Originating at Solstice Arts Centre and currently at the Royal Hibernian Academy, the touring Micheal Farrell retrospective marks a rich career. As the Dublin venue, the RHA is a good choice. For a start the location is close to the Taylor Galleries, Farrell’s long-term Dublin representative. Taylor is therefore well placed to mount a complementary exhibition to run concurrently. It elaborates on the RHA with a selection from four decades covering the artist’s chosen mediums of drawing, print, and paint. Then there is the expansive space of the Main Gallery at the RHA which not only contains the retrospective but effortlessly offers the viewer, in taking a 360 degree turn, a vista of almost all the works. This is the RHA Gallery at its best, showing off two-dimensional work without the partitioning that tends to impose artificial breaks.
Having said that, the RHA space is loosely quartered into early and late work at each end with work from the mid-seventies through to the early nineties on the two long walls. While the early abstracts of the sixties and the late works of the late nineties with their representations of illness have particular histories that warrant particular attention I want to focus here on Farrell at mid-career. This is featured at the RHA as the work which is centrally positioned on the two main walls. On one wall is the Madonna Ireland theme, and opposite, work which might be said to emanate around the theme of café culture. Facing one another then is woman as subject, women who inhabit the studio and the boudoir, and opposite, scenes of cafés, bars, drinks, tables, animals, and, male subjects. Farrell represents these male figures as men who hang out in bars and who not only breathe the culture but who have an internal life that adds significantly to their allure.
The facts of Farrell’s development are well known. His art education was in London. He was familiar with the art scene there, and his awareness of contemporary art was extended by a visit to New York. He spent a few years back in Ireland before leaving for France in 1971, which from that point on was his main country of residence. By the early seventies Farrell was moving away from the cool, hard-edge abstraction that he and a number of other Dublin-based artists had adopted in the late sixties. A need to respond to the situation in Northern Ireland was one reason for this. More curious is the evolution which followed—from the serious-minded intensity of the political, semi-abstract collages about Ireland to a representational style which was playful, fantastical, and, was also about sex. Farrell’s output from the late seventies may be compared to the nascent Pop Art he encountered in London in the late fifties, though his subjects are far from the emerging commodity culture celebrated in Pop. In this work, Farrell’s style oscillates from free-flowing graphics to patterned surfaces but style is always subject to what he wanted to say. Farrell had found a means of incorporating a modern attitude to things Irish within a French milieu, while retaining more traditional art subjects.
This development can be traced from Protestant Oculte and Pressé Irlandaise/La Ruche from 1974 and 1975 respectively to the oil painting, Miss O’Murphy d’après Boucher—This Picture will be Finished when Ireland Once Again is One, 1978. The former use newspaper reportage on current violence in Ireland in print and collage within an abstract motif. The effect is an expression of despair in face of relentless and seemingly endless violence. Miss O’Murphy d’après Boucher in one sense carries over the tearing and dissecting process of the earlier works. The female figure reclining face down on a chaise longue has marks added which break her into parts. Farrell alludes to the figure of Louise O’Murphy, a sometime courtesan at the mid-eighteenth French court who is of Irish extraction. Her fame perpetuates because Casanova made reference to her, but most especially because she is the subject of one of François Boucher’s most famous paintings where she is in the suggestive pose which Farrell has copied. However Farrell makes her body parts into butcher’s cuts, playing on Boucher’s name and the French, boucherie. While the caption ‘Madonna Ireland’ appears down the left side of the canvas, this is no Madonna. A cut or gap appears where her genitals should be, and this is echoed in a cartoon-like depiction of Vitruvian Man hovering above in which the figure covers his genitals with his hands, or perhaps he covers emasculated sexual parts. In the title Farrell has made a bald statement about the reunification of Ireland such as were in use by the IRA, but he has transfigured the idealized image of Mother Ireland into the courtesan, Louise O’Murphy.
Women constitute the vast majority of sex workers and prostitution is often seen as degrading to women generally. At the same time, prostitution receives little public attention and is often regarded as an inevitable aspect of an imperfect world. In this and other works with this theme Farrell takes prostitution into the political spectrum and highlights the plight of ideals on entry to the actual world, but in the process he provoked the ire of feminists with his representation of woman as meat. From today’s perspective, over thirty years on, we might acknowledge that Farrell also represented himself in some of these works, not as voyeur, but as pathetic onlooker. Perhaps it is the failure of ‘freedom’ movements to live up to expectation that leads Farrell to pursue a lighter, and more fantastical version of the world from the 1980s to the early nineties. Other figures enter his canvas: Picasso, Brancusi, Joyce, along with other artists partaking in the café, as well as the hound, various mythological animals and birds, Sweeney and the Irish pub. Take Joyce for example. There are numerous representations of Joyce, not in the reverential terms normally allotted, but as a dapper figure conscious of the style of his tie. Farrell over-cooks the tie design into Celtic motifs, not in order to stress the Irishness in Joyce’s genes but as the excessive branding of Joyce as Irish genius. In James Joyce et Picasso at the Café du Flore, 1993, Joyce and Picasso are seen sitting at a table, Gauloises to the fore, both seemingly caught up in their own imaginings. But a large part of the canvas is taken up with the marbling effect of the café’s décor along with a large greyhound-like dog. For all the sociability of the French café, the large space of the foreground seems to represent a potential for creative force.
In these works Farrell identified his sources, his guiding lights. These figures are from the immediate past. Farrell did not claim radical new paths for art, in this he sees continuities rather than fractures. Just like French art itself, the baton for change in medium and subject had passed elsewhere. At the same time Farrell evolved an art closely connected to his life, and from that perspective he was able to take a quizzical view of Ireland that isn’t overwhelmed by the nationalist identifications expected of the émigré. More important in respect to today’s situation is that he fully embraced the concept of the artist as bohemian who refused to pay lip service to staid society. As pressure on artists today increases to adopt a business persona perhaps we should look back on Farrell’s practice more intently as timely reminder of an outlook in danger of extinction.
Illustration: Micheal Farrell, Miss O’Murphy d’après Boucher, 1987, lithograph, edition of 15, 55 x 76 cm, Courtesy of Taylor Galleries.