Essays by James Hyman

Hughie O'Donoghue as Printmaker: a complete catalogue of Prints, 1979-1997

Hughie O'Donoghue as Printmaker: a complete catalogue of Prints, 1979-1997


Essay by James Hyman


Born in Manchester in 1953, Hughie O'Donoghue first gained acclaim in the mid-1980s, when his expressive charcoal and oil paintings were first exhibited. Despite being championed, then, as part of a perceived international revival of figurative painting - from Auerbach and Kossoff in Britain to Baselitz and Kiefer in Germany - it has subsequently become clear that O'Donoghue is not simply concerned with wrestling new figurative possibilities from his mater-ials. In terms of subject-matter, landscape is an equal preoccupation; and overriding both sets of subjects is an attention to formal concerns, including scale and space, inspired by abstraction and minimalism, and a use of allusion and ambiguity in which an image is increasingly veiled during the working process.

The working process is itself foregrounded, and within this complex process O'Donoghue's remark-able prints, which are here addressed for the first time, have a variety of r. Some prints are based on specific drawings, others are related to particular pain-tings, and others, still, have generic similarities that bind them to the series on which the artist is then engaged. Most recently, and most excitingly, prints have begun to take on an entirely independent exis-tence, as is evident from the increased ambition of recent four-part carborundum prints that, for the first time, have a scale and size that is equivalent in pres-ence to the artist's dramatic drawings and epic paint-ings. The technical procedures have also grown more sophisticated, and the medium itself is assuming a greater status as O'Donoghue moves from prints derived from paintings and drawings to images that contribute to the development of the paintings: `from tentative beginnings, working in black and white on a small scale, I have quickly developed to working on a monumental scale and in multi-layered form, using successive impressions of different plates to build up layers of transparency, density and a richness of colour, comparable to what might be achieved in an oil painting.
Thematically, there is a striking consistency to prints spanning almost twenty years. O'Donoghue's first print, Landscape near York (1979, fig. 113), was made when he was a postgraduate student in art history at Leeds Polytechnic, at a time when he was living in the flat landscape south of York. In subject it anticipates O'Donoghue's mature work, yet in the context of contemporaneous work it is an anomaly. At the time O'Donoghue's paintings were minimalist and constructed, often being made from found papers collaged together. This deeply bitten hard-ground etching with aquatint was simply a means of learning about the techniques and processes involved. However, given the subsequent direction of O'Donoghue's work, he appears to have been remark-ably prescient in his choice of a landscape motif and his treatment of a subject drawn from memory and imagination, not just life.

O'Donoghue did not return to printmaking until 1984, following a three-month Yorkshire Artists and Industry Fellowship at Drax Power Station, near Selby. This was an important moment for the artist, coinciding with his first concentrated period of drawing. Prior to this, around 1980-81, while he was at Goldsmith's College, taking a two-year MA course in Fine Art, O'Donoghue returned to representational painting, producing a series of works showing megaliths. Now in the drawings of Drax, such as Tower and Cooling Tower with Plume, he showed a cooling tower whose form resembled that of the earlier megaliths. The related etching, Untitled (Drax Tower) (1984, fig. 114), was, however, made subsequently, at the invitation of Yorkshire Printmakers, who sent the plate in the post, accounting for its wholly different touch and relative lack of engagement with either subject or medium.

Following these first two simple prints, O'Donoghue began to develop a more sophisticated use of the medium, attempting to learn more about the tech-niques involved and the ways in which these could be combined to produce a single composite image. Toledo (1986, fig. 115), made at the Carini Stampa in Italy, marked a major move forward, although the resulting image was not one that the artist felt had suceeded, and as a result it has not been exhibited. For the first time colours is introduced with strong reds and, for the first time, the techniques include hard-ground, soft-ground, aquitant, pools of acid and sugar lift. The image itself was inspired by El Greco's View of Toledo and by related paintings. As with Drax it relates to drawings; indirectly to large black drawings such as A View of the City of Toledo I (National Gallery, London) and A View of the City of Toledo II (Cleveland, Middlesborough); and more directly to a red chalk drawings, View of Toledo, which was made in Italy after the two larger drawings made at the National Gallery in London. The principal additions are a horse and a palette: the former is taken from El Greco's Laoco. O'Donoghue ignores the large naked figures in the foreground, and instead takes from the middle-ground a small horse trotting towards the distant city. The palette, meanwhile, resembles the twisting form of the snake as it appears on the right side of the Laoco, but transforms it into a shape that echoes the palettes of Anselm Kiefer, and in a similar way signifies the artist's participation in the scene.

