Micheal Farrell retrospective at the RHA Gallery. January-February 2014.
Art was supposed to be simply art-for-art’s-sake since good old uncle Clem Greenberg told us so. The standard bearer of High Modernist painting insisted art must be devoid of context. But even Picasso couldn’t keep the real world out of his paintings forever. In Guernica painted in 1937 he capitulated as he realised he just had to face up to the horrors unfolding in his native war-torn Spain. The progenitor of Modernist painting Manet also felt himself obliged to record historic events as in his painting The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico (1867-1868). From Goya’s El Tres de Mayo painted in 1814 right up to the recent incarceration of China’s most famous contemporary artist Ai Weiwei painters have felt compelled to comment on political events. Such was the case with the Irish artist Micheal Farrell.
The defining period of the Micheal Farrell retrospective running at the RHA Gallery in Dublin is his angered outburst at the political crises that engulfed Ireland in the early 1970s. Informed by events such as Bloody Sunday, the Dublin and Monaghan Bombings and numerous other atrocities he abandoned his intellectually abstracted and measured Celtic inspired graphic style. The violent political situation of his homeland began to bleed into his repeated motifs of a French citron pressé. But this wasn’t enough. Suddenly figures appear too. These are angry paintings. The large canvasses have a frantic and unfinished quality as he feverishly attempted to confront the brutal realities of modern Ireland.
The high point of the exhibition is the series of paintings Farrell based on the famous 18th century Rococo Odalisques by François Boucher. The nude portrait of Marie Louise O’Murphy, mistress to Louis XV has been widely parodied. It was even used on beermats to sell Irish stout a few years ago. In Madonna Irlanda Micheal Farrell reimagines the Odalisque setting in the Ireland of the 1970s. The naked woman becomes an abused figure by Church, State and the authorities. Vitruvian man is also disfigured whilst Farrell’s own portrait looks down in many of them observing what is unfolding.
Images of men immersed upside down in glasses and roughly applied paint are self-referential examinations of the masculinity of the artist.
Farrell departed for France in 1971 but he never left his roots behind. Images of Celtic interlacing consistently reappeared as well as repeated themes of imagined meetings between the high priests of Modernism, Proust, Picasso and Joyce. But there are also wonderful wintery views of Cardet and paintings of everyday life in this exhibition. Yet the political bile rises once more and re-emerges in a series of paintings depicting the bloody aftermath of the Omagh bombing in 1998.
Farrell exhibits a potent love/hate relationship with the country of his birth. But the image of Madonna Irlanda lying naked and prone on a chaise longue exposed to the mercies and vagaries of Europa is perhaps just as prescient to contemporary Ireland as it was in the 1970s. Farrell, like many Irish artists before him, died in exile in 2000 after a long struggle with cancer. His Ireland like that of his canvasses was still unfinished and a work in progress.
Photos from top:
Micheal Farrell, Miss O’Murphy d’après Boucher – This Picture will be Finished when Ireland Once Again is One, (detail) 1978, Oil on canvas, 152.5 x 254cm, Private collection. RHA Gallery.
Micheal Farrell, Le Matin Avant Noel a Cardet, 1999, Oil on canvas, Courtesy of the Micheal Farrell Estate. RHA Gallery.
Micheal Farrell, Orange Pressé, 1972, Lithograph, 75 x 50cm, Courtesy of the Micheal Farrell Estate. RHA Gallery.
Micheal Farrell, Sunday, (detail), 1998, Oil on canvas, Courtesy of the Micheal Farrell Estate. RHA Gallery.