Mesmerised by the Mediterranean

Thu, Aug 9, 2012, 01:00

Owen Walsh’s central position in mid-20th- century Irish art deserves exploration, but an exhibition at NCAD lacks the substance to do it

IT’S GOOD that there’s a retrospective devoted to the work of Owen Walsh. He was a central figure in a generation of Irish artists who loosened up Irish art around the mid-20th century, incorporating various strands of European modernism in a highly personal, distinctly local way. What’s not so good, however, is that the exhibition, Colour and Light, currently showing at the Gallery, NCAD (and previously at the Linenhall in Castlebar) is less than substantial and for the most part does him few favours.

It’s true that a substantial amount of Walsh’s work has not dated well. Although visibly fired with the enthusiasm of personal discovery and liberation, many of his paintings were essentially apprentice pieces. There’s no harm in that, but they can come across now as tentative versions of long familiar artistic exemplars. On the other hand, one of the good things about the show is that it highlights the commercial work he did during the 1950s and 1960s, when he did design and illustration for fashion magazines including Creation and worked for McConnells advertising agency.

This work too is very much of its time, but the cool classicism of the 1950s has aged well, and there the crisp freshness of his draughtsmanship comes through clearly.

He was born in Co Mayo in 1933, one of five children in a prosperous family in Westport. He went to Blackrock College as a boarder, and he excelled at rugby as well as art. The realisation that he suffered from a form of epilepsy ruled out a serious pursuit of physical sports. He shone as a student at the National College of Art and Design in the early 1950s, receiving several awards. But the most exciting, formative time for him as an artist came in the years immediately following graduation from the NCAD when, on the strength of a MacAuley fellowship, he went to travel and study in Spain, spending time in Madrid, Toledo and Barcelona. From Spain he went on to Italy, to Venice and Ravenna. He also spent some time in France in the 1960s.

The colour, light and brio of Mediterranean life, landscape and art made an indelible impression on him. He was clearly much taken with the stylistic boldness of Matisse and other Post-Impressionists, especially when it came to saying more with less. Much of his work is spare, almost elliptical in outlining compositional forms. There’s no holding back in terms of palette, though. He had no problem with using bright, sunny, vibrant colours, startling in the muted context of the Irish climate and landscape.

Often an artist who uses a lot of colour is described as “a colourist”, and Walsh is billed as “a great colourist”, which is not quite the case. He uses colour effectively but, it may be harsh to note, not outstandingly or with particular flair or originality. It’s worth mentioning that the mood of his work, particularly at its most representational, is at times in keeping with the lively expressionism of Oskar Kokoschka.

His subject matter accorded with the European tradition: portraits, the figure, and landscapes both rural and urban. His portraits have real flair and vitality, and the urban landscapes often have something special about them. He was at heart an immediate, spontaneous painter and, on the evidence of the work, was disinclined to revisit his initial stab at capturing a subject. The lack of finish can be disconcerting but can also work to his advantage. It’s tremendously honest.

Although he continued to paint while working as a commercial artist, from that point on Walsh stood slightly apart from the conventional art scene, not becoming attached to a particular gallery, for example, or building a reputation in any kind of systematic way. Yet he was productive, active and did exhibit his work. He was a founder member of the Independent Artists in 1959, an important group that provided an expressive, representational alternative to what was perceived as the increasing tendency towards formal abstraction in the country’s major annual contemporary art exhibition, the Living Art.

While he continued to visit Mayo, in Dublin he had settled in Baggotonia, the unofficial literary and cultural quarter centred on Baggot St, and his flat-cum-studio there, also home to his piano and extensive collection of recorded music, was frequented by many contemporaries, including the painter and later director of NCAD Noel Sheridan, sculptor and writer James McKenna, painters Charles Brady and Patrick Pye and printmaker Elizabeth Rivers.

The exhibition’s stated aim is “to reposition Walsh’s work within the history of Irish painting and design in the 20th century.” To achieve that would require more substance than what’s on view at the NCAD, it must be said, but at the same time what is there doesn’t contradict the suggestion that Walsh’s central position in mid-20th century Irish art should be further explored.

Colour and Light: Retrospective of the work of Owen Walsh 1933-2002. The Gallery, NCAD. Mon-Sat 10am-5pm Until September 8

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