Stephen McKenna: a painters’ painter

A Painter’s Life exhibition offers insight into artist whose life was process of inquiry

When Stephen McKenna died in May 2017, plans were already well-advanced for this survey exhibition of his work. In fact, the artist himself selected the works and planned the layout. Although it is titled A Painter’s Life, it’s important to say at the outset that it is not a retrospective exhibition as such. Far too many of McKenna’s signature works are not included, and whole aspects of his artistic personality are absent so that, even given the autobiographical thread running through the show, it was clearly never intended as a comprehensive retrospective. That is in keeping with the nature of the artist. McKenna was one of those valuable, stimulating individuals for whom life is an ongoing process of inquiry. Everything he ever did was a work in progress, and this exhibition is no exception.

That said, it is a melancholy pleasure to see a mind, and an eye, so intensely engaged while knowing that the process has come to a close. The remarkable exhibition he curated at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in 1997, The Pursuit of Painting, featuring the work of 26 painters, precursors and contemporaries – an alphabet making up a language of painting – provided a perfect illustration of his attitude. His broad and generous selection encompassed a wide church, from Gwen John to Sean Scully, Paula Rego to Ciaran Lennon. What mattered to him was that a painter be instinctively committed to the argument, absolutely locked into the argument that is involved in the process of making a painting. The argument could lead where it might. He wasn’t precluding anything.

Emma Lucy O’Brien, the curator of A Painter’s Life, quotes McKenna from 1980: “Painting is the art of decoration and representation – of making images of ourselves and the world surrounding us, and making them visible to the sense and intelligence of others.” It’s not a strict definition, he adds, but it should serve as a starting point. The representational element is central. The very earliest works of his on view are straightforwardly representational. When he attended the Slade in London from 1959 into the 1960s, he absorbed an abstract, modernist aesthetic that was simply at odds with his sensibility. The more abstract works included in the show demonstrate how he quickly recast, or perhaps learned to interpret, abstraction as a pictorial means of making models of the world: there’s no way for him to keep the world out. As regards representation per se, there is in his work from the beginning a quality that remained constant: a dogged, almost pedantic fidelity to the phenomenal evidence that could resemble naivety. Perhaps it was naivety, if consciously, stubbornly so.

Role of geography

That the show is on in Carlow makes sense because McKenna was, from the latter part of the 1990s, a local. He settled in Bagenalstown, on the river Barrow, “without doubt a vision of Arcadia”, as he put it, without irony. Always interested in the role of geography in shaping sensibility, he was never nationalistically inclined, seeing himself, though born in England, as a citizen of Europe and a participant in and descendant of classical civilization. While his father was a British army officer, and McKenna himself had a certain martial bearing, it was never likely that he would pursue a military career. His father was from Tyrone and his mother was Scottish. There were family links to Donegal and when his father retired to Donegal in the 1970s, McKenna visited often, and stayed and painted.

Growing up, he became used to periodic relocation depending on his father’s postings – they included Norway, Hong Kong and Austria – and he developed and retained a liking for travel. So Bagenalstown was to some extent surprising, but did not tie him down. He travelled regularly, usually within Europe, where he felt at home. And was at home: at the beginning of the 1970s he had moved to Germany, with no particular intention of staying beyond a brief residency in a borrowed studio, and found that his humanistic, representational inclinations were more in tune with the artistic climate there than they had been in England.

Bagenalstown wasn’t that surprising in another respect. McKenna was not simply restless. He liked the anchor of a home and, more precisely, a studio, which was, as he put it, his natural home. The prime example may be Bagenalstown, which is the subject of many paintings, but in Italy, where he was based from the early 1980s (after a period spent in Belgium), he seems to have found something like his spiritual studio-home. His paintings made there (close to Florence) have a serenity deriving from their luxuriant appreciation of the surrounding sensual and historical world.

Celebratory communal gatherings and processions, festive and carnivalesque, are a recurrent theme and examples included date back to 1974’s Night Festival and those with a Bagenalstown setting, including Crowd at Fire with Water from 2002. Communities on a larger scale, cities, also fascinated him and he made an ambitious series of works based on visits to European port cities, including Porto (one of his views of Porto features). From Liberty Hall he made memorable paintings of Dublin, and one of those is included.

Germania-Italia polarity

He had long been interested in the contrast between northern and southern Europe, the Germania-Italia polarity by the time he gravitated to Italy. It seems fair to say that the Italia side of this equation won out in terms of his painting. Carlo Carra’s proposition in Metaphysical Painting that the Renaissance could be applied to the modern world – not as pastiche or in a nostalgic haze, but in real time – is a fair description of what McKenna does in his painting. Often he will directly revisit the classical world, as in the many examples of his Pompeian paintings on view, including works based on the house of Loreias Toburtinus, the House of Venus and the Villa of the Mysteries. Or, elsewhere there is the Villa d’Este. Classical paintings, themes and friezes are also relevant subjects. Also, though, the Renaissance spirit imbues his approach to all aspects of the world, including modernity. He had a way of focusing intently on a single subject, such as his study of Two Trees, or a heron, or some element of a still life, with concentrated curiosity, dispensing with pictorial conventions. His is not an art of optical impressions. When he paints moonlight on water, the night sky, rain falling, the moonlight has a definite, disconcerting solidity, the stars are not decorative bright dots but distant giant furnaces and the rain is palpable and wet.

He was a painters’ painter, not just in that he had many artistic friendships, but even many of those who might not particularly share his vision were drawn to his work, and his approach. Work by six of those artists is on view at Visual, and the juxtapositions are always interesting. There could easily have been more. In terms of empathy, the most obvious connections are probably with the work of Eithne Jordan, Stephen Loughman and Mairead O’hEocha but it’s worth noting that McKenna’s paintings also partner well with abstraction.

Many artists are wary of retrospective exhibitions. Understandably in that they imply completion. A Painter’s Life is in no way conclusive for the reasons mentioned above. It does flesh out areas of the painter’s oeuvre, especially relating to his early years as a student and immediately following, but it is in no way conclusive or definitive, which is a good thing. It serves the useful function of making us want to see more and, on more than one occasion, of prompting us to ask what this guy is on about.

A Painter’s Life: Stephen McKenna (1939-2017) Works from 1958-2016, curated by Emma Lucy O’Brien is on view in the Ground floor Galleries, Visual Centre for Contemporary Art, Old Dublin Road, Carlow. Until May 19th (

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