Thursday, November 21, 2019

RUA Annual Exhibition

In the Wings by Cara Gordon

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 17 November.

Considering the dearth of open submission exhibitions in this country, it’s remarkable how few artists from the Republic submit work for the Royal Ulster Academy (RUA) Annual Exhibition. The submission process for the RUA is less irksome than that of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) and the odds on being accepted are much higher. One in four submissions were accepted at the RUA show this year whereas it was around one in nine at the RHA. The RUA allows online submission costing £15 while at the RHA you must transport your work to the venue and pay €20. This leads to the annual debacle at the RHA where 100s of artists must queue up in a very public way at a circumscribed date and time to collect their rejected work. A more thoughtful process would surely aim to avoid this annual via dolorosa. One of the reasons for the discrepancy in terms of acceptance between the two academies is that the RUA exhibits only two works per academy member whereas the RHA allows six per member. Not all RHA members take up the full allowance but 4, 5, or 6 works by an artist is not uncommon. The net result of all this is that the RUA’s exhibition has a more democratic spread – there’s more variety. This does not of course mean that the quality is necessarily any better. It’s also noticeable that prices seem lower at the RUA – an impression supported by the healthy sprinkling of red dots when I visited early in the run.

While it may have an enlightened submission process the RUA sadly continues to be homeless – a fact bemoaned by its current president Betty Brown in the  exhibition catalogue. The show, as has become customary in recent years, is held on the 5th floor of the Ulster Museum. There’s the usual mixture of the good, the bad and the ordinary. But even the most rigorous judge will find much to enjoy. You look for trends and themes at these shows and I was struck by the number of works featuring trees, or landscapes where trees are prominent.  Notable amongst these were Gillian Cullen’s Beaulieu Wood, a virtuoso study in pencil and Robert Russell’s Morning Light, a beautifully composed etching of the sun rising on a tree-adorned landscape. David Crone, a hardy annual at the RUA, gets up much closer to this subject with Asleep with Trees. Also amongst the trees are Sanctuary by Elizabeth Bullock McFarland (a skillful exercise in tricky media: egg tempera and watercolor) and Elizabeth Magill’s lithograph In Two Parts. There are other arboreal studies deserving of mention by Keith Wilson, Margaret Arthur, Lisa Ballard, Michael Durning, Linda Plunkett and Vincent Sloan.

One of the more unusual exhibits is Tribe by Helen Merrigan Colfer, a five-piece sculpture in steel, resin and granite that is a tour de force of craft. Each member of this assemblage of elaborately decorated figures is a standalone work of art. Together they make up the sinister denizens of some infernal, but stylishly accoutered, tribe. The family-like composition of the group could lend itself to a Freudian interpretation. Carolyn Mulholland has two very contrasting works on show:  A portrait bust of Samuel Beckett showing him in all his hawk-featured austerity and severity; and In Time, an elegant glass work with elaborate geometric patterns.

Video works often get scant attention at these group shows because viewers are generally reluctant to hang about for the requisite few minutes it takes to watch the complete work. Woodfellas by Philip McDowell, a gangster animation, is certainly worth pausing for. It’s an amusing and strangely sinister take on the Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas. The characters are hinged marionettes in gangster suits going about their bloody business punctuated by wise guy dialogue. A poignant note is struck by Home – another animation, by Rhea Hanlon and Méabh Gilheany, where the comforts of home are juxtaposed with the dubious alternative of the park bench. The work was inspired by the issue of homelessness in Northern Ireland. This is a rare foray into social issues amongst the exhibits although Joy Gerrard’s Protest Crowd (The North is Next) has also got an axe to grind.

Cara Gordon’s In the Wings at first glance seems to be a charming portrayal of little girls about to go on stage to show their ballet skills. However, on closer inspection you notice the fragments of advertisements for plastic surgery and various body modification services. The title suddenly becomes more resonant as we realize what’s ahead of these happy innocents. There’s an unusual work by the old Northern warhorse Neil Shawcross – he puts aside his red paint and surprises us with large and lively portrait of a black bull. The energy and primitive feel of the work suggests ancient cave painting. The title, Amada’s bull, tells us that Shawcross has taken his inspiration from the Temple of Amada – the oldest Egyptian temple in Nubia. Another lively and somewhat malevolent animal on view is Austin Clarke’s Bad Dog – there are intimations of Basil Blackshaw in this piece but I doubt if Basil would have included those teeth. Jennifer Trouton demonstrates that nothing whatever is by art debarred in The Invisible Past – a photorealist study of a crumpled old blanket.

Portraits abound but mostly not the stiff depictions of local worthies that we associate with the academy. Many are personal and quirky. I like my yearly encounters with Michael Connolly at the RUA and his June’s Lover does not disappoint. There’s a subtly surreal portrait, In Blue, by Tom McClean, a winsome self-portrait by Rebecca Jane Dolan, and a study in melancholy (I See You in Feathers) by Catherine Creaney. It comes as some surprise to encounter the comedian Colin Murphy in these august surroundings. The mischief-maker and scatology-merchant from the Blizzard of Odd has produced a very competent self-portrait which depicts a figure imbued with gravitas and adorned with stolid glasses. Murphy is clearly a man of many parts.

Last Thatch in Galway City by Stephen Shaw seemed at first glance to be a photograph preserving a picturesquely decrepit old house. In fact its’a very skillful water-colour in photorealist style – no mean feat. Another accomplished watercolor is John Cooney’s Winter Turf, Donegal – a minutely detailed landscape. Both the RUA and the RHA have female presidents at the moment. Betty Brown from the RUA exhibited at the RHA’s annual show and Abigail O’Brien returns the compliment with Why Would You Go on Half Cocked. This is a shimmering, sensuous, almost abstract image of a high-performance car lit from above and on all sides.

While the exhibition as a whole tends towards the safe and the figurative, there are deviations. One of the invited artists is Cathy Wilkes, a Northern Irish artist who lives and works in Glasgow and who represented Britain in the 2019 Venice Biennale. Her Untitled consists of a pair of small frames hung side by side – each one devoid of content apart from a blank sheet of paper, yellow in one and white in one in the other. It’s polymer gravure on chine-colle paper we are told. You can use your imagination if you like, or admire the quality of the frames. I’d prefer to walk on by muttering “passé”.

John P. O’Sullivan
November 2019

Monday, October 28, 2019

Review of Beyond the Sea by Paul Lynch

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times on 25 August 2019.

Paul Lynch seems to have avoided the cloying embrace of the mutual adoration society that constitutes literary life in Ireland. He’s popular in France where he has won numerous awards and in the USA. At home his talents are less celebrated, although he did win the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award in 2018. Maybe he doesn’t fit the current fashion for books that are inspired by personal misfortunes or dysfunctional families. His novels are artistic creations, often based on historical events, where the author doesn’t intrude. His last novel, Grace, had its background in the Famine and his latest work is based on an extraordinary real-life story.

The title of Lynch’s absorbing book is an evocative one for the dwindling number who remember the old Bobby Darin song. But Lynch is not interested in torch songs or even Sandra Dee, his concerns are more elemental. Bolivar is a muscular fisherman with an under-developed work ethic in a vaguely South American fishing village. His usual fishing partner has gone missing after a night of revelry. He is given a new partner by his boss, a youth who doesn’t inspire confidence in Bolivar: “he is an insect from the mangroves”. The mismatched pair head off fishing. But they set out just a little too late - a storm is coming and sensible sailors are heading for port rather then the fishing grounds. The inevitable disaster ensues and the two men are cast adrift. Thus the story begins.

