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
Farrell described the difference as that between subjective and objective art. He was drawn to both, he said, but in reality he was never an abstract minimalist in the sense that Stella and artists such as Donald Judd were. Instead he adapted motifs from early Irish art, from pre-Christian through Christian, and used them in stylised, hard-edged abstract compositions. He found a name for this style: Celtic abstraction.
His partial absorption of radical ideas recalled the cautious approach to cubism of an earlier generation of Irish artists, including Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone. But it brought him tremendous success (he employed Robert Ballagh as an assistant for a time), and the paintings hold up very well, perhaps partly because of his great flair as a graphic designer.
In 1971 he moved to Paris, where he found his way to a celebrated artistic address in Le Ruche (the Beehive) in the 15th arrondissement, a network of artists’ apartments that had once been home to Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani, Constantin Brancusi and many other artistic and literary luminaries. He relished the bohemian ambience, the sense of possibility, even the language, which he savoured and used in his work. He found a new motif for his paintings in the lemon press used to make citron pressé, the mix-it-yourself traditional lemonade that all French bars serve.
He’d been troubled by the repression of the civil-rights movement in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s onwards, and in 1969 he said he wouldn’t exhibit there “until that state has achieved the basic fundamentals of a decent society”. Then came Bloody Sunday and the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. The latter finally triggered a sense of outrage in him. Like Philip Guston in the US, he found that he was working in an idiom that prevented him commenting, as he wanted to, on what was going on around him. There was a disconnect between the art he was making and the world he lived in.
The jets of lemon juice in the Pressé works suddenly symbolised the blood and tears of victims. Screen-printed newspaper coverage of the atrocities was printed on to the picture surface. It’s fascinating to see prime examples of these works at Solstice, drawn from collections including Imma’s and that of the Butler Gallery, in Kilkenny. They are as sharp, fresh and vivid as they seemed when they were exhibited in Dublin at the time, although Farrell was disappointed by what he saw as the lack of response – a recurrent experience for him. He threw himself so passionately into his work that he longed for an equally passionate response, and it rarely materialised.
His response was to up the ante. He began to consider both the reality of contemporary Ireland and, in parallel, his personal reality. He found an allegorical model for the country in François Boucher’s 18th-century erotic painting of Louise O’Murphy, the youngest daughter of an Irish soldier turned shoemaker who had settled in Rouen. O’Murphy was for a time a mistress of Louis XV. In Farrell’s reworking of Boucher’s study she becomes a profane “Madonna Irlanda”, the personification of Ireland, one scandalously at odds with pious stereotypes.