An Irishman's Diary


WHATEVER ABOUT nude taoisigh, one of the sub-genres that the National Gallery could usefully add to its portrait collection is that of the public figure “considering his position” – a subject to date shamefully neglected by painters and sculptors.

Hardly a day goes by in Ireland without some important person being formally invited to engage in this sort of thing. As I write – and as an indirect result of Mr Cowen’s temporary hanging – the director general of RTÉ has been asked to consider his position by a Fianna Fáil TD.

The chief executive of Irish Nationwide received similar requests several days ago, and although the Government appears confident that his considerations, position-wise, have begun, the process is expected to take “weeks”.

Businessman Gerry McCaughey would certainly have been invited to do some positional considering had he not resigned his public posts first. This was a departure from tradition. As is often remarked, Ireland does not have a “resignation culture”; whereas considering one’s position (and then retaining it) is a cultural cornerstone, a bit like hurling.

It would be a big challenge for artists to capture the process. Perhaps the ideal image of a man considering his position is Rodin’s The Thinker(which, incidentally, bears a passing resemblance to one of the Taoiseach’s unofficial portraits). But of course one doesn’t have to be stationary or sitting on a rock to engage in this form of reflection.

The late Charlie Haughey was one of the great positional considerers; certainly he must hold the national record for the number of invitations he received. And he was as likely to do it on horseback as seated with his head on his hand. For a painter, it would all be about getting the facial expression right.

At any rate, whenever a public figure is known to be considering his position, the National Gallery should dispatch an artist to the scene urgently to take sketches while the trauma is still vivid. The result would be a riveting sub-category of Irish portraiture – somewhere between the wedding picture and the death mask. Maybe in time it would rival still life as a discipline through which artists could showcase their skills.

THE paintings of Biffo in the buff were not exactly Le Déjeuner Sur l’Herbe, I know. But they do demonstrate the enduring power of the human nude to shock and scandalise, in the process creating headlines. The painter could soon be busy running off copies to meet the new interest in his oeuvre.

A more disturbing thought for art lovers is the likely influence of his stunt on the Salon des Refusés– the amateur painters who hang their work on the railings of Merrion Square and other places every weekend. If there is any hint that portraying public figures in the nude is a profitable line of work, I predict the guerrilla painter will yet be credited as the founder of a whole school.

This being an era when many of our former emperors have been found to have no clothes, there might well be a hitherto unsuspected demand for seeing them so portrayed. And the artists would have two chances of selling such work. Before any exhibition, they could hold private viewings at which bankers, property developers and others would have first opportunity to ensure their portraits never saw the light of day.

THE more your think about it, the more unfortunate it is for the Taoiseach that Barack Obama has connections with Offaly. Their rise to power on either side of the Atlantic seemed serendipitous at first, all the more because they were both lawyers. Yet in almost every other respect – from gym performance to popularity ratings – the comparisons for Mr Cowen are uncomfortable.

Now we must add guerrilla art to the list. Obama has been targeted too, of course. But inevitably, in his case, it was flattering.

During the presidential campaign, he attracted the support of a street artist called Shepard Fairey, a man who has been arrested repeatedly for defacing public property. Fairey created and distributed widely a pop-art style poster of the Democrat looking poetically into the distance, accompanied by the word “Progress”. The only comparison with the Cowen pictures is that in each case, the men were portrayed wearing a suit – although Obama’s was not of the birthday variety.

In any case, popular as the posters were, they presented the Democrats with a dilemma, in that a presidential candidate could not be seen to endorse a graffiti artist. Nevertheless, Fairey says the camp intimated to him at some stage that the word “Progress” made the posters look “Marxist” and that maybe “Hope” would be better. He happily obliged.

The image was soon being called “iconic” and its effectiveness has since been compared favorably with the “Uncle Sam Wants You” posters of wartime. A version made the cover of Time magazine’s Person of the Year edition. And you can buy copies of it everywhere in the US now, on badges, tee-shirts, mugs, etc.

The best the Taoiseach can hope for is that his guerrilla portraits will not prove nearly as popular. But yet again he must be secretly wishing that Obama’s ancestors had been from Tipperary – which, after all, is where Moneygall thinks it is.