Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1989 – Self Portrait, by Tony O’Malley

Tony O’Malley embraced his background in the bog, and left behind initial struggles to become an artist of distinction

Sideways: from the self-portrait by Tony O’Malley. Courtesy of the Butler Gallery

Sideways: from the self-portrait by Tony O’Malley. Courtesy of the Butler Gallery

 

Tony O’Malley probably produced more self-portraits than any other Irish artist, even if we count William Orpen’s many self-deprecating essays in the genre. In their attitudes to their identities as artists and as Irishmen these two – one a child prodigy from a privileged and very art-aware background, the other a bank official who struggled as a self-taught artist in rural Ireland – were surprisingly close.

O’Malley, like Orpen, left Ireland – Orpen at 20, to conquer metropolitan London with his virtuosity and braggart’s self-confidence, O’Malley more quietly, much older, at 47, and in dubious health, to learn what he could from artists he admired in the English coastal town of St Ives, in Cornwall.

The story of O’Malley’s subsequent success, his marriage to his fellow artist Jane Harris, and their return to Ireland, to his home place in Callan, Co Kilkenny, does not need to be retold.

What is interesting is what this one artist’s self-portraits tell us about how Ireland had changed since Orpen’s mocking role plays of the early decades of the century.

When O’Malley was asked about being a painter in Ireland in the 1960s his response was telling. “There was a certain fear of ridicule that you were setting yourself up as an artist and only somebody with a very foreign name would make a pretence of that.” Nevertheless, O’Malley stuck with his name, even making it more native by regularly adopting its Irish form of Antóine Ó Máille to sign much of his work.

He embraced – perhaps even exaggerated – his Irishness in Cornwall, playing Irish songs and music on the accordion at parties in the convivial art community there. But he took his art practice very seriously, as his friend Sydney Graham, the poet, conceded in a bit of poetic banter:

O Tony is the best man
In a strange kind of way.
He speaks through the bog what we
So often want to say.

Notwithstanding the initial influences of a number of the St Ives artists, O’Malley did exactly as Graham said. Like Seamus Heaney (the entry in this series for 1975) he embraced his background, “the bog”, and made art of the history and landscape of home in a style that had no visual equivalent there or here. His many self-portraits may have emerged, as Rembrandt’s did, from a need for a readily available, free model, but over the years they grew from records of a face that he could be totally honest with to self-portraits of a man who was an artist.

The 1989 pen-and-ink self-portrait shows him as he works, not looking at the viewer (or even at a mirror, the basis of most self-portraits) but gazing intently at the drawing in hand and from it to the sketchy single flower that is its subject.

O’Malley was then 76, and struggling with diminishing sight, but his replication of his face doesn’t depend on that. He is working from memory and his clear joy at having finally overcome that initial struggle with “setting himself up as an artist”. The ridicule he feared in the 1960s was no longer an issue in the growing pre-Celtic Tiger economy of the late 1980s and 1990s, which was to shower honours on O’Malley through the last decade of his life.

O’Malley made humorous self-portraits from recycled kitchen utensils, stones found on the beach, knarled wood from the garden and anything else that came to hand, as well as oil paint. In Self-Portrait 1989 the mastery of line drawing that he and Orpen shared with Rembrandt proves, beyond doubt, that he was an artist of distinction.

You can read more about Tony O’Malley in the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography; ria.ie

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