To be a painter at the beginning of the 21st century requires courage. For painting has been declared as dead as Nietzsche's God, irrelevant as a medium of expression in this fast moving, 'lets-have-it-all-now' age. Of course there are many young painters who have made their names within the new postmodern orthodoxy, using shock and irony or a discussion of the language of paint as their primary tools but there can be few who have so seriously engaged with history and the painterly canon as Hughie O'Donoghue.
O'Donoghue freely intermingles the mythic and the real, mixing events from history with a sense of personal quest to create grand, encompassing statements that deal with the universal, something attempted by few other contemporary painters, except, perhaps, the German artist, Anselm Kiefer. His subjects are archetypal: war, memory, time and what it means to be human, to define the trajectory of a life. Historic events act as catalysts; but it would be a mistake to suggest that he is either a narrative or a modern-day history painter. Rather his work explores the past, using the wanderings of a soldier - his father Daniel O'Donoghue - as he travels 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 Casino. In fact all O'Donoghue's works essentially add up to one master work; a journey of self-discovery of almost Wagnerian proportions. He draws parallels with the "classic epic poem with the inpidual pictures functioning like chapters, verses or lines."
Born in Manchester of Irish descent, Daniel O'Donoghue chronicled his war experiences in letters home to his wife and was, himself, no mean writer. But these paintings are not a sentimental homage to a father, or even a Freudian investigation of their relationship, for as Hughie O'Donoghue says - "we disapproved of each other for most of our lives". Rather Daniel's war experiences become emblematic of every soldier's, taking on the mantle of the universal Everyman, who, as James Hamilton noted in his monograph on O'Donoghue "walked through European literature and history in the various guises of Piers Ploughman, Christian, Candide and the Unkown Soldier". It is his spirit that lingers in this work, so that each painting takes on an epic timelessness, acting as "passing-bells for these who died[d] as cattle", as the poet Wilfred Owen described the fate of 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, and for all those who have since fallen prey to the politicians' lies on the front lines in Vietnam, Kosovo or Iraq, with the phrase dulce et decorum et pro patria mori, ringing in their youthful ears.
As did the War Poets Owen and Sassoon, Hughie O'Donoghue universalises from the particular to reveal what Owen called 'the pity of war'. Essentially the recall of particular historic moments becomes a means of investigating and defining a spiritual and moral outlook within the modern world. His work is about many things, but it is certainly a reminder that war is, in its various guises, always with us and not something that can be consigned to the territory of 'the past'; though his meanings remain complex and paradoxical, never offering didactic conclusions or resolutions. Rather we follow his travels, like a modern-day Christian from Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, through a landscape of memory, art, love and spirituality in an investigative act of self- realisation, a meditation that explores the shadows and plumbs the depths of the creative imagination. What he reveals along the way is not only the profound pathos of war where every young soldier is left alone to stare death in the face, but also the essential existential struggle of the inpidual attempting to construct meaning through life's solitary journey. It is not that he is ignorant of, or has particularly turned his back on the avant-garde, he is after all a graduate of that postmodern hothouse, Goldsmith's, but rather that he looks to the great artistic traditions of the past, to Titian and Géricault and more recently to Cézanne and de Kooning to find a symbolic language with which he can create epic elegies to the human condition. There is, also, in these works a democratising desire for directness and simplicity. A fundamental belief that his audience should identify with his work on a visceral level; to this end he edits out what is superfluous. What is left is an emotional core that is timeless. It is against the painterly tradition of the past that O'Donoghue pits himself, attempting to find a relevant, re-invigorated painterly language that is neither sentimental nor reliant on pastiche.
The human figure remains a constant. In the Sleeper series of the mid 80s, haunting presences appeared in his deep rich canvases as abstract shapes like cleft fissures in rock or the S-shaped remains of mummified figures buried in the peat bogs of Ireland recalled in the poems of Seamus Heaney. Embedded in the earth they are both female receptacle and procreating phallus. Buried in the deep dark they have been returned to the element from which they came, so that there is the implicit suggestion that they will, in due time, like the poppies of Flanders field, flower and regenerate.
"In my beginning is my end." 1
The falling figure, the buried figure, the swimming figure. Earth, air, fire, water. Baptism, transformation, death. These fundamental elementals, which run both through Pagan myth and Christianity, form the backbone of O'Donoghue's hugely ambitious paintings. We are invited at one and the same time to think of Icarus and the immersion of John the Baptist; of Mary Renault's dying King whose ritual killing formed part of a necessary regenerative cycle; of Grauballe and Tollund Man discovered in the 1970s excavations of Danish peat bogs, buried for thousands of years before exhumation, as well as the ordinary, unexceptional and terrified solders swimming in their water-laden battle fatigues across the fast flowing Rapido. Immersion returns as a theme, again and again, running through these paintings like the refrain from a Greek chorus, like the course of the Rapido itself; a metaphor for renewal, for baptism, for a transformation of sorts.
