Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Bob and Roberta Smith at the Butler Gallery

Soap Box at the Butler Gallery

This review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 25 August 2013.Bob

Bob and Roberta Smith is one person - the English artist Patrick Brill.   This may seem a tedious affectation except that he did at one stage collaborate with his sister, who is indeed called Roberta.  So in a display of lingering filial loyalty he has retained her name, along with his own pseudonym.  Clear?

He is showing at the Butler Gallery until early October and at various other locations in Kilkenny during its arts festival.  Consciousness raising is his game and the tools of his trade are text-based paintings in vivid colours.  Ar these merely "the written hectoring slogans of any half-educated urban dweller" as one critic has stated?  Or will they change your life as the curator has intimated?  Decide for yourself.  Participation is encouraged.  Jump on the inviting soap box and make a speech. Marvel at the misspellings in the letter to the UK education minister Michael Gove.  Be affronted by the juxtaposing of Rosa Luxembourg and Julie Burchill as feminist icons.  Appreciate the respect for the wonderful Louise Bourgeois.  Bring the kids, they'll enjoy the bright and playful nature of the show

Butler Gallery
Mon-Sun: 10am-5.30pm

John P. O'Sullivan

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Mary Lavin's Reputation

Mary Lavin

A slightly edited version of the following article appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 25 August 2013:

The pellucid perfection of James Joyce's Dubliners has set the gold standard for Irish short story writers.  The genre has been mined productively for the past hundred years by such major writers as Frank O'Connor, Seán Ó Faoláin, Elizabeth Bowen, William Trevor and John McGahern.  Recent years have seen Kevin Barry unearth the twisted and violent denizens of his netherworlds.

Is Mary Lavin a major writer?  Time has not been kind to her reputation and I doubt that this book of essays, edited by Belgian academic Elke D'hoker, is going to restore it - notwithstanding some fine contributions and an introduction (albeit a slight one) by Colm Tóibín.  The causes of her slide from favour are various.  Her small domestic dramas were perhaps washed away by the feminist tide.  Frank O'Connor's suggestion that she wrote about "the life of the kitchen" can't have helped.  She was largely apolitical, arriving in Ireland after the nationalist ferment had died down, so she ceded that ground to O'Connor and Ó Faoláin.  She had a good solid middle-class upbringing so she was denied access to working-class colour.  Her world was narrow and circumscribed.  She described the petty concerns of small-town Ireland: the lives of quiet desperation where appearance and respectability were more important than freedom.  From a post-feminist perspective she hardly rocked the boat - maybe her jaundiced view of the emotional development of the average Irish male was too subtle for the sisters.  Also, the central role of the priest in her world now seems quaint.  Some of her stories have not aged well - the language often seems strained and the conclusions contrived.  Character and colour were the focus rather than plot and language.  In A Wet Day, for example, the character of the smug priest is well wrought but the plot device of the mislaid thermometer is improbable.

The most impressive essay in the collection is a review of her oeuvre by Maurice Harmon, an English professor at UCD.  He quotes Seán Ó Faoláin's sobering conclusion that writers as great as Chekov and de Maupassant will be remembered for a mere handful of their stories.  The same, he avers, is true of Mary Lavin and suggests that the stories of hers that endure include: The Will, Happiness and The Becker Wives.  Lavin herself considered The Will to be her best story.  Some may find the heroine's hysteria a little unconvincing but then the torments of Purgatory don't seem as alarming to us today.

Lavin's own story is an interesting one.  Born in the USA in 1912 to Irish parents, and transplanted to rural Ireland when she was ten, Lavin retained an outsider's beady eye for the foibles of the middle-classes in our small towns.  She enjoyed a conventional education in Loreto College and afterwards at UCD.   After a spell teaching she married William Walsh.  He died in 1954 a mere eleven years after their marriage and left the writer with three young daughters and a farm in County Meath.  She was so overwhelmed with grief that she was unable to write for the next four years.  After 15 years of widowhood, and stories about widows, she married her childhood sweetheart Michael Scott, a laicised priest.  The next 20 years or so were the happiest and most productive of her life.  Her mews in Lad Lane became a haven for writers as disparate as the lionised Frank O'Connor and the young, unpublished John McGahern.  She was a familiar figure around Baggot Street, stocky and serene, always dressed in flowing black.  After Scott died suddenly in 1991 she went into a steep decline and died in 1996.