The outline of Lynch’s novel is very similar to a real event: the extraordinary story of Salvador Alvarenga, a 36 year old fishermen from El Salvador who survived 14 months adrift in a small boat with an inexperienced companion. Many incidents depicted in the novel actually occurred during Alvarenga’s odyssey. These included dumping the boat’s store of fish to lighten the load, bashing the already broken engine in despair, hunkering down inside a large ice box for much of time, letting strips of fish dry in the sun, drinking urine, and catching and eating a turtle. However, Lynch’s concern is not just the minutiae of survival or the gripping yarn of men battling the elements – although his account of these is exciting and persuasive and draw the reader onto the boat with the desperate fishermen. His main interest lies in the existential struggle within - how men handle themselves in extremis. Beyond the sea and the sheltering sky we encounter ourselves – in the dark depths of our consciousness and the troubling memories that bubble to the surface. As the two characters slip the ties of civilization, the mobile phones, the football on TV and the other superficial distractions of modern life, they are forced to look within and confront what’s really important to them. In Bolivar’s case it’s the child he left behind when he deserted his wife following a fraught situation with a drugs cartel. “I was gone but a great storm blew me back to you.” With the insipid Hector (an ironic name indeed) it’s the thoughts of a life not yet adequately lived and now seemingly slipping away from him. He dwells morbidly on an unconsummated affair with his girl-friend. His nightmares entail her enjoying with others what she denied him.

Once they have averted the immediate dangers of drowning or starving their survival becomes a matter of battling the demons that emerge from within. The story centers on this struggle - their successes and failures.  Although the book’s concerns are more existential than environmental, we get plenty of attendant detail of birds and fish with plastic in their stomachs and the sea around them constantly throws up the detritus of an ugly and uncaring world.

Paul Lynch has quoted with approval Cormac McCarthy’s view that  “books are made out of books”. Lynch’s fourth novel certainly has echoes of many different writers including Melville, Dostoyevsky, and William Golding (Lynch’s protagonist’s nickname is Porky – a nod maybe towards Piggy in Lord of the Flies). But the literary work this novel most invokes is Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – with its theme of crime and punishment. The clues are all present: alone on a wide, wide sea, the slain albatross, the writhing creatures of the deep, the dead crew man come to life, and the eventual spiritual epiphany (“tingling whitely of bliss”). Bolivar is ultimately just another wretched mariner (and aren’t we all mariners) who has to contend with a hard truth : “You cannot escape. When an act is committed it is written into your life.”

181 pp
RRP £12.99

Friday, October 18, 2019

Some Sporting and Political Soothsaying

Saturday 19th October is an auspicious day for those of us with sporting and political interests. The first two quarter finals of the Rugby World Cup take place and the British Parliament vote on Johnson’s Brexit deal.

Let’s start with the easier one to unravel - the rugby. Ireland will give it a good go against New Zealand but I can’t see them winning. We have a fatal flaw in the centre with Henshaw and Ringrose both lacking game time and, crucially, time together. I’d have started Chris Farrell. Also, I’m not sure if Sexton is good for 80 minutes against New Zealand. They will target him and he will fade out after half time - as he does these days against top opposition.  I think our pack will achieve parity of possession but our back row is far less mobile than New Zealand’s and we may suffer accordingly. We will try to keep it tight but I take New Zealand to win by 10 points or so. In Saturday’s other game I think England will have way too much for Australia - too much power in the forwards and plenty of creativity in the backs. England to win by about 15 points. On Sunday everybody will be keen to see how the Japanese speed game works against the South African power game. All romantics will want Japan to repeat the virtuoso display against Scotland but I doubt the pragmatic South Africans will give them the same latitude. So South Africa to win comfortably. The fourth match should be the easiest to predict with a full-strength Wales, guided by the canny Gatland, expected to comfortably defeat a disheveled France. But you just don’t know with France. I’ll go with form and say a comfortable Welsh victory. So head down to Paddy Power and do your accumulator. (Actually don’t bother - he’s only offering 7-4 against these four results.)

The absorbing Brexit saga is also heading for its finale and this game is hard to call. Essentially Johnson needs a substantial number of Labour MPs to defect in order to carry the day. If I were a Labour MP in a shaky constituency I would definitely consider disobeying the Whip. If Johnson fails to get his deal carried there will certainly be a general election and under Corbyn Labour will suffer a heavy defeat. This will be exacerbated by the fact that everyone is heavily sick of Brexit and wants a deal to be made and for it all to go away. They will punish those who thwarted this hope. And the results will mean that the UK will be stuck with Johnson for a full-term with an increased majority. There does not seem to be a general appetite for another referendum - despite what Labour say. It would surely only produce another divisive result and the whole bloody business will drag on per omnia saecula saeculorum. No, the only way out is to pass the bloody bill - so climb on board Labour rebels. Of course Johnson will still want an election based on his triumphant solving of the Brexit riddle and he’ll get his thumping majority anyway. The only crumbs of comfort from all this are that the DUP will be returned to the stagnant pond from which they have emerged and Labour will appoint someone less loathed as leader of the party. So brace yourself for ongoing Boris.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Who is Joaquin Sorolla?

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 18 August 2019.

Who is Joaquin Sorolla? As recently as 1989 only a few specialists in Spanish art might have had the answer to that question. Sorolla (pronounced Soroya) became popular in the century between Goya and Picasso and then almost overnight seemed to vanish. Two major exhibitions in New York in 1989 at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art  and at the Hispanic Society of America headquarters in New York City helped revive interest in an artist who had been largely forgotten. And yet less than 100 years earlier he enjoyed world renown showing 500 works at a Paris exhibition in 1906, 280 in Berlin in 1907 and 356 in New York in 1909. There was an attendance of 169,000 at his New York  exhibition in just over a month, in freezing February weather  – a record attendance for an art exhibition at that time. In 1908 when he put on an exhibition of over 200 paintings in London he was described as “the world’s greatest living painter”. While Picasso was burning his canvases to keep warm in a Parisian garret, Sorolla was a feted international superstar. He travelled the world, earning vast sums for his commissions – including a portrait of the President of the USA, William Howard Taft in 1909.

After his sudden death in 1923 Sorolla’s reputation went into a sharp decline.  He was perceived as an anachronism, an artist who painted in the style of the old masters at a time when the world in general and the art scene in particular was undergoing radical change. Picasso had hit his stride and the art world embraced Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism. Also, Sorolla's later subject matter seemed frivolous in a Europe devastated by World War I and the rise of Fascism.  The exhibition currently running at the National Gallery of Ireland and shown earlier this year (with some minor variations) at the National Gallery in London is his first major retrospective in this part of their world. So only Irish art lovers who have been fortunate enough to have visited the Museo Sorolla in Madrid are likely to be familiar with Spain’s most succulent impressionist and proclaimed “master of light”.

This exhibition is a snapshot in 52 paintings of Sorolla’s career: his early social realist works, his genre paintings, his Spanish scenes, his bourgeoisie on holiday celebrations and his portraits. He established his reputation in the 1890s with his paintings of social themes. Another Marguerite! which set him on his way by winning a medal at a national exhibition in Madrid shows a dejected woman sitting in a railway carriage accompanied by two Civil Guards. She has killed her new-born child and is facing the consequences. The name Marguerite is a reference to Gounod’s opera where the heroine kills the child born after her seduction by Faust. Other works in a similar vein flowed. The pedantically titled And They Still Say Fish is Expensive! shows a badly-injured young fisherman being tended by two older colleagues – the composition echoing classical scenes of Christ taken from the Cross. A notable work from this period is Kissing the Relic – a depiction of everyday life in Valencia. A queue of mostly women in beautifully detailed costumes line up to kiss the relic of a saint held by a priest. Amidst them an altar-boy holds a tray of holy images for sale. Many of these social realist paintings were domestic in scale to facilitate sales to the middle-classes.

Sorolla’s major break-through came in 1900 at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. Works from each country were displayed in national pavilions. Sorolla’s monumental Sad Inheritance! won the Grand Prix – suggesting a preeminence amongst his Spanish peers. This painting, which dominates the NGI show perhaps because of its scale, shows a large black-clothed priest assisting a crippled boy into the sea. They are surrounded by a group of naked and clearly handicapped boys. This work will surely cause an atavistic shudder in an Irish audience: the looming black soutane and the naked damaged boys. This was Sorolla’s last big painting with a social theme. It was however a harbinger of things to come. It depicted children playing in the sea which subsequently became one of his most visited subjects – albeit without the dark presence of the priest.

