Roderic O’Conor and the Moderns. Between Paris and Pont-Avenby William Davie
National Gallery of Ireland | July 18 – October 28, 2018
If curators Jonathan Benington and Brendan Rooney are right and it is time for a re-evaluation of Roderic O’Conor’s oeuvre, then the case they put forward in Roderic O’Conor and the Moderns: Between Paris and Pont-Aven, on view at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, is certainly a captivating one–but not entirely without its pitfalls.
The majority of the works focus on what the curators believe to be his artistic peak, between 1887 – 1895 however, it is the inclusion of works by his contemporaries Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Armand Seguin, Robert Bevan, and Cuno Amiet, which has the unfortunate, but inevitable, consequence of asking us to compare O’Conor’s work with theirs. The result: either O’Conor is an artist who is able to adapt to those whose work he surrounds himself with, consistently challenging himself to evolve, or rather harshly, he is an artist who is lacklustre in his abilities and who rides the coattails of those he surrounds himself with.
Having studied at the Metropolitan School of Art, Dublin, O’Conor moved to Antwerp and enrolled at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. His work leading up to and during this time is rooted in sombre realism, as seen in Between the Cliffs, Aberystwyth (c. 1883 – 1884), painted while he was still a student at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. The work is naïve, but nevertheless exemplifies O’Conor’s ability to methodically consider, rather than impulsively overwork, the composition.
Despite having never met him, O’Conor saw Van Gogh’s works in the months following his death, thanks to Theo, his brother and dealer. Clearly, this encounter had a great impact on O’Conor’s work in the following years. For instance, one can see a visual overlap between Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cornflowers (July 1890), painted in the final month of his life and two notable works of O’Conor’s that are clearly influenced by Van Gogh. In The Bridge at Grez-sur-Loing (c. 1889 – 1890), O’Conor flirts with impressionist sensibilities by using primary colors in areas of both shadow and light while at the same time pointillist color theory and brushwork. The second, Yellow Landscape (1892), made just after his arrival in Pont-Aven during the winter of 1891 – 1892, sees O’Conor adopting Impressionist sensibilities. He builds up thick impasto segments with lines of luminous pinks and greens and brash blues with a feverish intensity, capturing the movement of the fast-flowing river and splendours of the foliage and trees that line the river banks and fields.
A year later, in Still Life with Apples (c. 1893), O’Conor returns to a more considered approach and the role of elongated linear marks—that soon after evolve into stripes—become increasingly refined. The painting’s flatter surface allows for the brighter colored lines to appear more synthesized into the scene, and, as a result, the economical use of raised slivers of pink, white and yellow that depict the highlights of light flooding in from the top right of the composition work together to create a strong, dynamic work.
O’Conor’s work in this style is at its most impacting in Breton Peasant Woman Knitting (1893), and Flowerpiece (1910). In both, bold-colored stripes are used sparingly to dissect the subjects, rendered in subdued palettes, instilling a presence that feels almost religious. We are aware that we are viewing both a peasant woman as she knits and a vase of flowers, but equally what we are seeing is a moment of transient beauty.
It must be noted that, to a lesser extent, just after the key period outlined, O’Conor’s friendship with Gauguin marks another radical shift in his practice; one that is more experimental, underpinned by the idea that art should not be limited to the replication of external reality and instead has its origins in his imagination. This is best evidenced in Bather by the Sea (c. 1898 – 1900). The work owes a lot to Gauguin’s paintings of bathers–especially in tone and sexual overtones–but in O’Conor’s hands, Gauguin’s style feels contrived. His brush work is coarse and unrefined in places, but the first thing that is noticed is the mix of fiery red and orange used to capture the light hitting the bather’s body as she bends over. This begins at her crotch and spreads up across her abdomen to the lower parts of her breasts before it fades in intensity. On the cliffs behind her, above the small of her back, three vertical accents of light are painted in the same mix of red and orange, which in turn triangulates and guides our gaze back down to her body.
The strongest work is found in the final room, Self-Portrait at the Easel (c. 1910). Its brooding pallet and small size suggest an unassuming, even quiet, demeanor. But it is precisely for these reasons that it isn’t. It is one of only two full-length self-portraits he ever painted. He stands in his studio next to an easel, a silhouette illuminated by four windows behind him. Around fifty years old, his body is lean and slender. He gives us nothing else, which itself alludes to a humbleness that is endearing and intimate, and draws our attention to his studio, painted in a style that gently blends his earlier sombre realism and his exploration of Pointillism, Impressionism, and Post-Impressionism. There is a thin, horizontal streak to the right of his figure where the light catches the edge of a propped-up canvas. His employment of subtle blue vertical lines in the window frames, and diagonal teal marks on the floor, punctuates the dark crimson and red-tones used in the pallet of the wooden fixtures. The staccato brushwork, with minimal impasto, is mostly blended–not enough to appear smooth, but enough that it feels less aggressive and easier to invest in than with previously seen works.
In sum, whatever opinion of O’Conor’s work the viewer walks away with, the fact remains that it’s an edifying and engaging, long overdue survey.
WILLIAM DAVIE is a writer based in London who regularly contributes to Aesthetica Magazine, Ambit Magazine, and This is Tomorrow, where he also serves as editor.