The current exhibition, opened throughout the Bank Holiday weekend, by artist Serena Caulfield at the Vine Restaurant, Main Street, Wexford, is bifurcated into studies of the classical and a revisiting of the natural.
Irrespective of the medium, artists dice with the challenge of stabilising an impression or conveying their take on transience. In this Wexford Festival exhibition, Fragments,the smaller paintings are the outcome of a contemporary artist studying key apotheoses in sculpture and architecture in Western antiquity: the Elgin Marbles in London and the Pantheon in Rome.
As their etymology suggests, both are joined at the hip, the Pantheon – which still stands – was intended as a temple of all the Gods whereas the Parthenon, which is in ruins and from which the Elgin Marbles were stolen, was dedicated to just one, Athena.
Where they differ is in narrative: the Pantheon, whilst paying homage to the Gods, was intended primarily to be a symbol of the greatness of Rome. The Romans invented an ingenious special effect, which still works today, to display divine omniscience: the temple is illuminated by a circular shaft of sunlight, admitted through an opening in the hemispherical dome.
Caulfield’s depiction of the oculus in the Pantheon eschews the temptation to be overawed by the brilliance of the light, and instead the interior of the brightly lit dome becomes a study of something else: the relevance is perhaps less what is happening within, than the source from without.
In ancient Egyptian or Roman cultures, the sky was the destiny of the deceased emperor turned into a god, so Caulfield’s oculus is an orbit of blue.
In her series of oils emanating from her study of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, Caulfield is attracted to the energy of movement within the marble: one horse from the chariot of the Moon, with flaring nostrils, is exhausted.
Other studies here from the Elgin Marbles derive from the fractured pedimental groups of the Parthenon. Caulfield, like the original sculptors, uses the visual memory to mimic gait, and the postures are thus convincing.
The much larger canvases in Fragments are the verdant distillations of perceptions accumulated by the artist in her many visits to South East Asia: the palette is more effusive because the artist paints what she feels and the subject amplifies and fills the canvas, like O’Keefe. The narrative couldn’t be further from the Pantheon or Parthenon studies. Caulfield sees the work as transmissions of a way of seeing.
1993 was a seismic year for conductor Fergus Sheil: he was honing his craft with the annual Wexford Festival Opera, and Wexford Sinfonia held its first rehearsal.
The opera to which he was attached, Ferdinand Herold’s Zampa, left a lasting impression on the young conductor, so much so that he opened Sunday afternoon’s concert with its rousing overture.
1993, in retrospect, was a vintage year for artistic director Elaine Padmore and the Festival: she unearthed the Canadian conductor Yves Abel – who conducted Zampa – and resuscitated a little known opera, but a gem, Cherevichki, by a composer who was also on Sunday’s programme, Tchaikovsky, directed by the soon to be great Francesa Zambello, at her fourth and last outing at Wexford.
Revisiting the overture again, you can see the attraction for Sheil: it is infectious, lively, spontaneous, which explains its almost universal popularity – it has been recycled incidentally often in animation, Banquet Bust, The Band Concert and Two Gun Mickey – and is best described as happiness in eight minutes and 54 seconds, or there about. And because it opens at 90 mph, both orchestra and conductor are connected instantly, and the enthusiasm swiftly engages the audience, as the triumphal fanfare is addictive. Shame, however, about the rest of the opera.
The first time I saw violinist Ioana Pectu-Colan perform, outside of Ensemble Avalon, was with Philip Glass in Dundalk, and the last time was at Wexford Opera House, soloing in Glass’s Fifth Symphony, conducted by, who else, Fergus Sheil. She returned on Sunday for a musical mano e mano with Beth McNinch, in Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major KV 364, in which Mozart specified that the viola be tuned up a semi-tone and played in D major to counter balance the brilliance of the violin.
A most amiable joust, then. There are, as the programme noted, irrepressible high spirits, yet Wexford Sinfonia – no percussion – was sufficiently at one with Sheil’s sensitive guidance to embellish Mozart’s unstated poignancy, an enchanting palimpsest with the reversal of roles of the violin and the viola.
The composer intended that both instruments should soar, and Sunday’s concert was blessed by the performance of both Pectu-Colan and McNinch, the effortless virtuosity of whom was never in danger of being disassociated from the sensuous expressiveness of a large orchestra, from the opening tutti to the coda. In a word, magical, a performance framed by Sheil’s composure, which also attest to his warmth and breadth of vision.
‘Intense and personal,’ is how Martha Wainwright, daughter of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle and brother of Rufus, described her approach to song writing and performance in Wexford.
Bookending the Spiegeltent Festival, Wainwright, about whom I previouslu knew precious little, was phenomenal, in a sort of what you see is what you get type of way. Feisty and energetic, her voice has the crescendo bark of a wounded animal, and her syllables soar and extinguish like spent meteors.
Wexford was a launch pad for new work, most of which she didn’t introduce with a title, but she also dipped into a classic repertoire, with a powerful rendition of Everything Wrong, literally sculpting the lyrics with venom:
‘My husband’s been lyin’ and cheatin’
I turned my cheek and reason
I change my tune every day’
At heart, Wainwright is a storyteller, and each song is preceded by a walking preamble, occasionally too long, as in Radio Star, but when she finally switches gear, and croons
‘I’m at the controls in the big old chair
Nothing has changed except the atmosphere’
the magic is instant, passionate and animated, and her choice of mood and rhetorical affect produces that grimace of a fallen angel, a seductive combination in her performance of Jesus & Mary.
‘She’s the jewel in your crown
But I’m the goal that’s gonna weigh you down
I’ll keep you around this dirty old town.’
The Aldeburgh festival, started by Benjamin Britten in 1948, a few years before the Wexford Festival, is multi-faceted, and the emphasis is almost definitely on music andthe arts, and not just your average accumulation of exhibitions with dodgy depictions of floating swans, collies on amphetamines and jumping horses.
For example, facing Snape Maltings Hall, the main concert venue which is surrounded by the gorgeous and occasionally moody vistas of the North Sea and the tranquil River Alde, were huge images by Anya Gallaccio, inspired by Orford Ness, apparently the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe.
Because the aura of the sea is ever present, whether walking along the attractive Victorian hub of Aldeburgh, or, further in land, at Snape, the work of Gallaccio is a reminder that Orford Ness is tenuously connected to the mainland, just about four metres above sea level.
Symbolically, the relationship between the sea and the land, is in essence tenuous. No one knows when the sea might just throw a wobble.
