Paul Cotter

Oileáin: Cóstaí: Léaslínte

Paul Cotter
Oileáin: Cóstaí: Léaslínte

Oileáin : Cóstaí: Léaslínte

Ag piocadhamharc-peirspictíocht oileáin

Réamhrá

Le corradh agus fiche bliain tá ceannródaíocht déanta ag An Gailearaí ar chur chun cinn náisiúnta d’ealaín a léiríonn céadfaíocht na Gaeltachta. Chun é seo a dhéanamh rinne muid forbairt ar eolas atá ag fás ar feiniméan féideartha ar leith agus gan taiscealadh–sé sin, peirspictíocht nó céadfaíocht oileáin mar a léirítear agus mar a shamhlaítear é trí na hamharc-ealaíona. Cuireann saothair ealaíne, déanta ag ealaíontóirí oileáin nó leoga ag ealaíontóirí a chónaíonn ar oileán, cuireann siad i láthair pictiúir a thugann leide dúinn ar pheirspictíocht atá go hiomlán ar leith. Is cosúil go léiríonn an dóigh ina bhfeiceann oileánach é/í féin ar an tsaol seo agus ina n-áit féin samhlaíocht agus eispéireas a d’fhéadfadh a bheith neamhchoitianta. Leis na blianta, chonaic muid saothair ealaíne a chuimsíonn go hálainn an ‘céadfaíocht’ seo: bíonn na léaslínte rud beag cam, bíonn na cóstaí cruinn, bíonn an talamh leibhéalta nó sínte agus tig leis an radharc a d’fhéadfadh a bheith ina radairc éin a dhéanann cur síos ar bhrí nó ar thuiscint 360 céim. Leagadh síos an sainmhíniú ‘Ealaín Bhunstíle’ ar Scoil Ealaíne Thoraí, ar chuir James Dixon tús léi, ach an bhfuil sé seo ceart? Má ghlacann muid le sin, táimid ag coisceadh muid féin ó thaiscéaladh a dhéanamh ar na miondifríochtaí dúchasacha a d’fhéadfadh ealaíontóir oileánach a mharcáil mar ealaíontóir leithleach–ach ní gá go sainiúil nó go hiomlán ‘Bunstíle’–nó cibé rud a chiallaíonn sin?

Ealaín Bhunstíle agus Shoineanta

Mar sin de, cad é go díreach ‘Ealaín Bhunstíle’? In CollinsDictionary deir sé “ag baint le sochaí ina gcónaíonn daoine go han-simplí, de ghnáth gan aon tionscail ná córas scríbhneoireachta”. Deir an Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists: “Focal atá anois beagnach gan bhrí, a thugtar ar (i) ealaíontóirí, go speisialta ó Scoileanna na hÍsiltíre agus na hÍodáile a bhí ag saothrú roimh c.1500.......... nach bhfuil aon cheangal soiléir acu le (ii) soineantacht–an fhís shimplí, gan mhilleadh atá i gcomhréir leis an amaitéarach, nó an phéintéir ‘Domhnaigh’, a dtugtar meas dó mar gheall ar a ghaol dílseachta agusa ghlaineacht despreagadh ealaíonta, agus a shaoirse ó cuibhreacha na proifisiúntachta, traidisiúin, teicnice agus oiliúint fhoirmeálta”. I dtaca le sainmhíniú Gailearaí an Tate, deirtear “... úsáidtear é le cur síos ar mheallacacht na luath-ealaíontóirí Eorpacha nua-aimseartha leis an rud ar tugadh ealaínbhunstíle air ag an am–ar a n-áirítear ealaíon threibheach ón Afraic, an Aigéan Chiúin Theas agus An Indinéis, mar aon le ealaín réamhstairiúil agus Eorpach an luath, agus ealaín Eorpach na ndaoine”. Mar sin de, tá idirdhealú tábhachtach déanta go bhfuil saothar James Dixon agus ealaíontóirí eile ón oileán sa chatagóir ‘Soineanta’ seachas ‘Bunstíle’. Sonraíonn an Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists go bhfuil difríocht idir ‘Ealaín Shoineanta’ agus ealaín bhunstíle sa mhéid is nach bhfuil sé déanta ag daoine neamhghlic ach a gealaíontóirí neamhoilte i sochaí sofaisiciúil”. An gcuireann sé seo síos go hoiriúnach ná go sásúil ar an feiniméan a bhfuil leide air sa smaoineamh thuasluaite agus an míníonn sé é? Déanaimid rud beag taiscéaladh.