A shocking newspaper clip, pinned to the studio wall of a figure falling from one of the Twin Towers on 9/11, along with a postcard of a sculpture of Marsays, made famous in Titian's late painting The Flaying of Marsyas, when the impudent satyr was skinned alive for his audacious act of challenging Apollo to a musical contest, which he lost, also contribute to the palimpsest of O'Donoghue's imagery.
Daniel O' Donoghue was a keen photographer and among his post-war effects was a photograph of a 1930s art deco bronze diver in the Fascist style. It is this image that is seminal to Hughie O'Donoghue's Diver series, along with the 9/11 skydiver and the Marsyas, a postcard of which was found among Daniel's wartime possessions, inscribed on the back with only an ambiguous question mark, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the photograph that was also found among Daniel's things of Mussolini and his collaborators hung, in an act of reprisal, by their ankles from a garage roof. When crossing the Rapido Daniel lost his flute and the symbol of silenced music, of the lost voices of the young men who perished, create a potent sub-text, a metaphorical synchronicity that meshes together both myth and recent history with a father's experiences and a son's artistic appropriations and transformations.
The Rapido River was already notorious before May 11th, for the American 36th division had experienced a disaster there in the previous January. Using as a touchstone the archive of letters, photographs and the ephemera that he inherited after his father's death, Hughie O'Donoghue embarked on his first figures in water around 1998. Drawn in graphite wash on cotton canvas prepared with gesso they hover like x-rays or ectoplasmic wraths, emerging from the dark mass of graphite like half-forgotten memories. Crossing the Rapido IV, 1999-2000 melds the Mussolini photograph and the suspended Marsyas with an image created from the photograph of a badly burnt German solider. Here the cruelty and 'pity of war' are exposed as an ever present coda that runs from the ancient world through to the modern.
To dive into the waters is to search for the secret of life, the ultimate mystery. J.C. Copper in the Encyclopaedia of traditional symbols.
During a trip to Naples in October 2001, to research the locations of his father's wartime photographs, O'Donoghue made a visit to Paestum where his attention was arrested by the Tomb of the Diver (circa BC 480) discovered by archaeologists in the 1960s. In this small tomb painting of remarkable clarity a lithe simmer is seen diving from a high board, in fact, the Pillars of Hercules, which represent the end of the known world. The iconography of this ancient painting, the falling figure from the twin towers and his father's warm time photographs meld into a matrix from which to explore fate and the human need to direct one's destiny, to achieve a transcendence of spirit.
The actual inhabitant of the tomb seems to have died in the great sea battle of Salamis between the Greeks and the Persians. O'Donoghue employs what art historians refer to as Ekphrasis - that is the recreation of a lost or ancient work from classical times, as in Titian's cycle of paintings for Alphonson d'Este, of which Bacchus and Ariadne, housed in the National Gallery, is an example. It is not that he is aiming for arcane erudition but rather that his images become metaphors, illustrations that show how history repeats itself, how human experience remains constant; as if time was a spiral that returns us again and again to the same point of destiny and by so doing allows us to "know the place for the first time". 2
In the Tomb of the Diver paintings an Icarus-like figure plunges from the sky towards the tomb, here represented as a glass predella that contains objects such as a typewriter, a spade, a camera, artefacts that belonged to the artist's father during the Second World War. Echoes of the Marsyas sculpture and the Mussolini photograph are inescapable, but so too is the iconography of the crucifixion. The central vertical figure becomes that of a secularized Christ and harks back to O'Donoghue's Passion series, Via Crucis, made in the mid 90s. At one and the same time flesh, paint and an elemental streak of light, these figures set against their dark dense grounds speak of a triumph of hope over despair, of culture over barbarianism. As with The Sea! The Sea! I, 2002 they illustrate something of the endless opposition between the Apollonian and Dionysian that Nietzsche saw as "redemption through illusion" - which is, of course, art - characterised by an underlying "primal unity" of "eternal suffering and contradiction".
In Course of The Diver I and II, 2002 and Diver III (date?) the figure transmutes into a swimmer. Amid black waters set against a backdrop of deep ochres and oranges, smudged with patches of dirty yellow suggestive of the glare and sulphurous smoke of some distant battle field, the figure swims half-submerged so that we can only guess at whether he is drowning or struggling to reach the far shore.
It is these expressions of suffering, of struggle, of half-submerged memories that O'Donghue 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 dense blacks and their glazed surfaces - they are also, in the true Romantic sense of the word, awe inspiring. Images rise to the surface like his divers slipping through dark water, like ghosts, like photographs finding form in developing solution.
The Cook's Traveller's handbook for Southern Italy of 1928 contains the following entry on Baia in the Bay of Naples: "It is said to have derived its name from Baius, pilot of Ulysses but of its early history very little is know. The splendour of the old Roman water place is now departed. The palatial villas, which once covered the surrounding hills, are no more. In their place, we have only innumerable fragments and ruins of every kind, half-hidden in the underworld." While Horace wrote:
"Nothing in the world can be compared to the lovely bay of Baise."