Although she had a modest reputation at the time her first husband died, the real change in her fortunes came when she began to have stories accepted by the New Yorker in 1958.  This happened through an intervention by an unlikely source.  She had been writing to J. D. Salinger about the American market and he encouraged her to submit stories to them, just as Frank O'Connor and Maeve Brennan had done.  In addition Salinger, a made man at this stage, wrote to William Maxwell the fiction editor suggesting Lavin as a contributor.  This resulted in 16 of her stories being published by them over the next 18 years.  The essay by Gráinne Hurley on her relationship with the New Yorker gives a fascinating account of the degree of intrusion that they practised and she permitted.  That she had to abide by its rigorous house style is not unexpected.  That she allowed wholesale excisions (15 pages in one case) is surprising.  But that she actually removed or changed characters at her editor's behest is a tad disturbing - turning some of her stories into virtual collaborations.  I suppose a young family trumped artistic preciousness.

She used her own family and circumstances as source material right through her career.  Happiness is a prime example.  In it a widowed woman with three daughters enjoys a close relationship with a priest, who visits regularly and even stays overnight occasionally.  The family are not in awe of him and treat him like any regular man.  In a racy touch, unusual for Lavin, the widow even moves around the house in her slip in front of him.  Lavin famously was never banned, unlike almost every one of her worthwhile contemporaries.  This deviation from her usual decorum may have been as close as she ever got.

Mary Lavin's centenary year in 2012 passed with barely a ripple.  There were a few low-key events in Navan Library.  The death of her daughter, the journalist Caroline Walsh, may have cast a pall over any planned celebrations. Her Selected Stories is out of print. This is a shame.  It would have been a good time for an enterprising publisher to produce a new selected stories and so help to revive interest in this neglected chronicler of small-town Ireland.

Irish Academic Press
222 pages

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Hunt Mueum and the Nazi Hunters

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 11 August 2013:

John Hunt
The Man, the Medievalist, the Connoisseur

The mean-spirited, and unsubstantiated attack on John Hunt's reputation by the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) has already been repulsed by US academic Lynn Nicholas's report - commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy in 2007.  This book routs any stragglers.  The original attack came in 2003 in the form of a letter from the SWC to President Mary McAleese.  It suggested that the Hunt Museum contained items looted by the Nazis from Jewish families.  Various investigations and reports failed to find a single item that substantiated this accusation.  Nicholas's report in 2007 described the SWC's allegations as "unprofessional in the extreme".  President McAleese administered the coup de grace when she declared that "The SWC had diminished the reputation of the late Simon Wiesenthal".

But the SWC weren't letting go.  In 2008 it published The Hunt Controversy:  A Shadow Report by Erin Gibbons, a BA in History and Archaeology, based in Galway.  This time the attack had moved from dubious artefacts to dubious friends.  A lot of the report chronicles the people with whom Hunt dealt over the years and infers that he shared their political beliefs.  One example (from numerous others) of the quality of the 'evidence' employed by Erin Gibbons and the SWC was the suggestion that Hunt was close to Adolf Mahr, Director of the National Museum of Ireland, and undoubtedly an ardent Nazi.  This closeness consisted of three letters exchanged between 1933 and 1939 concerning items Hunt was trying to sell to the National Museum.  Mahr dealt personally with all acquisitions so Hunt as an art dealer had no option but to deal with him.  He was also dealing with the directors of the Victoria and Albert and the British Museum during this period.  The Irish Military Intelligence files (all of Mahr's mail was intercepted) from the period do not contain any personal correspondence between the two.  Also, Hunt's name does not appear in Mahr's list of 43 "dependable friends" in Ireland.

The real mystery behind all this is motivation.  Why would they attack such a man?Certainly he made good money trading but even a cursory study of his life shows scholarship, dedication and enthusiasm far beyond mere avarice, and a benign indifference to political matters.  The art historian Ciarán McGonigal, who has a skeptical view of the quality and provenance of the Hunt collection, concedes that Hunt's love of archaeology and antiquities was genuine and that he was "a man of immense personal charm".  If there is a chink in the armour of righteousness that surrounds the Hunts it lies in their alleged involvement with a group of smooth operators from Sotheby's in the infamous dispersal of the Pitt-Rivers collection.  It's a murky story involving the making of copies and the selling of originals from the embargoed collection, which was housed in a Farnham museum.  Nicholas Shakespeare, in his biography of Bruce Chatwin, suggests that the Hunts had connections with this group.  Sotheby's remarkably maintained no archives prior to 1972 so much remains in the realms of speculation. Shakespeare also makes it clear that despite these dubious transactions the Hunts did not share Captain George Pitt Rivers fascist politics and that he was "not aware of any evidence of anti-Semitic views on their part".  On the contrary they had made repeated efforts to smuggle a Jewish family (Philip and Anna Markus) out of Germany before the war broke out.  A converted Catholic, Hunt was very religious and carried a crucifix on his person at all times.  The letters and testimony of friends confirm his utter integrity and various institutions around the British Isles can vouch for the generosity of his bequests.  Whither the villain?  And why the witch hunt?

It would be a shame to let this controversy overshadow Hunt's many achievements and his colourful life-story.  The O'Brien press have pulled out all the stops in a richly illustrated and beautifully designed volume.  While Brian O'Connell's take on Hunt verges on the hagiographical occasionally, he nonetheless has a fascinating tale to tell and is not afraid to dispel some myths.  He clears up any lingering doubts about Hunt's family origins.  Despite what was generally believed, and perhaps encouraged by a Brit living in Ireland in a politically fraught time, Hunt had no direct Irish antecedents.  After building up an antiques business in London, himself and his wife Putzel moved to Ireland before the outbreak of World War Two.  His wife was German and they feared, needlessly according to O'Connell, her internment.  They left their Buckingham mansion at Poyle Manor and moved into a modest nineteenth-century farmhouse on the edge of Loch Gur in Limerick where they lived for the next 13 years.  This was a convenient base from which Hunt could embrace his passion for archaeology.  He got involved in various excavations as an unpaid assistant to Professor Seán P. Ó Ríordáin from UCC (where he also completed an MA in Archaeology).  Following various digs he moved on to an ambitious scheme to renovate Bunratty Castle for use as a tourist attraction in the region.  He undertook this demanding assignment with no salary apart from the provision of rudimentary living quarters.  It resulted in an obscure ruined castle on the Shannon being turned into Ireland's biggest fee-paying tourist attraction outside Dublin.

But all the while he and Putzel were continuing their dealing in antiquities, and building up a formidable private collection.  A feature of Hunt's dealing life was the number of unsolicited gifts he made to various institutions, always aiming to house artefacts where they rightly belonged.  While you could argue that this was greasing the wheels for his commercial transactions with the same institutions, he was clearly not a money grubber.  His character, as evidenced by this biography and by the numerous letters and friends quoted, was one of extreme probity.  One example of this probity and generosity was the returning of a priceless miniature altar piece, once belonging to Mary Queen of Scots, to the Jesuits who had originally been gifted the precious object by the condemned monarch.

His final act of generosity was to bequest his personal collection to the State. The Hunt Museum in Limerick is a fitting monument to a gentle, scholarly, and hard-working man.  Looking through its collection recently it struck me how many crucifixes and Christian artefacts it contained.  Hardly the kind of objects you'd acquire through the looting of Jewish households.