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Dhá Ealaíontoir; Saothair le Alfred Wallis agus James Dixon

Sa bhliain 1999 bhí taispeántas ag Áras Nua-Ealaíne na hÉireann (IMMA), i gcomhar leGailearaí an Tate, darbh ainm “Two Painters; Works by Alfred Wallis and James Dixon”. Rinne an taispeántas iontach seo comparáid agus contrárthacht idir na saothair ón dá ealaíontóir, duine amháin acu as St Ives, Corn na Breataine agus an duine eile as Oileán Thoraí. Gan aon dabht, bhí an dá ealaíontóir ag obair laistigh den ghrúpa soineanta–ach ag an am céanna, tá torann cigilteach ansin a deir go bhfuil difríocht mhór idir an bheirt. Cé go bhfuil flúirse den ‘fís gan mhilleadh’ ansin, bhí an dá ealaíontóir ag tarraingt ó phriosma difriúil dá chéileagus sílim gurb é anseo atá an fíneáltacht atá mé i bhfách le taiscéaladh a dhéanamh air. Aithnítear Derek Hill, ealaíontóir Sasanach a bhí ina chónaí i nDún na nGall, mar an duine a spreag James Dixon le bheith ina ealaíontóir. D’inis Hill an scéala a bhfuil eolas maith air anois go raibh sé ag péintéireacht ar Oileán Thoraí lá amháin agus gur dhúirt Dixon, a bhí a choimhéad, go dtiocfadh leisean níos fearr a dhéanamh, agus sin mar a thosaigh a ghairmealaíonta.

Ealáin na Filíochta Spáis

Mar sin, cad faoin ‘spás’ atá ina oileán, an bhfuil tuiscint síceach dúchasach ann agus an soiléiríonn sé seo é féin laistigh de chanón na péintéireachta? I mo thuairmse, tá cruinneas a thugtar faoi ndeara go soiléir ag baint le ealaín déanta ag oileánaigh nó ag ealaíontóirí atá ina gcónaí ar oileáin nó cóngarach d’oileáin. Ní go díreach Dixon atá mé a mhaíomh a chealaíontóirí eile macasamhail Norah McGuinness, Gerard Dillon, George Campbell, ArthurArmstrong, Patrick Collins, Tony O’Malley, Seán McSweeney, Seán Ó Flaithearta, Cyril ÓFlaithearta, agus fiú Cathal McGinley s’againn féin agus go leor eile. Tá mórán de na healaíontóirí seo a bhfuil saothair déanta acu a thaispeánann ‘cruinneas’ laistigh den spáspictiúrtha. Is minic a mheabhraigh mé air seo agus domsa tá an freagra bainteach le bheith ‘ar’ an oileán nó ‘ag taobh’ an oileáin. Ag uaireanta éagsúlarachadh ealaíontóirí, cibé leo féin nó i gcomhar lena chéile, go dtí an iarthar ar lorg rud éigin agus tig linn buille faoi thuairim a thabhairt go raibh an cuardach ar lorg an rud glan neamhphróiseáilte–díreach mar a rinne Klee ceannródaíocht air. Is é an rud atá suimiúil gur éirigh mórán de na healaíontóirí proifisiúnta seo ar tír mór a chaith am ag péinteáil ar na hoileáin nó ar chosta an iarthair, gur éirigh siad cleachtaithe ar thuiscint an meon aigne seo nó an sicé seo agus gur ghlac siad leis go fonnmhar.


