The life, work and legacy of our Boswell in paint
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.