Wednesday, November 28, 2018

London Weekend: Macbeth, Schiele, Klimt and Da Mario’s

Off to London last week for our bi-annual feed of Shakespeare with a bit of art thrown in. This time it was Macbeth at the Barbican – starring Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack. It was a fresh and innovative production – but not too innovative. The witches were played by young girls in bright red dresses – the contrast between their doom-laden predictions and their youthful appearance added an extra layer of creepiness. The permanently on-stage porter acted as a kind of mute chorus – chalking up the deaths and casting a rueful eye on the machinations around him. Eccleston is more soldierly than cerebral as Macbeth and that fits well generally but slightly undermines the great final speech where the tortured soul tips into nihilism. I wasn’t convinced at all by Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth. She lacked the passion and visceral feel that you’d want from the character. She just seemed too actorly and RADAish for my liking. The running down digital clock centre stage was presumably a nod towards “the last syllable of recorded time” and signified time running out for Macbeth. The rest of the cast were fine and professional and we noted again that the casting rules governing racial quotas were strictly observed by the RSC. I’m not convinced that 12th century Scotland was so heterogeneous. Another minor irritation is the mixing of 20th century clothes with 12th century weapons. I don’t mind experimentation but would like a production occasionally to adhere to period dress. It’s been a long time since I saw one such from the RSC.

I do love Egon Schiele so the Schiele Klimt Drawings show at the Royal Academy was a must. However, like any major show in London it’s a pain in the arse trying to deal with the crowds. The only way to get a bit of peace to enjoy the work is to book the very first slot – or maybe the very last. We went early on Sunday but struggled to enjoy the work for the crowds. Also, there is a slight frisson of unease about looking closely at some of Schiele’s more explicit and erotic works while an elderly matron breathes down your neck. Or the feeling of being a bit creepy if you linger too long when there’s a younger woman nearby. We finely tuned aesthete’s should be above such considerations of course. I loved especially Klimt’s Lady with Cape and Hat and Schiele’s drawings of his mother Marie and his wife Edith.

But God London is a hard city. Getting around is a nightmare. The Tube is dirty, overcrowded and frequently requires serious route marches to change lines. Taxis are overpriced and the traffic is permanently grid-locked. Uber works well but its prices fluctuate wildly. Having breakfast one morning I checked a route and the fare was £9 – five minutes later it quoted me £18 as demand apparently rose. Of course my cause was not helped in the transport area by arriving over the Black Friday weekend.

Relief from the struggles with traffic and culture was provided by a visit to Da Mario’s in Endell Street (Covent Garden) where we enjoyed a splendid Italian meal in the buzzy family-run restaurant: Ravioli Cinghiale preceded by lobster bisque. Nice.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The 137th Royal Ulster Academy Annual Exhibition

Detail from Post-Brexit by Rose McKelvey

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 11 November 2018

The 137th Royal Ulster Academy’s Annual Exhibition opened in Belfast last week at what is becoming its de facto home in the Ulster Museum. The ambitious plans announced in 2014 by then RUA president Colin Davidson to develop a new home and exhibition space at the listed Riddell’s Warehouse do not seem to have made much progress. However, “they are still ongoing” according to the new president of the RUA Betty Brown. “The building has been acquired by Hearth Historical Building Trust with a view to restoration and the RUA would aim to become the anchor tenant once restoration has been achieved.” Funding is an issue. The RUA could do with an enlightened entrepreneur or a champion on the Northern Executive – if there was a Northern Executive. In the current climate with no government in place and the Brexit debacle looming, it’s hard to see much movement towards achieving a permanent home in the foreseeable future.

Whatever about its temporary nature the 5th floor of the  Ulster Museum makes a fine setting for the annual show generously sponsored once again by KPMG. This year’s show seems livelier and more varied than usual – the RUA’s policy of allowing only two paintings per academician (compared to six at the RHA Annual Show) helps promote greater diversity. It’s also very noticeable how accessible the prices are - this seems confirmed by the healthy rash of red dots just a week after its opening.