Cultúr Bundúchasach

Díríonn dromlach an chultúr ársa Bundúchasach Astrálach ar Ré an Tuismidh; am ársa cruthaíochta de gach uile rud ag sinsearaigh diaga, a bhfuil a gcuid spioraid ag leanúint ar aghaidh i gcónaí, mar a léirítear sa mhiotaseolaíocht. Anseo fosta tá eolas domhain ar agus urraim don talamh a chuirtear i láthair ó bhéal atá ar aon dul lenár miotaseolaíocht agus Dinnseanchas. Mar sin féin, trasnaíonn an ealaín Bundúchasach na mílte bliain, neamhchosúil lenár dtraidisiún físeach, agus úsáidtear é mar chroinic le heolas a thabhairtar an talamh, inste mar radharc anuas neamhlíneach ar phictiúr-mhachairí samhaltacha–tharraingeodh na bundúchasaigh a gcuid íomhaí de réir mar a bheidis ag caint. In Éirinn, bhíár seachadadh ó bhéal, labhartha nó ceolta.

Níl an leagan amach pictiúrtha de na saothair a bhfuil mé ag machnamh orthu in oiriúint dona rialacha geoiméadracha de pheirspictíocht agus tá sé ag scáthánú an tableau bundúchasach. Glac an focal ‘réamhghiorrú’ mar shampla–tugann an t-oileánach sraitheolais nuair atá sé/sí ag tabhairt aghaidh ar phéinteáil an talamh nó an spás os a c(h)oinne;an mothú go bhfuil tú timpeallaithe ag uisce, go bhfuil léargas ginearálta agat chomh maithle heolas ar iomlán an Dinnseanchas áitiúil. Tá na heilimintí gníomhacha seo go flúirseachina gcuid saothar agus tugann siad neamhaird ar na cleasa matamaitice a foghlaimíodh chun‘cirte’ an phictiúir a chur ina luí ar an bhreathnóir. Deir Iníon Uí Dhomhnaill le linn di abheith ag déanamh léirmheastóireacht ar an peirspictíocht ‘sibhialta’ clasaiceach díobh siúda hoileadh i gcathracha “.... tá siad i muinín an rud atá go caothúil róshimplithe mar an ‘Dearcadh Iartharach’, a leacaíonn gach uile bhac do dhul chun cinn líneach, go speisialta ‘leagan nádúrtha an talaimh’ agus aon tuiscint bhundúchasach air mar atá léirithe sa Dinnseanchas”. Ag pointí áirithe, is dócha go raibh mórán ealaíontóirí ag coraíocht le ‘imeall’ machaire a bpictiúr agus conas é a réiteach. Siocair nach raibh ach beagán céille (fadó go cinnte, níos lú anois) ag an cultúr Bundúchasach ar imill nó teorainneacha laistigh dá dtaithícionnas nach bhfaca agus nár mhothaigh siad é, mar sin de cuireann a gcuid íomhaí in iúl ollmhéid, fánaíocht agus cruinne ach go hannamh imeall. Mar an gcéanna le Dixon agus na healaíontóirí eile ar thrácht mé orthu, tá céadfa neamhlíneach acu mar go bhfeiceann siad gach rud atá timpeall orthu.

