Jack Yeats (1871-1957) had a long and fulfilled artistic life, but unlike his elder brother, W B, he has yet to achieve international recognition. Revered in Ireland, his work has been only fitfully praised in Britain (notably by Herbert Read, Kenneth Clark and John Berger), though the exhibition of his late paintings at the Whitechapel Gallery last year did stimulate some interest. Like one of the travelling figures in his dazzling canvases, this visionary painter is still moving down the road towards the promised land: 'Left, Left / We Left Our Name / On the Road / On the Road / On the Famous Road / On the Famous Road / On the Famous Road / Of Fame.'
Jack Yeats devised this chanting ballad-refrain as the title for one of his finest paintings, and his tramping - tramping not marching - use of 'we' embraces all the tinkers, strolling players, ballad-singers, boxers, sailors and fairground crowds this republican democrat identified with. So pervasive is the sense of outdoor openness and travelling exposure in the paintings that they seem to be tragicomic answers to the question his brother puts at the end of The Cold Heaven:
Ah] when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say,
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?
The homeless on-the-road quality in the paintings embodies Jack Yeats's intense love of popular culture and his gloriously deracinated communalism. It expresses many centuries of suffering, but it wears that experience lightly - like bright rags figured in raw oilpaint under a sky resembling a tinker's 'twisted withy tent'.
Yeats is the artist as ballad-singer, fascinated by singers and actors - he seems to be sketching in oils in order to catch the intensity of the vocal moment. He is an insouciantly rootless, unplaceable painter whose work embodies the pervasively empty, abandoned quality of the Irish landscape. Implicit in his spontaneously cascading brushstrokes and the deliberately makeshift look of his paintings are the ruined cottages, the barren fields and aching emigrant hollowness
of what he termed, in one of his prose works,
'an only-just island'.
In another prose work, The Amaranthers, Yeats describes a ballad-singer walking home with a bundle of ballads 'flittering in his hands'. This flittering or 'whiffling' quality is essential to the profound surface excitement of the paintings. It is expressed by Sickert in a letter to Yeats where he praises the movement of his figures within landscapes which have 'water, sky, houses ruffling like flags in support of them'. Yeats sought what he termed 'continuosity, impetuosity and exuberance'. He aimed at what in a lovely phrase he called 'the living ginger of Life' and this means that his paintings are always in process, always seeking a human absolute in 'the power of the moment'. He is therefore a highly theatrical painter who never offers a premeditated staginess. Like the characters invoked in his friend Synge's The Playboy of the Western World - the 'pirates, preachers, poteen-makers . . . jobbing jockies' - his figures are carefree, impoverished, exuberant travellers.
In one of his finest paintings, 'In Memory of Boucicault and Bianconi', he sets a group of travelling players near a high tumbling waterfall and this expresses his love of theatrical, especially melodramatic, excitement. The moist-bright pizzazz of Irish light, the experience of popular theatre and cinema, movement, emigration, singing, talking, thinking: all become identified. Even his interiors - for example, the tragic 'Nothing Has Changed' - have a sense of being open and exposed before an audience that is all buzz and hum or raptly present attention. No painter more favoured the present participle when devising titles for his works: 'Man in a Room Thinking', 'Going to Wolfe Tone's Grave', 'Something Happening in the Street'. These and many similarly active titles point to what has been termed the 'quiveringly intensive vitality' of his brushstrokes or flicks of the palette knife.
If we seem to view many of his paintings through a proscenium arch, Yeats must also be seen as a highly literary painter. As Hilary Pyle shows, 'On Through the Silent Lands' is based on the opening lines of Christina Rossetti's sonnet 'Remember': 'Remember me when I am gone away, / Gone far away into the silent land; / When you can no more hold me by the hand, / Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.' This late masterpiece shows an elderly, bent man with what looks like a bowler hat pressed under his arm as he walks painfully down a hill towards a flimsy bridge over a swollen river. Beyond it are a lough and a strange, cascading icy mountain.
Yeats was nearly 80 when he painted this extraordinary picture. Like all his best work, it powerfully communicates a sense of life bleak, joyous. eternal. It may be because this painting hangs in the Ulster Museum that I've come over the years to think of Yeats's figure as an Orangeman, perhaps one of the bowler-hatted Sligo Orangemen he knew as a child. His figure anticipates the tramps who also wear hats in Waiting for Godot and who may in some future production of the play be portrayed as wittily derelict Loyalists. By placing the hat under the old man's arm - he looks like an out-of-work actor or an impoverished auctioneer - Yeats signifies something of the enormous imaginative humility he brings to all his subjects. Rejecting any impulse towards the monumental and permanent, he is able to make his paintings live in the moment, to exist, as he titled one painting, 'Now'.
Hilary Pyle's catalogue raisonne is a scholarly labour of love which is necessarily very expensive. Much cheaper reproductions of Yeats's work ought to become generally available, and more critical studies are now a matter of urgency (a rescreening of Thaddeus O'Sullivan's classic television film about Jack Yeats would also be welcome). His paintings have that desperate immediacy Beckett discerns, but they are also joyously immediate in a celebratory and ecstatic manner. It's high time these visions of eternity were better known.
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