There were many exhibitions and installations at Aldeburgh of the highest quality: Lily Hunter Green’s Bee Composed (a piano with an a busy hive of bees), John Cage’s Music-circus at the Peter Pears Gallery, Chikato Goto’s traditional Japanese woodcuts at the Pond Gallery, a nod perhaps to Britten’s 1964 church parable Curlew River(1964), when his conception of musical theatre took a new direction, combining influences from the Japanese nō theatre and English medieval religious drama.
The Suffolk coast is the most beautiful setting for a musical festival: Snape Maltings rises like a liner: it dates back to 1846, was converted into a concert hall in 1967 and it looks out upon heath and marsh and the great River Alde, a winding signature under a huge and expansive Suffolk sky.
Britten the composer of course was fond of allegory and Church themes: besides the aforementioned Curlew River, two other religious parables, The Burning Fiery Furnace(1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968), followed. An earlier church-pageant opera, Noye’sFludde (1958), made use of one of the medieval Chester miracle plays.
And then The Rape of Lucretia marked the inception of the English Opera Group, with Britten as artistic director, composer, and conductor. This undertaking gave rise to the Aldeburgh Festival, which slowly became one of the most important alternative English music festivals and, specifically, the centre of Britten’s musical activities.
The current director of Aldeburgh is Pierre-Laurent Aimard , who , according to a report in the Financial Times on the eye of this year’s Festival, stood accused of not being ‘quite English enough’, which can hardly be his fault.
The charge sheet against him is petty: he is closely aligned in spirit with the postwar European avant garde, which Britten had little time for. But, if the opera cognoscenti didn’t split hairs over such trifling matters, it wouldn’t be the blood sport we have all come to admire.
The Festival proper runs for the second half of June, with operas, recitals, film, concerts, masterclasses and lectures, in a plethora of venues, including Blythburgh Church, Aldeburgh Church, Britten Studio, Jubilee Hall and the concert hall at Snape Maltings where I attended a performance by Ensemble 360, wandering at the interval, ice cone in hand, like a blithe spirit, among the reeds and water and Gallaccio’s photographs.
Like Telemachus, I find myself on the shore awaiting the telltale configuration of silhouettes on the horizon to signal the return home of those whose reputation was forged abroad. Since Ben Barnes informed me about WexFour earlier this year, the adaptation for the stage at Wexford Arts Centre in October of new work by four Wexford writers who continue to bestride the world, far and beyond the anadromous caul of Loch Garman, has had the swallow note of Odysseus’s lyre.
Why a swallow? As every dabbler of Homer knows, swallows migrate and return to the nest they previously inhabited. Ben Barnes was born a stone’s throw from the Arts Centre and got his short back and sides from Syl and Willie Carley at the bottom of George’s Street; Billy Roche’s first incarnation of A Handful of Stars – the raw The Boker Poker Club – was directed here by Patrick Sutton, with a very young Gary Lydon, last seen in the Arts Centre in Roche’s One Is Not a Number; Eoin Colfer’s first full length play, The Crescent, saw the light of day in the Arts Centre when he was still unknown, and both Colm Toibin and John Banville have given readings here.
Four celebrated Wexford alumni: Homer’s lyre also had four strings, and one knows that Barnes is best suited to pluck Toibin, Banville, Colfer and Roche to enable us to admire the multifariousness of the works you are about to see which – having read the text – will have an enduring hold on your imagination.
Nicky Furlong maintains that the riches of the many parishes of Wexford fertilise the proliferation of living characters, ‘many of whom choose to express themselves with urging pens.’ I have to imagine that for Barnes, Colfer, Roche and Banville, raised in Wexford, and Tobin, who was educated here, the soundtrack of an average year in the life of the town when they were young was a riotous cacophony of the musical and the theatrical on its streets, especially during the Wexford Festival which continues to segue mild autumn and cold winter.
Arias, declamations, perorations and proclamations would have cruised colourfully through the cloistered and multilingually-baptised streets and lanes, forever descending in cobbled free fall to where Wexford began, the sea, a recurring source of the cathartic and the catalytic in their novels, short stories and plays.
And being from Wexford, it is inevitable their paths would have crossed: Billy Roche sheepishly gave the manuscript of his first novel Tumbling Down to the eminent historian, the late Dr. Billy Colfer, for his perusal, only for his young son, Eoin, to borrow it first and gobble it up. When an older Eoin, a teacher in Coolcotts and a member of the local opera society, was on the cusp of introducing Artemis Fowl to the world, he shared a stage at a reading event with both Roche and Banville in the Talbot Hotel, the scene – eight years earlier in 1992 – of his first foray into playwriting, the one actStereotypes.
When Ben Barnes was appointed artistic director at the Abbey at 43, he had already directed 28 plays from the Irish repertoire and 20 premieres of new Irish plays, including John Banville’s adaptation of Kleist’s The Broken Jug; he initiated the adaptation of Toibin’s Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush for the stage (they were at St. Peter’s College together and played tennis against each other) and Barnes awarded the Abbey Writer in Association to Billy Roche, which would culminate with On Such As We at the Peacock, featuring Brendan Gleeson.
Is it too much to consider, in the context of WexFour, that the town which binds them together can consolidate their identity, if only for the duration of a performance? Writers, however, are not tethered to the same vernacular, so what is important, to paraphrase Colm Toibin, is that ‘the word somehow remains – the beauty of the word.’
Listen to the music in these lines:
With rasping sighs the breeze-brashed branches
fling their russetness
through churning skies to crust the ground
The leaves, which are not mentioned by name, just don’t cover the ground, they crust it, like a hardened layer.
Isn’t that a beautiful line: note how the poet used the alliteration of breeze-bashed branches to move the poem from a standing start to third gear.
And then these breeze-brashed branches fling their russetness through churning skies to crust the ground.
But the poet isn’t finished, not by a long shot: he is directing a film sequence for us to conjure…the breeze brashed branches/the churning skies/
And he continues
To crust the ground with autumn’s pall/ a detritus to delight us in the cough out calm that follows squall.
The poem is Walking on the Wind, the collection is Turn Now the Tide, and the poet is Joe Neal, from Wales but living in Wexford.
Joe is one of those poets, in the great Welsh tradition of Thomas and David Jones, who is concerned with the sound of the spoken word, and the relevancy of sound to form.
Theory aside, which most artists avoid, the progenitor of a still life deploys their gift to shepherd the eye to what they think is important. With the best will in the world, the artist’s ambition is impotent without an endowment of a special talent that is nursed, but not taught.
The evolution of Caroline Ward (pictured with her still life entry to the 2014 RHA exhibition) into one the Ireland’s foremost still life artists has been breathtakingly rapid: a trajectory from aquifer to surface in recent years has been marked by a technical virtuosity to match the broadening of her visual spectrum, from memento mori to the transience, both emotional and physical.
