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The Stilled World

Nicola Gordon Bowe

Patrick Pye, Life and Work: A counter-cultural story, by Brian McAvera, Four Courts Press, 126 pp, 46 illustrations in colour and black and white, €35, ISBN 978-1846823664

This is the first monograph on Patrick Pye RHA, now eighty-four years old, who was been successfully painting and exhibiting in Ireland for over sixty-six years. His paintings, his graphic work and his stained glass have long been well known and collected, although his editorship of an annual magazine, INTROSPECT (1975-7), and his many writings, including two books, Apples and Angels (1980) and The Time Gatherer (1991) may be less familiar to those only acquainted with his art.

A well and plentifully illustrated book dedicated to the artist’s life and work is therefore welcome, with the added advantage that the author has been able to avail of regular, sometimes lengthy interviews with Pye “over a two-year period”, and been given every help in tracking down material by his family, his Dublin gallery and those who have acquired his work. Brian McAvera professes himself only too aware of the “lack of critical distance” or “hard fact” involved in writing about a living artist, and the caution necessary when chronicling a life still being lived by the artist in question.

That Pye is still actively painting, drawing and thinking with his customary deeply thoughtful, widely-read, intellectual turn of mind is reflected throughout McAvera’s admiring text. The author, known for his interviews with contemporary Irish artists in the pages of the Irish Arts Review, has been assiduous in gathering as much information as he could from Pye, his work, his library and his records over the past couple of years, so as to try to site his achievement within both an Irish and a broader international and cultural context. He is aware that “further research is needed” and that what he is presenting in this book is “a watercolour sketch rather than a painting”, “an outline route-map” with indications of areas he considers might be “worthy of development by future historians”.

McAvera, who states that he “is in the process of working on a catalogue raisonné of Pye’s works”, has organised his book into five principal sections. These proceed from what he terms “an outline biography” to provide context for his achievements and interests, to an account of Pye’s writing and its relationship to his art. With his literary background, McAvera is at his strongest when drawing analogies with the writings of philosophers, theologians, novelists and poets, especially TS Eliot, that have been as seminal to Pye’s artistic and intellectual evolution as the many artists of all periods whose work has appealed to him and with whose work his can be compared. A well-informed biographical introduction begins with his musical, liberal and clearly clever Irish mother bringing him as a small child to Dublin from England, his art education with Oisin Kelly, his conversion to Catholicism and his precocious, formative discovery of El Greco at school. Carefully he tracks the sixteen-year old Pye’s first public showing, in 1945, with the newly formed Irish Exhibition of Living Art as the Second World War came to a close – deeply affecting his imagination.

McAvera draws a vivid picture of Dublin’s cultural life in the late fifties, sixties and seventies, and shows how centrally Pye was involved with this, even publishing a small four-page limited edition, self-written and illustrated promotional leaflet with Liam Miller’s Dolmen Press, entitled “Paintings of Sacred Subjects by Patrick Pye” in 1953. His work was exhibited from its start with the most prestigious contemporary art galleries in Dublin, and he lived and mixed with progressive, interesting artists, architects and writers, becoming a founder member of the Independent Artists between 1960 and 1970. As he travelled and read extensively, he discovered new influences, such as the Romanesque, the Byzantine icon, the Italian Early Renaissance Duccio and Giotto, whose sacred, hieratic images deeply affected him – and led him to work in stained glass as well as paint.

In 1967, he ceased to be urban when he moved to live and work in a remote cottage at Piperstown in the Dublin mountains (which is still his epicentre). A visit to the Munch Museum in Oslo (an influence not explored here) while visiting Scandinavia led him to begin etching in 1973, bringing a new tonal element and spirit of textural exploration to his work, the year before he became a founder member of a new non-representational Figurative Image exhibition project and issued its existential manifesto. McAvera demonstrates how lively and articulate the artists involved in this (including Nano Reid, Brian Bourke, Basil Blackshaw and Camille Souter) were in their ideological aims and in the associated annual magazine, INTROSPECT, which Pye edited. We are brought up to date with further writings, exhibitions and what was termed the “haunting weirdness of Pye’s vision”. We read Brian Fallon’s unerringly perceptive comments on, for example, his “very special place in contemporary art – as a self-made original and, at his best, a genuine visionary” and, on the occasion of his 1997 RHA retrospective: “No Irish painter has a more individual style. Whether or not you like it or respond to it, you recognize it straightaway as his and nobody else’s. Flattened figures and sharp outlines, a tendency to compose with a kind of circular form with the effect sometimes of a miniature stage set, perspectives which recede almost surrealistically, bright but slightly chalky colours” he saw as characteristic “of his strongly marked style”.

