Essays by James Hyman

Fields of memory: Hughie O'Donoghue and contemporary history painting

Fields of memory: Hughie O'Donoghue and contemporary history painting

 
 

Major new publication, The Geometry of Paths, extensively illustrated, and with essays by Hughie O'Donoghue and James Hyman.

This publication is available from the gallery, priced at £10.00

Fields of memory: Hughie O'Donoghue and contemporary history painting
James Hyman

The voice of passion is better than the voice of reason.
The passionless cannot change history.
Czeslaw Milosz, Child of Europe, 1946

Hughie O'Donoghue has recently been working on three manifesto paintings, powerful canvases that encapsulate many of his priorities as a painter. Inspired by Van Gogh's lost painting, The Painter on the Road to Tarascon, O'Donoghue's pictures are mediated, as with so much of the artist's work, by photography. The Van Gogh painting to which they refer was destroyed in the Second World War, but survives in photographs. Exactly fifty years ago one such reproduction provided the starting point for a small series of paintings by Francis Bacon and now in his latest works O'Donoghue references both these sources, suggesting a powerful lineage with the greatest reinventors of reality of nineteenth and twentieth century painting. But O'Donoghue's new paintings are no mere act of homage or self-identification. On the contrary they embody the artist's own particular concerns: the potency of photography as a means of referencing a lost past and especially wartime experience; the legacy of earlier painters from cave painting to the School of London; the continuing potential of the medium of painting to recreate and re-imagine the subject; the physicality of man and the materiality of the land.

For O'Donoghue, as for all painters at work today, to engage with the figure and to address the world in which we live means to work under huge shadows. One shadow is a century and half of photography and its appropriation by a range of artists from Francis Bacon to Andy Warhol. Another is a world of wars and horrors. Brought together, the claims made for the immediacy, directness and fidelity of photography collide with a heightened sense of mortality, vulnerability and threat. But in today's world of Photoshop and digital manipulation the veracity of such images - from TV news to the pages of fashion magazines - is constantly under threat. O'Donoghue's challenge is to cut through such cynicism, to acknowledge that picture-making, like memory, is a construct - but to assert that nevertheless it retains the potential to strip away the veils, to address big themes and to speak to us all.

The paintings of Hughie O'Donoghue, with their incorporation of photography, are in this sense post Baconian and post Warholian. By foregrounding the photographic, O'Donoghue's paintings interrogate their own origins in memory, myth and document. Yet once read these works can jolt and startle with their immediacy. How, then, is one to account for their particular impact, the way that they unfold over time? Paradoxically it is this very incorporation of photography that provides the key. For Bacon, as for Warhol, the appeal of photography was its directness hence the attraction of press photographs designed to convey the dramatic and sensational, a concern that would increasingly lead Warhol to appropriate the language of advertising as subject and method. In O'Donoghue's case, however, the sources are often personal not public, quiet not declamatory, intimate not overt. The result is paintings that, in contrast to Bacon and especially Warhol, give up their secrets grudgingly. If their world is one of contrasty forms and apparent certitude, then that of O'Donoghue is one of shadows, a twilight realm in which the photographs fade along with the memories and it is the artist's task to reclaim them and restore them to view.

Immediate impact without something deeper bores. In contrast O'Donoghue's paintings - whether or not they incorporate a photographic element - are slow burners. This has always owed much to the handling of paint and the way that a commitment is expected on the part of the viewer. Warhol was not afraid to address major social themes but his swirls of paint across a car crash, electric chair or race riot, animate the surface but do not penetrate it. They do not engage with the image but suggest a dislocation between painting and photography that challenges the very viability of paint marks: this is an art of detachment and self-effacement. O'Donoghue in contrast is a believer, a man of passion and compassion. His paintings are not about disharmony but about reconciliation, a bringing together of imagery as potent as a Haiku by Basho, in which contrasting images are paired, one suggestive of time and place, and the other of something more fleeting:
A weathered skeleton
in windy fields of memory,
piercing like a knife

In bringing together his disparate sources - painting, photography, objects - O'Donoghue brings unity not dissonance. To wrestle with the photographic source is to make it his own, to integrate form and content.

To engage with photography in this way is rare. Gerhard Richter and Luc Tuymans may have turned to photography as a source for their contemporary history paintings but their engagement with the image is altogether cooler: as a starting point for painting of studied passivity. In contrast there is an intense object quality to O'Donoghue's combination of materials that echo the surfaces and symbolism of Antoni Tapies, whose recourse to the imagery and symbolism of Christianity he also shares.

O'Donoghue's incorporation, rather than mimicking, of photography also suggests other more immediate allies. It is to Anselm Kiefer, working in Germany and France, and Zhang Huan in China, that one must turn for artists with a similar ambition. In each case the artist has included photographs in paintings that engage with the heavy weight of his nation's past. For them, as for O'Donoghue, the land itself has a particular national resonance. Kiefer's engagement with the blood and soil of Germany and Zhang Huan's use of ash to depict scenes from Chinese history are matched by the materiality of O'Donoghue's presentation of the land and sea of Ireland. The singularity of O'Donoghue's achievement lies in the use he has made of his own family's history, especially his father's wartime experiences as a soldier in Europe.

O'Donoghue, Kiefer and Huan also share an overt physicality in their handling of material and the corporeality of their imagery. Each uses his own body in his work - Huan in performances, Kiefer in posed full length figures and O'Donoghue through photographs of parts of his body - but where they differ is in touch. In part this may be due to their use of different materials: plants, lead and ash are not as inherently expressive as oil paint. In part because O'Donoghue's paintings, in contrast to those of Kiefer and Huan's, are emphatically about the actions of the artist's hand. In a practical sense this may be due to the fact that Kiefer and Huan both have factories and assistances but it is more fundamentally a matter of attitude and choice.

O'Donoghue's paintings, with their insistence on every mark and brushstroke, are not just about excavating the past but also about the artist's own engagement with it. These are insistently first-person narratives, in which the life stories of others - especially his own family - are re-imagined by the artist. In this emphatic subjectivity lies their strength and in this respect the artist's own particular history is a key. It is surely no coincidence that O'Donoghue's practise as an artist comes out of two of the dominant tendencies in painting of his own lifetime, and that both of these tendencies emphasise the touch of the artist as the sign of authenticity: abstract expressionist painting typified by Willem de Kooning, in which abstraction is deformed towards the figure, and School of London painting typified by Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, in which the figure is displaced towards abstraction.

In his latest paintings O'Donoghue continues to incorporate photography but often it is completely subsumed by paint, a literal demonstration that whilst photography may be integral, it is painting that has precedence. On the one hand O'Donoghue's recent paintings encapsulate the way that photography has changed our way of seeing forever, and on the other they reaffirm the artist's belief in the continuing power of painting to re-imagine the past, personalise this engagement and connect with an audience.

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