As Sorrolla’s reputation in Spain grew and his fame abroad spread his subject matter grew sunnier. A superficial flit around the NGI exhibition might suggest an artist whose work was dominated by paintings of light dancing off a placid sea and children playing on the beach – the bourgeoisie at leisure. These were the paintings that caused Monet to describe Sorolla’s paintings as “Joyous, in the sunlight above all.” Such works proved extremely popular and provided a lucrative market for Sorolla turning him into a very rich man. He worked quickly, usually in the open air, and if he couldn’t finish a work in a day, or emulate the conditions the following day, he would abandon it. A contemporary critic William E. B. Starkwater described his facility as an artist: “He grasps in a few searching strokes an accidental movement, a fleeting expression, a retreating wave. There seems to be no mistake, no undoing.” Along with these sun-lit renditions of carefree life Sorolla embarked on a steady stream of valuable portrait commissions.

Sorolla was in thrall to Velázquez. He visited the Prado Museum in Madrid a number of times between 1882 and 1884 and made a series of copies of works there by Velasquez and the other masters. Later on in 1904 he returned there as his fame and consequent portraiture commissions increased. He focused on Velázquez’ portraits and specifically on Las Meninas which was the inspiration for some of his group portraits. His painting The Family shows the most direct debt. His fascination with the artist drew him to England in 1902 purely to view the Toilet of Venus (the Rokeby Venus) at Rokeby Park in Durham. He would view it again in 1908 after the National Gallery had acquired it. So taken was he by the work that he sent a postcard of it to his wife Clotilde describing it as “the most human piece of flesh in the museum.” His gorgeous, lubricious Female Nude in the NGI exhibition shows Clotilde emulating the pose of Velázquez’ Venus. All attendant detail has been removed so the emphasis is on the sensuously presented female form, pretty on pink silk sheets. Sorolla was coy about the identity of the model but the glint of the wedding ring on the model’s finger gave the game away. Goya was another Spanish master that Sorolla referenced. Maria with Mantilla is a clear homage of his predecessor’s Duchess of Alba – although Sorolla’s Maria is decidedly less haughty looking – more 20th Century.

The crowning achievement of Sorolla’s career was a series of paintings called Vision of Spain which was commissioned for the Hispanic Society of America in New York in 1908. These 14 panels were 12 feet in height and 200 feet in combined length. They depicted the peoples, costumes, and traditions of various regions of Spain. Sorolla commented prophetically that the series represented a Spain “on the point of disappearing.” He worked on them continuously from 1912 to 1919 and many believe that the stress of completing them contributed to a decline in his health. He died in 1923 after a stroke at the age of 60 and sadly never saw the murals installed.

There are those who may quibble at the NGI charging €15 to view an artist with whom few outside the art world are familiar. I would point them towards Sewing the Sail a virtuoso painting of dappled sunlight and complex tonalities that emanates a sense of warm community. One of many master-pieces in the show. As we reach the fag end of another dreary Irish summer an hour or so spent in the company of such joyous sun-kissed celebrations of life is a pleasure beyond petty mercantile considerations.

John P.O’Sullivan
August 2019

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Reflections on a Golden Boy

Last Sunday offered some redemption for Seamus Callanan and a generation of Tipperary hurlers that should really have won more All-Irelands - five instead of three perhaps. These golden lads (well some of them) should have won in 2009 when they contrived to snatch a defeat against Kilkenny despite dominating much of the game. They could have won the drawn final in 2014 when only the width of an RCH deprived them of a last-minute point. The comprehensive successes of  2010 and 2016 were followed by disappointing seasons - Kilkenny outmuscled them in 2011 and Galway beat them very narrowly in 2017. People may quibble about the result this year but there’s no denying the quality of their play. Hogan’s dismissal gave them the space they needed to thrive but I feel they were getting on top and would have won anyway - but it would have been closer. And there’s the rub. Over the past ten years or so Kilkenny have won all the tight matches - our wins have been by comfortable margins. I’d prefer to beat them by a point just to disprove the arguments of the likes of Jackie Tyrrell who question our intestinal fortitude. And by the way what a motivational tool Tyrrell’s biography must have been for Tipp management - there was a provocative quote from it in the Sunday Times on the day of the match. Thanks Jackie. Kilkenny have always bought a physical dimension to their games - “bully or be bullied” is Cody’s mantra. First they soften you up physically and then they start the hurling. The way hurling is refereed these days allows them some leeway, and not just with the physical robustness. Tommie Walsh was a master of the judicious push in the back as an opponent rose for the ball - I stood behind him at the 2011 final and watched him at at work. But Hogan’s foul was far from judicious and left the ref no option. The red mist had clearly descended on him after Barrett literally rattled him with a tackle earlier . The replays clearly showed that Hogan’s elbow was wielded with malicious intent. Those who live by the sword do occasionally die by the sword even in hurling it seems.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Portrait of a Yankee

As any regular punter will tell you, a Yankee is a relatively cheap and very speculative bet. You select four horses and back them in a series of doubles, trebles, and an accumulator. For a small outlay you can get a very large return if all four horses win. But there’s the rub – you have to select four winners in a day. This is a task beyond most professionals and one with which even the great Barney Curley struggled in his day. However, you often get a couple of winners and if you back them each way, as I always do, you frequently get all of them placed and make a few bob. But occasionally you do strike gold – I’ve done so five or six times over the years. However, last Saturday was the best result I ever had because of the size of my outlay and the long prices of two of my four selections. Here’s a quick account of my thoughts beforehand and the consequent action. You’ll note reading this that it’s almost impossible to avoid racing journalist cliches when writing about horses. I’ve tried but failed.

The four horse I selected last Saturday were Mikmak, Indianapolis, Power of Darkness and Victory Day. My thought processes on the four were as follows:

Mikmak: He ran well at Thirsk last time when he hit the front too soon and was caught close home. He loves soft ground and is down to a weight that he’s won at. Also, he did well this time last year. My only negative was that he’s trained by Tim Easterby – a trainer whose horses run erratically, very often not living up to recent form. I rarely back him because of this. However the 12-1 on offer seemed very high so I went ahead. This was by far the most speculative of my selections. In a very competitive race, he ran on stronger than his stable-companion and won by a neck. The ball was rolling.

Indianapolis:  He’s trained by James Given – a small trainer whose horses, unlike Easterby’s, run consistently and often overachieve. Indianapolis had been running well in better races than his rivals but because Given is an unfashionable trainer he was on offer at a very generous 7-1. He was drawn very wide and for much of the race seemed to have too much to do. However he came with a strong late run and got up in the last few strides – my heart going pitter-patter the while. Two up and two favorites to come.

Power of Darkness:  This horse had won his previous race comfortably and was overall a lightly-raced horse who looked to have a lot of potential. He was favourite but the 11-4 on offer seemed generous. His trainer was Marcus Tregoning who doesn’t mess around. He raced at the rear for most of the mile and two furlongs out he picked up and won comfortably. Three out of four in the bag.

Victory Day:  My final selection, and the linch-pin of my Yankee, was trained by William Haggas – another reliable trainer who knows how to land a big race. He had been beaten narrowly in a much superior quality race at York previously and was a strong 7-4 favourite. My main concern before this race was his jockey – Jamie Spencer. He seems a very nice lad but has I feel an unfortunate tendency towards showboating. He likes to drop horses out and come with a late run to claim the spoils close home. This means that he frequently leaves things later than is wise – getting beaten on horse that should have won. Give me Sylvester de Sousa or Andrea Atzeni any day. Anyway as my heart beat faster  Spencer did the inevitable and dropped him out to near last – in a Six Furlong sprint. Fortunately when he eventually got him going a furlong out there was a large gap along the rails and he won comfortably by a length.

