Hughie O’Donoghue paints very big paintings. During the opening of his exhibition at The Imperial War Museum one critic was heard to mutter “bombast” and “hubris” – but that is completely to miss the point of these brave, expansive works that deal with memory and myth, the epic and the personal. Complex, forceful and profoundly moving these ambitious paintings – in oil on linen canvas, often incorporating inkjet on gampi tissue to entrap a photographic image beneath – attempt to grapple with birth, life, death and redemption in a way that few contemporary artists – except perhaps the German painter Kiefer – would dare. Homer, Titian, Goya, even Michelangelo are the sources that inspire and against whom O’Donoghue pits himself. Despite an MA at Goldsmiths in the early 80s, you won’t find any fashionable irony here or discourses on art about art. For early on O’Donoghue eschewed formalism for the supremacy of the image and its metaphorical resonance. War, in this exhibition, is his theme, but one that runs like a subterranean river leaving behind mineral traces of its existence rather than advertising itself with shock and gore. He draws parallels with the “classic epic poem with the individual pictures functioning like chapters, verses or lines.”
As did the poets, Owen and Sassoon, he universalises from the particular. The particular, here, is his father, Daniel O’Donoghue, born in Manchester of Irish descent, who served as an infantryman in WWII and chronicled his experiences in letters home to his wife. It is these eye witness accounts, along with the artefacts Daniel carried with him: his flute, goggles, sheet music, a camera and books, plus material Hughie O’Donoghue has gleaned from the archives of the museum, that acted as catalysts for the son’s visual meditation on what Owen called “the pity of war”. Yet this exhibition is not a sentimental homage to a father by a son – “we disapproved of each other for most of our lives”. Rather it acts as “passing-bells for these who die[d] as cattle”, as Owen described the invisible young men; the Unknown Soldiers sent from every corner of Suffolk and Somerset, Cornwall and Co. Durham to fight in the Great War. Or for that matter for all those sent since to the front lines in Kosovo or Iraq, who have ever been sold: “The old lie” of “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”.
O’Donoghue has built this body of work around these found images in order to describe the wanderings of a soldier in retreat during the Fall of France in 1940 and the experience of ‘Crossing the Rapido’ in southern Italy in 1944. Among Daniel’s effects were snapshots and postcards sent from Italy and Greece, including a photo of a 1930s bronze diver and a postcard of the ancient Greek sculpture of Marsyas – the satyr flayed for challenging Apollo to a musical contest, famously painted by Titian. O’Donoghue has long admired Titian’s late, edgy work and its many sculptural variants. When Marsyas, who played the pipes, lost the contest, he was not only brutally flayed, but also silenced. O’ Donoghue draws a poetic parallel with his father, Daniel, who lost his flute while he and his fellow soldiers were crossing the Rapido. These imaginative coincidences are further woven into the paintings, for among Daniel’s papers were the widely reproduced images of the executed corpses of Mussolini and his collaborators hanging by their ankles from the roof of a Milanese garage in 1945. The parallels between this gruesome image and the Marsyas are unmistakable. During the painting process the appropriated photograph has become buried in Rapido VI, while in Rapido IV it is juxtaposed with a photograph of a German soldier whose skin has been badly burnt. Thus ancient and modern are fused; echoes of mythic cruelty and modern brutality intertwining and reverberating like the lost notes of Marsyas’s pipes.
Photographs of Grauballe and Tollund Man, discovered during the 1970s excavations of Danish peat bogs, and a shocking newspaper clip, pinned to his studio wall, of a figure falling headfirst from the sky in New York City on 9/11, also contribute to the palimpsest of O’Donoghue’s imagery. The central motif of a falling or diving figure has haunted his large canvases with its raw physical presence for many years. The Sleeper series of the 1980s and the later Red Earth paintings are precursors to his recent Diver paintings where the central figure, in its naked vulnerability, makes implicit reference to the Crucifixion. These often S-bend bodies also relate to the ancient mummified ‘bog figures’, preserved in the peat of Ireland, which have inspired the gritty poetry of Seamus Heaney, with whom O’Donoghue has worked, on occasion, since moving from Britain to Kilkenny. A deep sense of melancholy for something unnameable, for something that has been lost, permeates these paintings. Like suppressed memories – both collective and individual – of famine and war, of trauma and decimation, these shadowy figures act as signs for what is buried deep in the bog of the unconscious, whilst also giving expression to the regenerative power of nature and the ancient cyclical myths of birth, death and Resurrection. As Heaney wrote in his evocative poem, Kinship: “Quagmire, swampland, morass: …Ground that will strip/its dark side,/nesting ground,/outback of the mind.”
German Tanks, Forges-les-Eaux, 1996-99
It is these expressions of suffering and journeys, of half submerged memories that O’Donoghue weaves into his courageous paintings to form complex psychological maps. At once both gorgeous and lush – with their deep blues, ochres and ox-blood reds, their glazed surfaces – they are also, in the true sense, awe inspiring. There is no postmodern amorality here, no hedging of bets but an unapologetic view as to both the pain and the value of life, and the enormity, yet prosaic nature, of death. Images rise to the surface like his divers slipping through dark water, like ghosts, like memories, like photographs finding form in developing solution.
There has always been something inescapably tragic in O’Donoghue’s work, a sense of the fatality of history. His paintings of the late 1980s, Fires, showed a brooding awareness of the ruthlessness of nature and the fragility of human endeavour. He has never been attracted to making coded or elitist work full of in-jokes, but has sought to create visual equivalents for sensations and emotions which have the directly visceral appeal of, say, music.
Born in 1953, too young to remember the war and the urbane voices of BBC announcers, echoing from the mesh grids of bakelite wireless sets in the corner of front rooms across the land, announcing yet another Allied defeat or victory, these works are not drawn from reclaimed memories. Rather they are an imaginative leap; an emotional and psychological re-enactment of what it must have been like for his father, and those other bewildered young men of his generation, to be sent off to war. Perhaps they could best be described as aesthetic acts of empathy. For empathy, like all serious art, is a creative act, requiring not only humanity but imagination. It is this quality that prevents the grandiosity of these paintings from becoming, as that misguided critic at the private view suggested, hubristic. The scale of O’Donoghue’s work has long placed him firmly in the Grand Tradition. Whilst the turbulent surfaces suggest the influence of Abstract Expressionism, these are by no means, either in their conception or their making, gestural paintings but rely on Old Masterly patience. For O’Donoghue builds up his surfaces in thin layers of paint and varnish, a technique that owes a great more to the traditional craft of painting than is met with in most modern painters. This is work that speaks to all those who believe in art and its regenerative power, who believe that its important themes remain the universal ones that T.S.Eliot once described as, birth, copulation and death. In a secular age, O’Donoghue dares to make art which deals with the bits of the psyche that religion once nurtured and are, so often, now left out in the cold.
These are paintings that assert that art matters, that life matters, that history is not dead and that we are part of its continuing warp and weft. War and its devastation are likened to archaeological fragments. Only through a gradual sifting, through a voyage into our own depths, and into those of the past, can we begin to fathom something of the complexity of human nature. “History and painting,” O’ Donoghue asserts, unfashionably and with faith, “have the same goal … truth.”
Hughie O’Donoghue Painting Caserta Red at Imperial War Museum from 19th June to 7th September 2003 and Imperial War Museum North from 27th September 2003 to 18th January 2004
Hughie O’Donoghue, Painting, Memory, Myth (ISBN:18584 204 7) by James Hamilton is published by Merrell. £29.95, hardback.
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2004
Images © Hughie O’Donoghue. Courtesy of Imperial War Museum