Laistigh den chatalóg a bhí leis an taispeántas, luaigh Derek Hill Luke Batterham a dúirt an méid seo faoin teagmháil sin: “ba bheag an gaol a bhí idir an pictiúrachas staidéarach srianta a d’úsáid Hill chun an t-oileán a léiriú agus aithne an Éireannaigh ar an áit a chaith sé bunúsa shaoil” (1). Leanann Hill ar aghaidh ag rá faoi stíl Dixon: “Níl baint ar bith ag coibhneas, peirspictíocht agus cruinneas dinnseanchais lena chuid saothar. D’fhéadfadh ainmhithe amharc níos mó ná daoine agus d’fhéadfadh radharc aerga mearaithe a bheith curtha go tobann leis an tírdhreach atá cothrom de ghnáth”. Nuair a thug Hill an léirmheastóir ealaíne, úrscéalaí, ealaíontóir agus an file John Berger go Toraigh, dúirt sé: “Nuair a thug sé cuairt ar an oileán liomsa, mhothaigh sé go raibh an t-oileán ar shéala titim thar imeall bhinn na hEorpa. Ní raibh rud ar bith ach Hy Brasil idir é féin agus luí na gréine”. Thug an léirmheastóir ealaíne a chion féin don chatalóg chomh maith agus deir sé go géarchúiseach:“Rinne mé féin comparáid le Wallis níos mó ná uair amháin ach ar fheiceáil an taispeántas seo, táim amhrasach faoi cé chomh fada is is féidir sin a thabhairt (2). De ghnáth, bíonn cuid pictiúir Wallis beag –iontach beag, corr uair–agus tiubhaithe agus phéinteáil sé an fharraige agus longa go mórmhór. Tá cuid Dixon níos mó, níos scaoilte agus níos saoire ó thaobh stíl de, gan an cháilíocht righin, beagnach taibhsiúil atá ag of Wallis..........” agus “.....ba ealaíotóir ó nádúr é (Dixon), tá a láimhseáil iontach saor agus lán de bhrí, agus thiocfadh leis an fharraige a phéinteáil oiread is dá dtiocfadh sé ar an tsaol faoina choinne, leoga mar a bhí sé”. Tá na tagairtí seo ag tabhairt le fios cáilíocht bhreise nó cáilíocht faoi leith agus difriúil a bhí ag Dixon–sé sin, a chuid eolais chultúrtha, teangeolaíoch, geografach agus fisiciúil. Coinnigh cuimhne nach raibh traidisiún ealaíontóireachta ar bith in Oileán Thoraí suas go dtí an t-am seo agus dá bhrí sin, mar an chéad duine scaoil Dixon amach seoid úr suntasach tríd an mhodh mothúcháin úrnua seo. Léiríonn a chuid péintéireachta imfhios agus mianach a d’fhéach ealaíontóirí macasamhail Paul Klee a bhaint amach ina gcuid cleachtas. Creidim gurb é ceann de na heochracha chun an glas a bhaint den ‘chéadfaíocht’ seo ná an fios beo a bhí ag Dixon ar Dinnseanchas.


Má sheasann tú ar oileán nó fiú má chónaínn tú le fad an chósta, ní thig leat gan a bheith feasach ar an fharraige thart ort–tá sé thart ort go hiomlán, níl imeall ar bith, níl críoch ar bith agus níl buntomhas líneach aige i gcosúlacht. I ndáiríre, tá feasacht chéadfach 360 céimann agus thuig na healaíotóirí thuasluaite an feiniméan seo; tá an t-eolas seo níos mó fáchéadfacht ná faoi glan-léargas acadúil. Ina leabhar ‘The Poetics of Space’, tá caibidil ag Gaston Bachelard dar teideal ‘The Phenomenology of Roundness’. Ag baint le ointeolaíocht, brainse meitifisce a dhéanann staidéir ar nádúr saoil nó an bheith, deir Bachelard go bhfuil “an beith cruinn” agus “....cuidíonn íomhaí d’iomlán cruinneas linn muid féin a bhailiú le chéile, ligeann sé dúinn bun-chomhdhéanamh a dheimhniú dúinn féin, agus ár mbeith a dheimhniú laistigh. Mar nuair a airítear é ón taobh istigh, in easpa iomlán gnéithe ón taobh amuigh, ní féidir leis an bheithach a bheith cruinn”. Ní amháin gur meas ar an chruinneas feasacht ar dhromchla ach fostais tuiscint agus aireachtáil é ar cá háit go díreach ina bhfuil duine–timpeallaithe’. Rachaidh oileánach ó Éirinn amach ‘go tír mór’ nó fiú ‘amach go hÉirinn’ agus téann siad ‘isteach chunan oileáin’; tá an t-oileánach lárnach, ag croílár a ndomhain.


