Memory, Imagination and Myth
A diverse range of work by artists including Gerard Dillon and Comhgall Casey showcases a century of Irish art
The current exhibition at the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh, which was organised in conjunction with this year's Benedict Kiely literary weekend, is an exploration of Memory, Imagination and Myth.
The collection of work created between 1902 and 2012 by some of Ireland's most eminent artists was chosen by local curator Terry Sweeney, a former art teacher and art historian.
In the year 1902, American President Theodore Roosevelt, who, like Kiely, admired the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson, was returning empty-handed from a hunting expedition when his aides, thinking he needed to save face, captured a live bear ready for the kill.
When the President refused to shoot it, a cartoonist created a pet bear named Teddy, an enterprising businessman began manufacturing a new toy and, in time, Omagh's own Jimmy Kennedy wrote a popular song entitled ‘The Teddy Bear's Picnic'.
Comhghall Casey's 'Toy Bear' (2011) might seem at first glance to be the stock image of a happy childhood, but upon closer inspection, the oil painting on linen, which is deliberately hung at eye level here, is a finely textured work of art.
'French Horn' (2012), the second of Caseys paintings in the exhibition, depicts a battered horn well used, but it has no mouth piece and therefore no more breath in it. The artist has given the discarded object a new elegance, raising still life painting to a very superior level.
1902 was also the year that Jack B Yeats painted 'Fortune and her Wheel', a realistic portrait of country characters he might have seen as he grew up in Sligo. Like the soothsayers of old, the itinerant fortune teller, dressed in plaid shawl and scarlet skirt, sits on a stone wall above the crowd, one hand on the wheel, the other outstretched for a coin.
Off the west coast of Mayo, islanders protected themselves with the talisman or stone charm they called the Naomhog. It is said that a mainland priest, who decided they were worshipping an idol, came to the island and smashed the Naomhog.
Then in the 1930s violent storms claimed the lives of all the menfolk and the islands became deserted. Hugh O’Donoghue depicts the ghostly image of a defiant life force in the metallic shades of 'Broken Namhog III' (below).
Probably the most striking picture in the exhibition is James Dixon's dynamic bird's eye view of a storm tossed 'West End Village', painted in 1958 on Tory Island off the coast of Donegal. It normally hangs in the kitchen of Glebe House in the collection of Derek Hill, the English painter who settled in Churchill and painted the Tory landscapes and people.
Dixon, an island fisherman, who watched Hill working, decided he could paint too. He painted on paper, board or anything that came to hand. Dispensing with perspective, he painted instinctively and powerfully from memory.
Gerard Dillon was similarly committed to his own style of painting. His sunny summer picnic scene painted in Mornington in Drogheda contains memories all of its own. When it was discovered, it was being used as screening for a hot press door; it had chunks cut out to allow for pipes and had suffered heat damage.
What was salvaged is only part of the original work. Though there is some disquiet at the sense of separation of the characters, the main figure, a bohemian fellow wearing a neckerchief and a jaunty cap (main image), holding a child on his shoulder, exudes charisma and confidence.
Dilllon loved the Connemara coast and in particular the little island village of Roundstone nestled at the edge of existence beneath the Twelve Pin mountains.
It is here that another Belfast-born artist, Rosie McGurran, now runs the Inishlaken project, inviting fellow artists to create new works in an inspiring location. Working mostly in acrylics, she celebrates the lore of the sea and her wish to preserve it in the magical realism of her highly imaginative paintings.
In the sea at Roundstone beach, she depicts 'The Arrival of the Seaweed Queen'. Decked out in a voluminous seaweed skirt, the Queen, accompanied by her garlanded and costumed retinue, approaches the emerald ocean, the source of her delight.
Louis Le Brocquy was inspired by a Celtic theory that the head contains the spirit long after the person has died, to produce a famous series of heads of Irish martyrs. When in the 1990s he returned to the themes of mortality and immortality, he painted 'Opus No. 668 Image Humaine'. All that is revealed of this head is a tiny mouth gasping for breath.
Similarly inspired by Irish myths and legends, Anthony Scott’s bronzes appear to be animated by the animal spirits the Celts believed were closely related to those of humans.
By his alert ears, the orange/brown patina of his coat, the nervous tension in his tail and the arch of his back, the whippet dog Condhla bears characteristics similar to the freckled, red-haired and wide-eyed son of Con, who heard a woman calling him to the land where life continues.
In his film, 'The Landscape of Memory', Omagh's Peter McCaughey, who now works as an environmental artist in Scotland, records members of his father’s family speaking about their childhood in Tyrone.
These self portraits set out to illustrate just how selective memory can be, and require the viewer to take time out to watch and listen to the dialogue on headphones. In this age of instant images it is quite an ask, and I confess I viewed the film for all of five minutes before losing interest.
Surrealist painter Neville Johnston, an admirer of Dali, remembers the horrors of war in 'The Year of Grace 1945'. A gloomy scorched earth wasteland strewn with broken buildings, skeletal shapes and symbols of warring agencies such as church and state is dominated by the billowing mushroom cloud at Hiroshima.
Fiona Finnegan’s 'Jacobin', meanwhile, is a disturbing surrealist image of a show pigeon, a grotesque hybrid with extenuated feathers and enormous plumage that hints at animal experimentation.
Mindful of the character in George Bernard Shaw’s anti war play, Arms and the Man, who runs away from the battlefield because he doesn’t want to die, FE McWilliam created a bronze 'Chocolate Soldier'.
The strong pacifist message is cleverly conveyed in the cast of this soldier’s body, formed like the indented dividers in a box of chocolates.
Sean Hillen, who designed the Omagh Bomb memorial sculpture, grew up in Newry during the Troubles. While a student in the 1980s he fearlessly and endlessly photographed street scenes, parades and crowds and became fascinated by the fine line between order and chaos.
While photographing the funeral of hunger striker, Patsy O’Hara, he observed how the crowd was quiet one minute and was throwing stones the next. In 'Sugar Island, Newry 1985' two men are seated on a bench beside a soldier on patrol duty who looks tense and worried as he clasps his gun close.
The works in this thoughtfully chosen exhibition are indeed nostalgic, wistful, touching, imaginative and memorable.
Memory, Imagination and Myth runs in the Strule Arts Centre until October 27.