The O'Brien Press
Pages: 335
RRP: €29.99

John P. O'Sullivan

Friday, August 09, 2013

Iris DeMent at the NCH

Iris DeMent with Pint and Fan
What a treat.  A simple unvarnished country gig from a singer who's up there with Patsy Cline - although she sees Tammy Wynette as her musical exemplar.  She cut an unglamorous figure - looking dumpy in a shapeless dress accompanied by the compulsory cowboy boots.  Her strong characterful face was hiding behind stern librarian's glasses.  She was clearly nervous at the start and said so.  She played piano mostly but did a few numbers later on guitar.  They were all her own compositions and largely new to me.  An 8-minute version of the slow and anguished Out of the Fire was the highlight, though Before the Colours Fade ran it close.  She hung around afterwards drinking a pint of Guinness and chatting amiably to her adoring fans.  (A full house by the way). A class act in every respect.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

National Calamity: Othello without Othello

Booking a matinee for a prestigous London theatre production with a star cast is always a risk.  There is the clear and present danger that one of the leading luvvies shirk the demands of doing two shows in a day. Precious pets.  Matinees also of course provide the opportunity to blood an understudy for future eventualities.  And so it predictably proved at the National Theatre in London last Saturday.  Near the entrance to the stalls as we made for our seats was a discreet A4 notice informing us that Adrian Lester, playing Othello, was indisposed and that a Zackary Momoh would be his replacement.  Now Zackary is a fine fellow no doubt but not the name that would have induced you three months earlier to book the play.  When you decide to book the theatre, your decision is based on the play, the company, and the cast.  Othello is essentially a two-hander so you look to the parts of Iago and Othello:  Rory Kinnear as Iago and Adrian Lester as Othello, brilliant, I'm going.

The play was still a delight - Shakespeare done to a turn.  Iago is the engine that drives the action and Rory Kinnear, playing it as a chippy subaltern, was superb.  It was staged in a 1950s style setting with the cast wearing Army style fatigues and acting very much like a bunch of British squaddies in Cyprus.  The set  design was a miracle of neat scene shifting  -  interlocking mini-stages rotating into the foreground.  But. But. Momoh declaimed his lines readily enough - although muffling some including, unfortunately, my favourite one about the "base Indian" throwing away a pearl richer than all his tribe.  However, he crucially lacked charisima.  How could such a tame presence have won the love of Desdamona with his tales of derring-do and impressed his Venetian master?

Checking out Adrian Lester's Twitter feed later I noticed that he would be doing the evening performance.  Nothing too serious then unfortunately.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Photographs from a Doomed Vessel

An slightly edited version of the following piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 4 August 2013:

Doug DuBois
It's tempting to look for parallels between Father Browne's recording of life aboard the Titanic in 1912 and the exhibition Uncertain State In the Gallery of Photography.  The doomed ship and the doomed ship of state.  Both disasters generated by greed and hubris.  However the judicious Jesuit departed his vessel at Cobh while the ten photographers in this show are stuck on theirs for the duration of the voyage.

These photographers are described in the attendant blurb as "photographic artists".  Whether photography can be considered art has been a  perennial question since the new medium emerged 180 years ago.  In 2012 the National Gallery in London finally gave the upstart its due with its first major photographic exhibition Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present.  Our own RHA began admitting photography less than 10 years ago and it has since grown into a major part of the annual show - with a dedicated room to itself.

But art photography is, in the words of photographer Jeff Wall, a "photo ghetto" of niche galleries, aficionados and publications.  Photography's universal appeal is as a recording medium and the emphasis in this show is very much on showing how things are without being artful.  In fact many of the images would seem banal if we were unaware of their context.  Only Una Spain's beautifully composed images and Doug DuBois'  stage-managed studies venture fully into that ghetto.

The show is arranged around ten themes, one per artist, mainly relating to our busted economy, our human rights abuses, and the sheer misery of being poor and urban. Nine artists are named but the tenth, responsible for Asylum Archive, remains anonymous - for good reasons perhaps.