Achoimre

Tá Dixon agus Wallis istigh sa chatagóir Ealaín Shoineanta ach measaim go raibh Brian Fallon(2) ceart nuair a chuir sé síos ar an difríocht idir a gcuid saothar. Creidim go bhfuil an tionchar domhain den Dinnseanchas béil agus na traidisiúin Sean Nós a bhí ar shaothar Dixon soiléir domsa; taispeánann a theidil fada, ionadú na dtithe agus an tírdhreach &rl., cineál Dinnseanchas radhairc. De bhrí go dtug Dixon na fachtóirí suntasacha seo chun solais,tá idirdhealú idir é féin agus Wallis. Is í an cheist, mar sin, an dtiteann na healaíontóirí eile atá luaite agam isteach sa rangú Soineanta seo agus is cinnte nach dtiteann. Ach, is é an peirspictíocht turgnamhaíoch agus neamhphróiseáilte seo de ghnáthóg, dar liom, a mheall na healaíontóirí a thug cuairt ar an iarthair. Mar sin de, sílim go mbeadh mionscrúdú breise de dhíth ar an taiscéalaíocht bhunaidh seo. Is é an rud coitianta atá ag na cultúir Bundúchasach agus Éireannach ná a dtraidisiún cuntaisbéil ar an chuimhne dá spás trí ‘Amhráin Aislinge’, ‘Dinnseanchas’ agus ‘Sean Nós’; eitneolaíocht de sheachadadh an seanchas. Ar ndóigh, tá difríocht ann: síneann traidisiún ársa físeach chultúr na mBundúsasaigh ón Neoiliotach go dtí an lá inniu. Deanann Éire comparáid lenár saibhreas de snoíodóireacht Neoilotacha agus ansin téann muid ar aghaidh chun comhshnaidhmiú a dhéanamh ar na tionchair cultúrtha agus ealaíonta a tháinig as an iliomad ionraí, ar a n-áirítear lámhdhéanúsáin La Téne, ár saibhreas de lámhscríbhinní naofa agus de réir sin suas go dtí coiliniú foirmeálta ag Sasain sa mheán aois. Mar sin de, níor thosaigh ealaín Éireannach per se go dtí mall sa 9ú céad déag le Leech, O’Connor &rl. Inchollaíonn traidisiún físeach na nBundúchasaigh eolas fíorthábhachtach atá laistigh de na taispeántaí éagsúla mar a dhéanann ár Dinnseanchas. Nuair a chuaigh Dixon i mbunpeintéireacht gan aon phointí tagartha ealaíonta,thug sé leis an aithne agusan chéad faíocht chéanna. De bharr a léiriú neamhphróiseálta agus scaoilte ar gach rud a raibh eolas aige orthu agus mar thoradh air sin chuaigh an méid a bhí ar eolas aige i gcion ar a pheirspistíocht físeach.

Má ghlacann muid leis na tionchair seo agus an eispéireas fisiciúil fíor de bheith ar oileán nó ar chósta a chur leis, brúann seo go léir duine ‘suas’-le ‘feiceáil’ ón airde áit a dtig le duine iomlán na gcomhábhar seo a chur san áireamh. Chun é seo uilig a choimeád i bpictiúr-mhachaire amháin, caithfear é a bhrú go dtí an toiseacht agus an pictiúr-mhachaire a leacú ar mhaithe le háit a dhéanamh don eolas méadaithe agus mothú spáis. Tá an mothú seo de ‘thimpeallú’ agus ‘mórthimpeallú’ iontach soiléir, sílim, i gcuid saothar Dixon, na healaíontóirí eile a luaigh mé agus tuilleadh lena gcois. Braitheann duine an fairsinge, an mothú go bhfuil tú sa lár, go bhfuil tú i gcroílár domhain atá timpeallaithe ag uisce–scarthaagusaonarach. Ghlac na healaíontóirí eile a luaigh mé leis an feiniméan seo de barr go raibh cleachtadh díreach acu a bheith ar oileáin agus ina gcónaí ar an chósta agus táim cinnte go bhfuil sé curtha i ngníomh ina gcuid saothar. B’fhéidir go ndearna Dixon níos fearr ná Hill nó b’fhéidir nach ndearnaach siocair gur thóg sé an scuab sa chéad áit, bhuel táimid níos fearr dá thairbhe. Ar deireadh, bhí an ceart ag Batterham ina fhorbhreathnú ghonta(1)agus ar an tséala sin, caithfidh muid go díreach scrúdú níos grinne a dhéanamh ar cad é go díreach atá muid ag breathnú air.

Úna Campbell
Iúil 2019

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Islands : Coasts : Horizons

Unpicking an Island visual perspective 

Introduction 

For over 21 years An Gailearaí has spearheaded the role of nationally promoting art that reflects a Gaeltacht sensibility. In doing this we have developed a growing awareness of possible unique and unexplored phenomena – that of an Island perspective or sensibility as expressed and visualised through the visual arts.   

