Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Sean Keating: The King Canute of Irish Art

The Tipperary Hurler by Sean Keating
An edited version of this review of Sean Keating Art, Politics, and Building the Irish Nation by Eimear O'Connor appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 12 May 2013.

Sean Keating is the King Canute of Irish art, the man who tried in vain to stem the tide of modernism.  His own art has not always aged well.  His paintings do not speak to the modern viewer like the mature works of his near contemporary Jack Yeats - whose work he described as "foolish stuff".  Brian Fallon refers to a "certain formal woodenness" in Keating and "a limited colour sense".  There is however plenty to relish in his best work.  The series of powerful and evocative paintings he did at Ardnacrusha and Poulaphuca have aged far better than his romanticised Aran peasants.  His portraits vary wildly in quality.  The one of W. T. Cosgrave with a curious top knot is particularly insipid and there's a very weak late portrait of a fey looking Michael O'Leary, lost in a sheepskin jacket.  But then there's a dashing early portrait of the IRA man Sean Moylan, and the heroic Tipperary Hurler, modelled on another IRA man Ben O'Hickey.  The book has over 200 excellent illustrations that allow you to review his highly-productive career and make up your own mind.

Listening to some old Radio Eireann broadcasts recently I was struck by how articulate Keating was, his fluent albeit dogmatic contributions occasionally punctuated with French terms (he was a fluent speaker).  It was only when he began to ride his hobby-horse about modern artists and their "outrageous vices" that you get a flavour of the zealot beneath the surface.  He deplored those who failed to follow, as he did, the "apostolic tradition".  He learned from Orpen, who learned from Henry Tonks in the Slade, who learned from a French master who was part of a tradition going back to David.  He saw the advent of modernism as breaking this chain of tradition and spent his life railing against it.  He also had a healthy contempt for preciousness about art, considering it merely a skilled trade.

O'Connor fights a rear-guard action on Keating's behalf, suggesting that his antipathy to modernism was overstated.  An anecdote related by John Turpin in an Irish Arts Review article on Keating suggests otherwise.  He recounts how Keating rebuked one of his students for reading a book on Cezanne, warning him that "you're either with us or against us".  O'Connor doesn't hide the case for the prosecution.  Two of the most egregious examples she gives were his description of Henry Moore's Reclining Figure as an "absolute effrontery to good taste", and his condemnation of Georges Rouault's Christ and the Soldier as "naive, childish and unintelligible".  In both cases his opposition to the acquisition of these modernist pieces by the Municipal Gallery of Art was overcome.  The Rouault affair caused a life-long rift with Louis le Brocquy who said that Keating should have "no rest until he cleared the painting of the insult he has helped to place upon it".

Keating loved a good feud and there's entertaining material about sniping between him and Flann O'Brien and the equally contentious Sean O'Faolain.  We also get a detailed analysis of Keating's role at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (later the National College of Art) - a relationship which was to last for nearly 50 years.  Keating was never granted permanent status there and had to struggle on occasions to keep his job.  A French team inspecting the school for the Department of Education produced a scathing report on his behaviour:  "Enthusiastic on his own side but sceptical and unjust where others are concerned, he demoralises his pupils and brings despondency to his class."  He made no attempt to teach the generality of students, focusing instead on the few who showed some talent.  O'Connor writes in detail about the animosity between George Atkinson, principal at the DMSA, and Keating.  She claims no "outward acrimony" existed after 1937.  We learn in the Notes section that Atkinson committed suicide in 1941, with no further details.  In fact he gassed himself in his office in the school.  Maurice MacGonigal, who discovered the body, maintained that Atkinson's life-long depression was activated by Keating's accusation of some financial impropriety involving the annual Art Ball. This feud deserves a monograph of its own.

Eimear O'Connor's book is far from being a definitive biography, although we do get some fresh detail on Keating's origins in Limerick.  It's a beautifully illustrated piece of research that focuses on the public persona of Keating and his chronicling of the emerging State.  She also shines a light on his roles in those entwined institutions the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) and the National College of Art (NCA).  O'Connor herself makes no grand claims for her work.  In her introduction she describes the book as a "monograph".  The suggestion of academia and primary research implied by this term disarms any expectations of a warts and all picture of the man.  For no such picture emerges - he remains opaque.  His wife May is even more vaguely delineated.  It is stated that she was an active socialist and a proto-feminist but again the person remains hidden.    O'Connor recognises this problem in her introduction: "Keating was very private".  At the book launch Keating's grandson spoke of the artist's daily ritual of writing up his diaries - spending as much as a hour a day on them.  They apparently contained his opinions on people and the affairs of the day - no tortured inner life.   He spoke  of the warm domestic milieu Keating enjoyed.  There's a lovely photograph in the book of the artist with his arm around his two sons, Justin and Michael.  Maybe there are no dirty secrets.  He worked hard all day and went home to his family in the evening. The rest is silence.