But don’t try this at home kids - it’s an occasional aligning of the stars in a chaotic world.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Back to the Curragh

I have been neglecting my live racing in recent times – being more inclined to live in the virtual world of the Racing Post website and the ITV racing channel. I was missing those encounters with the colourful and often deluded characters that abound at racecourses and of course the proximity of the glorious beasts. So an invitation to the privileged sanctum of the Ballydoyle box, hosted by Aidan O’Brien, on Irish 1000 Guineas days was impossible to refuse.

We were a little early so decided to take a detour to the Curragh Camp where I lived until I was nine years old. Since my last visit access by car to much of the town has been restricted but there seemed no problem parking and walking around. After all the notice “military personnel only” hardly applied to me – a former NCO in the FCA and the son of a distinguished officer. I’m clearly not an ordinary “civy”.We checked out our old house, a large red-brick building called McDermot House. The only home I’ve ever lived in that boasted two staircases - one for the servants (Ok the orderly then) and one for the master and his family. It had changed. Parking lines around the house gave the first indication and the sign on the wall “HQ Support Unit” confirmed that it was no longer someone’s home. Apart from stragglers leaving a nearby church after mass, and a few figures jogging on the Curragh plains, the place was eerily deserted. I did not see a single figure in uniform. I know army numbers are down and morale is low but it was still sad to see this once thriving hub of military activity so desolate and deserted. I checked out the tall fire-station where my father had held me over the parapet (a la Michael Jackson) all the better to see the cars racing around the Curragh track that once held major motor races. I also saw the deserted shop outside which my sister Berna’s pram took off on an unplanned journey down the steep hill. I couldn’t find my old school – maybe it’s been demolished and these days the kids go off to Kildare.

On to the Curragh and its splendid new stand. Even though it was a pleasant enough day, the crowds seemed disappointingly small. Our Taoiseach was there for the official opening and he towered over the jockeys in the parade ring - a lot he knows about horses but nice to see him get away from his Kylie side. The Aga Khan was there also.  The new stand is named after him for reasons I am unaware of – perhaps just for his long service and patronage of Irish racing. He always seemed like a decent cove – lacking the haughtiness and froideur of some of the Arab owners. We were led by our sponsors up to the Ballydoyle box. It consisted of two round tables which could accommodate around 16 people. There were a few owners , a sprinkling of the extended O’Brien family, and the great man himself along with his son Joseph, and Pat Smullen who’s married to another Crowley girl . He was extremely attentive  – notwithstanding the fact that he had runners in most races and the favourite (Hermosa) for the 1,000 Guineas. He made sure we were looked after for food and drink and chatted away in the most amiable fashion. At one point he excused himself from our company saying apologetically “I must go and tack up for the next race.” He duly won the big race and his wife Anne-Marie Crowley insisted that we join them in the winner’s enclosure along with the might of Coolmore – John Magnier and his entourage. A treat indeed for a racing fan. Afterwards we all came back for more tea – no sign of champagne or any riotous celebrations despite a win that had enormous financial consequences. In addition to the  substantial prize-money a filly who wins a classic is a valuable stud option. I suppose Ballydoyle and Coolmore do it so often that it’s seen as business as usual. And of course O’Brien famously doesn’t drink. There was plenty of wine there but it seemed no one was interested (except me – but I don’t like drinking alone).

The most memorable thing about the whole encounter was how genuinely self-effacing and modest O’Brien is. And he has plenty of cause not to be so. He could be considered our greatest racehorse trainer ever, with the possible exception of his namesake Vincent. He’s been much more successful internationally than Vincent but the latter operated in an era where travel wasn’t as stream-lined. And of course Vincent proved his versatility at Cheltenham and Aintree as well as the Curragh and Epsom. In later years Vincent developed a certain hauteur which Aidan certainly doesn’t possess. Those who know him speak of his work-ethic and his genuine love of horses – the attendant stuff is to him an irrelevance.

Life above Everything: Lucian Freud and Jack B. Yeats

A lightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 14 July 2019.

Lucian Freud and Jack B. Yeats never met although Freud claimed to have caught sight of the aging artist near Stephen’s Green in the early Fifties. He was certainly familiar with his work as he once asserted that “Jack B. Yeats is Irish art.” Also, he kept a drawing by Yeats, Dancing Stevedores, next to his bed for over 20 years – a location that ensured it was widely viewed. Freud visited Ireland a number of times between 1948 and 1956 usually with a woman or because he was pursuing one. (One of the latter was Lady Caroline Blackwood, a cousin of Garech Browne, who one suspects he wished he’d never caught.) The artists’ works crossed paths only once during Yeats’s lifetime - in the the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street, London. This was the unlikely venue for Forty Years of Modern Art, the inaugural exhibition of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1948. The young Freud had a small, pastel self-portrait in the show and Yeats had a large oil called A Farewell to Mayo. The latter piece belonging to the star-crossed Vivien Leigh, a gift from Laurence Olivier.

Notwithstanding these somewhat tenuous connections, the Freud Project at IMMA enlists Jack B. Yeats to the cause in the exhibition Life Above Everything: Lucian Freud and Jack B. Yeats. The initial stimulus came from co-curator David Dawson who drew the other co-curator Christina Kennedy’s (IMMA’s head of collections) attention to Freud’s admiration for Yeats. Dawson was Freud’s studio assistant, model, friend and general factotum for the last twenty years of the artist’s life – so he should know. (Freud’s very last painting, Portrait of a Hound, features a naked Dawson and his whippet Eli.) Whatever about its slightly flakey raison d’etre, the exhibition is a delight and affords us the privilege of viewing a large number of outstanding paintings by these two great maverick figures of 20th Century art. And the curators have done an excellent job in creatively exploring the many affinities that can be found, especially in subject matter, when you look across their respective oeuvres. An interesting side show is the fact that seven of the works by Yeats in the exhibition were selected by Freud at various auctions for a friend who was a collector.

Both artists were figurative painters at times when representation was passé.The exhibition hangs together by exploring certain figurative themes and subjects they had in common. These include self-portraits, double portraits, figures in landscape, windows, and horses. Freud scores heavily in the self-portrait department. The Yeats work is a stilted graphite image of the young artist posing by an easel. Nothing is being given away here. In contrast we get two wildly varying self-portraits by Freud. One in his early flatter style shows an idealised portrait of a handsome and rather cruel looking young man. The other, Reflection 1985, painted in thick impasto depicts a sinister and energetic Freud – right out of Dorian Grey’s attic. The two artists intersect most obviously in their love of animals – especially horses. It’s interesting to see that of the seven Yeats paintings selected by Freud at auction, four of them feature horses. The Flapping Meeting would certainly have resonated with him. Freud might have viewed human flesh with a jaundiced eye but when it came to animals his affection shines through. Look at the loving portrayal of the sleeping whippet in Double Portrait, its paw draped over the girl’s arm. There are two paintings of horses by Freud in the show, although one (Skewbald Mare) seems more an exercise in tonal contrasts than the study of a horse. He painted dogs more frequently probably because he could work with them in his studio – Freud was a very studio-bound artist. He had a fraught relationship with horses in other ways - going through through vast amounts of money feeding a largely unsuccessful gambling habit. Yeats grew up amongst horses on his uncle George Pollexfen’s property in Sligo. They featured in his work throughout his career and the exhibition shows the transformation that took place in how he represented them as he moved from his illustrative style to the looser and expressive style of his later career. His early horses are seen going about their workaday business, hauling goods, transporting passengers, or at the races. In later years they become less prosaic and are transformed into symbols of freedom - manifestations of spirit and energy. Compare the working horses in The Ballina Car with the magical, mystical creature in On the Way to the Sea. The exhibition contains many fine examples of Yeats’s treatment of horses  and it allows us to test Frank Auerbach’s claim that “Yeats’s are the best paintings of horses ever made.”

