Sunday, February 25, 2007
Setting the record straight on those blanketman's eyes
Carnegie Mellon university in Pittsburgh has brought together an impressive exhibition of new work, inspired by the 'Troubles' which you can see here. Among the artists are Aisling O'Beirne, a radical Irish speaking artist from Belfast and Peter Richards, curator at the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast.
The renewed interest in Irish art studies of the war comes as Conrad Atkinson, daddy of all the radical artists who tackled Ireland, gives us a first glimpse at the works he has produced on the theme of wounds/healing/reconciliation. Conrad's works will go on show in a major exhibition in the Grand Opera House in August of this year - 29 years after his last commentary on our conflict was banned by the Ulster Museum after Paisleyite porters refused to hang a painting of a British soldier (the controversial piece now hangs in Wolverhampton Art Gallery). It's also worth checking out Conrad's website.
I hope you enjoy the images included here which are inspired by the Dutch 18th century painting of the Pope blessing King Billy (which was slashed when it was first shown at Stormont), the rusting gate of Crumlin Road Gaol and photoraphs of the healing wounds of those who were injured in the war. The paintings have all been 'slashed' just as the original Pieter Van Der Meulen painting at Stormont was slashed (the painting is still in the collection at Stormont but isn't on show.
In the meantime, I offer this fascinating letter from Richard Hamilton about his triptych, The citizen (a blanketman), The Subject (an Orangeman) and the State (a British soldier on patrol here). He puts to bed the claim that he 'distorted' the eyes of blanketman Hugh Rooney to make him appear evil, a suggestion I always found unlikely given that those artists brave enough to take on Irish issues shunned by their contemporaries are rarely motivated by contempt for Irish nationalism.
Anyhow, he can speak for himself and you can read his Wikepeida entry here. All corrections to my original piece on this blog on 8 December will be sorted. Richard refers to his wife, Rita Donagh, the accomplished artist whose painting of the H-Blocks hangs close to his triptych in the Tate Modern and can be seen here. (By the way, Happy Birthday, Richard.)
Thank you for your letter and the comments in your newsletter. It is good to know that my triptych is appreciated in Ireland. The paintings have a strange history. The citizen was first shown at the Guggenheim, NewYork, in 1983, the show was called Aspects of Postwar painting in Europe.The director, Tom Messer, having agreed to exhibit it got cold feet and said it was too controversial, especially in view of the fact that the opening would be just before the St Patrick's day parade. I persuaded him that the New York Irish community would be unlikely to put a bomb in the Guggenheim. Very soon afterwards the painting was shown in Derry as an appendix to a show of Rita's work put on by Declan McGonagle in the Orchard Gallery. Declan did have complaints from the Unionist council, as he expected, and he responded with diplomacy and good humour. When the
show opened a young woman supporter of the IRA surprised me by asking 'why did you make his eyes so evil?'
This ambiguity in the reception of the triptych was interesting. The fact that all three pictures are now part of the Tate Gallery collection, bought by the British taxpayer without undue complaint, itself seems paradoxical. I believe that Declan always felt they should be in Ireland.
There are errors, or slight understandings, in your text. I hope you will forgive my nit picking:
I reached my 85th (not 88th) year only yesterday and Rita thinks I am working harder than ever.
I did not have my camera in front of the TV when I first saw the blanket men (though that was the case when I made a print called Kent State in 1970). When films of the Maze were made and transmitted by both the ITV and BBC I began to think about a painting on the subject. It took help from Paul Greengrass, who made the ITV film that gave me a start. My spies within the BBC then helped to provide material for The citizen. The other two paintings required the same determined fieldwork.
As for the eyes, I don't remember 'changing the eyes' intentionally.I believe Hugh Roony's eyes in the painting are quite like his expression in the TV footage. I valued the ambiguity contained in the image. Some viewers see Christ, other's see Charles Manson.
The use of the word 'citizen' is certainly related to Joyce's Fenian.
My title was appropriate for several other reasons. The word has significance in relation to it's use during the French revolution. A 'citizen' was opposed to the monarchy and to the aristocracy, and supported the republic. The later phase of IRA activity emerged from civil rights demonstrations citizens declaring their right to equality.
I hope you will forgive me if I plead the frailty of an octogenarian to be excused from visiting Ireland again. Travelling is not one of my greatest pleasures. Now that our home is in an ideal Oxfordshire (English not Irish) country landscape it is increasingly hard for me to leave it.