Souvenirs of Survival: Making Sense - 10 Painters 1963-1983

As silent as a mirror is believed Realities plunge in silence by ...

Five days before the announcement of major cuts in education spending, Emma Hussey, Minister for Education, opened an exhibition of painting the Project Arts Centre. The exhibiion was described as representing the first tentative steps in the visual exssion of contemporary Ireland.

She sympathised with the difficulties which Irish artists were forced to endure and congratulated the assembled company on its survival. The relationship between the artist and society may be uneasy, but the public should be patient. Art pays in the end. Some drunken louts began to mutter about school buses at this point. But it was new Year's Eve. The Irish Coffee was flowing. Everyone wanted to keep the fun clean. The Minister concluded her speeh with a declaration of intent to examine existing provisions for creativity and artistic development in Irish schools.

The show is entitled Making Sense - Ten Painters 1963-1983. Due to the general educational policy of maintaining a healthy distance between students and what is called art, the children who are now, very civicmindedly, paying their way to school may find very little reference in their textbooks to the painters included in this exhibition. However, the Arts Council of Ireland, recognising the need for a guide to the work of living Irish artists, recently subsidised the publication of such a book by Wolflund Press. A copy of Contemporary Irish Art, compiled and edited by Roderic Knowles, may well have reached the school library. If so, the enterprising student will be puzzled. The artists whose work is ratified so whole-heartedly by Gemma Hussey are, almost to a man, summarily dismissed by Roderic Knowles.


In this ‘directory of description, comment and information on the work and careers of 234 artists, arragned alphabetically', most of the participants in Making Sense merit only few, rather insulting sentences apiece. One of them is not mentioned at all. Yet the student need not doubt ministerial good judgement. Making Sense, directly and indirectly, received grants from the Arts Council of Ireland. There is no conflict. Buildings can be levelled and art galleries raised up. Renegades of the educational system can be officially clapped on the back. Black can be black and a dozen other colours besides. This is a democratic country.


The ten painters concerned are Brian Bourke, Charles Cullen, Michael Cullen, Paul Funge, Patrick Graham, Patrick Hall, Michael Kane, Gene Lambert, Brian Maguire and Michael Mulcahy. They are figurative painters. Making Sense is a selection by Henry J. Sharpe (with whose text-book postprimary art students should be familiar) of the work of these artists over the last two decades. There is a certain amount of excitement current in the media about these painters. They are said to represent a new departure. They are parochial where much Irish painting is provincial. They are energetic, passionate and self-assertive. They pander to no established taste. They are injecting new and vigorous life into the visual arts in Ireland. Roderic Knowles implies that they can't paint. Dorothy Walker (who helped Roderic Knowles to compile his book) hails their imminent arrival at the forefront of Irish Art with enthusiasm. Brian Fallon hedges his bets. Aosdana, so far, keeps a tight rein. The Arts Council hands out the dole.


Only the most hard-boiled of students will have continued this far. Should such a person venture up to the Hugh Lane Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin, it will come as no surprise to learn that, with the welcome exception of Brian Bourke and Gene Lambert, there is no work by the Making Sense painters on view. The Charles Cullen 'Self Portrait' purchased by the Gallery for £22 in the late 1970s is nowhere in evidence. It must be said, however, that the Harry Clarke window, purchased for £20,000 in 1978 (the entire budget for that year), the Jack B. Yeats purchased for £25,000 in 1979 (almost the entire budget) and the Agnes Martin 'blank' canvas, purchased for £21,000 in 1980 are all resplendently on view.

I am not ready for repentance;

Nor to match regrets. For the moth

Bends no more than the still

Imploring flame.

Making Sense is one of the most ambitious touring exhibitions sponsored by the Arts Council in recent years. It will be seen by thousands of people. It is a good strong exhibition, colourful and alive. It is uneven. Some of the painters have found a climate, others have not. The work is honest and invigorating, self-obsessive and celebratory - adventurous and unremittingly phallic. It is a sensual show.


And tremorous

In the white falling flakes Kisses are,

The only worth all granting.

The Minister for Education spoke and the walls blazed remorselessly. She was polite against the background of Brian Maguire's brutal accusation, 'All Dublin Gives its Tinker Kids is Puss and Glue'. Patrick Graham's passionate crucifixion 'Was This Suicide?', hung to her left. Brian Bourke, in self-portrait, naked, self-crowned, self-contained, looked down from the right. The Taoiseach has appointed a Minister of State for Art and Culture - no more taxdodging here. Paul Funge's The Queen of California maintained a quiet distance. Charles Cullen's 'Series of Self-Portraits' made a rough statement about lrishness amid the moralebuilding - it would be better to be Japanese. Then on to Regional Diversity - the howling heads of 'Ire/land' exploded among clotted blood. Above it all, Michael Mulcahy's 'Magicians Sun at Dawn' rippled and shone. Away from it all. Questions, alternatives, condemnations, new worlds, vibrated all over the walls. The Minister spoke on. Later, I spent two hours on the phone trying to get a copy of her speech.


The painters involved in this exhibition show images of themselves in relation to themselves, in relation to other selves, to line, form, to the observer, to this society, to their own bodies. It is relentless self-exposure. In a society which abhors individualism and actively discourages independent thought, why do it? Is it masochism? "Fragments light from within the living organism so why 'make things? The texture of the writing and the rich ground and the rotten old cured kipper have made my day," Charles Cullen, written on a drawing.