If one were to find fault with what overall is an immensely enjoyable and thought-provoking exhibition it would be at the inordinate number of grim-faced Irishmen on display. Presumably these were included to emphasize Freud’s love for Ireland and all things Irish. Many, such as Two Brothers from Ulster, seem stricken by what can best be described as sitter’s ennui. Freud labored long and painstakingly over his work and a sitter without a rich inner life may have struggled not to look pissed off. Man in Silver Suit is another example, or the miserable duo in Two Irishmen in W11. Although the latter work is redeemed by the view of Freud’s hinterland in West London from the large window. There are two portraits of Donegal Man in the show, probably one too many. This is no ordinary Donegal man but the high-profile property developer Pat Doherty, a man not unknown to NAMA. He runs Harcourt Development and was responsible for the Titanic Quarter in Belfast. Doherty paid £4.5 million for the two paintings. A painting of Doherty’s friend Andrew Parker Bowles (a director of Harcourt Development) by Freud fetched €28 million in 2014, so this is one piece of speculation that the property tycoon need not regret. While Freud’s later portraits are all-too-human, slabs of flesh, Yeats goes more for character and expression. Compare Freud’s Irishmen with two works by Yeats in the basement area of the gallery. The Rogue shows a young man lounging luxuriously in a bar, a pint of stout beside him and an expression that shouts out “untrustworthy”. Useful shows a boxer sitting in his corner and his expression tells us he’s clearly in command of the fight.

The title of the exhibition comes from a letter to Yeats from Walter Sickert in which he described Yeats’s practice as pursuing “life above everything”. He roamed the country with his ever-present sketchbooks drawing inspiration from all around him and preserving what he saw in watercolours, notes and drawings.  He depicts people and animals in the midst of life – in action. Freud in contrast paints arrested life. There is also a costive, enclosed, feel to a lot of his paintings. He admitted as much describing his work as  “purely autobiographical – it is about myself and my surroundings”. This difference is made explicit in Dead Cock’s Head and in his superb death-like Portrait of his Mother Sleeping. Contrast these cruel almost lepidopterous works with the joy and energy in Yeats’ truly wonderful painting Left, Left, We Left Our Name on the Road. Get up to IMMA and see for yourself.

John P. O’Sullivan
July 2019

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Birth of Modernism in Irish Art

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times on 21 April 2019

David Britton’s fascinating survey on the development of modernism in Irish art covers a period when our writers were part of the European avant-garde. Our visual artists however were inclined towards the safe and conventional both in form and subject matter - catering to the taste of the newly-emergent Catholic middle-classes. A taste that favored benign landscapes, rustic idylls and artists such as Paul Henry and Sean Keating. The writ of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) ruled. But in the 1920s things began to change. A number of artists, often Protestant, Anglo-Irish and female began to travel and the old regime was assailed as new forms of art began were explored. The 47 artists chosen by Britton represent the old and the new order. He juxtaposes works by advocates of modernism such as Basil Rákóczi, Mainie Jellett, and May Guinness with more conventional paintings by James Humbert Craig, Maurice C. Wilks and the shamelessly folksy William Conor.

In 1923 Mainie Jellett and her bosom friend Evie Hone returned from Paris full of the joys of cubism – following their sojourn with Albert Gleize.  That year they exposed Dubliners to this brave new world in a group show. This was followed by their two-person exhibition the following year. Dubliners were not impressed. The Irish Times described Jellett as “a late victim to this artistic malaria”. But Jellett persisted with her vision throughout her short life in her teaching, writing, and painting.  She could be seen as the heroic mid-wife who presided over the difficult birth of modernism in Ireland. Jellett’s zeal had a missionary flavour. She maintained that “the art of a nation is one of the ultimate facts by which its spiritual health is judged and appraised by posterity." Evie Hone was a constant ally. She and Jellett along with Hilary Heron, Louis le Brocquy and others founded the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA) in 1943 – arguably the single most important initiative in breaking the hegemony of the RHA.

It is striking how influential the female artists were in introducing European trends into this moribund Irish scene. An important factor was the Taylor Art Scholarship that expanded the artistic horizons of many female artists by allowing them to travel. Before Jellett and Hones’s formative stint in Paris, May Guinness and Mary Swanzy had made their forays into France. Swanzy is represented by the exquisite Sunny Landscape near St. Tropez that shows her at her brilliant best. The males were less adventurous than these pioneering women. One exception was Roderic O’Conor who went to Paris in 1886 and became a close friend of Gaughin’s and a circle of French artists.

One of the show’s charms, and it has many charms, lies in introducing us to some of the forgotten or lesser-known figures in Irish art such as Joan Jameson, May Guinness, Nevill Johnson and the wonderfully named Georgina Moutray Kyle. It also reminds us of some tragic figures like Kenneth Hall who killed himself and Dan O’Neill whose career was blighted by alcohol and bad luck. And who is now familiar with the paintings of Thurloe Conolly? Born in Cork in 1918, he was once considered “in the very first rank of our advanced painters”. He joined the White Stag group and had a successful career showing in New York, Los Angeles, London and elsewhere in Europe. He is represented by A Very Powerful Queen – a weird and wonderful piece that shows the influence of Paul Klee and African art. Cecil ffrench Salkeld is another notable character. In 1924 he took himself off to Kassel in Germany at the age of 17 to study art under Ewald Dulberg. He went on to become a major contributor to the gaiety of the nation in the 1940s and 1950s. He set up the Gayfield Press and in 1954 Founded the National Ballet. His unabashedly erotic Leda and the Swan would certainly have caused fluttering in the dovecotes of de Valera’s prim Ireland. Micheál Mac Liammóir’s Monte Carlo (influenced by Beardsley) might also have raised eyebrows amongst the more discerning. Initially it seems like a harmless trifle with its promenading toffs but when you look closer it’s replete with coded gay references. To punters used to the homely world depicted in James Humbert Craig’s Races at Waterfoot, Maurice C. Wilks stiff and stagey Cottage Interior, or William Conor’s The Street Fiddler these works would have truly shocking.

Sculpture gets a modest look in with four small pieces. We are reminded of the somewhat neglected Hilary Heron. She is another artist whose extensive travels exposed her to outside influences. A contemporary critic applauded her for bringing “ something fresh, diverting, and also very genuine to our inbred world of sculpture.” That something involved African and Sumerian influences and clear indications of knowing her Picasso.

Most of the works in the show come from private collections and so will be unfamiliar to many art lovers. Jack B. Yeats’ enigmatic We Are Leaving Now is being exhibited for the first time in 50 years. It was painted in 1928 and is believed to be a reference to the problem of emigration – a stretch I’d say. Roderic O’Conor’s portrait of his wife Rene Honta is hardly his finest hour – she seems depressed. Maybe it’s because her nose looks as if it was clumsily affixed with a palette knife as an afterthought. Contrast it to the warm and characterful portrait of his wife Madge by George Campbell or the chutzpah of May Guinness’s La Parisienne. There are two striking surrealist pieces by Colin Middleton and Nevill Johnson that owe a debt to Dali. Dan O’Neill’s dramatic homage to Van Gogh, and a tasty William Scott are amongst the many other delights on view in this absorbing exhibition. It runs until August and anyone who has any interest in art should not miss it.

State Apartments Galleries, Dublin Castle

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Lighten up Girls (and Boys)

I’ve been reviewing books and art for seven or eight years now – mostly in the Sunday Times and Irish Arts Review, and occasionally in the Irish Examiner. In that period I have rarely received any hostile response. Indeed I’ve frequently been thanked for my modest efforts. There were a couple of exceptions to this tranquil state of affairs – both relating to book review rather than art reviews. There was an issue with the much lamented Eileen Battersby a few years ago when I described the heroine of her novel as a “prig” and there was also some disagreement about her character’s taste in music – letters were exchanged in the letters page of the Sunday Times. Battersby showed more sensitivity than one would have expected from a hardened and frequently stern critic. There was also some quibbling about a piece I did on a book about the Hunt Museum. Some woman saw Nazis under the bed that were not evident to me and also suggested that I was denigrating her academic credentials – again mild enough stuff.

