The Mechanics of Memory

Published in The London Magazine

Art Criticism

Hughie O’Donoghue: Deep Water and the Architecture of Memory, Marlborough Gallery, London (10 November 2021 – 15 January 2022) and Hughie O’Donoghue: Original Sins, National Gallery of Ireland (12 March – 19 June 2022)

History painting was traditionally regarded as the highest form of Western painting in the hierarchy of genres that included portraits, scenes of everyday life, landscape, animal painting and still life. This hierarchy was based on the differences between art that ‘render[ed] visible the universal essence of things’ (imitare) and that which was mere ‘mechanical copying of particular appearances’ (ritrarre). In his De Pictura (About Painting) 1441, Alberti argued that (multi-figured) history painting was the highest of the genres because it required the most mastery. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries allegorical painting that took on religious, mythical, historical and allegorical subjects was valued above other forms of history painting. By the nineteenth century these categories had begun, with the new movements of Romanticism, Impressionism, Fauvism and Surrealism, to breakdown. For most of the twenntieth century and the current, history painting has barely existed within British art which has favoured the domestic and the familiar, the playful and the pop. Seriousness has long been de trop. Irony and iconoclasm the name of the game.

But towards the end of the twentieth century history painting took on a new lease of life, not in this country, but within German art with artists such as Georg Baselitz and Anslem Kiefer. In his powerful works Kiefer confronted German history and national identity, including the legacy of the Holocaust. His symbolic motifs and elemental landscapes use myth and archetype to provoke complex emotional and psychological effects. In this country the only artist working with similar gravitas is the painter Hughie O’Donoghue for whom history and cultural memory form the backdrop to his body of work. In an interview in 1989 – when I first met him – with Michael Phillipson for his show ‘Fires’ at Fabian Carlsson Gallery, he said: ‘We can’t escape history. Almost as soon as you pick up a paintbrush you place yourself in some kind of dialogue with tradition. It is important to understand the context in which one works…in many ways great paintings or great works of art have crystalised certain universal sensations of what it means to be human.’ After his first encounter with Georg Baselitz’s Model for a Sculpture at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1980, he remarked that: ‘To remain ignorant of the past is to remain always a child.’ Like Kiefer, O’Donoghue intermingles the mythic and the real, mixing events from history with a sense of personal guest.

Although younger than the German painter he, too, has dug deep into the cataclysmic imagery of the two World Wars in order to explore time and memory, travelling through the ravaged war-torn zones of Europe with the retreating forces during the Fall of France in 1940 and the crossing of the Rapido in the 1944 Battle of Monte Cassino, following the wanderings of his soldier father, Daniel O’Donoghue. His trajectory has been different to many other contemporary artists, moving back from abstraction to figuration. His paintings grow in slow accretions, organically, like the alluvial layers left by a repeatedly flooding river. Whilst the paintings in his most recent exhibition ‘Deep Water and the Architecture of Memory’ do not directly refer to the great conflicts of the twentieth century; they do, through their lingering photographic traces and painterly accretions, emphasise the mechanics of memory and the passing of time. Painted in lockdown, that strange, discombobulated hiatus gave him the opportunity to plunge deeper into the recesses of memory, to draw on childhood recollections. One such image is that of the MV Plassy, a vessel wrecked in a storm off the Irish coast near Inisheer in 1960 that has been a recurring motif in his work for the past twenty years. Rising like some portentous Leviathan from the deep on a huge tarpaulin, rather than canvas, in Wake II, it seems to act as tragic witness to its own demise, its rusting hulk glowing phosphorescent with shades of yellow and red, worn away by time and the onslaught of the ocean.

Whilst O’Donoghue claims that it has no allegorical function and that the ‘ship is just a ship’ and not, as in previous work, a reference to the Little Ships of Dunkirk, it’s hard not to read the battered vessel as standing for some sort of grounded Ship of Fools or a reminder of those barely seaworthy craft that set sail across the Atlantic for the New World filled with impoverished Irish migrants. His use of silver Verdigris reflects the light, emphasising the god-like, tomb-like nature of the vessel. Corroded, decayed and skeletal, it conjures both the plague ship that haunts Nosfertau in the film by the German director F. W. Murnau, and the steamship hauled in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo over a steep hill though the rubber-rich Peruvian rain forest in an act that’s both gloriously idealistic and hubristic.

Hughie O’Donoghue, Wake II, mixed media on prepared tarpaulin 48,1-2 x 90,1-2in., 123 x 230 cm
Hughie O’Donoghue, Cargo I, 2021, mixed media on prepared sackcloth 39,3-4 x 28.5-8in., 101 x 73 cm
Hughie O’Donoghue, Creek (I), 2021, mixed media on prepared sandbags 77 x 74,1-2 x 6in., 193 x 189 x 15 cm
Hughie O’Donoghue, Prow, 2019, mixed media on prepared tarpaulin 96,3-4 x 118,3-4in, 245 x 302cm

As a graduate of Goldsmiths, O’Donoghue’s work has always been ‘knowing’, conscious of the debates around the death of painting, irony and populism. Whilst, in the past, his handling of paint has been influenced by the masters, especially Titian, Velasquez and El Greco, with its dark tonalities, its blacks and greys juxtaposed with dramatic flashes of primary colours, in this new body of work he has moved away from the immediate sensuality of paint and bravura impasto to work with a complex process of superimposed photographic images built up with layers of resin, acrylic and oil paint on surfaces such as sackcloth and sandbags, reminiscent of a map grid or those plaques of jade found covering certain ancient oriental figures.

Deptford Creek pulsates with history. Once the Royal Dockyard created by Henry VIII, it is where Queen Elizabeth I knighted Francis Drake on the Golden Hind after his return from circumnavigating the globe in 1580. It is also situated between Hughie O’Donoghue’s Greenwich studio and a studio a fifteen-minute walk away that he commuted to daily during lockdown. The Creek triptych is the most urban of his recent paintings. Made on sandbags stuffed with newspapers printed during lockdown to form a time capsule, it depicts a scene at low tide, ‘like a cross section of the earth,’ full of stones, shards and flotsam, surrounded by a cityscape of old wharfs, industrial buildings and new tower blocks. It’s grid-like structure, similar to the staked sections of an archaeological dig, emphasise the historic palimpsest of the city, and we’re reminded of the great English literature set on the Thames from Bleak House, to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Archaeology here, of course, is not simply a plumbing of the city depths but a psychoanalytic metaphor for exploring the dark recesses of our shared histories. The sack, too, reaches back into O’Donoghue’s own personal history, His grandfather was a railwayman who shouldered such loads at the Oldham Road goods depot in Manchester for a living, the city where O’Donoghue grew up. The paint here is minimal, a resin glue that holds the sacks together in a technique reminiscent of Japanese kintisugi that uses gold to mend broken ceramics.

Much of O’Donoghue’s life, certainly before the pandemic, has been split between his home in Co. Mayo and Greenwich. Painted on individual sacks the ‘Cargo’ series create vistas of grey ocean that suggest journeys across the Irish sea, which during this period of confinement could only be imagined. There’s also a connection, here, to the sublime, to a sense of immersion and yearning, that oneness that Freud describes as an oceanic feeling.

To call O’Donoghue a modern history painter would not be quite accurate, even though history, memory, archaeology and the past all inform his work. It is not so much the recording of a particular event that interests him, as the metaphorical resonances: how history and a sense of place can tell us who we are and connect us to our collective unconscious. Through his powerful works he grapples not only with the use of new materials but how he can employ them to explore what it means to be human in this complex world.


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