Monday, July 15, 2013

Gerard Dillon and His Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 08, 2013

Seán McSweeney: Painter on the Shore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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