For Ward, light emerges as chiaroscuro, the gradation of contrasting tones, though her light is never harsh or dramatic. It has none of the aggressive voltage of Caravaggio’s tense tenebrism. Ward’s light is not the battleground of opposites. It is, however, despite its transience, a source of endless possibilities.
Her signature is instinctively recognisable: she has carved her own niche with a collection of work that is immediately distinctive, an intense study in metamorphosis, the remorseless quest to recapture the initial impulse of excitement and curiosity on the canvas.
Best bookshops in the universe? I’d recommend two in Bath: Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights and Topping. They are, as the crow flies, around the corner from each other and boast both readings by visiting authors (David Mitchell in Mr. B’s and Lee Child in Topping), and a plethora of signed books, with Topping offering the weary bibliophile free coffee. It is, however, difficult to find a bookshop quite like Topping of Bath anywhere. There are as many signed as unsigned novels, a genuine collector’s paradise. Further afield, I’d recommend the very pleasant and quaint The Yellow Lighted Bookshop in Tetbury, which also has author readings, Helen Macdonald etc.
I don’t know what’s happened to Summertime: 9A in the Tate. I normally visit it whenever I pass through London, but it wasn’t there this time. Maybe it’s on tour. An awful pity, really. Tate had located a seat almost as long as Summertime:9A, facing it, and if you turned round, there was a large Monet verging on abstraction from his late period. There is, however, the wonderful Yellow Islands (pictured), painted some years after Summertine:9A. If anybody knows where Summertime has gone, let me know. I feel bereft without the promise of seeing it again soon.
Sonja Landweer at the Greenacres Gallery
A piece of art needs to connect. And how it achieves this state of connectivity has as much to do with the input of the viewer as it has with the existence of an object. We cannot have one – a presence or the resonation of recognition – without the other – a piece of art which is the outcome of a conscious malleability.
Because clay or paint have their own ideas, the artist may not end up where they thought they were going. A shared conscious malleability is needed to segue the relationship between what the artist creates and exhibits and the individual sufficiently moved to acquire it. No artist sleepwalks to the easel or the kiln, and nor should we into an exhibition.
Acquisition or appreciation need not solve the mystery inherent in the transformation of an idea into something that is tangibly physical. From birth, our first instinct is to hold, to be tactile. And so it is with art.
Leaving the delectation of the senses aside for a moment, I have always enjoyed how Sonja Landweer’s work commands the arena of its space. Whether observing or clutching, I enjoy being led by a bronze, by a pot or a vase, by the striking colours and textures, so the relationship between the craft and the maker continues. This is how we connect, how we, to paraphrase Whitman, may contribute a verse.
Dutch-born Landweer is undoubtedly the most critiqued and documented potter in contemporary Ireland. You don’t have to cast your net too far nor too wide to find published reviews of her work and her career as she has been exhibiting since the 1950’s. Landweer has had over thirty solo exhibitions, has participated in twice as many group shows (she was a regular at the annual Art at the Vocational College during the Wexford Festival) and has been analysed and dissected and in the main honoured by some of the best critics and writers in Ireland and in Europe.
Yet the most prescient and discerning awareness of her work has not come from the pen of a critic, but of a friend. In Stepping Stones, Seamus Heaney recalls how Landweer as a fledgling artist was deeply marked by the cruelty of what happened to her father – murdered by the Nazis for helping Jews and the underground resistance – and by the beautiful windfall of a memory, emerging after a swim from the waters of the North Sea with the luminescence of plankton all over her body.
The dichotomy of these experiences were related years later by Landweer to Heaney, and were in turn revisited and reimagined by the poet at his desk in the privacy of his own smithy. Perhaps with an unconscious nod to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, he recasts Landweer as ‘a nymph of phosphorous by the Norder Zee.’ Heaney’s ekphrastic poems tend not to end up in anthologies of his work, but the poem inspired by his knowledge of Sonja Landweer, ‘To a Dutch Potter in Ireland’, was the first he recited at his acceptance of the Nobel Literature Prize in 1995.
I reference Heaney specifically because he was a close friend of Landweer and a frequent visitor to Wexford, where he read from his collection, District and Circle, in 2006, in the Talbot Hotel. His unerring eye for the detail that eludes others unearthed an aesthetic and anthroposophical essence to Landweer that has not atrophied one iota in the half century since their first meeting: a fierce conviction about the value and necessity of good and beautiful work. Art critics may have touched upon it, but Heaney articulated it best: ‘she lives at a high spiritual pitch.’
In or about 1960, Landweer had developed her batik technique on ceramics, with decorative motifs inspired by nature and Moorish influences: in contrast to the normal wax resist method where wax is directly applied to the once fired clay, Landweeer would immerse a bisque-fired pot in glaze and apply a wax decoration on some of the first layer of glaze. The process was repeated until it was put through one firing cycle.
Before committing herself to a future in Kilkenny in the mid-1960’s, the young Landweer enjoyed a peripatetic existence, visiting Finland, Lapland, Spain, England, Russia and indeed Ireland, staying in the Burren in 1959. ‘I loved the starkness of my first winter there. I loved it with a passion.’ She established her studio in Thomastown, ‘initially in a rambling Georgian house,’ with her partner, the artist Barrie Cooke, moving later to Jerpoint House. She had chosen Thomastown over Clare for logistical and practical considerations: the need to find a market for her work, proximity to the Kilkenny Design Workshop and access to good clay, which she sourced from within the country and further afield, importing a tonne at a time of her own composition from a factory in Holland.
Though she came to relish the dramatic and ever changing seasonal landscape of her rural existence by the River Barrow, she managed to hold nature, as an endless source of inspiration, at bay. The inspiration for her work came from deep within, the realm of instincts and archetypes: she is celebrated for her instinctive feeling for innate energy in objects, articulated seamlessly as an ensoulment.
Fortuitously, on the July afternoon I visited Landweer at her home and studio in the sylvan amphitheatre of voluptuous nature that is Jerpoint today, the Visual Centre for Contemporary Art in Carlow was hosting a lecture by Dr. Mark Wormald to mark the 40th anniversary of the first fishing trip upstream from Graiguenmanagh of Landweer’s friend, the poet Ted Hughes, and Cooke. As practitioners of their art – painting, poetry, pottery – they were saturated with the confidence that comes from knowing exactly what they wanted. Landweer is, contends Michael Robinson, the greatest artist in earth and fire yet to have worked in Ireland.
The exhibition at Greenacres is invaluable insofar as it makes the connection between the inviolable trinity of artist, subject and observer, the continuity of Landweer’s personal strength and integrity into that which she fires, which is beauty as truth, the edification of the individual within the artist, the unbridled celebration of what it means to think for yourself and to act accordingly, the ‘I am’ which makes the improbable possible in a studio, and finally the practice of art as the antithesis to the despoliation of nihilism. Art as hope.