As the author points out, it is interesting how early Pye developed a recognisable style, with his “elongated El Greco figures”, “stage-set” compositions, idiosyncratically abstracted forms and shapes, distinctively luminous colours and subtle lines and tones influenced by Mediaeval, Renaissance, Nabi, Byzantine and a wide range of more recent art, historical and literary sources. These he methodically mentions and sometimes analyses in some detail. How they have been constantly distilled and adapted forms the crux of the discursive central chapter, entitled “Substance and Style: Counter-Cultural Pye”, which includes a thought-provoking proposal that Pye should be viewed as a “History Painter”, an “abstracting artist” who retells stories for their “significance and emotional impact” rather than being branded as a “Religious Artist”. The fourth chapter, “Art and Religion” offers a particularly interesting consideration of Pye’s desire “to reconnect modern art with the rich tradition of Christian iconography and Romanesque imagery” by creating new symbols to represent his Catholicism. With detailed references to specific paintings executed over the past twenty or so years, McAvera examines the “strange stilled world” that Pye constructs with the emotionally expressive intensity that he has admired in his older British contemporaries, like Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Stanley Spencer, as well as Rouault, Chagall (and others, including the later twentieth century Irish painter Colin Middleton).

Unsentimental, sparing, unspecific, Pye has sought figurative images to represent symbolically “the archetypes of our humanity” depicted in what the author describes as “some alternative universe in which expiation has to be done, either by meditating, or by suffering”. Religious imagery, as well his fascination with the depth of colour and space obtainable with a patterned surface, naturally drew him to stained glass with its need to modulate light through line and tone. Unfortunately, there is little discussion of any of his windows, except at Cookstown, Co Tyrone, or of the small abstract panels he has made in this demanding medium, nor reference to his achievements artistically and contextually, nor to his importance and influence in this area. The final section chronicles his dedicated exploratory use of printmaking since the mid-1970s and the meditative appeal its texture and tones offer as an extension to his painting, and as a relief from “the burden of content”. Here, McAvera offers valuable analogies, influences and insights.

He ends with a working (as yet incomplete) bibliography and what he terms “a provisional and minimal listing” of 1,184 of Pye’s works executed between 1945 and 2010. These are itemised in an interim “far from complete” chronological checklist – clearly a challenging task ‑ where the author has drawn on a range of sources, mainly in the artist’s possession. Dates, media and measurements are given where possible but, unfortunately, the locations of the works are not given, even when they are in fixed places, such as the painted triptychs or stained glass windows. Hopefully these will follow with the publication of a catalogue raisonné, or a new, more fully illustrated, attentively edited edition of this publication.

Finally, it is not clear why this book finds it necessary to be so insistent that Patrick Pye is not peripheral but central to contemporary Irish art and its traditions, nor why his “disparate range of sources and contexts” should be stressed. Such need for validation is unnecessary, as are the berating remarks of publications disapproved of by the author and/or the artist, especially in the introduction, notes and in the conclusion, which sometimes verge on the ludicrous in their dismissiveness. Surely there is no need to prove that Pye has a secure and distinguished place in the canon of twentieth/twenty-first century Irish art, regardless of his work’s “religious” subject matter, or his having been born to an English father? His work continues to sell, and be well represented in exhibitions and public and private collections. Aidan Dunne’s observation of the paradox that Pye has appeared too anachronistic to the Modernists and too Modernist for the [religious] traditionalists, quoted here, may still apply, but less so, like Brian Fallon’s that he is a “maverick”, a self-appointed “outsider” in search of a mythical common man with his feet on the earth, his arms reaching to heaven. The author’s interim summary at the end of Chapter 3, where he suggests a reshuffling of the pantheon of twentieth century Irish Modernists to include Pye, extols his “lifetime’s exploration of composition and colour, a lifetime’s experience in the creation of space and the nailing down of a narrative into a pungent, echoing simplicity”. Pye is fortunate to have found a writer who can so eloquently vindicate the achievement of a “great colourist” and a “great synthesizer, able to take the old and the new and refashion them into his own image ..., slowly and patiently painting himself into art history”.

June 17th, 2013

Nicola Gordon Bowe is Associate Fellow at the Faculty of Visual Culture, NCAD (NUI) Ireland. She has lectured and published extensively on nineteenth, twentieth century and contemporary applied arts and design, especially on aspects of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Celtic Revival in Ireland and Central Europe. Her publications include Harry Clarke (Douglas Hyde Gallery), Harry Clarke: His Graphic Art (Dolmen Press), and Harry Clarke: The Life and Work (2012).