Certain artworks made by island artists, or indeed artists who have embraced island life, present images that hint at a wholly unique perspective. How an islander sees him/herself on this earth and in their place seems to demonstrate a possible exceptional imagination and experience. Over the years we have encountered artworks that beautifully encapsulate this ‘sensibility’; horizons are slightly bent, coasts are rounded, the land is flattened or stretched and the perspective can be that of a bird that depicts a 360 degree significance or intelligence. 

The Tory School of Painting beginning with James Dixon has been assigned the definition ‘Primitive Art’ but is this correct? By doing this are we therefore precluding ourselves from exploring the possible indigenous nuances that marks out an island artist as distinct – but not necessarily specifically nor solely ‘Primitive’ – or whatever this means? 

 

Primitive and Naive Art 

So what is ‘Primitive Art’? Collins Dictionary states “means belonging to a society in which people live in a very simple way, usually without industries or a writing system”. The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists states “A word now almost meaningless, being applied to (i) painters particularly of the Nertherlandish and Italian Schools working before c.1500.......... that have no obvious connection with (ii) the naive – unsophisticated, unspoilt vision consistent with the amateur, or ‘Sunday’ painter, admired for its connections of genuineness and purity of artistic impulse, and freedom from the trammels of professionalism, tradition, technique and formal training”. The Tate Gallery’s definition is “... used to describe the fascination of early modern European artists with what was then called primitive art – including tribal art from Africa, the South Pacific and Indonesia, as well as prehistoric and very early European art, and European folk art”. So, an important distinction has been made that James Dixon’s and other Island painter’s work falls into the ‘Naive’ category rather than the ‘Primitive’.  The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists specifies that ‘Naive Art’ differs from primitive art in that it is not produced by unsophisticated societies, but by untrained artists in a sophisticated society”. Does this adequately or satisfactorily define and explain the phenomena hinted at the in above idea? Let’s explore a bit.  

 

Two Painters; Works by Alfred Wallis and James Dixon 

In 1999 the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in conjunction with the Tate Gallery St. Ives exhibited an exhibition entitled “Two Painters; Works by Alfred Wallis and James Dixon”. This excellent show compared and contrasted the two painter’s works, one from St Ives, Cornwall and the other from Tory Island. Without doubt both artists worked within the naive grouping – but still, there is a nagging noise that says they are also quite different. Whilst the ‘unspoilt vision’ is in abundance both artists were drawing from a different prism to each other and I think herein lies the subtly I’m trying to explore. Derek Hill, an accomplished English painter living in Donegal, is acknowledged as the person that encouraged James Dixon to paint. Hill retold the by now familiar story that whilst he was painting on Tory Island Dixon commented “I could do better than that”, and so began his artistic occupation.  

Within the accompanying exhibition catalogue Derek Hill quoted Luke Batterham who said of this encounter “it was just that the studied, restrained pictorialism employed by Hill to represent the island bore little relation to the Irishman’s own experience of the place on which he had spent almost his entire life” (1).  Hill goes on to say of Dixon’s style that “Proportions, perspectives and topographical accuracy have no part in his work. Animals may appear larger than people and a rather disconcerting aerial view may suddenly be added to a normal flat landscape”. When Hill brought art critic, novelist, painter and poet John Berger to Tory he mentioned “The island he felt, when he visited it with me, was about to fall over the cliff edge of Europe. Nothing except Hy Brasil between it and the setting sun”. Art critic Brian Fallon also contributed to the catalogue and astutely observes “I have made the comparison with Wallis more than once myself, but on seeing this exhibition I am doubtful as to how far it can be taken (2). Wallis’s pictures are usually small – very small, sometimes – and concentrated and he painted the sea and ships almost exclusively. Dixon’s are bigger, looser and freer in style, without the stark, almost apparitional quality of Wallis ..........” and “..... he (Dixon) was a born painter, his handling is remarkably free and expressive, and he could paint the sea as if he was born to it, as indeed he was”.  