Landweer is the liberator of the innate pulse held captive by the inanimate; she is the respecter of the holistic consciousness among the myriad forms of the earth which can soften like gossamer to her touch; she is a diving rod of what once was and what might become, the artist as a medium who extends her material beyond its boundary, or the limits we perceive, and becomes part of us.
And unlike other artists, Landweer gets to play with fire, she gets to both bring down the sun and bring up the earth, and this confluence of apparent opposites opens a door to a new way of seeing and a new way of being.
What a wonderful gift.
The catalyst in the metamorphosis from seed to flower.
‘The sun has never seen a shadow.’ (Leonardo da Vinci)
The indisputable achievements of twentieth century physics – general relativity and quantum physics – are segued by this dichotomy: they both make sense and yet contradict each other, which only serves to accentuate the function and value of science.
What Is Life (Wexford Co. Council and Wexford Arts Centre) is a noble and inspiring endeavour to connect the public with Carlo Rovelli’s the ocean of the unknown, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception or Lieutenant Commander Spock’s ‘it’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.’ Take your pick, because they all cover the same terrain.
And whether the world is curved space in the morning – general relativity – or flat space in the afternoon – quantum physics – reality is never less than interactive, and art offers the multi-disciplinary tools to explore this a little further.
The exhibition, curated by Deirdre Southey and Catherine Bowe, poses the question: what can art contribute to science, and vice-verse? On this evidence, artists stand to gain more, because the essential reality of the endless uniformity of space is that it is impossible to pin down, that it is indescribable.
We have yet to invent the language for what is at the other end of the Hubble telescope, but we are gifted with the imagination to probe. So, What Is Life’s selected artworks engage the viewer with concepts pertaining to the multiplicities of the here and now. Scientific responses nestle alongside each artist’s statement.
There are two strands: terra firma – the work of Fergus Doyle, Gerda Teljeur, Meadhbh O’Connor and John Cullen is rooted in the natural world – and terra incognita – Vera Klute, Bea McMahon, Andrew Kenny, David Beattie and Eleanor Duffin address the amorphous and the metaphysical, from alchemy to the paranormal.
Inspired by Erwin Schrodinger’s famous lectures in Dublin in 1943, the exhibits benefit from the incandescently illuminating interpretation by Cliona O Farrelly, Anna Wedderburn, Liam Hallinan and Colm Fives. As Schrodinger posited that the gene was a molecule of contradiction, What Is Life also poses the question, what is art? Maria McKinney’s dexterity with sculptures, installation and photography demonstrates how art can provide a platform to view a world which science is at pains to understand.
The correlation between art and science is also being explored presently at Sadler’s Wells in London by Wayne McGregor, who has composed 23 dance vignettes determined by an algorithm from his DNA, while the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh and Edinburgh University are tracing the relationship between artists’ response to space and scientific research, but I can’t vouch as to the efficacy or quality of either.
The wattage of What Is Life in Wexford is slightly diminished by splitting it between two venues, a small quibble, but if – like Hamlet – you believe there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of, this is a show for you.
Hanneke Van Ryswyk does not present landscapes au vif: she does, like Friedrich, rearrange the source.
Her current exhibition at the appropriately idyllic Norman Gallery, Rathnure, is both a visceral and visual revisiting of places she holds sacred: both the Welsh and Irish landscape.
Her school years were spent in a country far removed from the theme of this exhibition, Mynydd, (Welsh for mountain), namely Holland.
The linear Dutch landscape, much of it reclaimed from the sea and densely populated, left her with a yearning for the uninhabited remoteness and unruliness of hills.
It isn’t easy entrusting yourself to nature if you are an artist with the antennae of Van Ryswyk.
Leaving aside the baggage of tranquillity, eternity and infinity associated with traditional landscape painting, Van Ryswyk’s engagement demands uninterrupted reflection.
And this can take years. For the artist, not the viewer. Not the physical execution of the work, but the imaginative tremors prior to the eruption.
So Mynydd is but the latest step in a long gestation, and the outcome in this acrylic on wood panel series is mesmeric.
Hiroshige’s woodcut landscapes have the gift of not being dominated by specific forms, but what is concealing them. Mist. Diffused light.
Van Ryswyk’s mountains similarly are of this world and beyond it, and evoke something of the undiscovered.
She is not a slave to the pulse of time, and thus her landscapes are not anchored in the safe terrain of photographic or forensic recognition.
It is easy and understandable to be seduced by the initial engagement with a work of art as focused as these small panels, because the colour amounts to juxtaposed harmony.
But there is more.
With patience, a distillation of the multiple provenances within each is triggered because each is revelatory in its own unique way.
And the use of colour, because it resonates with the artist’s imaginative realities – abstract textured suggestions – opens several doors at once. (The gallery is open by appointment: Tel 053-9254515)
(Painting courtesy of Serena Caulfield)
Terra Nostra Lecture at Wexford Co. Library, April 5, by Tom Mooney.
Unlike a short story, a novel, a libretto or a play, you cannot with any certainty define poetry? Admittedly, we live with more hope than expectation that a poem shouldn’t be dull, especially as the writer is equipped with a vocabulary that ticks all boxes, and yet the molecular nature of poetry is to defy logic.
Simply put, poems are a bead of words, but there is an immeasurable gulf between the day to day use of words and their exploitation, mishandling and misappropriation by the poet, who sees the world slightly off line. If a poet cannot view their vision as unique, even if it is derivative, or needlessly opaque, or uninspiring, they have no business being a poet. Only poetry can encapsulate the frisson of love in two short lines, such as these from Neruda:
As if you were on fire from within.
The moon lives in the lining of your skin.
As good as that sounds, you should hear the original in Spanish.
Poets begin a poem with the best of intentions but the imagination, once awoken from slumber, has the resolute defiance of a cat. Once released, it is inclined to do as it pleases, and go where it chooses.
It pains me to admit, but anyone who writes creatively, or thinks what they have written is ingenious, is more than likely to exact requirements – and the patience – of the reader, than meets their own demands. However, Babette Deutsche’s definition of what constitutes poetry is contrary to the daily function of language, that it should answer your needs.
Deutsche felt that poetry reveals the realities that the senses record. The realities that the senses record. You can spot the get-out clause from a mile away. For, as all students of David Hume appreciate, reason is the slave of the passions. You act according to how you feel.
But Deutsche isn’t done: poetry should also reveal what the feelings salute. The mind perceives and the shaping imagination orders. That’s more like it: anything goes, in other words, just don’t let the it be dull.
If you cannot grasp the concept of what the mind perceives and the shaping imagination orders, you will not make head nor tail of this couplet:
You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder, a Siamese cat.