Norman Rockwell famously said that  “If a picture wasn’t going very well I’d put a puppy dog in it.” Those susceptible to canine charm will be much taken by Heidi Wickham’s Tina – a portrait of an attractively winsome dog. However, art lovers too will appreciate this well-executed piece in charcoal, pastel and gesso. The work was so admired that it won two of the prizes on offer at the show. Wickham had another soulful dog on view confusingly called Black Bear. It was also an attractive work but it suffered a little from being lit in a way that bounced light back off its high gloss finish. Following on a trend from last year there was an abundance of portraits. RUA regular Michael Connolly continues with his quirky subjects - Sparrow and Meet and Greet featured some pastel people from his own personal Twilight Zone. Daniel Nelis’s Silver Medal Prize winning Untitled (November) is an elegant work that nods in the direction of Modigliani. Other portraits that snagged the attention were Nina, a beautifully alive and warm study by Susan Dubsky and John Cooney’s two characterful watercolours Sligo Farmer and John Cunningham, Ardara.

Brexit hasn’t gone unobserved according to a few of the  titles. Dermot Seymour’s attachment to bovine subject matter continues with his large painting of a cow being harassed by a goose. It’s a bit of a metaphorical leap to the accompanying title: Border Vicissitudes of Brexitaria. However, Ross McKelvy’s scores a more direct hit with Post-Brexit – one of the most dramatic and memorable images in the show. In this photographic study the prognosis goes beyond border bother to a distinctly Mad Max future as a bizarre, gas-masked figure tends a dying landscape while black birds wheel ominously overhead. Another land of lost content is portrayed in Cara Gordon’s They Used to Dance Here, a dark and atmospheric acrylic painting of an old Belfast dance hall.

Colin Davidson is back after a hiatus of a couple of years. He’s given himself a break from portrait painting by omitting the head from his large and impressive, Stride, which captures the nude figure in motion. Judith Logan’s The Kite Flyers offers us a flavour of that great Northern maverick John Luke - although she achieves her effect with coloured pencils rather than egg tempera. John Roch Simon’s mission in life is to make old masters more amenable to a modern sensibility. To this end he takes appalling liberties by inserting modern subjects into classic paintings and photographing them. The resulting images, The Two Johns - after Caravaggio and Cottage Girl 2017 – A Portrait after Gainsborough, have a quirky discordance that arrests the attention. Elizabeth O’Kane’s meticulous watercolour Duomo from Apartment Window, Florence also caught the eye.

The independent adjudicator for this year’s show was the estimable James Hanley, Keeper of the RHA. He selected the recipients of the RUA’s gold, silver and bronze medal prizes. The gold medal went to Jeffrey Morgan’s Last of Blackheath (7) curiously dedicated to the Scottish artist Mark Boyle who died in 2005. Boyle’s original claim to fame was the light shows he did for The Soft Machine at their UFO concerts back in the Sixties. Morgan’s work is a gloriously enigmatic painting of the rear view off a red-haired woman in a 50s style blue-polka-dot dress. It’s a symphony of colour illustrating a banal urban setting.

Works from the South are not as plentiful as in recent years however the print area was particularly  well served by Southern artists including three long-standing members of the Graphic Studio Dublin: Jean Bardon, Stephen Lawlor and James McCreary . Their four works (two by Lawlor) are impeccably-crafted examples of master printers at work. But each artist brings a very different individual tone: one elegant, one mysterious, and one surreal. A more recent Graphic Studio member Susan Early also contributes two fine etchings of Irish light houses. Other impressive works in the print mode included: Elizabeth Magill’s playful Skirt Tails which could be a Victorian skating party, David McGinn’s noiresque etchings, Anne Corry’s enigmatic Hidden Life, and Margaret Arthur’s beautifully layered Sunlight on a Distant Shore.

There was plenty of real quality amongst the photography. Michael Collins’ Dead Calm had a gorgeous painterly quality while Sharon Belton’s At Swim went for a more playful surreal mood. Sharon Murphy’s Aoife/Cordelia; Bruce Marshal’s Wicklow, 1980 which made much of milk bottles ; Tommie Lehane’s bleak Ice Skating Arena, and Barbara Freeman’s portentous Valley of the Gods also stood out. Gordon Ashbridge’s Balls combined a desolate image with space for metaphorical speculation.

There was some virtuoso performances in ceramics none more so than Stephanie Tanney’s Disconnection which created a mysterious piece whose simulated drapes would serve well in a Halloween tableaux.