These references are pointing to an additional quality or a specific and distinctly different quality that Dixon had – that of his cultural, linguistic, geographical and physical knowledge. Remember that until this time Tory Island did not have a tradition of painting and so, as the first, Dixon poured forth a raw unique jewel via this new means of expression. His paintings demonstrated an intuition and aptitude that artists like Paul Klee strove to attain in their practices. I believe that one of the keys to unlocking this ‘sensibility’ is Dixon’s living knowledge of Dinnsheanchas.  

 

Dinnsheanchas 

Dinnsheanchas is Gaelic ‘placename lore’ or ‘placelore’ which in no way defines the breadth of its meaning as it is much more than this. It has variously been referred to as “a collective memory of the community” – “a psychic container” – “a useful container for our deeply held, heartfelt need for both mythology and a homeland” (Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill). The Irish landscape and cultural heritage is informed by the Irish language and Dinnsheanchas is an important branch of this ancient knowledge. Poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has studied and espoused the value of Dinnsheanchas for most of her career and in her essay ‘Dinnsheanchas : Holy Wells and Psychic Depths’ she explains that for thousands of years we have been “tramping around the countryside telling ourselves stories about it”. These stories, Dinnsheanchas, are in no way linear as they often mediate between past and present; “Places would have been known to them as people were: by face, name and history. The last two would have been closely linked, for as Dinnsheanchas illustrates again and again, the name of every place was assumed to be an expression of its history”. It is clear then why Dixon’s titles were lengthy; “Mr William Rogers Plowing in Dixon Farm Tory Island The first Tractor That Ever Came to Tory Island” and “Mr Clark Passing Tormore Tory Island In his yacht with a Whole Gale of S. W. Wind & rain With Jill and Others on Board after Leaving Greenport with Daylight about the year 1952”.  

As Ní Dhomhnaill says this lore is multilayered, added to and added to over time, leaping from the ancient to the present. It is also very clear how the familiar Dinnsheanchas means of transmission has been imported directly to a new visual depiction and expression. An islander’s knowledge of his/her locality and the value placed on every topographical feature of their habitat is a vital force of knowledge that invigorates their identity and therefore expression. 

 

The Poetics of Space  

So what about the ‘space’ that is an island, is there an innate psychic intelligence and does this manifest itself within the canon of painting? To my eyes there is a clearly observed ‘roundness’ to some art made by either islanders or painters living on or near islands. I’m thinking not just of Dixon but other artists such as Norah McGuinness, Gerard Dillon, George Campbell, Arthur Armstrong, Patrick Collins, Tony O’Malley, Sean McSweeney, Seán Ó Flaithearta, Cyril Ó Flaithearta, even our own Cathal McGinley and many more. Many of these artists have made works that demonstrate ‘roundness’ within the pictorial space. I’ve often thought about this and to my mind the answer lies in actually being ‘on’ or ‘beside’ an island. At various times, singularly and sometimes collectively these, artists would have decamped to the west in search of something and maybe we can hazard a guess that the quest was the pursuit of the pure and the unprocessed - just as Klee had pioneered. What is interesting is that many of these professional mainland artists who spent time painting on the islands or along the western board came to understand this mindset or psyche in some way and embraced it. 

Standing on an island or even living along the coast line one cannot but be aware of the sea that surrounds you, it is around you, all around you - there is no edge, no border, and does not appear as a linear dimension. There is in fact a 360 degree sense of awareness and the above artists understood this phenomenon; this knowledge is more about a sensibility than pure academic insight.  

In Gaston Bachelard’s book ‘The Poetics of Space’ he includes a chapter ‘The Phenomenology of Roundness’. Relating to ontology, the branch of metaphysics that studies the nature of existence or being, Bachelard argues that “being is round” and says “.... images of full roundedness help us to collect ourselves, permit us to confer an initial constitution on ourselves, and to confirm our being intimately, inside. For when it is experienced from the inside, devoid of all exterior features, being cannot be otherwise than round”. This appreciation of roundness is not merely an awareness of a surface rather it is also a realisation and perception of where one actually is – sur’rounded’. An Irish islander will go ‘out to the mainland’, or even ‘out to Ireland’ and they will go ‘in to the island’; the islander is central, at the centre of their world. 

