The life, work and legacy of our Boswell in paint

Sat, Feb 2, 2013, 00:00

BIOGRAPHY:Harry Kernoff: The Little Genius, By Kevin O’Connor, Liffey Press, 130pp, €19.99

The artist Harry Kernoff once stated in a newspaper interview: “When I found someone I wanted to paint, it didn’t matter to me if he was a dustman or a dramatist.”

The critics may be divided on Kernoff’s legacy, but his paintings and watercolours became highly collectable in the boom years, commanding the kind of price he could never achieve in his lifetime. But Kernoff is perhaps most culturally significant as a visual chronicler of a vanished Dublin. He bequeathed us an artistic archive of street life, recording the unruly cast and characters of “auld Dublin”, leaving us vivid pictorial mementos of the long-dead denizens of Dublin’s pub culture. A Dublin character in his own right, he was regarded with affection, the small figure with trademark Homburg and long black coat, tramping the city’s streets. He also drew or painted many writers of his era: WB Yeats, Sean O’Casey (who famously disliked the portrait), Lennox Robinson, James Joyce, a young Brendan Behan, Liam O’Flaherty and Brinsley McNamara.

Kernoff has been the subject of a short booklet by Rosemary McAuley and academic monographs by the art historian Kathryn Milligan, and he has merited honourable mentions in various cultural histories. The radio producer Kevin O’Connor, who has collected Kernoff’s work, has made a first attempt at the artist’s biography, which, he makes clear, is aimed at a general audience.

Born in London on January 9th, 1900, Aaron, known as Harry, was one of the four children of Isaac Karnov, a furniture maker, and Katherine A Barbanelle. On his father’s side were Russian Jews from Vitebsk. His mother’s family were descended from Sephardic Jews, one prominent at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella.

The family moved to Dublin in May 1914. Kernoff studied art at night school, trained at the Metropolitan School of Art, and won the Taylor Art scholarship in 1923. He became a full member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1936. In 1936 he also held the first of three solo shows at the Victor Waddington Gallery in Dublin and exhibited in Europe. He may also bear a rare distinction: his woodcut A Bird Never Flew on One Wing, is allegedly the inspiration for the unique look of Mr Spock, of Star Trek.

After a lifetime devoted to his art, Harry Kernoff died in 1974, leaving a substantial body of work, woodcuts, watercolours and oils.

Shy, taciturn and sometimes secretive, Kernoff does not, at first, appear an ideal candidate for a full-scale biography. Ultimately, this study of Kernoff gives us both too much and too little. Too much in the way of surmise or supposition and too little in the way of real insight into Kernoff’s temperament and inspirations.

It ends up as a curious hybrid of biographical detail; potted social history and pithy anecdote. O’Connor races through the Kernoff/Karnov genealogy and the family’s early years in east London, before the move to Ireland.

In a 1931 interview with the journalist RM Fox, Kernoff himself spoke of the importance of these years in forming his work methods, though there is no reference to this in the book.

Productive years

The book opts to focus very much on the 1920s to 1940s, productive years for Kernoff, when he found his style and his niche and one of his best means of creative expression: the humble woodcut. He travelled to Russia; was part of a lively subculture of political cabarets and clubs; and romanced the singer Delia Murphy and the flamboyant Madame “Toto” Bannard-Cogley. When depicting the artistic milieu of 1920s and 30s Dublin, and Kernoff’s place in it, O’Connor seems most in command of his material, with some lively pen portraits of Kernoff’s contemporaries and mentors, leading figures of a forgotten Bohemia. Kernoff was part of the group involved in the Radical Club. He produced designs for expressionist plays as well as contributing set design and constructions for Bannard-Cogley’s theatre productions, and becoming her lover.

Kernoff joined the Irish Friends of Soviet Russia (FOSR), a communist front organisation, on a trip to Russia in 1931 and wrote about it. On his return, Kernoff spoke at an FOSR meeting on conditions in Russia and mounted an exhibition of Soviet posters at the No 7 Stephen’s Green Gallery. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, reviews of Kernoff’s work drew attention to socialist and labour themes in his work. An Phoblacht went so far as to dub him “a revolutionary in art” with a wordplay on the idea of revolution, in regard to both his politics and artistic innovation. This side of Kernoff’s life is given little attention in the book.

O’Connor is astute on certain aspects of Kernoff’s outsider status. Coming from neither a moneyed background nor Irish nationalist “aristocracy”, Kernoff needed to be prolific. Therefore his prodigious output – calculated by O’Connor at six paintings per week plus commercial jobs, illustration, design and the like – was not just evidence of an unstoppable creative impulse. It was fuelled by an urgent necessity to make a living. His expenses were reduced by living at home with a doting mother and sister. Referring specifically to the 1940s, O’Connor asserts: “In a city spending less on its paintings than most capitals in Europe, he managed to earn a living by his willingness to take any commission – as crucial to his earnings as his modesty in undertaking every kind of work.”

While so many of his contemporaries turned to bucolic Ireland for inspiration, Kernoff took to the streets, part flaneur, part urban geographer. As O’Connor puts it: “His artistic instincts would, in time, provide an archive of a vanished Dublin unrivalled in scale by any of his contemporaries.”

On other aspects of his “outsider” position, specifically his Jewishness and his left-wing politics, O’Connor is less sure-footed, falling back on easy cliche and stereotype. Kernoff’s relationship with his mother is rendered unsubtly, Mrs Kernoff being referred to as The Mammy, shorthand for a potentially smothering relationship.

O’Connor makes much of Kernoff’s affairs with married women, raising the question: how different was he from other artists and writers of the day? Without specific footnotes or source references, the broad assertions about Kernoff’s romances at times read more like gossip-column fodder than historical testimony.

The writer John Ryan, quoted in the book, captured most succinctly Kernoff’s real cultural significance: “He was our Boswell in paint.” Kernoff often placed himself as a bystander in the background of his own paintings, and likewise, here, he sometimes seems an elusive presence in the pages of his own life. It is notoriously difficult to weave the diverse threads of an artist’s life and work, plus social history, into a seamless narrative, and O’Connor doesn’t quite pull it off. Nonetheless, fans of Kernoff, both old and new, will be delighted to see his work gathered in one place and in such a beautifully produced volume.

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