Amongst the sculpture, Helen Merrigan Colfer’s See Nothing, Hear Nothing, Tell No One contains disturbing intimations of child abuse. Carolyn Mullholland’s minimalist Full Stop, and Jason Ellis’s carry no message beyond the clean beauty of their forms. Anthony Scott does what he does best with his glowering Warrior. Zoe Murdoch’s mixed media Angelus Vitus achieved a solid, stylish malevolence. I also liked Claire Mooney’s Shadows of the Past, a delicately wrought copper construct.

Talking of the past, the show also contained a tribute to Gladys Maccabe (an Honorary member of the RUA) in the form of a catalogue essay and an excellent example of her work. She died earlier in the year a few months short of her 100th birthday. In addition to her qualities as a painter, Maccabe was a hugely positive influence on the Northern Irish art scene for very many years. She recognized no barriers of religion or gender and was a zealous promoter of female artists in the North. She also distinguished herself by not shying away from the Northern troubles in works such as Barricades and Funeral of a Victim. She’s a real loss to Irish art.

John P. O’Sullivan
November 2018

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Towser Gosden, Damredub, Royal Line, and the November Handicap

I’ve long had an affection for the last big flat handicap of the year - the November Handicap. It used to be called the Manchester November Handicap until they closed Manchester racecourse in 1963. It now takes place in Doncaster. I got to love it through a great old handicapper called Damredub. He won it in 1962 at 20-1 and was second at big prices in 1961 and 1963. I followed horses rather than studied form in those days and backed the gelding whenever he ran - invariably making money from him. He was a brave and reliable horse. His trainer was Towser Gosden, John Gosden’s father. His horses usually operated in more modest company than his illustrious son’s do but he did win the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes with Agressor amidst a modest enough career focused on handicaps.The son usually has a runner in the November Handicap - perhaps for sentimental reasons as Towser used to love the race. So I always have a good look at his horses - he has won it six times in the past, more than any other trainer. Yesterday he ran Royal Line who had been down the field last year despite starting favourite. However, he was a not fully-furnished three year old then and a couple of bits of subsequent form suggested he was a potential group horse running in a handicap. Crucially, also, he had won on heavy in the past. I put a decent bet on him and watched smugly as he won snugly - going clear two furlongs out and staying on strongly on the soft ground. His starting price  was a surprisingly generous 9-1. So 56 years after my old friend Damredub won I am obliged again to the Gosden family. Last night I celebrated with a good bottle of Sancerre. Back in 1962 I suspect it was a Toblerone and a Club Orange.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

A Paean for An Post

A few weeks ago I wrote a review of Robert Ballagh’s new memoir for the Sunday Times. A few days ago I received a letter from the Dublin Mail Centre of An Post with a form inside telling me that the card enclosed “was found loose” in the sorting centre. The card had apparently fallen from its associated envelope. The card contained an image of a Ballagh painting on the front and inside was a kind message from the artist thanking me for my “positive review”. So how did they get my address?

A very neat hand-written message on the An Post form supplied the answer:  “I got your address off the imprint on the back of the from.”  The estimable Mr. Ballagh had leaned hard enough when addressing the lost envelope that he had left a faint indentation on the back of the card. The An Post employee had painstakingly traced it out to the extent that it yielded my complete address. Now that’s what I call customer service and professionalism. Give that man a promotion at once.

You could suggest that the card got special attention because someone in An Post recognized the name Ballagh as the creator of numerous Irish postage stamps - so he was in a sense one of their own. But I somehow doubt this hypothesis.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Robert Ballagh – A Reluctant Memoir

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 21 October 2018.

The first surprise here is the title. Robert Ballagh is not a shy, nor a self-effacing man. He’s never been coy about promoting his work or telling his life-story, and he’s well known for his uninhibited contributions to the public discourse on topics such as the droit de suite for artists and the 1916 celebrations. However, we get an explanation for this seeming coyness on the first page: “only self-indulgent pricks write memoirs” he avers. But he has decided to overcome his reservations “so that future generations can have the full facts”. There’s something a tad presumptuous about this latter statement but fortunately it is at odds with the trenchant and unprecious attitude that characterizes the rest of this handsome and well-illustrated book.