O'Donoghue's first concentrated period of printmaking was in 1988-89 and resulted in two broad groups of work: heads related to a painting entitled Bruise, and full-length figures related to a series of pictures on the theme of Descent, which refer at times obliquely to the Descent from the Cross. The first of these prints, Untitled (Small Head) (1988, fig. 116), was produced as O'Donoghue's contribution to a portfolio for Amnesty International entitled Freedom, comprising prints by several artists. The print is one of four images of a head that O'Donoghue worked on at this time, all of which are related in terms of subject and composition: specifically, Untitled (Small Head) was began at the same time as Bruise (Small Head) (1989, fig. 117), a similar image but one that is cropped more closely to the head (and which was only printed later). Such prints not only build from work of the mid-1980s but also coexist with the development of this subject-matter in paintings such as Bruise (1988-89) and Head Fragment (1988). Perhaps the most ambitious is Bruise (Large Head) (1988, fig. i18), which echoes the painting Sleeper I (1986).

The Descent prints, meanwhile, are related particularly closely to drawings in their subject-matter and composition, if not in their touch and feel. This is emphasized by the numbering of each print, which refers not to a series of prints, but indicated their identification with a specific drawing, namely Descent I, Descent II and Descent IV (see figs. 120-122). They combine hard-ground etching with aquatint, drops of acid and oil of spike, exploring the techniques involved in etching, including cross-hatching, big and small marks and experiments with light and shade, achieved by the proximity of lines. As such they echo Rembrandt's earliest etchings of the nude figure of 1631, especially Seated Female Nude (B.Holl.198) and even suggest the fleshiness and weight of Rembrandt's slumbering Hog, an etching and drypoint from 1643 (B.Holl.157), a print that the artist particularly admires. Such prints allowed O'Donoghue an opportunity to explore line in a way that was not possible in his concurrent paint-ings and drawings, with Rembrandt providing an example of the way tone could be built through line, and mass could be constructed from a topography of thin lines.

During 1989 O'Donoghue also worked simultaneously on two related prints, Recoil (fig. 123) and Compression, each of which relates to a specific drawing and more generally to a series of paintings entitled Fires and numbered 1 to 5. In these paintings a serpent appears on the right-hand side of each painting. Recoil, O'Donoghue's only photogravure to date, was made from a transfer drawing, using a brush on a transparent sheet of plastic, which was transferred photographically onto two plates. The result is exceptionally painterly, even including marks made by the artist's fingers. The two plates - one in black, the other in a mixture of green-silver and violet-sepia - were printed slightly out of registration to give the image - a serpent with is mouth open - a sense of blurring and movement. The result is not dissimilar to De Kooning's transfer lithographs of 1970-71, including two such prints that are owned by the artist, High School Desk and Landing Place. However, O'Donoghue was not entirely satisfied with the medium, feeling that with freedom came a lack of control, and it is only with recent carborundum prints that such fluidity has returned.

Compression (1989, fig. 124), a soft- and hard-ground etching, was built up through six state proofs, each of which is titled, numbered and signed. In the first the lines of hard-ground are thin and lightly bitten, giving a skeletal underpinning. In the second state, thicker lines of soft-ground flesh out the subject, adding details to the form, consolidating the legs and giving detail to the head, eyes, nose and mouth. The third state includes reworking in hard-ground, consisting principally of crosshatching and closely drawn lines. In the fourth state, pools of acid remove large sections of the image, attacking the face and upper torso. State five adds further lines of hard-ground, especially in areas obscured by the pools of acid. Further lines are added in state six, a much darker, richer image, in which tone also darkens the area that surrounds the figure. The linear, skeletal impression of state one is finally trans-formed into a brooding, tonal image of a figure emerging from a deep, dark space.

In 1991 O'Donoghue returned to printmaking with Actaeon after Titian (fig. 125). As with Untitled (Small Head) the spur was a portfolio of prints, this time for the National Gallery, and, as with Toledo, it is a rare example of the artist working directly from a painting by an admired predecessor. The image was made in hard-ground first with the subsequent addition of dry-point. It has a combination of direct biting with acid and pools of oil of spike, which have a softer edge. In all, some twenty state proofs were made before the approved state that was then printed in two tones, warm and cool, which were mixed by the printer, Hope Sufferance, to give some variation from one impression to the next.