A photograph taken at Baia in 1944 shows the young Daniel, naked to the waist, bathing. He is smiling at the camera, no doubt enjoying a break from the chaotic theatre of war and relishing the sense that he is now homeward bound. In the seven large paintings to date that form the Baia series, this sense of restful respite, of release and quiet celebration, is emphasised by the outstretched arms and legs of the floating figures immersed, as in a dream, in a deep blue ground suggestive of water. In Baia VI the swimmer is set against the horizon of the actual beach recovered from an old wartime photograph. Both a reverie and a real location, it is as if only the body is able to remember, to retain a true sense of place, carrying in its blood the imprint of traumatic and profound experience. Memory becomes the recollection of salt on skin, the pleasure of bare limbs in water released from heavy army kaki; an experience to be wrestled with as paint on a canvas gathering to it the meaning of history, of survival, of being alive.
The Voltuno, Sangro, Rapido, Gariglaino and the Po.
The names of these Italian rivers reverberate like a litany, like the voices of sirens calling men home. But their songs are also treacherous and their waters deep. To list these rivers is to map the journey taken by those who had to cross them in 1944. For some they became a grave, a resting place; for others they were simply an obstacle to be negotiated on the way north. As the German army retreated up the Italian peninsular it used the country's natural rivers and valleys to delay and sabotage the allied armies on their hazardous journey. Daniel O'Donoghue crossed the Rapido on the night of the 11th May 1944 in the 4th and final battle for Monte Cassino. An infantry platoon sergeant in the King's Liverpool Regiment, his boat overturned in the river where he was rescued from drowning by a private solider in his platoon. Death and resurrection. Transformation and renewal.
The new works that form the Fiume Volterno series also take their names from the rivers that bisect the Italian peninsular: Sangro, Volturno. The soft Italian is seductive but they have a dark, a Dionysian side. From antiquity these rivers were represented as gods, as can be seen by the sculpture of the River God Marfioro, in Rome Capitonline Museum. For many years these huge works were not recognised for what they were. Because these rivers irrigated the land, were the very source of life, they were considered sacred. Within the sculptures they are identified by their attributes: the rudder (navigation), water reeds or the cornucopia (abundance and fertility.) Over the centuries the symbolism survived to resurface in propaganda leaflets dropped by the German forces on the retreating divisions. The River Po became a seductress proffering a basket of ripe fruit, only to reappear on the inside of the leaflet as a figure of death rising from a river of dead soldiers.
In many ways Hughie O'Donoghue has taken a journey that differs from the more usual trajectory of contemporary painters from the abstract back to the figure. In the summer of 1981, when he lived in Kent, he took down and folded up 'The Last Abstract Painting in Orpington'. The figure with its potential for emotional, poetic and symbolic power has since become central. His paintings are built of glazed layers of paint; cadmium yellow, cadmium red, burnt sienna and lead white. There is a fusion of under drawing and paint that allows traces of the original figure to be discerned under the heavy skin of oil. His paintings grow in slow accretions, organically, like alluvial layers left by an endlessly flooding river. The figure becomes part of their archaeology. Very particular care is taken as to how paint is applied. Newsprint is laid on the primed surfaces to absorb the oil, which leaves a ghostly impression and becomes integral to the painting. It is a trace element of the real world, though its practical use is to provide a tooth for the paint, for if the surface is too smooth the paint will not adhere.
It is a slow process. If the surface becomes too smooth he will return to it with an electric sander. He does not do preliminary drawings as such, following the Venetian painters of the sixteen century he so admires, the drawing takes place on the canvas. The figure is usually slightly more than life size. Thick paint is applied over thin. Green is painted over warm flesh tones, to give, as in Renaissance painting, muscle tone, a sense of something under the skin, so an area of paint can be read as a shoulder bone or a thigh. The image is moved around as he tries to define it in his head. Slab-like areas of smooth black are achieved with a palette knife. He will use what is necessary. The canvas is a laboratory of exploration. As in Titian's late great paintings where the real world dissolves into a universe of paint, he battles for the balance between what is being represented and the actual process of painting. The question that always hovers is how far he can push a particular work before it no longer has any connection to the real world. Every part has to work. Over the years he has learnt a sensitivity to his material similar to that of the violinist to his score. The mark becomes infused with emotional tension. There is a conscious sensuality of paint, its layers become as seductive as skin.
His rejection of pure abstraction is because he cares about more than formalism. The subject matters. It allows for both a freedom and discipline. He needs to know the details; they provide the milestones on his journey of exploration, which because it reaches out to the universal, avoids self-indulgent solipsism.
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, those that T.S.Eliot once described as birth, copulation and death. These are paintings that assert that art matter, that life matters, that history is not death and that we are part of its continuing warp and weft. 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.
Hughie O' Donoghue at Purdy Hicks from 14 October to 22 November 2004