Mesmerised by the Mediterranean
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.