These pictures on the wall are souvenirs of survival. Middle-class or not, these painters did not come the easy way round. "Art" may improve with years - meanwhile there is a penalty to be paid for "unemployment". The statements of dissent expressed on canvas are extremely sophisticated. They threaten no-one immediately because no-one is forced to look. In a cruder form, the forces of law and order would be called in to arbitrate. There is no God-given right to self-expression in Western culture. Every organised society has its state painters - the function of whom is to supply the majority with what the minority in power consider to be wholesome. Journalists, ad-men, media men, are employed to enhance the effect. To survive as an artist outside this network is difficult. To survive inside is almost impossible. There is always a margin however. If, by defiance, one can live long enough on scraps, sooner or later, the system will throw out a bone. Paintings are paid for in hours spent at teaching and sign-posting. Sometimes they are paid for by spouses, parents, children. Sometimes by grants. Sometimes they pay for themselves. If the going gets tough, one is free to bale out.

It is to be learned -

This cleaving and this burning,

But only by the one who

Spends out himself again.

Ten Painters are here presented as a group. The title of the exhibition is appropriate. Various critics have applied various labels. In an interview in the Irish Times, June 24, 1982, Michael Mulcahy said, "I'm not Irish, a 'Living Artist', an 'Independent' or even a member of this new group of expressionist artists that everyone is talking about." Earlier that month, he put the point another way - "We're all different. We're like a group of Irishmen in a town. The only reason we stick together is that we're interested in the same thing, painting or catching fish or whatever." (Sunday Independent, June 6, 1982.)


However, the ten painters of Making Sense do share certain bonds. Most basically, they are all male. Many of the paintings deal obsessively with maleness. Younger painters, particularly women, are working in a different territory, using a completely different vocabulary. Henry J. Sharpe's selection of participants was based on gathering together a manageable representation of figurative work - and also on personal taste. The omission of Alice Hanratty is unfortunate and, on a historical basis, it is surprising. But individual taste, as a criterion, is unassailable. As a visual record of a facet of late twentieth century self aware, Irish male life, the exhibition is of great interest. It is probably the last such exhibition that will take place.


All of the painters included have exhibited with the Independent Artists - some, like Michael Kane, Patrick Hall and Brian Bourke were involved in the early years of the group. Others, like Michael Cullen and Michael Mulcahy did not exhibit until the late 1960s - they are both now members of the Independent Artists Committee. Independent Artists was founded in 1960 with the policy of exhibiting contemporary work which tended to fall outside the limits of commercial interest. During the annual exhibition of 1982, I sat for three weeks in the upstairs rooms of the Municipal Gallery without ever getting the chance to show curator Eithne Waldron around. Perhaps she came in when I was not there.

Most of the participants attended the National College of Art during the 1950s and 1960s. All of them are extremely uncomplimentary about the standard of education which was thrust upon them. Most of them did not tolerate it long. Alice Hanratty and Paul Funge are frequently cited as examples of the few teachers whose influence was stimulating. The immediate forerunner to Making Sense was an exhibition held in the Lincoln Gallery last March - Painting 82. With the exception of Brian Bourke, who tends to cut across all categories, all of the painters in the present show took part.


"Painting 82 is an exhibition of recent work by twelve artists who have all exhibited in major group shows and some of whom have won major awards. They represent two generations of Irish painters who have consistently worked in a figurative manner and have remained outside the mainstream of formal abstraction. Over the past few years there has been an interest in their work both individually and collectively. A movement in Irish Art has grown that has a feeling of its own, owing little to international fashion and emerging with a strong Irish identity." (Catalogue Note)


Peter Delaney, Bill Whelan and Eoin O'Toole also took part. Blaithin de Sachy of the Lincoln Gallery assisted in the preparation of Making Sense.

Twice and twice

(Again the smoking souvenir,

Bleeding eidolon!) and yet again.

Until the bright logic is won

Unwhispering as a mirror

Is believed.


The question of Irishness is not immediately relevant to these painters. They are of Irish nationality and they work in Ireland. Patrick Graham and Brian Maguire both comment directly on the political and social systems of this country. They are exceptional. The pervasive Irish curse of thwarted sexuality also provides a groundswell - a development delayed in lrish Art until this stage of the game. The particular restrictions of this rampantly conservative society are not visible at all in the canvases of Michael Cullen. The fresh, soft, cold wind that blows through Brian Bourke's landscapes may feel Irish - he may be simply in love with the earth. Michael Cullen, like others among these men, has brought back pictures from other continents. These paintings of Spain, Morocco and America have been exhibited in Wexford and Dublin. A One-Man Show is currently on exhibition in Cork. His status as a tourist has little to do with nationality.


The structures surrounding these painters are, however, infested with the malady - Irishness. There is generally, and mysteriously, a lack of confidence in the national product. More seriously, there is a complete dearth of personal conviction. Taste often seems to be determined by the controllers of words. Mediocracy rules.


Three participants in Making Sense are members of Aosdana. The remaining seven full-time professional painters have not got this minimal security. In 1981, the Arts Council granted £3,000 to help establish an Association of Artists in Ireland. This association is intended to protect, inform and represent its members. It is ironic that, if the Association wishes to strengthen its position, one of its first targets for attack, or defence, must be the Wolfhound Press publication, Contemporary Irish Art which was also, and unwisely, funded by the Arts Council. The Council, which in the last three years has bought several works by painters misrepresented in Contemporary Irish Art, is clearly a victim of confused thinking. Its position is weakened still further by Government cuts in expenditure and investment in the arts. Gemma Hussey's words are too hollow to quote. The Artists Association has some task in hand.

Then, drop by caustic drop, A perfect cry

Shall string some constant Harmony, -

Relentless caper for all those Who step

The legend of their youth in to The noon.

(Legend, by Hart Crane)

There are forty-seven paintings included in the exhibition Making Sense. You can fall in love with a painter through looking at his work, I once heard a painter say. An equivalent remark cannot be made about bureaucrats.


Mairead Byrne will be writing about the Hugh Lane Gallery of Modern Art in a future issue of Magill.