Even declaimed thus, and declaimed poorly, as the words were conceived to be sung, you can feel the rhythm rise to the surface. Why is that? The building blocks of poetry, that’s why. And unique to poetry. Let’s eavesdrop again and listen to the last words of each sentence and see what they have in common:
You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder, a Siamese cat.
Diplomat and Siamese cat. Three syllables each and they rhyme, but that’s not rocket science. But using an anapaestic structure, two short syllables and a stressed third, is. The last syllable of each is cast off into the ether by your tongue. Mat and cat. And the lengths of the sentences are almost equal: 13 and 11 syllables.
Does it matter that, in this instance, Bob Dylan is obscure. I don’t believe so. It’s his imagery, as valid as when T.S. Eliot introduced three white leopards in Ash Wednesday. I still don’t know what they are doing there, but deploying symbolism in a poem can be like moving up a gear.
And when a predecessor to Dylan wrote in a hurry, many centuries earlier,
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day
Thou art more lovely and more temperate
He also knew what he was doing. Both lines have ten syllables each, organised as a metric foot, as does each line in the fourteen-line sonnet. And not alone that, the stress on each foot of two syllables is placed on the last throughout.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.
But speak it fast, and the line has voltage:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.
Shakespeare’s two syllables, with the stress on the second, called an iamb, is multiplied by five, so you end up with an iambic pentameter line. Imagine the precision he invested into each line. He wrote 154 sonnets, so he repeated this formally organised rhythm across 2,156 lines.
Iambic pentameter was also the ideal mnemonic aid to (a) help actors remember their lines and (b) help the audience hear what the actors are saying, which is why many of Shakespeare’s plays are primarily lines with five metrical feet and strong stresses.
To be, or not to be, that is the question.
Because a soliloquy is the actor’s inner monologue, Shakespeare doesn’t make rhyme a slave to a strict five-foot beat.
Fast forward a couple of centuries and the mnemonic purities of T.S. Eliot’s delightful couplet, with resonant vowels, are self evident.
In the room the women come and go
Talking about Michelangelo.
So, the beauty of English is its very elasticity. When Shelley sought to capture the power and pantheism of nature, the iambic pentameter fell short. He therefore switched the stresses around, and the iamb became a trochee:
O wild West Wind thou breath of autumn’s being.
O wild West Wind: the stress is on the first syllables of the coupling, O and West.
Or is it? Perhaps he used an anapest, three syllables, with the stress on the last one.
O wild West, Wind thou breath…
His compatriot and friend Byron was far bolder and experimental, in his poetry as in his life: he adds two extra feet, so the pentameter becomes a hexameter, the darling of the French, and now the line has the pace his description requires:
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold
Spoken thus, you have a symphony in words, a Wagnerian overture. That’s what an understanding of scaffolding under poetry achieves. Illumination. Appreciation. It just doesn’t pour onto the page. A perfect score of ten from diving from a height doesn’t happen by accident. And so it is with the writing of poems. In any language.
You don’t have to understand the following couplet from La Bateau Ivre by Rimbaud to hear the music of the flowing dozen syllables.
Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles,
Je ne me sentis plus guidé par les haleurs
However, landscape as a subject matter for poets, is the equivalent of watching paint dry. The emphasis is not on pace, but stasis. Inertia. The heartbeat is not that of a howling wind, a smitten heart or a ravenous wolf, but of a glacier in retreat. The pedestrian thaw and not the adventurous blizzard. With landscape poetry, you need Hamlet in your corner, not Casanova.
In landscape poetry, no one can hear you sing.
One of the constant features of Irish painting, since the mid-18th century, is landscape, itself a commentary on the Irish obsession with land ownership. Walking the hallowed corridors of the National Gallery recently, I was struck that in the early years of the new Irish Free State, landscape becomes increasingly allegorical at the hands of Paul Henry, Jack B. Yeats and of course Sean Keating. It is both womb and tomb.
Contemporary painters have not forsaken landscape as the gift which keeps giving, but Irish writers, particularly with novels, short stories, plays and screenplays, have steadily moved from the field to the street, from the colourful to the monochromatic, from the rural to the cosmopolitan.
John McGahern’s The Country Funeral leapfrogs the concerns of those preoccupied with escaping the claustrophobia and poverty of the farm, such as Paddy Kavanagh, by showing with finesses how the urbanisation of the country has started and is irreversible.
An urbanisation bookended by, first, the introduction of electricity followed by television, and finally social media. Today, you can simultaneously hear the bees buzzing on Innisfree while watching Netflix on your Android phone or tablet.
We have developed the technology to reduce the landscape to a two second selfie, not as a means of contemplation before the wonder and grandeur of the natural world, but as a vanity project.
Painters and poets, however, are hanging on. Landscape is more than a backdrop. Landscape cannot be delineated by a frame. It cannot be tamed by selfie-snapping obsessives. You will be familiar with Catherine’s dying wish in Wuthering Heights, to be released upon the heather and the hills, and poets too maintain an intense identification with landscape’s role as the canvas of the natural world, awaiting the spillage from the palette of emotions.
Writes Rosita Boland:
We have been islanded while we slept
In a white sea of snow
The leaves are rinsed from the trees
And the fields drift on past sight.
Everything is stated twice over in this landscape.
Her lines surfaced recently as my train began to slow on the approach to Enniscorthy, the trees crowned by snow and flanking the Slaney near Blackstoops.
Everything is stated twice over in this landscape. Here the poet perceives a single moment through a lens of feeling, achieving what Ted Hughes, who sought solace and sanctuary in Ireland, viewed as the encounter between elemental things, and the living.
Words render the feeling. What the feelings salute.
Returning to her desk after seeing Skellig Michael for the first time, Emily Lawless writes of:
Rocks gaunt and grim as the halls of death
Sculptured and hew by the wind’s rough breath.
No writing about landscape therefore is alive, which is merely written, without the singularity of the poet’s voice, without the sentient identification of place. Baudelaire gave us analogie universelle, where the poet forms his own image and stimulates a relationship between different senses.
Archibald MacLeish nailed it down to a tee: the poem will carry not only the image but the impulse which produced it. From school, you will remember Wordsworth’s ‘inner eye.’ And Yeats’ purpose, one of many, was to make every mountain and lake that you can see from your own door an excitement in the imagination.
The landscape, its history – political, social, cultural, geographical – how we work it, how we divide it, how we segregate it, how we abuse it, is always, always elusive, the salmon which throws the hook, and the poet instinctively knows better than the cartographer that no ordnance survey map can bridle the landscape’s pulse.
In Ireland, poets know they bestride a layered landscape: the karst vista of the Burren, the granite hills of Wicklow, the basalt plateau of the north east, the sandstone of the south and, significantly, the bogs and lakes of the central limestone lowland. Explains Michael Viney in A Living Island: ‘this small island offers change at each new turn in the road, change too, in weather, hour by hour.’
Layers in the land equate to symbolism: the polarity between the use of English and Irish has been feasted upon by poets drawn like moths to the phonetic allure of old Irish, or Irish translated into English.
Consider Seamus Heaney’s Anahorish.
Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow.
Heaney celebrates the topographical inheritance of his childhood stomping ground, the Arcadia of his earliest memory, touching seamlessly on the senses I referenced earlier with Baudelaire, feelings triggered by phonetic stimuli, such as:
My ‘place of clear water,’
the first hill in the world
where springs washed into
the shiny grass.
My place of clear water is an English transliteration of the Gaelic etymology of Anahorish which, oddly, doesn’t appear on any ordnance survey map. It is Heaney’s contention that, in the vernacular of Irish poets writing in English, place poems are etymological daydreams. On the same track, John Montague paraphrased the Irish poet’s predilection for establishing identity between the linguistic and the archaeological of his or her locale, as ‘the primal Gaeltacht.’
For example, when Montague writes:
In high summer, as the hills burned with corn
I strode through golden light
To the ogham script of the burning stone
He is fascinated by how early Irish embraces even earlier traditions. To take this one step further, he uses the word Knockmany, which can mean either of the following: the hill of the Menapii, a tribe of the Belgae, or Ania’s Cove, Ana is the Danaan mother goddess. An Irish place name can net a world with its associations, and Montague called on the poet to contact what was left of the common tradition in their area.
The Irish poet’s strong sense of place is indisputably mixed with identity: the Greeks have a word for it. Topophilia. Topos for place and philia for love. The ancient indigenous poets of Australia would navigate their way across vast expanse of land by repeating the words of songs and poems. They are called Songlines, or Dreaming tracks
There was a time when the best of our novelists and our playwrights chose exile from Ireland, but – in general – not among their numbers are Irish poets. Why would they move abroad when they can inhabit as many cultures at they want in their own county?
And yet Irish poets have long paid homage to the deep-seated influence of European culture: Heaney and Miloz, Montague and Aragon, Seamus Deane and Mandelstam, Harry Clifton and Char, Paul Durcan and Lorca. There might be an obvious explanation for this: unlike English poets, Europeans are taught first to think, then feel.
No Irish writer is as European as Beckett.
Beckett had a lifelong passion for Irish painting and before he debunked to Paris, was a regular visit to the National Gallery. He was an aficionado of Jack B Yeats, whom he knew, and Paul Cezanne, whom he didn’t. His comments about Cezanne’s series of Montagne Sainte Victoire paintings prefigure his attitude to landscape writing, later borne out in his stage directions.
Beckett had no time for the attribution of human characteristic to a place devotion of the earlier Romantic poets, anthropomorphism, and felt that the depiction of a landscape should be ‘incommensurable with all human expression whatsoever.’ Thus, Waiting for Godot is set on a country road.
Simon Schama took a different view: we make room for the sacredness of nature, even veneration, and we interpret nature as either bucolic leisure or primitive panic. It seems a simplistic duality, almost rooted in Freudian semantics, good versus evil, etc.
The veneration of nature in literature, particularly by poetry, is ascribed to the rigid dichotomy between the Classical, viewed as orderly and rational, and the Romantic, subjective and daemonic. Industrialised England in the early 19th century altered the dynamic between the rural and the urban, where the working man and woman became an impersonal unit of factory labour. Poets, predominantly, took up the mantle of asserting individual consciousness. If Shakespeare enjoyed nature, the Romantics idealized it in all its forms, both near and far.
In A Syrian Evening, Thomas Moore writes:
Now, upon Syria’s land of roses
Softly the light of Eve reposes
And like a glory, the broad sun
Hangs over sainted Lebanon.
His fellow Irish poet, James Clarence Mangan, goes further afield, and deploys the Romantic arsenal of melancholy, regret and nostalgia.
In Siberia’s wastes
Are sands and rocks
Nothing blooms of green or soft
But the snow peaks rise aloft
And the gaunt ice-blocks
And why nature specifically? The answer underscores thematically and philosophically the raison d’etre of much writing influenced by nature ever since. And it is simple: as the age of the metropolis took hold, wild nature held firm and allowed writers and painters to exalt the imagination as the most noble of faculties, and in doing so, exalt the individual.
Michael Longley, two centuries later, in The Hebrides, shows how poets value what they fear they are in danger of losing:
Now, buttoned up, with water in my shoes
Clouds around me/ I can, through mist that misconstrues
Read like a palimpsest / My past – those landmarks and that scenery
I dare resist.
The celebration of nature today by poets need not be enmeshed in thematic convolutions. Two of our local poets convey the uncomplicated pleasure of nature at work, by capturing the first retinal sensation, like the Impressionists.
Or join me at Tacumshin
Lake, writes Joe O’Neal,
To drink my Muscadet
And watch arctic terns
Dip and flake the surface in display.
How about these lines for brevity from Mary O’Brien:
A winter evening
On the road to Gorey
Low sky luminous
With pinks and peaches.
They continue the observation of the brilliant but doomed Edward Thomas, who, in Tall Nettles, wrote
As well as any bloom upon a flower
I like the dust on the nettles, never lost
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower
Least I forget, there is no significant presence of God, or a god, in contemporary Irish poetry which takes its cue from nature and landscape – Hopkins aside -and I suspect that the influence of the Romantics and early 20th century modernism continues to prevail: that belief in a Christian God, in the words of Shelley, was an insult to reason and belief.
However, though the edifice of the Catholic Church in this country has been crumbling in slow motion for some time, John F Deane and Wexford poet Philip Quirke have written eloquently and perceptively of the virtues and personal importance of the spiritual perspective.
It is plausible, when you consider the fecundation of the Irish identity, from the Celts forth, from the time we used myths to make sense of a chaotic world, from the development of the imagination and cognition to rearrange experience within the confines of mythology and its boundaries, the landscape, like the collective unconscious, has its own primordial images and buried archetypes, so it should come as no surprise that poets find in landscapes portals to the past.
And what will you find there? Perhaps nothing more meaningful that a sensation, or a bridge to bring the past closer into view, or a cathartic release. Why shouldn’t the land be the matrix of all conscious psychic occurrences, I can hear the Kerry philosopher John Moriarty argue.
