Gerard Dillon: Painter, Dreamer, Clown

The great Belfast artist's centenary retrospective will have you leaving the Ulster Museum with a spring in your step, expecting to fly

This exhibition celebrates the centenary of Belfast painter, Gerard Dillon. He was brought up on Lower Clonard Street and was almost entirely self-taught, leaving school at 14 to apprentice as a house painter.

His paintings are often dreamlike, colourful and nakedly referential. His 'Yellow Bungalow' (1954) casts doe-eyed Picasso children in a Van Gogh kitchen. But the influences are worn lightly, as integral to the picture as the paint. They are the building blocks of the images he wants to present and this scene is utterly joyous: the butter yellow walls, the sweet mirroring of the sleeping cat and a plate of fish, the 'Whacky Shack' topography of the room.

The dimensions are rioting, the whole scene seems to be rising up, unmoored, the boy with the accordion leaning forward, steeling himself against a Kansas tornado. These eruptions, this zest for living, is a constant until near the end of his life when, after the death of his family and following a stroke, the tone darkens. His self portraiture continues but he depicts himself now as a mournful and melancholy Pierrot, a sad clown with a paintbrush.

In 'The Brothers' (1967) the weeping Pierrot figure is abstracted to the point of mummification. He is a knotted hankie on a corduroy lawn, listening to the laughter of the three grinning skeletons beneath him, a subterranean chorus. With its tawny browns and lichen greens, the paint in this sepulchral world is broken and dry, aggressively delineated. The crouching figure is bent in on itself in despair, but there is anger and aggression beneath, and rising to the surface.

'The artist I liked best in Ireland,' Dillon said, 'was William Conor because he painted 'The People of Ireland'. In 'Four Lovely Lassies' (1940s) four child-like figures in plain, ovoid dresses line up against a graffiti scribbled brick wall. Beneath them is a chalked hopscotch grid, and their own feet appear to be chalked on. With its flat spaces and text this naive, approach seems to be nostalgic but actually anticipates much of British pop art especially early Hockney and Peter Blake.


Yellow Bungalow (1954) © The Estate of Gerard Dillon

In the 'The Confessional' (circa. 1951) two figures flank a sleeping priest on a parti-coloured throne: on the left a man and on the right a woman. Above them is a corpse-green Christ, like a wobbly El Greco, dangling forlornly from the cross.

While the priest is sleeping he still appears to favour the entreaties of the male penitent: his large, fleshy pink ear cranes towards him. There is no corresponding lug-hole to hear the woman’s confession. The priest’s fist is clenched tightly in his lap, his rosary beads dangling louchely between his legs.

Dillon saw the monastic remains at Mellifont Abbey and Monasterboice while staying with the painter Nano Reid. He admired the 'big walrus moustaches' of the figures on the high crosses and the painting, 'Mellifont Abbey' (1950), can be seen as a triptych of self portraits: the Dillons wander through the abbey in monastic robes like revenants from Night of the Living Dead, luxurious if lugubrious moustaches falling to their collarbones. The ruins slant through the picture at angles that lead to the three near identical figures, who may, indeed, be the same figure separated in time, a la Giotto.

In 'Nano’s Dream Castle' (1940’s) he guests in a larger portrait of Reid, her fiery red hair illuminating the black sky far more than the sullen moon that she looms over. An incidental Dillon sketches Reid on the far side of a looping, arboreal feature, closing over like the Dark Hedges.

This represents the third circle in a composition largely made up of circles, the other two being the moon and Reid’s head. These resemble comic style 'thought balloons' and the whole picture seems to represent a dream Nano might be having as, at the centre of the looping garden is a tower house that her family used to own, presented as a distant ideal.


Nano’s Dream Castle

In 'Self Contained Flat' (1955) we see Dillon further embracing his influences; he wore them proudly, flagrantly. The painting is another triple self-portrait and references Gaugin’s 'Manao Tupapau' directly, though the figure lying on the bed is clearly not the same gender as those little Tahitian girls that are scattered like cushions throughout Gaugin’s works.

Reds and greens abound in the painting: Dillon’s own face, a fetching Gaugin green, stares out and over the frame. There are shifting perspectives – an impossible door opens onto a garden where we see another Dillon going about his business. If the flat is 'self contained' it is because the artist has bent it out of shape, bent it to his will. Odd detail abounds: if the oil can in the foreground is palpably phallic then the set of pliers next to it certainly takes the edge off.

'Holy Island' (late 1950s) is a picture that combines two of Dillon’s favourite things: the landscape of Western Ireland and Celtic relief sculpture. It features yet more monks, bent into S shapes, their characteristic moustaches bristling. The central figure wears a star-shaped halo like a crown but they are genuflecting before, of all things, a Chagall-esque flying ram.

This is a fantastic exhibition of an extraordinary Belfast painter and features a collection of vibrant and colourful paintings. The pictures hum with life. They feel weightless and unshackled and sharing a space with them is a tonic. You will leave the exhibition with a spring in your step, expecting to fly.

Gerard Dillon: Painter, Dreamer, Clown is on display at the Ulster Museum until Sunday, November 6 and is accompanied by a series of events including special tours, gallery talks and lectures. For further details visit