So nothing had prepared me for the avalanche of insult, abuse, calumny, detraction and downright vilification that descended on me a few Sundays ago following a book review I had written. The review was generally favorable and contained phrases such as: “Her entertaining and briskly-paced debut novel”. Before publication I had shown it to a well-qualified literary friend of mine and his verdict was that the author would be well-pleased with my positive response – notwithstanding a few digs at the overtly feminist agenda (men were responsible for all the evils of the post-apocalypse world depicted). Thumbing through Twitter later on the day of publication I came upon a veritable river of vituperation flowing in my direction. The initial source seemed to be a hint of displeasure from the author who deemed me “sexist” – a view echoed swiftly by her business partner. The main issue seemed an arcane one – at least to someone not versed in the details of post-Apocalypse films. I was accused of being sexist because the headline used my reference to the heroine as a “Mad Maxine” – a nod towards the post-apocalyptic hero Mad Max. However, having only seen the original film I was unaware of a more recent female character in the Mad Max franchise (Imperator Furiosa) to whom I should have compared the heroine. On such trifles apparently do the serried ranks of the sisters go to battle. After the author and her business partner had signaled their displeasure a great army of trolls joined in – all it seems banging the feminist drum. Some of them were male, including the great-bearded  “fiancée” (a quaint old-fashioned concept for a feminist) of the author. Such shows of fealty are routine on Twitter. However, they served to unleash amongst their followers increasingly strident and hysterical abuse. The wild inaccuracy of much of it suggested that not alone had most of them not read the just-released novel but few of them had bothered to look at the review either. One of them accused me of calling all women slave-owners (because I had foolishly responded to one of the male abusers - calling him an “Uncle Tom feminist”) - a stretch I’d say.

I was at first pissed off by all this and eventually bemused at both the scale of the abuse and the manifest hatred and spurious rage expressed by this mob. It’s as if mass hysteria had taken over a segment of literary Dublin. I was somewhat mollified to receive an email from an acquaintance who reviews for the TLS expressing amazement at how such a favourable review could receive such a negative reception. My words had clearly ruffled some feminist sensibilities and this sin trumped the positive review – I had deviated from the path of righteousness. However, I believe another factor was also in play.  In the back-slapping world of book reviewing in Ireland, anything less than total reverence is deemed churlish. (Read the blurbs on every Irish novel published in the last 10 years and give yourself a good laugh at the recurring names that have been overwhelmed by the quality therein.) Perhaps I hadn’t been fulsome enough in my praise, I hadn’t gushed enough. But in truth I had gone easy on a first-time author who is hardly Margaret Atwood but would like to be. The novel was an entertaining read, in a Dan Brown page turning way, not a major literary breakthrough. Incidentally, the aforementioned Eileen Battersby was an exception to the mutual adoration society that is literary Ireland – her reviews were perceptive, honest, and unsparing. But she probably had the sense to stay away from Twitter and its standing army of the easily outraged.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Troubled Vision of Maurice Desmond

An edited version of this text first appeared as an introduction to Maurice Desmond’s work on the Lavit Gallery web site.

Maurice Desmond is much possessed by a sense of the tragic. His last show, Flanders Fields  in 2012, consisted of a series of brooding and evocative paintings that captured the atmosphere of that doom-laden place. These were deathscapes rather than landscapes. In this new show he continues to engage with the bleaker aspects of human existence. The skies are still eerie and troubled, the earth is still reddened with redundance of blood. These are landscapes without a consoling hint of the pastoral - they pulse with dark, entombed memories. But Desmond has always believed that the saddest songs are the sweetest and that we find, as Nietzsche asserted, “metaphysical solace” in art and music through the contemplation of the tragic. We find this in Greek Tragedy, in the music of Mahler, and in Shakespeare’s King Lear. You might think recent work inspired by a visit to Gougane Barra would bring some harmony and solace to counter this troubled vision. However what these new works indicate at best is the monumental implacability of nature – the stony indifference of the universe. While Desmond is now somewhat of an outsider on the art scene, he continues to create work that will endure beyond the current fads and fashions.

Lavit Gallery, Cork.
From 25th April 2019

John P. O’Sullivan
April 2019

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Cheltenham 2019 - Post Mortem

Apart from a freakish piece of good luck on the betting front it is hard to work up any enthusiasm for the final day.  In the first race Sir Erek, the hot favourite and a hugely promising horse, broke a leg in mid-race. The camera mercifully moved away quickly from the frightful image of the poor creature floundering - but it surely ruined my appetite for the rest of the day’s racing. The Gold Cup was of poor quality. The winner Al Boum Photo had won recently at Tramore - hardly the place you’d normally find Gold Cup horses running. It is owned by Joe Donnelly, a classmate of mine in CBC Cork. I commenced my betting career across the road from CBC in his father’s betting shop on MacCurtain Street. Native River ran disappointingly, maybe needing it softer and himself and Might Bite rather cut each other’s throats vying for the lead. Elsewhere I thought Minella Indo was way overpriced for the Albert Bartlett Hurdle so I had a modest each way bet on him and he won comfortably at 50-1. He once again demonstrated that trainer Henry de Bromhead is always a man to consider at Cheltenham. We Have a Dream came second for me in the County Hurdle at 20-1 - undone by his top weight.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Cheltenham 2019 - Day 4 Thoghts

Day 3 was very disappointing from a betting point of view though I made a small profit thanks to Sire du Berlais. My faith in Jessica was misguided. Walk to Freedom ran a stinker in the Pertemps - making multiple mistakes and never getting involved. Supasundae ran a decent enough race but clearly doesn’t stay three miles. Maybe she should have run her in the Champion Hurdle after all. He’s won two Grade 1’s over two miles.

Today I’m just having three bets. In the Gold Cup I’m sure all romantics will want Presenting Percy to win but he’s too short for me and his profile lacks the substance I’d expect. Nichols’ horse Clan Des Obeaux could continue his good run but I’m not sure he’s going too last the distance. I’ve backed Native River at 5-1. Not very original as he’s last year’s winner but he’s tried and tested over the course and distance and this race has been his plan all year. Elsewhere Sir Erek is apparently a certainty for the Triumph but not for me at odds of 4/5. I’ll have a nibble at the County Hurdle though. We Have a Dream is a class above the rest of the field and despite his weight is good value at 20-1. Again I’ll have a saver on Gordon Elliot’s Eclair de Beaufeu at 11-1.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Cheltenham 2019 - Day 3 Thoughts

Although I had a profitable Day 2 with Band of Outlaws and Envoi Allen both winning and also having them in a double, this modest success was overshadowed by Wicklow Brave’s narrow defeat at 28-1 in the Coral Cup. He was caught on the line after looking a certain winner - costing me financially and emotionally. But hey that’s the fun of the fair - it’s all about passionate engagement. Tiger Roll and Alterior both won as predicted but at prices too short to involve me - I enjoyed both of them anyway. Alterior toughed it out like a champion while Tiger Roll strolled unconcernedly to victory. Both Envoi Allen and Band of Outlaws won easily - and I suspect we’ll hear about both again.

Day 3 should see Jessica Harrington getting off the mark. I think Supasundae is certain to be at least placed in the Stayer’s Hurdle and I feel she may prick the Paisley Park bubble. She also has a fancied runner in the Pertemps Final at 2.10. Her Walk to Freedom is closely linked form wise with Sire du Berlais and Cuneo on the December Pertemps heat at Leopardstown. However, he needed that race and despite his weights should be a decent each way bet at 12-1. Jessica reckons he’ll improve. I’d save on Sire du Berlais. The Ryanair Chase seems to be dominated by the Irish runners. Both Monalee and Road to Respect could be running in the Gold Cup but have gone for this consolation prize instead. In the latter’s case I think this distance suits him much better but I felt Monalee was a more genuine contender for the bigger prize so will favour him. Elsewhere I think Mullins’ Real Steel is overpriced at 7-1 in the opening race and I fancy Henry de Bromhead to confirm his Cheltenham pedigree winner with Sinoria in the 4.50 - a reasonable 13-2 at the moment.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Cheltenham 2019 - Day 2 Thoughts

An excellent Day1. It started with a disaster in the first race where Elixir de Nutz didn’t run and Angel’s Breath ran a stinker. Mullins’ horses are inclined to relish soft going and Klassical Dream stepped up on his previous form. I avoided the Arkle and my selection in the Ultima never figured. But all changed in the Champion Hurdle when all the favourites disappointed and my choice, Espoir D’Allen, won readily at 18-1. A Plus Tard won equally easily for me at 11-2 in the 4.50 race and I was only denied am unprecedented treble when Discorama was denied by a narrow margin in the last -  the third horse was 47 lengths behind.