Cynicism, or savea indignatio, permeates the rural soaked poems of the most iconoclastic 20th century Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, who turned his back on the saccharine pastoralism of his youth in favour of harsh naturalism. He never ceased to expose the falsity of the Irish pastoral myth. Some of you will remember these lines from the classroom:
O stony grey soil of Monaghan
The laugh from my love you thieved
You took the gay child of my passion
And gave me your clod-conceived
Stoney Great Soil, a short poem, is the precursor to Kavanagh’s epic, The Great Hunger, in which the soil of the former, which clogged the feet of his childhood and where the first gay flight of his lyric got caught in a peasant’s prayer, becomes more dispirited in the latter. In both, Kavanagh taps into a displaced sexual frustration, not atypical of rural Ireland at the time (1940), and bitterly compares the pull of the land as a scheming woman, who uses her sexuality to hold onto her lover and trick him out of self-fulfilment.
The land seduces the young poet like the sirens who called out to Ulysses. Both Kavanagh and Ulysses are slaves to the lure of sensual delights. John Keats memorably concludes Ode on a Grecian Urn with the couplet, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ Towards the conclusion of Stony Grey Soil, Kavanagh summons the ghost of Keats and bitterly remonstrates with his native soil:
You flung a ditch on my vision
Of Beauty, love and truth
But with Kavanagh, there is always an air of unpredictability. He could, when the mood took, sheath the rapier, and acknowledge the charms of the land that he had previously castigated. It is an understatement to say he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and all his contradictions about the lure of the land are encapsulated in his short but superb poem Epic. In eleven of the poem’s fourteen lines, he baits the reader to indulge in mocking the provincial life of squinting windows and feuds, before turning the poem on its head, and wiping the grimace from your face.
Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row, Gods make their own importance.
Kavanagh’s resolution is the tip of a metamorphic iceberg. The Latin word for the inviolable sacredness of place is cultus: it can also mean the power of meditation, or cultivation, and today it is the root of culture. Revisiting Kavanagh’s poetry about the soil and the field and the country, we would do well to remember that the definition of culture is of humble origin, for cultus or the sacred was the vernacular ordinariness of things, and the ancient Greek definition of poet was rooted in the ordinary, to make.
Poetry predates writing, and was clearly dependent on an oral tradition for survival, so that the greatest destiny of a poem, such as Homer’s The Illiad, which was not written down, was usefulness for the tribe, like the first cave paintings.
To this day, the eye is taught by the painter, the ear by the composer, and language refined by the poet. What I would like you to glean from Kavanagh is how poetry, before it is woven or hewn or forged, take your pick, is conceived in the maelstrom of strong emotions.
Occasionally, the secret of a poet’s power is what is left unsaid: in an introduction to his short book about Elizabeth Bishop, Colm Toibin said that growing up in Enniscorthy, language was also a way to restrain experience, to take it down to a level where it might stay.
And poetry written in the light of this knowledge had to be led by clarity, by precise description but by no open displays of anything, least of all easy feeling. This precision, adds Toibin, could result in a soaring energy for the writer when it was required.
There is such a fluorescence of language in the last paragraph of The Dead, by James Joyce, and his description of the landscape is as vivid and as sharp as a photograph: My only wish is that Donal McCann was among us to recite it.
Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
The city of Joyce was compact and complex, and though Dublin has changed considerably since his time, his ghost lingers; poets view it as an alternative but viable landscape. Beckett’s preferred view of Dublin was from a distance, Feltrim Hill in Kinsealy, and Louise MacNeice alludes to its proximity to the Wicklow hills in his poem, Dublin, in which the city, like the history of the country, continues to absorb all alien influences.
Fort of the Dane
Garrison of the Saxon
Of a Gaelic nation
The alien brought.
It is narrow minded to view the city and what it has to offer as the repudiation of nature, for poets have shown that the state of exile to a city can, in the imagination, bring about a veneration for what is absent. Being without becomes a spark for thinking anew. For many whose childhood was Dublin, or in my case Bray, arcadia was the blue hem of the mountains in the distance in the morning, or cantering among the verdant town parks after school, a line from Dylan Thomas, spoken by a teacher, ringing in my ears: The force that through the green fuse drives the flower, Drives my green age.
From Exploring English 3, edited by Augustine Martin, we were told that God, nature and man permeated the lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem God’s Grandeur, but to a boy in our class at Greystones CBS we were intoxicated by the carefree but ingenious rhythm, assonance, consonance and alliteration of Hopkin’s ode to a patch of land, Inversnaid.
Poets whose vision is not dominated by the archetypes of nature, have been free to celebrate the less colourful but enchanting minutiae of city live: it would be remiss if I didn’t draw attention to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which is ostensibly about the sacrifice of cultural identity after the horrors of the Great War, snared in the void between unspoken reality and the unseen city. It is viewed as one of the first truly modern poems in English, a poem of brutal intent: Eliot’s opening salvo, ‘April is the cruellest month’, is a stinging retort to centuries of poetry in which April was thought anything but.
A poet of honest substance whom I recommend is Dubliner Paula Meehan, who traces the essence of place in poetry back to the Dinnseanchas, an ancient history of how places acquire their names, very much an oral tradition, passed on from one generation to the next, much like the griots of West Africa do today. Meehan believes that poetry can provide a mapping, not dissimilar to the Songlines of Aboriginals, of a spirit of place, as opposed to a sense of place, or putting someone in their place. This theme is developed in Eavan Boland’s Once from her collection, A Poet’s Dublin, she imagines:
Irish wolves. A silvery man and wife
Yellow-eyed. Edged in dateless moonlight.
They are mated for life. They are legendary. They are safe.
Paul Meehan contends that the wolves emerge from the ghost forest of Boland’s home, Dundrum, as if the city is subject to the same forces and lore as the country, the city moving through consciousness.
Perhaps, but Derek Mahon, in a recent volume, An Autumn Wind, believes
We tire of cities in the end
The whirr and blur of it, so long your friend
Grow repetitious and you start to choke
On signage and carbon monoxide.
In Chile and in Argentina, they are known as Los Desaparecidos. In Ireland, the disappeared: mothers and fathers and sons murdered by the IRA and then furtively and cruelly dissolved in the vast expanses of our beaches and bogs.
Shortly before he died, Seamus Heaney gave permission for his poem, The Bog Queen, to be used in a television documentary about these disappeared. He recycles the metaphor of the bog as a repository of our history, that human sacrifice and the deposition of the victims is related to sovereignty and kingship rituals during the Iron Age.
A warehouse for the sacrificed or the murdered, such as Cashel Man, butchered in 2000 BC and laid in a pool alongside two hazel rods, and Jean McConville, a recently widowed mother, shot in the back of the head by the IRA in 1973, and buried in an unmarked pit so her family of ten children could not find her.
Heaney has the body in The Bog Queen address us directly:
My body was braille, for the creeping influences
Which conveys an interaction between the landscape and the living – dead, but despite her perilous state, she remains undefeated, and her consciousness, or soul, is described as
A jar of spawn, fermenting underground.
