Book review: Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on Art

Peter Murray wonders why, in an eclectic collection of writers’ responses to works on show at the National Gallery the majority of contributors chose pieces that allowed them avoid eye-to-eye contact with the subject.

IN A UNIVERSE of daunting tasks, that of assembling a group of writers and asking them to respond to works of art in a museum must rank amongst the highest. Assembling writers for any compendium is akin to herding cats, as they (writers and cats) are inclined to dart off in any direction. So praise is due to Janet McLean, Curator at the National Gallery of Ireland, for her patience and tenacity in bringing this particular task to fruition.

In Lines of Vision, no less than 56 writers respond, in verse and prose, to their favourite works of art in the National Gallery collection. The process by which the writers got to choose their work of art is not gone into in any detail.

Not one of the authors opted for a sculpture, which is odd, and only two selected prints. Many of the contributors, even the avowed atheists, chose religious works of art. John Deane’s response to Rembrandt’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt takes the form of a deeply religious meditation in verse, while John Montague’s beautiful, even ecstatic, poem from 1953, published here for the first time, illuminates El Greco’s St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata. Leafing through the book, some characteristics emerge.

In many of the paintings chosen, faces are averted, heads bent, or figures are depicted in silhouette, as if the writers are uncomfortable with direct eye contact. This can be seen in William Mulready’s The Sonnet, chosen by Gerard Donovan, and in Velasquez’s The Kitchen Maid, the subject of a fine poem by Leanne O’Sullivan.

An exception is Thomas MacCarthy’s choice of James Barry’s magnificent Self-Portrait as Timanthes, a portrait full of that bold Hellenised Cork self-confidence that created such unease, even amongst those who most supported the rebellious artist.

McClean’s concept of what an art museum should be, is refreshingly free from the claims of authority and purpose that drown out many quieter and more reflective voices in the art world. She is happy for people to find peace and inspiration while surrounded by centuries-old works of art. She sees museums as a refuge from the madness of the outside world, as places for sensitive souls.

Museums, she writes, are places where few expectations are placed on visitors.

To save argument, she has listed the writers alphabetically, which gives Chris Agee and John Banville an immediate advantage, but relegates Enda Wyley, through no fault of his own, to the last pages. Drawn irresistibly to its theme of loyalty and betrayal, Banville also claims the prize painting, Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, and with customary adeptness, does it justice.

Frank McGuinness takes inspiration from A White Horse, after Gericault, while Colm Toibín charts the career of John B. Yeats, providing insight into an emotional life hidden behind the impassive expression of Rosa Butts, in a portrait painted by John Yeats. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s five stanzas are directly inspired by Marco Palmezzano’s The Virgin and Christ Enthroned, while a similar painting The Adoration of the Magi, provides the starting point for Denis O’Driscoll’s stark and unsentimental Memo to a Painter.

Some of the writers describe the work of art in detail, in the process revealing both its history and the reasons they were drawn to it; others barely acknowledge the painting, instead taking it as a starting point for a foray into the world of the creative imagination.

In the former category, over the course of seven stanzas, MacDara Woods describes Members of the Sheridan Family by Edwin Landseer. In the latter, Kevin Barry’s essay, written to accompany On the Devil’s Disc, a rarely-seen painting by Ernest Procter, is a text as dizzying as the painting itself. Some writers include the painting in an unexpected narrative: Carlo Gébler takes Roderic O’Conor’s La Jeune Bretonne as the starting point for a vivid account of the pettiness of prison life.

Unsurprisingly, once some writers get going, they find it difficult to stop, and Paul Muldoon manages to extract no less than six pages of brilliant verse from Charles Emile Jacque’s unpromising image of free-range chickens pecking around a French farm. Occasionally, and predictably, some works of art proved too attractive and ended up being chosen by two writers, with neither inclined to give way.

The artist Gerard Dillon was clearly a favourite, his painting The Little Green Fields not only inspiring a poem by Michael Longley but also an essay by Julie O’Callaghan. This competition for artistic turf extended to the Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard, with Kerrie Hardie being joined by Jennifer Johnson at the same delightful lunch table depicted in Le Déjeuner, while Joseph Patrick Haverty’s 1841 portrait of a blind piper and a young girl in an autumnal setting, inspired texts by both Bernard Farrell and Vincent Woods.

The poem by Woods, “The Piper in the Snow”, initially seems remote from the painting but reveals itself as a meditation on emigration from Ireland in the 19th century, and so adds unexpected layers of meaning to this fine work of art. Dillon turns out to be almost too popular an artist, with Eilís Ní Dhuibhne choosing the marvelous and rarely-seen Nano’s Dream, while Paula Meehan composed three poems to accompany The Artist’s Studio.

Jack B. Yeats was also popular, with writers Dermot Bolger, Roddy Doyle, Moya Cannon, Martin Malone and Alan Glynn all happily opting for different works by this great painter. Theo Dorgan takes the opportunity, when describing Ernest Meissonier’s depiction of Napoleon’s generals on the eve of victory, Cavalry in the Snow: Moreau and Dessoles before Hohenlinden, to describe his own childhood forays into the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork.

In similar vein, Sebastian Barry remembers early visits to the National Gallery in the company of his grandfather, the artist Matthew Barry.

Evelyn Conlon breaks ranks, choosing not one, but two paintings as the inspiration for her account of dreams. They are fine works however, Sarah Purser’s A Lady Holding a Doll’s Rattle and An Emigrant Ship by Edwin Hayes.

The Munich-born poet Eva Bourke, remarkably, writes about a portrait of her own ancestor, Anthony Hundertpfundt, who was director of the Bavarian mint in the late sixteenth century.

The text most closely linked to a work of art is perhaps Gerald Dawe’s Paul Henry, Moonlight, words that perfectly echo this ethereal moonlit scene painted by Henry in 1926.

There are some inconsistencies in the book, and occasionally it is a puzzle to work out which text relates to which painting. Generally the captions are on the same page as the illustrations, but occasionally, as with MichealO’Siadhail’s thoughtful response to Poussin’s The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, the captions are on a page that is otherwise blank.

Patricia Scanlon’s essay, written in response to James Arthur O’Connor’s A View near Avoca, stops dead on page 203 only to begin again on page 206. Similarly, texts by Philip Davison and Alan Glyn disappear, only to reappear two pages later. Contemporary art makes a rare and surprising appearance, with Eoin McNamee writing on Alice Maher’s etching Magdalene, and Vona Groarke responding to After Giovanni di Paolo, a drypoint print made in a collaborative process by Patrick Graham and Carmel Benson.

As a result of giving only the titles of the writers’ texts, the contents page is also inconsistent, with artists’ names available in some instances, and not in others.

There is no list of the works of art reproduced, which is disappointing. No such volume would be complete without a contribution by Seamus Heaney, and so it is a delight to find his Banks of a Canal, a poetic response to a wonderful landscape, by Gustave Caillebotte.

All in all, Lines of Vision, a beguiling, fascinating, illuminating and occasionally irritating volume, is a tribute to a curator with a vision and a collection that, in a renovated National Gallery, will be given the exposure it richly deserves. 

* Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on Art Janet McLean (editor) Thames and Hudson, €29.99; ebook, €22.62

* An exhibition of the works selected for this book runs at the National Gallery until April 12.


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