Oisin Kelly

Allegorical Figures & Madonnas – Oisin Kelly

The rebel heroes, Rimbaud, Picasso and Joyce have galloped over the horizon and quit the field. The field, with no goal posts, no touchlines, no referee contains only a pandemoniacal ‘loose ruck’. The task for the modern hero is to get the ball out to the backs and continue play.

The task will be to conserve, conform, synthesise, popularize, to encourage that all-important part of education described by Ruskin as the cherishing of local associations and hereditary skill. In Ireland the task is somewhat complicated by our tendency to wobble perilously between excessive suspicion of foreign work and thought and, as now, an equally excessive admiration for the same. We appear also to be undergoing, simultaneously, an industrial revolution and the reaction against it.

No better champion to hold the centre than Seamus Muphy. To produce a coherent and articulate moral, social and economic philosophy governing and informing manufacture. More human thought and effort has been devoted to the problem of who controls the means of production than on the essential worthiness of the very means themselves. See what has happened to the trade at which Seamus Murphy served his time. The local market has been flooded by a production in quantity with which the responsible maker by art cannot compete, the vocational structure of his society with all its guild organization and standards of workmanship is undermined, the artist is robbed of his art and forced to find himself a job, and finally a society is produced where business takes precedence of life. I watched on television, being blessed by Church and State, the opening of a factory to make bubble gum, the corruption of children being profitable. I have it on the highest authority that the reward of those who manufacture and distribute bubble gum would be that a millstone be tied around their necks and they be cast in the depths of the sea. Thus has business taken precedence of life, and in death it has had some influence. Visit a country churchyard, and contemplate not only mortality but a chronological cross-section illustrating graphically and glyptically the deterioration in workmanship in our society, where the complex skills of the venerable Masonic tradition have all been sacrificed to speed and facility of production. The subtle art of lettering has been replaced by blasting carborundum through letraset stencils, and, instead of a sculptured decoration, the compressor blasts out some stereotyped faint flicker of the Christian imagination, instead of a final hand polishing (a job requiring great sensitivity to the preceding operation), a coat of polyeurethane ensures that even time will not soften or moderate these horrors. The fiscal benefits enjoyed by select artists in this country, well intentioned though they be, have further opened the schism between artist and craftsman, and the gulf between both and the public. The problem is to achieve an educational system wherein the peculiar virtues of each training can be preserved. Movements of the spirit begin more often with a person than a philosophy. One of the glories of England, seldom referred to, has been the emergence throughout the centuries of a succession of talented, cultivated and articulate tradesmen such as Bernard Leach, the potter, Johnston, the calligrapher, Eric Gill and the Cribb brothers, stonemasons who combined with the highest professional talents and personal probity the ability to look within and without, relate their work to wider human issues, and see it more profoundly in relation to historical development and geographical distribution and to other art forms. In other words, to make a higher synthesis of their experience – an ability also (ideally) to be derived from a university education. Nor had rigorous trade training stamped out in them that little spark of fantasy which is one of the essential ingredients of a whole man. Neither was it puffed up and overblown into a state of perpetual whimsicality, as has become the fate of many artists who survive on a diet of fashionable vitamins so that a jaded palate should have ever more novel novelties. They remained very English, very local, very ordinary men, proof against the meretricious allure of gentility, Bohemia or Internashville.

Seamus Murphy is the only man I can call to mind to whom one could apply, indifferently, the name artist, craftsman, tradesman, academician. His education was privileged, resembling that envisaged in Plato’s Republic where education appeared as much in doing as in knowing things, for craftsmanship is a mode of thought. The modern Art School is reminiscent of the ‘lieu vague’ in a Racinian play, a place where the actors meet and discuss with acute psychological insights the philosophic convictions which activate them, but the action itself – bitter and bloody – all takes place in some other part of the island. This awareness is valuable if accompanied by the sedative and commonplace rewards of labour and commerce, otherwise all making is ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’. A quotation from Arts and Crafts in India and Ceylon illustrates the incomprehension which must exist between an art student and a trade apprentice. All craftsmen regard their art as a mystery and look upon its traditions as invested with sacred and scriptural authority. The importance attached to craftsmanship and the picture of the ideal craftsman may be gathered from the following characteristic extract from ‘Shilpashastra’: “That any other than a shilpan should be permitted to build a temple is comparable to the sin of murder”. To reconcile these antipathies is the most urgent requirement of education and manufacture in this country. Seamus Murphy reconciled them in his work. His sculpture ‘TheVirgin of the Twilight’ is the most important carving made in Ireland this century. Like all important works of art it looks before and after, inward and outwards. It echoes the Hiberno-Romanesque tradition and reverberates outward to Mestrovic in Croatia, Barlach in Germany and Epstein in England. It is a work of great power and sweetness (Synge noted that dramatic rhetoric should have the sweetness of an apple or a nut. Most Irish church ornament has the sweetness of chocolate fudge.)

It is disgraceful, scandalous, indeed almost incomprehensible that this image which embodies the qualities of Irish Catholicism should have a secular setting. It would be justifiable to build a chapel around it.