The Art of Rural Ulster

Darran Anderson discusses the inspiration of the countryside on NI artists

The countryside, cast aside to the periphery elsewhere, has always been at the heart of artistic endeavours in Northern Ireland. Artists have found in the country a multitude of inspiring contradictions: solitude and community, silence and music, peace and the violence of nature, tranquillity and the fury of elemental forces like the wind and the sea. The complexities of rural life have shaped each artist’s individual response to it. Today, the countryside itself is being changed with artists, who have so long been inspired by it, returning to enrich the market towns and seaside villages with a wealth of public art.

The modern age of rural art in Ulster can be traced back to the works of the Belfast-born landscape painter Paul Henry (1876-1958), who was the first to employ realism in his work, and Jack B Yeats (1871-1957), who exploded modernism into Irish painting. Since these trailblazers there has been an abundance of wildly diverse art inspired by rural life.

The work of the late Markey Robinson (1918-1999) remains exceptionally popular,  especially his succession of paintings on coastal life. In these works Robinson often portrays cone-shaped figures amidst cottages and cliffsides. The paintings are abstract and strangely detached as if conjured from memory or perceived through a dreamlike veil. Despite his calming use of subdued colour and rounded textures there are hints at darker undercurrents lurking within these deceptively pleasant decorative works. What can be seen simply as a group of huddled women in shawls standing by the sea becomes more poignant when you consider why they are there; perhaps waiting for their fishermen husbands and sons to return or waiting for their bodies to wash ashore.

His paintings thus exist at the boundary where beauty merges into sadness. A fascinating character, the Belfast-born Robinson spent time as a boxer under the name 'Boyo Marko', sailed the seas in the Merchant Navy and was an enthusiast of Aztec and Inca art as well circus life. His sea paintings should be seen not as an end in themselves, but as a doorway to an intriguing lifetime of work.

From Co Antrim via South Africa, George Callaghan remains one of the leading Irish painters and from his adopted home of Tasmania he has produced some of the most captivating works inspired by rural life here. His depictions of townlands and river hamlets bursting with colour have a perfection that is almost otherworldly. The use of vibrant tones and exaggerated scale give a sense of child-like delight and awe to the paintings.

A noted musician and harp-maker in his own right, his animated depictions of mandolin and fiddle players engaged in traditional music sessions captures the vitality of the music culture that flourishes in the pubs of rural Ulster. Callaghan sees through familiarity and recognises the extraordinary nature of everyday things. He has admitted to spending his life unlearning what they taught him at art school in favour of opening peoples eyes to the life that is going on all around them. There is a magic in his work that the many of the latest abstract or conceptual works, despite what art critics assert, sadly lack.

Through his widespread travels in South America, Asia, the Middle East, the US and Russia, Downpatrick-born Padraig Macmiadhachain has produced a fantastic array of paintings. Proudly rejecting the intellectual method to art in favour of an intuitive approach, he has no pretensions of foisting ideas upon the viewer. Instead he simply paints, fuelled by an adoration for creating art.

There are emotions often neglected in modern art such as joy and wonder that burst from his paintings. The most notable aspects of his work are his imagination and his eclecticism. He consistently defies categorisation, shunning any attempts to pin him down. He races through a bewildering range of styles: some like Pale Memory, Ardglass are influenced by Willem De Kooning in portraying the sea and sky as minimalist abstract forms, others like Chapel On A Headland depict sinister expressionist type figures. Another, Jane’s Birthday In The Sun, explodes with Miro-like shape and colour, while The Mousehole Model suggests the influence of Marc Chagall in mixing myth and dream. And yet it is to his credit that he shakes off the baggage of his myriad influences and emerges as a unique protean talent and one of the finest living Irish artists.

Many other contemporary artists have engaged with the countryside in new and challenging ways. Ross Wilson, from County Antrim, has produced stunning enigmatic portraits of rural animals such as Trotting Horse and Molly Long Legs alongside his iconic depictions of Irish writers and haunting religious works like Townland Angel.

From the surrounding hills and vantage points in the city Colin Davidson’s views of Belfast present the metropolitan scene in rain-drenched almost organic forms as if the countryside has invaded or the city has begun to melt away. His stunning depiction of the Giants Causeway shows the daunting cliffs facing a sea that seems to plummet into space. Such is his skill he manages to turn a popular tourist destination into the edge of the world.

A note of caution arises in Constructed For Leisure by Darren Murray. The exhibition consists of a series of gaudy but carefully constructed paintings with attending promises of serenity and 'getting away from it all.' The generic nature of the depictions is a comment on the artificiality of tourism; how the tourist industry not only exploits places and turns them into commodities but also how the industry seeks to make everywhere the same.

One painting is of a Japanese temple, another an Alpine retreat but, such is the contrived nature of tourism, these locations could be anywhere. The implied warning is soon, thanks to the tourism and globalisation, there will be nowhere left to escape to. It is a sign of Murray’s talent that, despite their barbed message, the paintings still remain strikingly beautiful, a beauty all the more melancholic because it is doomed.

A rich vein of photography has dealt with the hinterland where the city and countryside fuse into one another. Mary McIntyre’s photographs combine a sense of cinematic scale and potential drama with a romantic’s eye for composition. They often take place at the edges of cities, where rural and urban zones meet, capturing frozen moments in industrial estates, train tracks and factories devoid of human life. The theatrical quality of photographs such as Untitled (after Casper David Friedrich) seems to question the entire existence of cities as something contrived and staged where the country should be.

Even the works of the Derry born photographer Willie Doherty, primarily dealing with ideas of the urban space as a no-mans-land, on occasion spill out into the countryside, in the form of a burnt out car on a country road (as in Incident) echoing, in the minds subconscious, vague memories of bodies left dumped on similar quiet border roads during the depths of the Troubles. The countryside, the works suggest, can simultaneously be a place of tranquillity and horror.
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation