction, It seemed that abstraction beckoned.  But it was a one off.  He feels now it was a response to a particular time and place - and he has never had cause or opportunity to repeat it.  He is  no enemy of abstract art, being an admirer of Charlie Tyrrell's work, but he paints in response to what he sees around him.  If he was confined to a mundane urban locale then he could perhaps escape into abstraction but in his current situation he is happy to chronicle friends, family, and especially the seasons' differences in the countryside around him.

As I was leaving Bourke's cottage I noticed an invitation from Aras an Uachtaran on the mantle-piece.  So much for my thesis of him being an outsider I thought.  This ultimate indicator of official acceptance was, however, deceptive.  Bourke and Jay have been friendly with President Higgins and his wife for many years and their friendship continues, notwithstanding Michael D's change in circumstances.  

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

My Heaving Bosoms Are the Bellows of Divinity

Mary Swanzy "Woman with White Bonnet"
This is my review of Patrick J. Murphy's slightly immodest autobiography - first published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 10 February 2013 (different headline):

A Passion for Collecting
By Patrick J. Murphy

I could start off this review by stating that Murphy's memoir is the most relentless piece of self-aggrandisement since Nitezsche's Ecce Homo - and it is.  But to do so may deter people from reading a book that will be enjoyed not just by those interested in the Irish art scene, but by anyone who likes to follow the trajectory of a colourful life story.  Marvel at how a high-achieving New Ross boy grows up to be one of our leading private art collectors.

In a country where most people don't give a fart through their corduroys for contemporary art (to use Beckett's elegant phrase) Patrick J. Murphy has been a positive force in promoting the work of both local and international artists for the best part of 40 years.  Every artist and gallery in the country owes him a debt of gratitude, perhaps not directly in most cases, but indirectly through his tireless organising, promoting and evangelising.  He has been chairman of the Arts Council, on the selection committee and chairman of Rosc, and the art advisor to the OPW.  During his reign with the OPW he spread the net wide so that many relatively unknown artists were able to sell and, as importantly, achieved recognition by being displayed in public places.  He has been well acknowledged and rewarded for these achievements.  He's an Honorary Member of the RHA, an Honorary Life Member of the RDS, and Honorary Fellow of Trinity, and has an honorary doctorate from the University of Limerick.

Murphy is not a shy nor a modest man.  His highly readable romp through life and the Irish art scene is replete with anecdotes about how wonderful he is in all sorts of ways.  These include an illustrious career in business with Guinness and later the Irish Maltsters; his success in various exams where he usually topped the class or graduated with distinction; at running through forests and plantations in Kuala Lumpur ("I frequently came home first"); his expertise at turnip thinning during school holidays in County Wexford; and above all in the buying and selling of modern art.  He even recounts an incident in a rugby match where he got the better of a gouging Welsh hooker.  The book deals mainly with his beloved family and his art activities.  An early incident brings the two together when he describes how he won his wife Antoinette from the clutches of the "bohemian" artist Brian Burke.  Having been introduced one day by a mutual friend, Murphy assailed her the next day at her place of work, the customer service desk at the ESB office in Fleet Street, and the rest was history.  No faint heart either then.

There are lacunae.  The hundreds of deals he carried out form a substantial portion of the book and the repetition occasionally becomes tedious.  Especially as each deal seems more financially prescient than the last.  The few that got away are more interesting.  He let go an Orpen drawing for £20 that was was subsequently valued at €40,000.  We also get far too many descriptions of "excellent dinners with very fine wines".  These include a visit to his house by Mary McAleese where he treated our erstwhile president to "gourmet food and vintage wines without drawing attention to them".  Until now.

