Dillon and Reid

Joanne Savage reviews the clouds, castles and clowns of Reid and Dillon's work at the FE McWilliams Gallery. Watch an online exhibition below

There is a fauvist, naïve feel to both Gerard Dillon and Nano Reid’s paintings. Primary colours and tentative outlines, faux-childish imagery, clowns, dream castles, cats curled-up on the carpet, rolling Irish hills meeting the skyline: the affinities in style and subject matter are obvious.

Dillon and Reid were friends and dreamers - a kindred spirit animates their work. Shared holidays in Connemara and a common interest in poetic abstraction, loosely representational depiction and almost storybook simplicity made them innovators in the Irish art scene of the 1940s and 50s.

Gerard Dillon was a self-taught painter from the lower Falls in west Belfast, a man who had to brave the world’s disdain when he finally gave up his job as a house painter and decorator to concentrate on his canvases. He lived and worked in London for many years before returning to his native city during the Second World War.

He seems to have been an original and tortured soul, fretting about his health, his homosexuality and his art in an environment ruled by Catholic repression, narrow mindedness, conformity. You had to work in the mills or do hard manual labour in those days, especially if you were male and born into a working class area like the Falls Road; to the majority, any mention of art was like a curse in a chapel, a sure sign one’s head was lost in the clouds or in the grip of incipient psychosis.

Dillon met Drogheda-born Nano in Dublin in the early 1940s and their friendship soon meant their minds and their art were in dialogue.

The daughter of a well-to-do publican, Reid had been to art school in London and mixed in artistic circles. Her work seems to have been free-spirited and gleefully free form since the beginning.

Her outlines are whimsical, lyrical, somehow primitive, at times deliberately careless and at their worst, half-hearted, even lazy. But when Reid gets it right her work has a naïve poetry, all airy-fairy flushes of colour, impressionistic figures and scenery that breathes sentiment.

'Salmon Fishing on the Boyne' and 'Bathers at Mornington' are both beautiful instances of Reid at her best – colour and line are used with a lightness and vivacity that mixes reality with the more seductive realm of make-believe.

Dillon is more intense, owing something to the palette, the emotional brushwork and white heat of Van Gogh. ('Yellow Bungalow' – not on display here – is perhaps the finest example of this intensity, pathos and quasi-fauvist colouring).

Sometimes Dillon verges on the symbolist style of Gauguin, figures given an imaginative, poetic weight in thick, rich paint. This is painting that makes texture and colour part of the story, a tool in the creation of a capricious, fanciful hinterland where emotion and subjectivity are unravelled and examined.

'The Lost Boy', 'Little Girl’s Wonder' and 'Nano’s Dream Castle' (a fantastical portrait of Reid) are Dillon’s signature style at its best. 'Self-portrait in Roundstone' is also a highlight. The lone figure of the artist in his room has a melancholy and quietude that somehow evokes the whole struggle and isolation of the creative life – this is a course not chosen lightly, a passion that requires an almost monastic, monomaniacal devotion.

And there is Dillon, fragile and yet defiant in its pursuit, as tragicomic as one of his beloved Pierrot's, a record player by his side and an easel by the bed. There is sensitivity and nerviness in this painting. There is also humour - a multicoloured eiderdown and a record in hand suggest flamboyance, lightness of being.

Dillon is by far the more compelling artist of the two, and not just because of the heroism of his personal odyssey from the Falls to dream castles and canvases. There is a political freight to his work, and a depth of feeling that makes Reid seem comparatively superficial.

Dillon is by no means faultless. Paintings like 'Clown in a Handstand' and 'King Billy' are too unfinished and unpolished – they are lax, humorous, under-done. But the bulk of Dillon’s paintings come from a place of truth and right feeling – his most sacred heart. This is an artist untouched by cynicism and in love with colour.

Nano Reid and Gerard Dillon will run at the FE McWilliam Gallery and Studio, Banbridge, until May 2.