Upon Reflection

With Fermanagh Live festival on the horizon, Richard Pierce looks back on a career in the arts

With the Fermanagh Live festival taking place in Enniskillen from October 3 – 6, retired architect Richard Pierce stirs up interest in the festival's visual arts strand with an illustrated talk on his career thus far.

Upon Reflection considers the relationships between painting and photography, including the advantages offered by digital technology. Although Pierce is not a professional photographer – and describes himself as little more than an amateur painter – as a practitioner, his enthusiasm for both are evident.

Born in Enniskillen into an artistic family, Pierce’s mother was a well-known music teacher and his father, head of a long-established building firm, liked to paint. As a boy, his father took him by boat to visit the Scheunert family home on Inish Rath island, where they saw some of the wealthy businessman’s collection of modern art by Leger, Braque and others.

Richard Pierce

 

At Portora Royal School, Pierce learned about art history and modern art from his art teacher Michael Tovey, whose friend Elizabeth Frink visited the school. Her sculptures known locally as ‘Draft’ and ‘Overdraft’ are displayed on the gable of the Ulster Bank in Shaftesbury Square in Belfast.

Pierce always wanted to be a painter but was persuaded by his father to opt for the more secure profession of architecture. As a student at the Edinburgh College of Art, he appreciated the value of copying the work of other artists. He and a fellow student made a model from Le Corbusier’s drawings for a 'Palace of the Soviets', which had never been built.

In Edinburgh he admired the vibrant painting of the Scottish colourists, and when he and his former wife, the painter Janet Pierce, moved to America they were fascinated by the abstract expressionist paintings of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and others.

Nowadays, Pierce enjoys travelling and his travelogues from India, Cuba, Finland, Istanbul, St. Petersburg and Berlin incorporate perceptive photographs. But back home in the cosy conceptual house he built overlooking Carrick Lake, he also finds time to paint.

Seated in front of his computer, Pierce projects images from his archive, while at the same time peppering his commentary with insights and anecdotes.

He notes that, while we may be aware that Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa and Picasso 'Guernica', very few of us will know who took the iconic photograph of Marilyn Monroe and her billowing skirt, which would indicate that painting is more about the artist while photography is about the subject.

When photography was first developed in the early 19th century, it caused a seismic shift in painting, says Pierce. Painters like JMW Turner and the French Impressionists no longer felt the need to paint realistic pictures.

While painters take time to reflect on their subject, photographs capture a moment in time. This is illustrated by photographs from Pierce’s family album. Pierce's god fearing great grand parents from Aberdeen posed with bible and reading glasses in hand. Returning from the Boer war, his grandfather showed off a fashionable wrist watch. His father’s 1950s colour slides were sent to New York to be developed.

Richard Pierce

 

As Oscar Wilde said, 'most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinion, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation'. For Pierce, all art is a reflection of what has gone before. Whether he is designing a building, painting a picture or taking a photograph, what he creates depends on his experiences and how his ‘wiring’ has interpreted them.

Over the years, Pierce's visits to European art galleries have stoked and stimulated his visual memory, yet he feels a special affinity with the work of Ireland’s contemporary painters. Abstract paintings have influenced his photographs, so much so that he often sees the visual connections between them. In this case his photograph of a rock is like a painting by Robert Motherwell.

To abstract means to take out a portion, and so as he walks with his camera around Tully Castle his educated eye will pick up on certain details. When he zooms in on the scales of a pike he creates a collage of colours and textures. His fascination with rust produces a photograph which bears a certain similarity to a painting by the American artist Cy Twombly.

Recently, Pierce has enjoyed photographing reflections. Reflections in water. Skyscrapers reflected in skyscrapers. Reflections of reflections refracted in double or triple glazed windows. His photograph of a reflection in a shop window where a lady’s swimming costume is on display calls to mind a painting by Juan Gris.

The distinctions between painting and photography become blurred when Pierce shows his watercolour painting of one of his photographed reflections, and it is difficult to say which is the painting and which the photograph.

Similarly, it is at first difficult to believe a painting of a photograph of Oscar Wilde by the celebrated German artist Gerhardt Richter is in fact a painting. In May 2013, Richter’s deliberately blurred painting of a period black and white photograph of Cathedral Square in Milan became the most expensive work by a living artist when it sold for just over $37 million.

Pierce, who is approaching his 70th year, finishes his presentation with a photograph of himself as a 7-year-old boy. Ruminating on the profound pleasure he has derived from his many artistic ventures, he hopes that those present will gain as much enjoyment from photography and painting as he has. He is warmly applauded and, as the audience leave, the question on many lips is, 'When can we see it all again?'

Fermanagh Live runs from October 3 – 6. View the full festival programme.

Richard Pierce