But that’s the past now and so we look ahead to Day 2. Altior and Tiger Roll will probably win the Champion Chase and the Cross Country race so these races are best watched. I don’t back short-priced horses (was not involved in the Benie Des Deux debacle today - the whining on Twitter was a joy to behold) so I’ll just watch these races. In the 1.30 I think that Gordon Elliot will get off the mark with Battleoverdoyen. He won his maiden at Navan by 13 lengths on yielding going. The 2.10 is a Novice’s Chase so I will ignore that as a betting proposition too. I do love a handicap hurdle so the Coral Cup at 2.50 is very enticing. I’ll do a couple each way. Wicklow Brave has recent form that places him close to today’s Champion Hurdle winner Espoir D’Allen so at 14-1 he’s worth a few bob. Dancing on My Own at 12-1 finished close to Klassical dream last time out so he’s also a decent speculative punt. Willie Mullins has the favourite Uradel but I’d prefer longer odds in such an open race. In the Fred Winter at 4.50 I like Joseph O’Brien’s Band of Outlaws and I think Gordon Elliot could also win the bumper with Envoi Allen. The wind tomorrow may blow all this off course but they’ll keep for Saturday in that case.

Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff

An edited version of this review was published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 10 March 2019.

In her role as co-founder of Tramp Press Sarah Davis-Goff has bemoaned the dearth of women writers cited as influences by those who submitted work for publication. She saw it as a wasteful dismissal of “the experiences, viewpoints and brilliant work of women.” Her enjoyable debut novel suffers from no such deficit. A recent New Yorker article by Laura Miller noted how feminist dystopian narratives are now enjoying a boom – encouraged perhaps by the TV adaption of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Miller cites: Future Home of the Living God (breeding controls) by Louise Edrich ; The Water Cure (beleaguered girls on an island) by Sophie Mackintosh; Vox (verbal constraints on women) by Christina Dalcher; and Red Clocks (breeding controls again and the uselessness of men) by Leni Zumas. Davis-Goff may have read none of these works but her novel has certainly tapped into the prevailing zeitgeist as she includes elements of all of them in her very own Irish dystopia. But fear not an earnest feminist polemic, this is a ripping yarn, an entertainment not a tract.

The central character and narrator is Orpen, a young girl, who grew up on Slanbeg, an island on the west coast deserted apart from her mother Muirinn and her taciturn partner Maeve. Her childhood is a pastoral idyll of hens, and gardening and rock pools and “snug as a bug” after a bath. However from an early age this idyll has added martial training. Orpen is brought up to be a warrior by her mother and Maeve  – strong, hard and adept with knives. She is told that “We’re never safe. The only thing we can do is be prepared.” Beyond the island is a semi-deserted wasteland patrolled by hordes of skrake. These are zombie-like creatures who roam our blighted isle and from whom one bite is fatal - it transforms the bitten one into a member of their murderous, albeit mouldering (bits of them tend to fall off) tribe. We don’t know from whence these monsters came but sensitive men may feel there’s an accusatory metaphor lurking in there somewhere. Nor are we told what caused the apocalypse, but two things are clear: it happened in the distant past and men are responsible. Only the crumbling remains of towns and villages remain and trees grow from the middle of the road. “Men are dangerous” we hear and the whole dystopian mess was caused by “the men making the decisions and women suffering for them.” All the characters in the book are female apart from a rather wet male character called Cillian who gets bullied by every woman he encounters. Orpen even thinks about “putting him down” at one stage. However, late in the book the normally stoical Orpen feels a stirring of something else:  “He kisses me. I think about it for the whole rest of my life.” Biology still works.

The action involves a quest by Orpen that takes her from her island fastness. Her immediate concern is a cure for Maeve, stricken by the skrake. However she also hungers for a life beyond her narrow islanded existence, and for the companionship of  a peer group. She sets out on a journey across Ireland to Phoenix City – a dimly-perceived haven based on overheard conversations between Muirinn and Maeve who had to leave there because of Orpen’s birth. “We left because you were pregnant and you weren’t meant to be.” On the road she encounters skrake, a few other lost souls, and eventually finds her peers in the form of a group of banshees. It was only a matter of time before there was a move to rehabilitate the negative stereotypes around banshees. There we were thinking of them as doleful harbingers of death that you’d be better off avoiding. But in Davis-Goff’s novel they have become powerful, liberated women who patrol our ravaged land seeking out and destroying the marauding skrake.

Chapters alternate between the past and the present showing us how Orpen got where she is today.
Davis-Goff captures well the naïve, and permanently wary voice of Orpen. Brought up in isolation, her perspective is circumscribed by the world-view of her mother and her partner and glimpses of the old world from carefully hoarded scraps of old books and magazines. We are so far removed from civilization that Orpen’s mother doesn’t even have names for the days of the week – “summer sol” and “winter sol” divide the time. The story focuses on Orpen, her inner life  and her development. The action along the road is mostly confined to bloody jousts with the skrake. The author has a fine grasp of revolting detail and for those who like their Grand Guignol the blood, snot and entrails are piled on with visceral relish.

The conclusion is left so open-ended that you wonder if a sequel is planned, or even a series of novels. I see distinct possibilities for a film or TV series with Orpen as the hero. A kind of Dirty Harriet, or Mad Maxine, for the apocalypse.

Tinder Press
PP: 272
RRP: ??

John P. O’Sullivan
March 2019

Monday, March 11, 2019

Cheltenham 2019 - Day 1 Thoughts

Day 1 of Cheltenham is always my favourite with the Supreme Novices Hurdle, the Arkle Chase and the Champion Hurdle to relish. This year however I am filled with uncertainty about all three races. Mind you this is probably a healthier state than being filled with certainty. The Supreme is a complete conundrum. There’s six horses for whom I can convincingly make a case – and they make up the first six in the betting. Elixir de Nutz was my early choice but he’s a front runner and may set it up for a finisher. He beat Grand Sancy last time out narrowly – but staying on strongly, a good sign. He also beat Southfield Stone who has beaten the joint favourite Angel’s Breath – albeit getting five pounds. The other favourite, Al Dancer, may be just a good handicapper so I’m letting him go. The imponderables are the two Irish horses Klassical Dream and Fakir d’Oudairies. The latter won very easily already at Cheltenham and the former is Willie Mullins’ first choice. I’ll have a bet of course but a restrained one on Elixir de Nutz e.w. and Angel’s Breath – plus the forecast on the two. In the Champion Hurdle I think Gavin Cromwell’s Espoir D’Allen at 18-1 might be worth an e.w. bet. Melon ran a great race last year but I can’t forgive his lamentable last run where he jumped appallingly. I find it impossible to separate those at the head of the market (Lauriana, Apple’s Jade and Buveur D’Air) so I’m avoiding them in favor of this outsider at a decent price. Elsewhere I like Discorama in the last race – trained by my former greyhound trainer Paul Nolan. He ran very well here last year and has excellent recent form. I’ll nibble at Henry de Bromhead’s A Plus Tard in the previous race. De Bromhead’s horses invariably run above themselves at Cheltenham. My mother always counseled me to avoid handicap chases but it’s hard to ignore Singlefarmpayment in the Ultima Chase. You do like to be involved no matter how problematical the race.

The Keeper - to Have and to Hold at the Model Sligo

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 10 March 2019.