Two prints of a crow, its wings outstretched in flight, from 1991 continue to use paintings as a loose tem-plate. In both Crow I (fig. 126) and Crow II (fig. 127) there are direct references to paintings of a crow, from the second series of such images, in which there is a predominant use of a V -shape, formed by the bird's open wings. Crow I uses oil of spike for the feathers and wings, Prussian blue and black for the detail and silver grey throughout. Crow II, in contrast, feels very different. It, too, uses a background plate, a plate bearing the image, and a masking plate, but the printing is less dense and the tone less heavy. The viewpoint is low as we look up into the sky, and the crow passes the orange glow of the sun.

In a related image, The Round Lake (fig. 128), the crow is again present, flying from right to left, echoing its origins in a large black-and-white photograph, covered in honey-coloured oil-based medium. In this template the black shape of the bird is visible, surrounded by the branches of a tree, but the ambiguity is such that it is hard to read whether one is seeing the crow and the skeletal branches or rather the shadows the branches cast. The resulting print also emphasizes the black silhouette of the bird's outstretched wings, and whereas the Crow prints use hard-ground extensively, in Round Lake this is largely removed, being saved for the outline of the bird and the details of its beak and head. There is a new emphasis on tonal qualities, especially in the sky, with O'Donoghue using three plates: first, a ground of violet grey, then black for the image, then a grey-green veil that modifies the colour underneath and unifies the image. Oil of spike, added with a brush, makes the wings especially painterly. Again the print relates quite specifically to a painting, again to the second group of Crow paintings, specifically to Fog (private collection, London).

In contrast, The Round Lake II (fig. 129) had a more complex evolution because of the artist's initial dissatisfaction with the print, and there was a two-year gap between work on the plate and its printing. Again three plates are used, with the artist making dramatic changes through the choice of different colours of ink and different orders of the plates. In the final state the printing is as follows: first a collé layer to give a solid blue tone, then, brown with some pink, then a blue-black drawing plate, and finally a blue-mask. The result is a much more ambiguous image.

At the same time that Round Lake II was completed, O'Donoghue began work on Gaze (fig. 131), which he then left until it was printed in 1996. As with Mute (fig. 130), to which it relates, it was made while working on the drawings that would be presented as Thirteen Drawings from the Human Body at the Jill George Gallery, London, in 1993. Indeed the two prints originally had the same proportions as the two drawings to which they relate, namely Gaze and Utter, and were only cut down in 1996 prior to the printing of the edition. Both these prints use a collé sheet underneath them and both are two-plate etchings.

At the same time O'Donoghue made a very different print, a caborundum entitled The Way Home (1995, fig. 132). This was O'Donoghue's first use of a medium he had previously resisted, believing that it looked too much like a textual effect. The result has a fluency that recalls the photogravure Recoil. Its subject, which is extremely allusive, is the artist's house in Ireland, which is shown on a violent, stormy night, at the end of a long road surrounded by big trees. An experiment, the print was done in one go and then printed without reworking. The result combines immediacy of form with an allusiveness of content, in which the light and shadow created by an understanding of the tonal possibilities of the medium add to the mysteriousness of the subject. Unlike the linear, drawn quality of drypoint or the precision of hard and soft-ground, O'Donoghue here adopts a procedure that is closer to the bold directness of his painting. He would return to this in Line of Retreat, but his next use of the carborundum, for large full-length figures, had a very different impact.

Figure I (1995, fig. 133), a three-part carborundum in red/black ink, was made as a study and relates in a general way to O'Donoghue's major project of the last decade, the Passion series. It was followed by three, four-part carborundum prints: Study for a Crucifixion I (1996) and Study for a Cruxifixion III (1996, see figs. 134-136). These three Crucifixion prints should be considered a breakthrough, having the same presence as his paintings. Initially three separate works, for the exhibition Via Crucis in Munich in 1996, they were catalogued as a single work and are now considered by the artist to constitute a single composite image - not three views of Jesus, but three distinct Crucifixions, whose order may be changed. Such prints are a bridge between the drawings and paintings of the Passion series, containing elements of each. For example, they have a close relationship to a large charcoal on canvas, Crucifixion (1995), and to paintings from 1993-1996, including Crucifixion, Crucifixion Study I and Crucifixion II.

