Honouring the work of Artist Michael Farrell

Artist Michael Farrell died in self-imposed exile in France, appalled by the Troubles. A retrospective here reaffirms his status in the Irish pantheon, says Tina Darb O’Sullivan

Honouring the work of Artist Michael Farrell

INFLUENTIAL Irish artist, Michael Farrell, who died in 2000, is being honoured with a retrospective, The Work of Michael Farrell, at the Crawford Art Gallery until Jan 2014.

The show is curated by Belinda Quirke, director and CEO of the Solstice Arts Centre, in Navan, where it opened in August. Dawn Williams is overseeing the exhibition at the Crawford.

Farrell was born in Kells, Co Meath, in 1940, and died in France. “We were delighted we could honour such an amazing national artist in his native county,” says Quirke. The retrospective will next travel to the RHA, Dublin, and then the Centre Culturel Irlandais, in Paris. “Michael Farrell is very much an artist who needs repositioning and reappraising, in terms of 20th century art within Ireland. But, also, the show will introduce the younger generation to his work. He was actually quite radical for his time, politically and socially.”

Farrell studied graphic design in St Martin’s, London, in 1956, and painted background plates in Ardmore Studio, alongside artists Robert Ballagh. Farrell’s graphic training is evident in his early work, and the striking motifs of this period recur throughout his career. Farrell started painting the Pressé series in the 1960s, inspired by the lemon press for making the French drink, ‘citron pressé.’ Irish politics, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, affected Farrell and his work became politically engaged from the late 1960s. The motifs of the Pressé series were reconfigured, in 1974, to illustrate an explosion, blood-red drops, in individual wood cuts, stored at the foot of the painting in a glass-fronted compartment. The base of the painting is separate also in Pressé Irlandaise/La Ruche, where it foots a swirling mass of teardrops cut from newspaper coverage of The Troubles.

Celtic knotwork is another motif, influenced by the Book of Kells. An example is the snake wrapped around a hat stand in Hibernian Reflection (Á Bistro), and also in James Joyce’s Tie, where the only colour in the pencil portrait is in the intricate scrolls of the tie.

Farrell became disillusioned with Ireland and moved to Paris in 1971, after a sensational public denouncement of Irish politics. “He was a real international art star,” says Quirke. “He was arguably the most established artist internationally that we ever had, I would say. He’d won every major prize, every national award that was going to be won. He won an award here, in the Crawford, in 1969, for the Exhibition of Living Art. For his acceptance of the award, he ended up making a very long and controversial speech about the Troubles, and how he wouldn’t be in a position to show in the North again, until the State had achieved the basic fundamentals of a decent society.”

Farrell remained active in the political discussion. In 1977, he painted the renowned Madonna Irlanda, which many critics called one of the most famous paintings of the 20th century.

Many of Farrell’s paintings are witty, says Quirke. Several feature the satirical character of Miss O'Murphy. “He takes the image of Miss Ó Murphy, who is an Irish mistress of Louis the 15th, in France. It is an amazing story of this Irish woman, who becomes the mistress of one of the world’s most powerful people, which he takes and presents as this symbol of Ireland. Almost in a compromising position, let’s say, in regards to his own island.

“The same arguments about Irish identity, and what is Ireland, are very prevalent today, with what’s happening with the mess with the Troika. And I think it is brilliantly coincidental that Ireland left the Troika, and the bailout, on the day the Michael Farrell exhibition opened, because there is that same identity and loss of sovereignty.”

In later years, Farrell’s style was looser. His work in reaction to the Omagh bombing, in 1998, lacks the precise lines and teardrop representations. Farrell paints free-hand, often leaving raw canvas and pencil lines, adding to the sense of disarray and panic. In 15h 13 Saturday 15.8 ‘98, Farrell depicts a child’s white tennis shoes, in a pool of blood. Their owner lies under a sheet, on the pavement.

Two years later, Farrell died, in Cardet in France, his homeland having not yet achieved what he considered the basics of a decent society.

*The Work of Michael Farrell runs in Crawford Art Gallery until Jan 4.

Lecture Series: Thursday, Nov 21, 1-2pm: ‘Micheal Farrell’s Modernity,’ by Dr Fiona Barber; Wednesday, Nov 11, 1-2pm: ‘Before France: Micheal Farrell,’ by Robert Ballagh, artist.

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