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.