Michael Farrell: an international artist who never forgot his roots
Micheal Farrell, one of the greatest Irish artists of his generation, is well served by a new show
Life’s work: Miss O’Murphy d’après Boucher, from 1976. Photograph courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland
Life’s work: a self-portrait from 1994. Photograph courtesy of Gandon Archives Kinsale
Micheal Farrell died in Cardet, in southern France, in 2000. For a long time he’d fought a cruel, exhausting battle with cancer, showing exceptional endurance and resilience. As his gallerists, John and Pat Taylor, put it, he “bore his illness as he did all life’s trials and tribulations . . . with humour, courage and grace”.
Farrell was born in Kells, in Co Meath, in 1940. He was sent to school in England and spent most of his life thereafter far from home, mostly in France, though in many respects his attention remained focused on Ireland.
He exhibited consistently in Ireland, and became compulsively fascinated not only by immediate events – he was galvanised by the eruption of the Troubles in the North – but also by wider questions of history and cultural identity. Early in his career he quickly established himself as one of the leading Irish artists of his generation, and that holds true. If anything his stature should increase with time.
He was a person of charm, perception and wit, although his hair-trigger honesty and impulsive nature on occasion got him into trouble. The travails of his sometimes stormy emotional life and, at a certain point, his weakness for alcohol became part of his subject matter in sequences of self-lacerating autobiographical works delivered with typically spiky humour.
Now Solstice Arts Centre, in Navan, Co Meath, has initiated a substantial survey exhibition exploring and celebrating his artistic achievement. Curated by Belinda Quirke, the centre’s artistic director, the show will later tour to Crawford Art Gallery, in Cork, the RHA, in Dublin, and the Centre Cultural Irlandais, in Paris, offering a wide audience a chance to gain familiarity with a talent that deserves renewed recognition.
From early on as an artist Farrell saw himself in an international context. He described himself as part of a generation that grew up in an Ireland that was Ireland. It wasn’t disputed territory; it was more a neutral background. Although his immediate environment was rich in evidence and emblems of history, he thought little of national identity until he was sent to Ampleforth College, a Benedictine secondary school in England. He didn’t like school for several reasons. One was that his dyslexia made things difficult for him and drew scorn rather than assistance. Another was that the version of Irish history and Irishness that was dished out he recognised as a travesty.
[/CROSSHEAD]That was the beginning of a bristling sense of cultural injury and an enduring dislike of the English empire-building mindset. Nonetheless he stayed in England, to study commercial art at St Martins in London. Again it wasn’t a happy experience, but he liked the lively artistic community he found in Soho. At this point he spent a year or so in Co Donegal, exploring the writing of the Celtic Revival and forging a workable aesthetic that looked both to early Irish art and current international developments.
He was open to and enthusiastic about such developments, responding equally to the allusive figuration of David Hockney and RB Kitaj, who dealt with identity and history in lively, personal, irreverent ways, and, in the US, Frank Stella, who rejected all notion of personal expression in works of uncompromising, minimalist abstraction. As Stella famously put it: “What you see is what you get.” Don’t try to look for meaning beyond what’s in front of your eyes.