“Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement”. That’s a remark the British playwright Christopher Fry once made.
I reckon that here today in this space that offers a wide and welcoming embrace to this exhibition, we can substitute painting for poetry in the case of Hughie O’Donoghue’s work, because I think his imaginative vision has been enriched by discovery and discovery is often the precursor of amazement.
Hughie has been engaged in an ever-deepening exploration of certain themes, and that exploration is matched by a level of mastery that is evident in the work we see here today.
In one of his earliest poems Brendan Kennelly wrote how poetry had been a gift that took him unawares but he accepted it.
When Hughie was handed the gift of his father’s story, those episodes of Daniel O’Donoghue’s wartime experiences, he accepted it, took it on as a significant part of his artistic enterprise. It has become, I think, a great symbiotic relationship between father and son.
He has certainly become custodian to the preservation of sacred memories, and his honouring of those memories, his act of remembering on behalf of his father and on behalf of many others, has been central to many of his most necessary artistic statements.
They have in a way nourished his faith in his own creative instincts. His creative process has, you could say, been one of retrieval and repossession. Perhaps he is also the unraveller of secrets.
The transformative work of his imagination has given us great art, but he has always been loyal to the authentic experiences he draws on. The work itself speaks passionately for the historical and personal perspectives it portrays. It should not be merely seen a representation of family history or ancestral landscape, because his work also often resonates with some contemporary allegorical relevance such as we have in “Tomb of the Diver” with its echoes of those fateful leaps the victims of 9/11 were forced to make from World Trade Centre.
When I see a work of Hughie’s I am reminded what painting is for – not just the pictorial force that any good painting must present to us but also to affirm the moral imagination. What I seek is a humane art – and that is what I see before me.
At the core of this exhibition we have a relentless and Homeric narrative in Hugie’s major new work, The Road – it is Homeric in its epic scale but also in its poetic note of quest.
This extended, interrelated, interlocked series of images corresponds to the kind of unearthing we associate with the work of an archivist, or as Aidan Dunne calls it in his catalogue essay, “careful excavation”.
His explorations have, of course, extended beyond a mere biographical account of his father’s expeditions and exploits – what is happening I suspect is that these various parables and pilgrim journeys are coalescing into one map of meaning, a purposeful coherence.
Of course, as with any journey, we have digressions, interludes, and interruptions.
The scale, amplitude and reach of this work does not in any way diminish the sense of intimacy – intimacy between artist and subject. His wandering soldier is the universal soldier.
The road as metaphor is not an easy subject – it takes a risk with the comparisons and references we might make.
The Odyssey, the very origins of European literature, is an obvious one – it has been a fashionable subject in literature since Homer – and as well as mentioning Joyce, Aidan Dunne in his terrific catalogue essays cites George Lucas’s Star Wars, and I would add The Coen Brothers version of the Odyssey myth, O Brother, Where art Thou?
The Old Testament even has its version of the On the Road theme, when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Red Sea. Incidentally here is a great summary of the Odyssey story in a haiku by one David Bader –
Aegean forecast –
Storms, chance of one-eyed giants
But Hughie has recreated the myth on his own terms – well his father’s terms. And the result is a compelling narrative with a terrific dramatic structure, reminding us – as if we didn’t know by now – that Hughie is as much a storyteller as a visual artist.
It is a quality he shares with many great painters from down the ages of the European tradition – Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Goya, Géricault.
He has been assiduous in his allegiance and connection to that tradition and the classical past. There is about it a quality of obsession, but in this instance it is a magnificent obsession and one that brings a sense of coherence to his role as an artist.
The critic David Sylvester listing the qualities that contribute to the making of a great artist mentions both fearlessness and a total absorption in what obsesses him or her.
The other major new work I have to single out is “The Last Summer”. Interesting how often the word “last” crops up in a Hughie O’Donoghue title – “Last Poems”, “Last Days on the Islands”.
This magisterial sequence does indeed have about it the melancholy of experiencing things for the last time. Those boys seem to inhabit a flickering existence.
It reminds me of another great work of art set on the eve of momentous change.
Giorgio Bassani’s great novel, The Garden of the Finzi Contini’s – a novel in which the storm clouds of fascism were gathering but the protagonists in their fool’s paradise could see only the blue skies of Italy.
The Finzi Contini’s, an aristocratic Italian Jewish family, spend much of the novel blissfully unaware that the end of their privileged way of living and indeed their lives was on the horizon.
My admiration for his work is no secret, an admiration which announced itself with my first total encounter with his work – in my case it was the Episodes from the Passion exhibition back in 1999.
There is no other artist with similar grandeur of vision I can think of, except the German artist Anselm Kiefer, with whom I would happily compare Hughie.
The two are alike in the way they connect with a personal and a wider history. As I have said before, here in Galway in fact at the opening of his last festival exhibition, his work is rich in suggestiveness and association.
The writer Edwin Muir described how in turning his head against the direction in which time was hurrying him he won a new kind of experience.
In turning his head to the past and saving what otherwise might be lost to memory, Hughie is also emphasising certain continuities – And through this passionate relationship he has established and built up a lexicon of imagery, an architecture of the human spirit in which he combines the lyricism of the poet with the questioning and questing impulses of the thinker.
Everything in nature has its appointed painter or poet and remains in bondage like the princess in the fairy tale till its appropriate liberator comes to set it free.
Ralph Waldo Emerson could have had Hughie in mind when he said those words because he has been the appropriate liberator of this memory-hoard which was bequeathed to him.
These, like all good paintings, require us to look closely but also to look slowly because they are steeped in atmosphere. The meditative tempo of the imagery, as much as the layers of minutiae, demand an equally unhurried and attention response from the viewer.
Delivered at opening of Galway Arts Festival Hughie O’Donoghue exhibition, July 2011