The Niland Collection is a monument to the will and indefatigable energy of Nora Niland – the Sligo County Librarian who started the collection 60 years ago. The Model in Sligo is celebrating the woman and her heritage with an exhibition, curated by its director Emer McGarry, that encompasses 100 works from the Niland collection together with a small and quirky selection from the collection   of former director Jobst Graeve. Accompanying these are four fascinating contemporary video works that relate to the importance of collecting and what can be lost when we don’t “keep”, or “keep” properly.

A seminal work in the Niland Collection is Leaving the Far Point by Jack B. Yeats (see above), painted in 1946 and given to his wife Cottie as a birthday present in 1947, the year before she died. It’s an imaginary scenario with Yeats, Cottie and his favourite uncle George Pollexfen taking a walk along the beach near Rosses Point – where his uncle had a house, and where the artist spent 20 happy summers. Pollexfen had died in 1910 so this much later work represents the aging Yeats looking back at an idyllic period in his life. However, the painting has a significance beyond its personal resonances for the artist. He presented it to the people of Sligo in 1954 and it was the seed from which the Niland collection emerged. Nora Niland had borrowed five other works by Yeats from the Capuchins for the inaugural Willian Butler Yeats Summer School and she decided she would like to add them to her solitary painting and start to build a Yeats collection for the county he loved so well. She raised the money by public subscription, with a little help from the Arts Council, and paid off the good friars – and thus the Niland collection was born. It now has 52 works by Jack B. Yeats – making it the most significant collection by the artist outside the National Gallery of Ireland. Niland was a determined and well-connected woman - her family owned the Niland Cash and Carry business in Galway. Money for art in the west was tight so she used her connections to approach wealthy individuals and local businesses. Arts organizations such as Friends of the National Collections were also very helpful. A major boost to the fledgling project was a bequest of 35 paintings from the Irish-American James A. Healy – a successful stockbroker. “They formed the core of the collection” according to McGarry. Another fertile source has been artists themselves to whom Niland regularly wrote asking for work. Work also arrived unbidden. As recently as last year Sean McSweeney’s family donated five paintings by the popular local artist. McSweeney was an avid supporter of the Model up to his much mourned death in 2018.

The collection has expanded well beyond its initial Jack B. Yeats emphasis and it now consists of more than 300 paintings that provide a comprehensive survey of 20th Century Irish art. Emer McGarry has gone for a salon hang format to enable as much of the collection as feasible to be put on show. The exhibition is dominated numerically by the Jack B. Yeats paintings (23 of which are displayed), many of outstanding quality. There’s a nice contrast between the elaborate formal and the fraught practical in his treatments of two funeral scenes: The Funeral of Harry Boland and An Island Funeral. The father, John B. Yeats, gets a look in with his famously prevaricated over self-portrait – 11 years labour and still unfinished. There’s also his charming portrait of a languid William B. Yeats reading in the garden. Elsewhere an exquisite small work, Grey Pool, by Sean McSweeney catches the eye. There are strong works by Mainie Jellett (Abstract Composition) and Mary Swanzy (Abstract) and women artists generally are well represented. There’s also an unusually expressive work, Bog Sun, by that purveyor of restraint and decorum Patrick Scott.

The Niland collection is accompanied by work from the Jobst Graeve Collection – on temporary loan to the Model. This featured quirkier and more idiosyncratic work – a leather jacket here, a cow’s nipple shoe there, elegant craft work, and some agitprop paintings (such as Rita Duffy’s striking Belfast Pieta). The benefactor himself features, naked of torso and full-length of pleated skirt, in a Mick O’Dea portrait that the charitable will assume is an essay in the mock-heroic.

The third strand of this ambitious and absorbing exhibition features four well-presented and accessible pieces of video art by  four contemporary artists. Sadly one of them, Susan Miller, died between the shows’s gestation and the actual opening. It is ironic indeed that her exhibit is called The Last Silent Movie. In it we hear snatches of dead and dying languages accompanied by sub-titled translations. This artist’s dying word encompassing the dying words of other civilizations and tribes.

Perhaps more pertinent to the theme of collecting is Ed Atkins’ Trick Brain. Atkins film takes us on a tour of André Breton’s Paris apartment as it was when he died in 1966. A veritable cabinet of wonders, it was crammed with weird and wonderful artifacts with a noticeable bias towards the bizarre, the African and the surreal. Bretons’s family wanted it preserved as a museum but the French government demurred and the collection was sold at auction and dispersed in 2003. Money trumps the common good in today’s art world.

Turner Price winning artist Elizabeth Price’s video A Restoration views with a jaundiced eye the “taxonomical recklessness” shown to artifacts recovered from Knossos on Crete by Sir Arthur Evans and his team during their excavations in the early 20th century. Collecting and preserving the past requires rigour and integrity – qualities that Evans appeared to lack.

The fourth video work by Taus Makhacheva tales us to a village in Dagestan where every resident is an expert tight-rope walker – a necessity more than a sport in a land of gorges and ravines. We see aerial maestros walk across a rope suspended over a gorge while carrying works of art. It’s a metaphor with many applications: art as a precarious occupation and the difficulties of building a collection being the most obvious.

Curator of the show and Director of the Model Emer McGarry emphasizes that the collection is still a living one and acquisitions will continue where funds permit. “We definitely want to add works of museum quality”. This year already it has acquired The Racecard Seller, a characterful early work by Jack B.Yeats, from the office of the Taoiseach. It’s on loan for two years but history has taught us that works loaned to the Niland Collection tend to stick around – especially if they’re by Yeats. And rightly so. They are at home. Yeats has said “From the beginning of my painting life every painting which I have made has somewhere in it a thought of Sligo”.

John P. O’Sullivan
March 2019

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Brian Eno – 77 Million Paintings

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 27 January 2019.

Brian Eno has come a long way from his early incarnation as a glammed-up synthesizer player with Roxy Music nearly 50 years ago. In addition to his pioneering work in ambient music, he’s known for his creative collaborations with such recherché figures as John Cale and Robert Fripp. Torn between visual art and music since his art school days, Eno arrived at the insight that these media could overlap and that he could make visual objects that changed in time like music. Hence his installation at the RHA where the title 77 Million Paintings refers to the ever-changing visual array he has created using computer software that generates infinite variations from a basic set of 296 images painted on slides. One wall of the large upstairs gallery has a screen featuring this kaleidoscope of abstract shapes as they imperceptibly fade one into another – accompanied by a haunting soundtrack also randomly generated. The space is otherwise in darkness apart from three mysterious mounds of pebbles lit from above and constantly changing colour. You make your way through a perimeter of 12 silver birch trees to the sanctuary of four comfortable sofas where you can immerse yourself in the infinity of images..

John P. O’Sullivan

January 2019

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Six Nations 2019 Prognostications

So how’s it been for you so far? First things first – the championship is over and England have won. Even if they lose away to Wales they have garnered enough bonus points and will undoubtedly get more (Italy and Scotland at home). If they lose to Wales they will still probably have a minimum of 20 points - and maybe 21 if they lose narrowly. If Wales win all their matches the will have 20 points – they will hardly get bonus points away to Scotland or at home to England and Ireland. The clincher is points difference – if they both finish on 20 or 21 points then England should have a vastly superior points difference. Anyway I doubt it will come to that. I think that Wales are overrated and the English juggernaut will roll over them and sadly give England the Grand Slam.

Ireland have been poor so far – for many different reasons. Against England they were suffering from injuries and the aftermath of injuries in crucial areas. Murray and Sexton played but neither of them was anywhere near their 2018 form. Nor were they against Scotland and this has caused a leadership dearth – particularly in attack. Henshaw was close to being a disaster against England and we missed Kearney’s experience at full-back. In addition to these crucial areas we have had no continuity in the centre or the second row. Also, the back row is missing Leavy and O’Brien is far from back to his best. Oh and Rory Best is well over the hill – play Cronin from the start please. We missed Ringrose’s creativity against Scotland and Henderson’s intensity in both matches. In both matches also we looked short of an alternative offensive plan once our usual tactics had been negated – as they were in both matches. We’ll probably win all our remaining matches if we get a few of our injured back to to full power – although the Wales match should be very close.