The book is mostly an amiable canter through his career, with reflections on art, anecdotes about the characters he meets, and observations on Irish life. Those who consider Ballagh a rabid republican will find little of a seditious nature. He seems a republican primarily in the French Revolution sense and no reasonable person could argue with his comments on how our 1916 Rising has failed to deliver in terms of liberty, equality and fraternity. Ballagh is no working-class hero by background. He went to school at Blackrock College and his father played cricket and tennis for Ireland, and rugby for Leinster. His mother played hockey for Ireland. Ballagh’s first love was music and people of a certain age (including this writer) will remember him from his Chessmen days – sporting Buddy Holly glasses while playing bass alongside the charismatic Alan Dee.

The book opens with bang: a description of a vicious assault eight years ago and the ineffectual Garda response. It is followed by an account of his brush with cancer that was detected during tests for his injuries. After these encounters with mortality it settles down into a more or less chronological account of his career, with ample illustrations. There are lacunae and the book could have done with a judicious pruning. I’m not sure we needed as much detail on the technical aspects of producing stamps and banknotes.

There are occasional domestic episodes: an idyllic winter in Ronda, Southern Spain with his family is described – including his encounters there with the estimable Hilly Kilmarnock, the first wife of Kingsley Amis. And we learn of the warmth and strength of his relationship with his late wife Betty. He gives her credit for both intellectual and emotional support and they were clearly a very happy couple. “We were an enduring partnership. In the course of almost four decades as an artist, I can’t think of a single picture of mine that wasn’t improved by constructive comment by Betty.”

The seminal moment in his career was an encounter in a pub. “If I hadn’t met Micheal Farrell (Ballagh suggest’s that the misspelling of Farrell’s first name was due to his dyslexia) that particular night in Toners, I’m pretty sure my own life would have drifted in an entirely different direction.” Farrell had accepted a commission for a mural that stretched his capabilities and needed an assistant to bring it to fruition. “I’ll pay you a fiver a week and all the drink you can take.” Ballagh accepted and this encounter proved the apprenticeship that set him on his way as an artist. He was introduced to acrylic paint and learnt the uses of badger brushes and masking tape. His early exemplars were Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and he learnt, when taking on an important portrait commission, that his initial dearth of drawing skills could be overcome by judicious use of a camera and the silk-screen process. Ballagh’s skills have developed over the years and the put down by Declan McGonagle that he was “a mere illustrator” is belied by much of his later work including the impressive series of self-portraits he did for the Wexford Opera Festival. These were inspired by his love of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits.

Although his politics are of the left, Ballagh has friends and patrons on all parts of the ideological spectrum. He’s done portraits of Charles Haughey and Fidel Castro, of Gordon Lambert and Noel Browne, and even of the Nobel prize winner Francis Crick. He’s not one to kick those whose reputations have suffered since he encountered them. While deploring Haughey’s corruption and hubris, he enjoyed their social encounters and gives him credit for his favorable treatment of artists and for his free travel scheme for the elderly. (He gets his dates wrong here, Haughey was not Taoiseach in 1983). He also speaks warmly of his time at the Gate Theatre working with Michael Colgan. A less enjoyable encounter there was a run in with that monstre sacré Stephen Berkoff while designing Salome.

He confirms the creepy machinations of Fr. Donal O’Sullivan who was director of the Arts Council from 1960-1973 and was infamous for his partisan patronage. O’Sullivan blocked an invitation for Ballagh to show in Sweden by telling the Swedish curator (completely without foundation) that “he’s a chronic alcoholic and can become quite violent”. Ballagh achieves a piquant revenge by telling us that this ostensibly discerning authority on art lived in the Jesuit community house in Leeson Street for many years and failed to recognize that there was a Caravaggio (The Taking of Christ) on the dining-room wall.

This memoir paints a picture of a contented man who has worked hard, was blessed with a good marriage, and has enjoyed a varied and successful career. He has a final word for the likes of McGonagle and O’Sullivan with his painting The Illustrator (shown on the back cover). It depicts Ballagh wearing a t-shirt declaiming: F*** the Begrudgers.

Head of Zeus
PP: 448
RRP: €30.30