The poem concludes – quite movingly – with Heaney’s very acute image, that you can vicariously imagine, having survived our recent Arctic spell.
I knew winter cold like the nuzzle of fjords at my thighs.
Another September, a poem by Thomas Kinsella, was conceived not a million miles away from here, in a bedroom, beside an orchard, near the Slaney, at Lucas Park near St. John’s Manor outside Enniscorthy, described by Colm Toibin, who knew it well, as a place where mysterious images can appear from the part of the imagination most open to symbolic suggestion.
In Another September, the poet’s peaceful morning is disrupted by the long pitch black breaths outside his window, where the natural world
Rubs her kind hide against the bedroom wall
Another September because of the wealth of images is about love, about mortality and above all about loss, real or imagined. Who among us has not woken abruptly at dawn and envied your partner’s deep sleep? Kinsella writes that his wife, the unspeaking daughter in the poem, must to be in perfect union with nature to sleep so soundly, and that he therefore is not.
The landscape is often like a time-machine for poets, a conduit to another time and another place, the past, which we are reminded is a different country, because they do things differently there. I think all poets who are smitten or intrigued by the landscape experience what Yeats called ‘a lonely impulse of delight’ in An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, and the ancient humming of the landscape can make you confront the arithmetic of your life, well spent, or not. Yeats’ pilot, fighting in the Great War, believes that when the inevitable happens, it will balance the wastage of his past and his future.
The years to come seemed waste of breath
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
In conclusion, the systematic interrogation of your own unconscious and terra nostra may not necessarily put a smile on your face, but sometimes the poet has no choice but to walk the dark corridor in search of their Holy Grail, a true poem.
Have words, will travel.
Before the premiere of Under Milk Wood in New York, Dylan Thomas chided his fraught cast. ‘Love the words.’ Michelle Dooley Mahon loves words. Her eponymous book, from which The Scourge is adapted, is a paean to language.
Given free rein, her verbosity has the cyclic rate of fire of a Kalashnikov. The Scourge that we know is an unbridled pyrotechnic flow of metaphor and onomatopoeia, bookended by covers.
But she had to up her game remoulding The Scourge for the stage, because this is not a play. This is real life. The quotidian morsels of everyday living laid bare.
The curtains pulled back.
Hesitancy occurs in the writer’s performance at Wexford Arts Centre, but that’s natural. She can’t help but smile at her own humour, and then remembers she’s on stage. Playing a part. Or is she?
Ben Barnes’ biggest challenge as director must have been curbing that infectious enthusiasm, like lunging a horse before hacking out.
The wardrobe is Narnia’s portal, from which the paraphernalia associated with the theme of The Scourge, a long day’s journey into death, emerge.
They are Dooley Mahon’s Songlines, a personal braille to maintain the confluence of her story, and time.
And yet I could picture her sitting on a stool, like Dave Allen, alone under a light, glass of whiskey in hand, but without the props and the Desert Island discs, and being demonstrably as effective.
Because Dooley Mahon, in a hugely courageous performance, reminds us that art and life co-exist and emerge from a single source to assemble coherence. To stand guard against chaos, said Kenneth Tynan.
This is flesh and blood writing, sentient and animate, rooted in grief. And as Dooley Mahon knows only two well, grief has two acts: loss, followed by the remaking of a life.
‘What good amid these?’ asked Whitman. Dooley Mahon provides an answer, ensuring that the powerful play goes on.
Walton at Greenacres Art Gallery
‘I wanted to learn the skills that I felt I needed to learn and the avant garde simply were not offering it,’ reflects Conor Walton on his time at the National College of Art and Design, from which he emerged, defiantly, with a Joint Honours Degree in History of Art and Fine Art, in 1993. ‘So I thought, give me the skills and I will decide what to do with them.’
Between graduating from NCAD, gaining an MA in Art History and Theory from the University of Essex in 1995 and his first solo exhibition at Jorgensen Fine Art in 1999, Walton received a rigorous training in the practice and tradition of drawing and painting from life at the Charles H. Cecil Studios in Florence: sight-size as a portrait technique has its origins in the practice of Titian, Van Dyck and Velazquez.
In the celebrated Las Meninas, Velazquez documents himself at his canvas, the orchestrator of a conceptual profundity of mise-en-scene and several people – the artist, the subject, the viewer – and in doing so initiated a multiplicity of relationships which will be emulated by artists through the ages. Walton’s self-portraits similarly invite you to draw your own conclusions regarding substance and intention. ‘There is a concern for me to get, at some level, significance or meaning,’ he explains. Velazquez broke with the traditions of his time to allow the outside world in, to give a ‘behind the scenes’ view of the painter at work.
This light-heartedness and openness is often replicated by Walton: you can watch a time-lapse video on Facebook of the evolution of his self-portrait, Push Over, which will be on show at his solo exhibition at The Greenacres Gallery. Equally compelling is the footage of Rest, in which the artist’s handling is direct and fresh, and the viewer is privy to a private symbiosis in which artist and subject are fused.
Walton – born in 1970 – is a figurative painter in the European tradition, pursuing his craft at the highest level, pushing the envelope in his desire to answer the three questions in Gauguin’s famous painting: ‘Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?’ Walton concedes that some of his work is ‘very big and complicated’ – An Ape’s Limbs Compared to Man’s – with a mesh of narrative, philosophy and references to current affairs. This in turn is balanced by a need to ‘be simple and matter of fact, if I can be. It has developed into a yin yang thing, my work as a whole. The complicated pictures to some extent leave me very dissatisfied and it is hard to make them work. On the other side I will try to do something as simple and as basic as I can, which allows for a small achievement.’
His oeuvre, therefore, is breath-taking in its reach: portrait, self-portrait, landscape, still life and allegory, a fluid accentuation of the questions posed by Gaugin. ‘A work of art should tell something of who we are,’ adds Walton. ‘The function of art should give us some insight into what we are.’ It has been said of him that he can be politically conscious without being sanctimonious, but beneath the surface of the larger work is a confrontation of the human and the mythical: The Barbarians At the Gates is a wry multi-layered observation of a mistrustful Europe under siege. But this is Walton standing on his own two feet, creating a world as distinctly his at those of his contemporaries.
His attention to detail has a clinical purity, and in his epic allegories you will encounter the consistencies and discontinuities of life, because each single painting, irrespective of size or ambition, is the spawn of a multitude of perceptions. The exhibition at Greenacres is the work of an artist determined to be faithful to his vision, pursued in the secluded independence of his studio overlooking Wicklow town, where he lives with his wife, Jane, a mountaineering instructor, and three children.