It's a fairly discreet book but occasionally Murphy lifts the veil.  McAleese turned down a large Barry Flanagan hare sculpture for the Aras at the very last minute because allegedly she didn't like animals in art, or perhaps because she realised that Flanagan was British.  The Aras's loss was IMMA's gain as the piece now stands tall in Kilmainham.  We also learn that Leo Smith barred Bruce Arnold from the Dawson Gallery because of rivalry over the Mainie Jellett estate.  He is mostly positive about people but does spare some bile for Dorothy Walker and James White, and has a dig at Haughey for his arrogance and John O'Donoghue for his absence of humour.  He was appalled by Haughey's dictatorial commandeering of the Cultural Relations Committee's budget in 1989 to fund his friend Louis le Brocquy's show in Japan.  O'Donoghue (well aware of his nickname) was not amused by the placing on his desk of a John Behan sculpture of a bull - it lasted less than 24 hours.  We also get some tantalising glimpses of the way senior art appointments are made and the often dysfunctional nature of the Arts Council.

When it comes to his selection of art he is in no doubt of his qualifications.  He has the eye and that's all there is to it.  He doesn't waste time on weighty analysis.  Work  is described as "charming", "magnificent", "subtle", or a "masterpiece".  His heaving bosoms are clearly the bellows of divinity.  It is however hard to quibble with the quality of the selections illustrated in the book.

He has a particular fondness for Mary Swanzy's work and he developed a close relationship with the London-based artist in the latter stages of her life.  He was also responsible for the rehabilitation of her reputation by encouraging Leo Smith to show her at the Dawson Gallery.  He was close to Paddy Collins and felt keenly that poverty-stricken artists's plight, doing what he could to help him out. Murphy is not afraid of graft.  He was a big fan of Patrick Tuohy and he compiled a detailed catalogue of over 200 works by the ill-fated artist.  A lot of his buying and selling involved the Dawson Gallery and he got on well with the owner Leo Smith.  We get glimpses of that legendary character and a feeling for his dominant position in the Sixties and Seventies.  Smith's sudden death, at Hilary Heron's funeral, was clearly a shock to him.

The only real sour note in the book is his disappointment at not being appointed to the board of the National Gallery of Ireland, despite many worthy representations on his behalf to Mary Hanafin when she was minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism.  He describes unfairly the NGI as a "plaything of greedy politicians and their financial supporters who have no interest in art or knowledge of it".

He has been very generous with his collection, donating selected pieces to various museums and educational institutions. So much so that he tells us his family are advising him to retain enough to pay his nursing home fees should he become infirm.  It's hard to imagine that this passionately engaged and energetic man will ever find himself in that plight.

Published by Hinds
408 pages

John P. O'Sullivan

Monday, February 11, 2013

Burly Brits Best BOD and Buddies in Bog

These days it's almost impossible to source tickets for Six Nations matches at Landsdowne Road so it was a pleasant surprise to be offered one by the brother at short notice through an in-law connection. A daughter had the good sense to take up with one of the Irish team and the family gripped some of  his  generous ticket allocation.  Apparently each player is given four free tickets and the opportunity to buy a dozen more.

Although the days dawned wet, grey and miserable there was no temptation to light the fire, open the wine and sit back to watch it on TV.  There's a special buzz about being at the event even if you miss the fine detail of the action.  It starts on the DART platform in Dalkey as the beefy middle-classes congregate in their Irish favours - talk is of O'Driscoll's child born earlier in the day and of the abysmal weather.

This English team has built their recent reputation at home and I had the feeling that they may be vulnerable away. The weather was eroding this optimism. England are better equipped for a war of attrition in the mud than the more creative and free-running Irish. Plus their metronomic kicker Farrell will keep the score ticking along through penalties.  I felt increasingly pessimistic as we trundled towards Landsdowne Road.

And then a fine creamy pint in the stadium before the match and we settle back to watch the drama unfold.  How all occasions did inform against us.  Zebo, the man most likely to sparkle on this dull day, goes off injured and is followed by Sexton, the fulcrum of the team.  Heaslip gives away two soft penalties and there is an outbreak of fumbling across the team - handing good ball back to the English.  O'Gara is either nervous or over the hill - he slices three consecutive kicks into touch and is as usual targeted by anyone looking for easy access to our goal line.  England are hugely efficient in defence and kick far better than us. They made far fewer mistakes and deserved to win.

We trudge through the rain to Smith's on Haddington Road and revive our spirits with a trio of excellent pints.  Talk is of Lincoln and Richard II - the recent film and an impending play.  We've taken it on the chin and moved on.