Exhibitions: Why Irish painters prefer to work in the wet

Tim Hilton
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:20

When Time Began to Rant and Rage

Liverpool Walker Art Gallery

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the first characteristics of Irish painting in the 20th century turns out to be dignity, or so one gathers from the large exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. The show is called "", a slightly histrionic title for a collection of paintings whose artists generally have their emotions well under control. The more vehement canvases are from artists working today. The sort of painting that impressed me at the Walker was mostly done half a century ago. I think I know the reason for its relaxed and measured tone. Painting in those days was an activity confined to the Irish middle classes.

As Patrick Kavanagh used to say, "The army of Irish poets is never less than 10,000 strong", and certainly there have been fewer people joining the battalions of artists. Poetry has an honoured and genuinely popular role in Irish life. Irish painters - and the so-few Irish sculptors - have never had a similar closeness to the people of their country, even though a number of them attempt a kind of demotic visual poetry that imitates, in a different medium, the shared emotions of lore and balladry. Surely this was Jack Yeats's ambition, and a reason why he has such a hallowed place in the modern mythologies of his native land.

Jack Yeats says a lot about Ireland, but this is not necessarily his strength. His characteristic "poetic" style all too often led him into mannerism, a repetition of effects with which he was content and which satisfied his audience. Yeats has other limitations that are not concealed by his Irishness. Judged purely as a painter, he has fewer credentials than Sir John Lavery, who represents a quite different type of Irish art. Lavery was born in Belfast in 1865 and grew up there before training in Glasgow and Paris. He became a portraitist of high society all over the world. Some of his pictures rival or exceed the fashionable art of his contemporary, John Singer Sargent. However, Lavery was not merely the servant of the rich. Irishmen never are. In his character and his art there was independence, even though his paintings follow the official modes.

What was that independence? Hard to say. Lavery's painting, in terms of style, belongs to no single country. And perhaps we find here a clue to both the art and the literature of Ireland. There is a feeling of personality, but also of isolation, and especially of distance. A wise old Irishman once explained this to me. I had entered a Dublin bar, to escape a sudden thunderstorm, and he talked of the way that the Irish are always overseas, even when they are at home, and that they are never more at home than when they live by the sea. Not great sailors, they prefer fish from rivers rather than the ocean. The Mourne and Wicklow mountains yearn to be nearer strand or lough. A lough is not a lake. It is a sea in its Irish form. Most Irish creation comes from the hinterlands of the mighty ports of Dublin, Cork, Bantry and Galway; plus of course Belfast, wherever that might be.

My tutor on that morning was actually the ancient peasant-poet Paddy Kavanagh (who never visited Northern Ireland in his life), general of the aforementioned army, in one of his more reflective moods. His opinion had the more weight because he was from Monaghan, therefore a midlander by Irish standards. Can it be true that no art or writing whatsoever issues from Roscommon? Let us hope not. In pursuit of theories about Irish art I turned to the altogether excellent catalogue at the "Rant and Rage" show. It opens with a map of the island of Ireland. County Carlow appears to be missing, an extreme case of prejudice against the Irish midlands, but let that pass. What we have here is the best account of Irish art ever published.

Its introductions and biographical essays are exemplary. Above all, the catalogue is copiously illustrated. I urge readers who cannot visit the Liverpool exhibition (which in the new year will sail away to California and New York) to consider this book. No fewer than 75 painters are given handsome colour reproductions. Just in this attitude to illustration there is a generosity toward Irish art that has not previously existed in mainland Britain and is now - happily - one sign of new relations between our countries. I wonder whether Irish painting has been relatively slow to develop because the Irish newspapers, which are almost always based in their home regions, don't reproduce art, and in general are still sparing in their use of photography?

Anway, no one will deny that Ireland has an aural rather than a visual tradition, which is why the radio over there is so good and the television so bad. Irish painters have their own loquacity, by which I mean a free and perhaps over-extended way of letting the brush go beyond its immediate tasks, arguing or reminiscing, sometimes heaving or spluttering a bit, just like Kavanagh in the pub. The brush is like a tongue, which is why Irish painting is always more at home with itself when it is wet rather than dry. Irish artists don't like chalky paint, or crisp outlines, bold colour contrasts or hard definition. Everything must be moist and distant.

Because of this liking for wet rather than dry, and because they love distance and memory, the Irish have never stamped out a clear national icon. You would have thought that a proud and self-conscious young nation state would have produced a single, unforgettable image of Kathleen ni Houlihan, or whoever the people of Ireland chose to represent them. They did not. The one person in the Liverpool exhibition who consciously sought a hard political symbol at the period of the Easter Rising, Partition and the founding of the Irish Free State was Sean Keating (1889-1977). Keating seems to have been born with a desire to make a kind of religious art whose central motif would be a man with a gun.

Artists responding to more recent troubles are of a talkative school, and I like them without believing that they reach aesthetic heights. It's clear that loquacity in painting, both north and south of the border, increased not only with the feeling of conflict but with the feeling of being always in public, since the media reported events every day. Hence a diary-like format and a style derived from the loose brush-strokes of Willem de Kooning; David Crone, Patrick Graham and Brian Maguire are the leading painters in this area. The best bourgeois painters of former times are William Orpen, William Leech, Leo Whelan, Eileen Murray and Hilda Roberts.

'', Liverpool Walker Art Gallery (0151 478 4199), to 10 January.

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