 

Aboriginal Culture  

The spine of the ancient Australian Aboriginal culture centres on Dreamtime; the ancient time of the creation of all things by sacred ancestors, whose spirits continue into the present, as illustrated in the mythology. Here too there is a deep knowledge of and reverence for the land transmitted orally that parallels our mythology and Dinnsheanchas. Aboriginal art however spans thousands of years, unlike our visual tradition, and is used as a chronicle to convey knowledge of the land narrated via a nonlinear birds-eye view of symbolic picture plains – aboriginals would have drawn their images as they were narrating. In Ireland our transmission was oral, spoken or sung 

The pictorial layout of works I’m considering do not conform to the geometric rules of perspective and mirror the aboriginal tableau. Take ‘foreshortening’ as an example – the islander brings an array of knowledge when faced with depicting the ground or space in front of them; the sense of being surrounded by water, possessing a bird’s eye perspective as well as a knowledge of all the local Dinnsheanchas. These active elements abound in their work and ignore the taught mathematical tricks used to convince the viewer of the ‘rightness’ of the picture plain. Ní Dhomhnaill in criticising the classical ‘civilised’ perspective of those educated in cities states “.... are armed with what has been conveniently oversimplified as ‘the Western Gaze’, which flattens all obstacles to linear progress, notably the natural ‘lie of the land’ and any aboriginal understanding of it such as evidenced in Dinnsheanchas”. Most painters at some point have struggled with the ‘edge’ of their picture plain and how to resolve it. Because Aboriginal culture (in the past certainly, less so now) would have had little sense of edges, boundaries or confines within their experience because they did not see it nor feel it their images therefore express vastness, roaming and roundness but rarely an edge. Similarly, Dixon and the artists I’ve referenced also have a non-linearly sense as they could see all around.  

 

Summary 

Dixon and Wallis fall into the category of Naive Painting but I think Brian Fallon (2) was right to note a difference between their works.  I believe the profound influence the oral Dinnsheanchas and Sean Nos traditions would have had on Dixon’s work is apparent to me; his lengthy titles, placement of houses and the landscape etc, manifest as a sort of visual Dinnsheanchas. That Dixon brought these significant factors to bear distinguishes him from Wallis.  The question then is do the other artists I’ve cited also fit into this Naive classification and the answer is obviously no. Yet, this empirical and unprocessed perception of a habitat is I suspect what the artists visiting the west embraced. So it seems to me then that this initial exploration indicates further scrutiny is valid. 

What the Aboriginal and Irish cultures have in common is their tradition of the oral recording of the memory of their space via ‘Songlines’, ‘Dinnsheanchas’ and ‘Sean Nos’; the ethnology of the transmission of lore. The difference of course is that the ancient visual tradition of the aboriginal culture reaches from the Neolithic to the contemporary. Ireland compares with our wealth of Neolithic carvings and then we proceed to incorporate the cultural and artistic influences emanating from the numerous waves of invasions including the La Tain artefacts, our wealth of religious manuscripts and so on up to the formal colonisation by England in medieval times. Therefore, Irish art per se only really began in the late 19th century with Leech, O’Connor etc. The aboriginal visual tradition embodies vital knowledge encoded within the various manifestations as does our Dinnsheanchas. When Dixon approach painting with no artistic points of references he brought with him this same awareness and sensibility. His was a raw unprocessed and unfettered expression of all that he knew and consequently what he knew then influenced his visual perspective.  

If we accept these influences and add to it the real physical experience of being present on an island or coast, all of this surely forces one literally ‘upwards’ - to ‘see’ from above where one can include all these constituents. To coral all of this into a single picture plain demands that one pushes out the foreground and flattens the pictorial plain in order to accommodate the accrued knowledge and sense of space. This sense of ‘around-ness’ and ‘surrounded-ness’ is very evident I think both in Dixon’s work, the other artists I have mentioned and probably more besides. One senses the expanse, the sense of being in the centre, of being in the middle of a world surrounded by water – separate and detached. The other artists I have mentioned, through direct experience of being on islands and residing by coasts, have absorbed this phenomenon and I believe is realised in their work. Dixon may or may not have done better than Hill but the fact that Dixon took up the brush at all, well we are the better for it. Finally, Batterham was right in his succinct observation (1) and we therefore just need to examine more fully what exactly it is that we are looking at.   




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