Figure, Crucifixion I, II and III and A Line of Retreat (1997) are, to date, O'Donoghue's most concentrated, ambitious and sophisticated use of the medium and were made in the artist's studio before being printed at the Hope Sufferance. A Line of Retreat (see figs. 137-146), although episodic, can be read as a narrative sequence, and as such is unique in O'Donoghue's work. Its title and subject-matter refer specifically to notes that O'Donoghue made in a conversation with his father shortly before the latter's death. Inspired by the old man's memories of his retreat from France during May and June 1940 as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), the series consists of imagined histories. These fuse the father's memories decades later with his son's reflections on a past that he did not himself experience but which, through the working process, becomes his own. Without images or photographs to guide him, the artist imagined a number of scenes, tracing a journey that is both emblematic of many such life stories and specific in its use of particular details. It ranges from the cold feet of the trudging infantryman to the motorbike emblazoned with a skull and crossbones that belonged to O'Donoghue's father.

Each of the prints of Line of Retreat has a specific point of reference; each was made quickly and directly, one after another; and each has a powerful use of colour, usually a single dominant colour, that is unusual in O'Donoghue's often muted work. Originally there were other plates, which were abandoned or incorporated as background to the printed images. Some of the images experienced a tortuous evolution such as A Monument in Rouen (fig. 140), which underwent many changes and proofings; others were more immediately successful, such as Getting Out at Cherbourg (fig. 146), which was printed from two plates made in the studio - one carried the image, the other a ground of colour - and a series of colour notes sent to the printer. O'Donoghue simply approved the print when he visited Hope Sufferance.

The use of the medium, reworking of the plate and saturation of colour transforms the image. A Monument in Rouen, based on an episode when O'Donoghue's father crashed his motorcycle into a stone monument, was based on a drawing which was clearly realized but which in the process of printing became obscured. The choice of black paper on which to print the image gives the impression of an old photograph that is fading and becoming lost from memory. German Tanks, Forges-les-Eaux (fig. 142), shows a crossroads, as do many recent paintings; depicts an area of patrol; and provides a fleeting glimpse of moving tanks. Often the views are nocturnal and barely glimpsed: A Road West shows a treacherous highway disappearing into a faint glow on the horizon, while Crossing the Seine depicts a moonlight ferry journey.

Since Line of Retreat O'Donoghue has continued his activities as a printmaker. He released three more carborundum prints during 1997 that relate to the imagery of Line of Retreat, and during the early months of 1998 he worked on a number of new, as yet unpublished prints. In North of Rouen he once again tackled a subject relating to Line of Retreat. A horizontal image, in two parts, printed in Venetian red, this work has a handling of form that has developed from related paintings, showing a road that recedes into the distance. A Ship without Lights (1997, fig. 151), meanwhile, is printed in blue/black and shows a ship, sideways on, passing our field of vision. The image relates to paintings that O'Donoghue made during 1997, including one of his largest paintings, Line of Retreat (9 x 12 ft) that shows the SS Lancastria, whose bombing and sinking was one of the worst disasters in maritime history. Finally, in the allusive Lorries for Anyone Who Can Drive (1997, fig. 152), O'Donoghue presents a new image that only came about after the first series of paintings and prints. Unlike North of Rouen and A Ship without Lights, which are both made of two joined new-found sheets and are based on a single plate, Lorries for Anyone Who Can Drive consists of two plates on a single sheet, significant, printed in blue and warm grey. The print is as abstract as any the artist has produced, and relies, for much of the impact, on the depth of its blues and the impact of the picture as a whole. For the artist, however, the starting point is both specific and tangible - a photograph in the British Army Archive held at the Imperial War Museum in London showing an abandoned lorry on a road on the approach to Cherbourg.

For O'Donoghue, then, carborundum has increasingly assumed precedence as his printmaking medium of choice. Each impression has a striking immediacy and individuality. The inevitable breakdown of the plate after successive inkings limits the edition size, and the fluidity of the medium encourages risk: 'it promotes decisiveness and discourages preciousness'. His prints display a remarkable consistency. Their subject-matter has a particular focus on life and the environment in which it has lived, and on the body (whether of man or animal), its vulnerability and relationship to its environment. But now his printmaking has reached an exciting moment. After an apprenticeship of two decades, there is a new-found ambition, magnitude and presence. O'Donoghue's achievement as a printmaker is already significant, but his recent prints suggest that the best is yet to come.

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