At first glance this large, ambitious painting, completed in 1940 and shown at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1941, might seem to suggest an Ireland for which the cataclysmic second World War was merely “the Emergency”.
It is not a work of realism: Jack Yeats’s style of oil painting had moved rapidly towards a much more expressive and modernist approach since the late 1920s. Sculpted out of paint and demanding close scrutiny, the nomadic figures represent a strange blend of past and present, real and imaginary that symbolise, as the poet Thomas MacGreevy suggested, humanity at its most benevolent but also at its most dispossessed and transient. The dynamic surface of the oil paint, which adds to the pervasive sense of movement, is built up in myriad strokes of strong blues, reds and yellows.
And insofar as the world of the painting seems real it is a reality that appears very far indeed from the horrors of occupation, tyranny and war. It shows a west-of-Ireland landscape with strolling players and fairground performers striding across the terrain and setting up temporary stalls and tents on the sodden ground. The land and its occupants float tenuously between water and sky.
In the lower left corner, however, a golden-haired child in an oversized blue coat shines a torch on the ground, revealing a pool of blood. The harsh artificiality of the light contrasts with the rest of the landscape, which is tinged a golden yellow by the setting sun.
The procession of sedately posed figures in the foreground moving towards the child and the solitary nature of his gesture suggest that his action has a religious significance, as does the subtitle of the painting, Blood of Abel. This phrase comes from chapter 23 of the Book of Matthew: "Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zachariah . . ."
MacGreevy linked the work to the second World War and the devastation experienced by the rest of Europe, although not neutral Ireland. The painting is “a statement about the most terrible war that had ever come upon any generation, the war that had been brought about through a succession of the most revoltingly cynical treasons against the unoffending just that history has recorded . . . A world that is dark, a world in which individual human beings are isolated from each other, a world in disorder, above all a world where blood has been spilt.”
MacGreevy suggested that the dim figures advancing from between the hills are in a “land of more romantic aspect” beyond what could be “the river of Time”. He asked, “Do they represent the men of a happier world that should replace this immediate world of darkness and spilt blood?”
This is not a question to be answered too literally, but Yeats had thought deeply about the imagery. He told the buyer of the work in 1942 that “although this picture did not take long to paint, it was taking shape in my mind for over two years”. What took shape was a work in which intimations of violence compete with – but do not eradicate – the sense of a mysterious and humane beauty.
You can read more about this week's artwork in the Royal Irish Academy's Art and Architecture of Ireland; ria.ie