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

Micheal Farrell died in Cardet, in southern France, in 2000. For a long time he'd fought a cruel, exhausting battle with cancer, showing exceptional endurance and resilience. As his gallerists, John and Pat Taylor, put it, he "bore his illness as he did all life's trials and tribulations . . . with humour, courage and grace".

Farrell was born in Kells, in Co Meath, in 1940. He was sent to school in England and spent most of his life thereafter far from home, mostly in France, though in many respects his attention remained focused on Ireland.

He exhibited consistently in Ireland, and became compulsively fascinated not only by immediate events – he was galvanised by the eruption of the Troubles in the North – but also by wider questions of history and cultural identity. Early in his career he quickly established himself as one of the leading Irish artists of his generation, and that holds true. If anything his stature should increase with time.

He was a person of charm, perception and wit, although his hair-trigger honesty and impulsive nature on occasion got him into trouble. The travails of his sometimes stormy emotional life and, at a certain point, his weakness for alcohol became part of his subject matter in sequences of self-lacerating autobiographical works delivered with typically spiky humour.


Now Solstice Arts Centre, in Navan, Co Meath, has initiated a substantial survey exhibition exploring and celebrating his artistic achievement. Curated by Belinda Quirke, the centre's artistic director, the show will later tour to Crawford Art Gallery, in Cork, the RHA, in Dublin, and the Centre Cultural Irlandais, in Paris, offering a wide audience a chance to gain familiarity with a talent that deserves renewed recognition.

From early on as an artist Farrell saw himself in an international context. He described himself as part of a generation that grew up in an Ireland that was Ireland. It wasn’t disputed territory; it was more a neutral background. Although his immediate environment was rich in evidence and emblems of history, he thought little of national identity until he was sent to Ampleforth College, a Benedictine secondary school in England. He didn’t like school for several reasons. One was that his dyslexia made things difficult for him and drew scorn rather than assistance. Another was that the version of Irish history and Irishness that was dished out he recognised as a travesty.

[CROSSHEAD]Cultural injury
[/CROSSHEAD]That was the beginning of a bristling sense of cultural injury and an enduring dislike of the English empire-building mindset. Nonetheless he stayed in England, to study commercial art at St Martins in London. Again it wasn't a happy experience, but he liked the lively artistic community he found in Soho. At this point he spent a year or so in Co Donegal, exploring the writing of the Celtic Revival and forging a workable aesthetic that looked both to early Irish art and current international developments.

He was open to and enthusiastic about such developments, responding equally to the allusive figuration of David Hockney and RB Kitaj, who dealt with identity and history in lively, personal, irreverent ways, and, in the US, Frank Stella, who rejected all notion of personal expression in works of uncompromising, minimalist abstraction. As Stella famously put it: "What you see is what you get." Don't try to look for meaning beyond what's in front of your eyes.

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.

While he is clearly equating Ireland with the courtesan, he's also implying that she is exploited and abused. In a pun on the name Boucher he labels the woman's body as though it is meat. More than once he includes himself, gazing voyeuristically from the upper right-hand corner. And, in a parodic rendering of Leonardo's Vitruvian Man, he suggests a crisis of masculinity, something that became a significant preoccupation in a succession of self-portraits that manage to tread a fine line between self-pity and ruthless self-examination.

Unfortunately, the best painting in the series, in the Hugh Lane's collection, wasn't available for exhibition, but with luck it will be seen at subsequent locations. Although it may not quite live up to Farrell's ironic subtitle for it – The Very First Real Irish Political Picture – it is fiercely political and a landmark work.

Other intriguing variations from the series are included as, happily, is the even better drawing Miss O'Murphy d'après Boucher, from the National Gallery of Ireland.

Later attempts to deal with the Annie Murphy/Eamon Casey scandal, Bloody Sunday and the Great Famine were sporadically though not entirely successful, but Farrell's sure instinct for the immediate came to the fore in his response to the Omagh bombing, in 1998. With his second wife, Meg Early, he'd moved south from Paris to Provence, and some of his finest work reflects his immediate surroundings there, including an expansive portrait of the woman who ran the local cafe, and a winter landscape of vines under snow, recalling Van Gogh.

One of his long-term preoccupations was the evocation of an ideal community of artists. In a series titled the Rencontres he visualised variations on a rumoured though probably apocryphal meeting between Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust and James Joyce. From the early 1970s onwards, especially, there's something heroic about his commitment to engaging directly with the world around him on every level. He did so with raw honesty and great resourcefulness in terms of formulating a visual language.

Looking at the work in Solstice prompts the thought that he would have been a great artistic voice to have around during the Celtic Tiger years and their catastrophic aftermath.

[CF413-407]The Work of Micheal Farrell is at Solstice Arts Centre, in Navan, Co Meath, until October 19th[/CF413-407]