Not all the themes address the state of our nation directly.  Pete Smyth's A View from the Dearth seems more to depict the ravages of time - albeit time lived on a council estate in Tallaght.  He photographed a number of residents in 1988 and returned 21 years later to record their current appearance.  Some were gone, some were dead, but a couple of those who remained seem to have had it tough in the interim. The cheerful equanimity of 20 odd years ago had been supplanted by a wary and world-weary resignation.  There is something prurient about depicting such decline.   You feel the lash of Susan Sontag's critique of photography which, she claimed, imbued people with a "chronic voyeuristic relation" to the world around them.

Eoin O'Conaill's Reprieve and David Farrell's An Archaeology of the Present tackle ghost estates and arrested development projects. O'Conaill deals with spaces where the ground has been broken but nothing has been built.  Traces of machinery tracks, or the odd irregular mound, suggest the passing of something intrusive that has moved on.  In some cases there is just emptiness - a flat, weed-littered space has the ironic title 32 Residential Units and 18 Apartments in 2 Blocks.   Farrell's estates have been built but are deserted and devoid of infrastructure.  Hotel, Murrisk shows us the beautiful view from the window of an abandoned hotel.  One piece by Farrell, Sixmilebridge, Clare, is a striking surreal image of a model cottage on a wooden jetty.  It doesn't seem to chime with his theme but maybe I missed a metaphor.  Paddy Kelly also displays deserted spaces in Bogland but these are locations where late the Provos trained.  One picture of dank wooded clearing enveloped in mist has a particularly sinister frisson.

The Asylum Archive is a disturbing account of a problem that gets little attention in the media.  There are 35 Direct Provision hostels around the country where the State provides basic food and shelter to those who seek refugee status in Ireland.  These unfortunates are cut off from the rest of society while their claims are processed.  Their only discretionary spending is the €19.10 a week they get from the Government.  The images show a series of bleak isolated buildings - some, like Ballymullen Barracks, suggestive of concentration camps.  These photographs indicate that our talent for institutional abuse isn't quite lying fallow.

Una Spain displays two striking images enhanced by light boxes: a coil of unclaimed wedding rings - mostly similar gold bands - and two poignant pipes.  However the most fascinating part of her exhibit is the album of photographs from the disused St. Brigid's psychiatric hospital in Ballinasloe.  In addition to the various deserted cells and facilities depicted she has recorded extracts from old diaries and medical books of the period.  We are advised that "men are more prone to feeble-mindedness"  than women and that "self-abuse and any form of dissipation predispose to melancholia".  Useful to know.

It's not too often you see a Union Jack mop.  Lauren McGookin, a Belfast-based documentary photographer, takes us into the homes of the Loyalist community.  Amidst the photographs of domestic kitsch and playfulness we see the ugly clutter of an insignia filled hall. Aesthetics are not a priority in those parts.

Kim Haughton's In Plain Sight documents victims of abuse and some of the locations in which the abuse took place: a banal terraced house and a creepy country lane.  The victims themselves seem to share a kind of sad forbearance - it's hard to know if we  project this or if it's captured in the image.

Doug DuBois is an American photographer who has spent his summers in Cobh, recording teenagers on the cusp of adulthood.  Another kind of uncertain state.  His theme, My Last Day at Seventeen, depicts those lazy, hazy, crazy days before kids and jobs kick in.  The bravado that will pass.  These, along with Una Spain's, are the most artful images in the show.  Bonfire in Russell Heights shows a dark ominous cloud of smoke looming over a trio of teenage boys, turned away and unaware.

Paul Nulty's I'm Looking at Our Place is a study of disillusionment.  His mother, a long-term emigrant, returns to the Midlands from London only to find that she no longer fits in.  An ugly terrace of houses and an unhappy-looking woman standing on a pavement capture the broken dream.  The fair has moved on.

Uncertain State does not make for comfortable viewing.  The overall tone of the show is unrelentingly bleak: failed aspirations, blighted lives, dismal ends.  The tourist throngs sunning themselves outside in Temple Bar should absent themselves awhile from the  paddywhackery and come inside for a cold douche of the real Ireland.

Gallery of Photography
tel:  01-6714654

Tues-Sat:  11am-6pm
Sun:  1-6pm