Look at You
When the painted image is not a copy but the result of a dialogue, the painted thing speaks if we listen.
Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe was first shown to me by Mrs Ferran, an art teacher in St Dominic’s High School, in the airy top floor art room with long windows holding their breath on the panorama of Belfast’s Black Mountain. It was the first truly ‘modern’ painting, she declared, challenging us to write an essay. It might well have been painted on the moon by an alien, compared to the world I was living in, and that perhaps was its best strength.
I hadn't a clue what I was looking at, but I kept looking.
In that art room my 17-year-old self found sanctuary, punctured by the occasional sound of random gunfire that peppered the area in the ‘70s. In the streets of west Belfast, the clocks ticked a very special time and place. Impressionable and young, I was opening my eyes to a bigger world, no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there, you were alive in that corner of the world and part of something changing, whatever it meant. There was madness in any direction and at any hour sparks might strike.
Only a handful of years later and I was standing in the Musée d’Orsay in front of Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and more enthralled by its mystery than ever. I was determined to increase the scale of my world that summer and I did. Sleeping in a tent insecurely pinned to the earth at the Bois de Boulogne, I walked the streets of Paris and became a European. I gained a much better understanding of Manet's work and how one beautiful painting can contain all the power and pain of love, quietly, like someone living in your ear.
Here I am, a lifetime later and the dialogue continues in a new work, the figures from Le Déjeuner have wandered off canvas and brought their picnic to the lymph system of a man, peeled open. I purchased the anatomical drawing from a bouquiniste beside the Seine, the last time I was in Paris. The image chimed with work that I’ve been making on my artist’s residency at Trinity College Dublin, called The Anatomy of Hope.
In lockdown, no travelling out was permitted, so by necessity my journeying turned inwards. Methodically, I began making a series of anatomical drawings; hearts and lungs describe the physicality of being human. Drawing has my trust, it has always sustained me in tough times; the work gathers me in and reassures me.
I recall a conversation with Brian Keenan after his release from so many years of captivity in Beirut. In horror at my most basic comprehension of this, I asked him how he had found the strength to keep his mind together in the darkness? I wasn't completely surprised when he told me he covered the walls of his mind entirely with ‘pictures’ and moved around ‘the room’ remembering them.
There is a world in my head, and in this image it is the world of Europe that opened up to me on an Interrail ticket. Veins and arteries pulse like all the possible choices of train routes on the map, and I wanted to travel them all. A mouth in profile shapes language I didn't understand but loved the sound of, I breathed it in as if somehow inhalation would translate. The names of small towns and villages flew past carriage windows en route to great cities and fabulous museums and galleries. In order to fund my journey I had worked long days with fast horses in Eastwood's Bookmakers; now a speedy pegasus brought me from Belfast to Athens, feeding a larger, deeper sense of my identity, and nourishing the need to press on the boundaries.
When lockdown is over I will go to Paris and spend a day, just one perfect day wandering the galleries and I will look at all those paintings again, this time with eyes that have been through a global pandemic. I might board a train and allow myself to travel east across Europe without any definite plan, just happy to be an Irish woman on a train and thinking. I believe the movement of travel shakes off the dead skin limitations we impose on ourselves through consumption and fear. After our year ‘of global humbling’ an extended moment when we collectively realized ‘normal’ can disappear in a heartbeat, I think it’s time to wake up and change my life.