Art in Focus: Jack B Yeats – Two Travellers

The painting of two figures in a dramatic landscape shows the artist pushing boundaries

Two Travellers, Jack B Yeats (1942). Courtesy of the Tate

Two Travellers, Jack B Yeats (1942). Courtesy of the Tate

 

What is it?

A 1942 painting by Jack B Yeats (1871-1957).

How was it done?

It is, stylistically, later Yeats. That is, the period when the artist had greatly loosened the bonds of representational convention. He was as likely to use a palette knife, or even his fingers, as a brush, and a face or a figure, animal or human, might be rendered in just a few expressive strokes and marks. The two figures in the painting encounter each other in an epically lit, dramatic, sweeping, peninsular landscape.

Where can I see it?

On loan from the Tate, it is included in Life Above Everything: Lucian Freud and Jack B Yeats, part of the Imma Collection: Freud Project. The exhibition runs at the Freud Centre, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin, until January 19th (adults €8, concessions €5, imma.ie).

If you have not yet seen it, time is fast running out. And this latest iteration of Imma’s Freud Project, which is centred on the long-term loan of a superb series of more than 50 of Lucian Freud’s works, is the best so far. With a number of rarely seen Yeats paintings included, it is an illuminating, impressive show – and one that surely enhances the stature of Yeats, plausibly regarded as the finest Irish artist.

Is it a typical work by the artist?

It is typical. Even as his style and technique changed and developed throughout his working life, Yeats possessed such an individual voice that he is always unmistakably himself. His later work is particularly recognisable. Although the individual, often articulated in relation to the crowd, is his staple subject, he recurrently employed the motif of two figures meeting, usually in a heightened, theatrical setting. The level of expressive distortion and the non-naturalistic palette, often infused with harsh, even acidic colour, of his later work tends to divide opinion.

Two Travellers was purchased by the Tate from the Wildenstein Gallery in 1946, having previously been exhibited in the Waddington in Dublin, in 1943. Yeats’s stark, visionary mise-en-scène prompts thoughts of Waiting for Godot. The painting has been linked to the play, and Beckett was certainly long friendly with and appreciative of Yeats. He bought a painting he could ill afford from the artist in the mid-1930s, and he appreciatively reviewed his good friend Thomas MacGreevy’s book on the painter in 1945. In relation to his own feelings about the paintings, in 1937 he’d written in a letter of how, when Yeats painted a man and a woman side by side, he conveyed “two irreducible singlenesses and the impassible immensity between them”. However, in terms of visual references for Godot, he mentioned Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of two men in a moonlit landscape rather than Yeats’s Two Travellers. 

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