Jack B Yeats, the outsider, finds an ideal home


The paintings of Jack B Yeats have their thematic roots in his obsession with the idea of the outsider and his identification with the west of Ireland, so an exhibition in Sligo entitled The Outsider is a near perfect fit

JACK B YEATS: The Outsider, at the Model in Sligo, is an important exhibition in an ideal location. Yeats is a towering figure in Irish art history, and he himself acknowledged the importance of his childhood years in Sligo, when he lived under the care of his maternal grandparents, the Pollexfens, from 1879 to 1887: “Sligo was my school and the sky above it.” Sligo shaped his artistic vision, not just in terms of the landscape of the west of Ireland but also with regard to his very definite ideas about the nature of the individual, society, national identity and life itself.

Born in London in 1871, Yeats had established himself as a fine, exceptionally energetic commercial illustrator and watercolourist in England before taking up oil painting, from about 1905. Although he made several visits to Ireland, including his trips with JM Synge for the Manchester Guardian, he settled back in the country only in 1910.

He and his wife, Mary Cottenham (Cottie), lived first in Greystones, in Co Wicklow, and then, from 1917, in Donnybrook in Dublin. An acclaimed and respected artist throughout his life, he nonetheless remained a singular figure, unaffiliated to any group or faction.

Drawing on Sligo’s excellent Niland Collection and on public and private collections in Ireland and abroad, including two works owned by Graham Greene never previously exhibited, the Model show includes pieces from the early 1900s up to what is thought to be Yeats’s last completed painting, from 1955 or 1956.

It is not, though, a straightforward retrospective. As one of its curators, Emer McGarry, explains: “We concentrate on his oil paintings and try to set up a comparative dialogue between his two different approaches: the early, very realist works and the later, wildly apocalyptic visions.”

Her co-curator, the artist Brian O’Doherty, who got to know Yeats in Dublin in the 1950s, has written about him previously, and he contributes a major new essay on the artist, The Persistence of Politics, to the publication accompanying this exhibition. In his artistic persona Yeats has proved to be exceptionally malleable material for his legion of interpreters. O’Doherty reviews many of the divergent propositions that have emerged from successive readings of his work.

In doing so he explores the several shades of meaning we might ascribe to the show’s title: Yeats as a cultural outsider in Ireland, as an artistic outsider in relation to both Ireland and European modernism, and his thematic obsession with the outsider in his paintings – those many instances of tragic, isolated figures, often defined in terms of their rejection of, or exile from, a communal space or order.

He patently identified strongly with such figures, exemplified by the celebrated 19th-century performer Johnny Paterson, the subject of The Singing Clown. An ardent Parnellite, Paterson was killed in 1889 after violence broke out during one of his performances when he sang a controversial ballad. Yeats was fascinated by him. Such outsiders, O’Doherty suggested in 1971, could be versions of Irishness as constructed by colonial power, exhibiting an allowable, politically negligible individuality, quaintness and roguish charm – a stereotype that persists to this day. In her essay Tricia Cusack parses Yeats’s own outsiderness in Ireland but points out that his Anglo-Irish status “did not disqualify him either from feeling Irish or becoming a republican”. These sentiments are very evident in his earlier oil paintings, including The Funeral of Harry Boland(1922) and Communicating with Prisoners(c1924).

As a painter Yeats saw himself very much as a late Romantic rather than a modernist. He was a narrative artist who was temperamentally averse to abstraction, but the nature of his narrative approach did change. Fast-forward from the relatively sober realism of the early 1920s, realism that often articulates a definite political point of view, to the extraordinary dissolution of form that sets in by the end of the decade, as figures melt into agitated grounds of increasingly acidic colours.

Symbolism and allegory replace documentary reportage. In the transition we see that, as O’Doherty puts it, “the eyewitness is gradually replaced by the visionary. Facts and historical events are slowly subsumed in the poetry of imaginative generalities”. As we can see in the Model exhibition, there is continuity as well as change. An early painting, An Occupation, featuring a single circus worker, is strikingly consistent with the painter’s later treatment of life as theatrical spectacle.

Yeats’s cast of performers, his clowns, singers and other entertainers, bear comparison with Picasso’s saltimbanquesin that they transcend their historical moment and circumstances to stand for humanity in general.

As McGarry views his later work, “there’s a lot of despair in the paintings throughout the 1940s but then, in the 1950s, there are some sparks of hope, a touch of optimism.” In other words Yeats’s eventual disenchantment with politics, an acute and enduring sense of loss (Cottie died in 1947) and his constant awareness of mortality did eventually allow him a certain hard-won poise.

He more or less gave up painting during the final two years of his life. Several commentators argue that the last decade of his life saw the emergence of Yeats the modernist, though it’s a moot point. One of his more recent champions, Rudi Fuchs, persuasively sees him as part of a kind of alternative tradition of European modernism, a kindred spirit with Oskar Kokoschka. But in the end it’s as well, perhaps, to recall the artist’s own words: “A picture does not need translation.”

The Outsider is a great way of approaching Yeats’s work, comprising a compact but immensely rich selection of paintings. The inclusion of every piece on loan is carefully considered, but it’s salutary to remember that the heart of the show, and the heart of the Sligo municipal art collection, is the work amassed by the woman whose name the collection now bears: Nora Niland, who was county librarian from 1945. She had the acumen to see the importance of the links between Sligo and Jack B Yeats, and she was amazingly successful in developing the collection.

Jack B Yeats: The Outsideropens at the Model, Sligo, on Feb 6 and runs until June 5