tue 25/06/2024

Roderic O’Conor and the Moderns, National Gallery of Ireland review - experiments in Pont-Aven | reviews, news & interviews

Roderic O’Conor and the Moderns, National Gallery of Ireland review - experiments in Pont-Aven

Roderic O’Conor and the Moderns, National Gallery of Ireland review - experiments in Pont-Aven

Friendship and rivalry among the Post-Impressionists

Roderic O'Conor: 'Still life with Apples and Breton Pots', c.1896-1897Photo © National Gallery of Ireland

In the autumn of 1892 Émile Bernard wrote home to his mother that, following the summer decampment to Pont-Aven of artists visiting from Paris and further afield, there remained "some artists here, two of them talented and copying each other.

One mainly copies the other." Most likely he was writing about Irish painter Roderic O’Conor and the younger Swiss artist Cuno Amiet who stayed on in the Breton village long after the summer’s artistic cavalcade had left.

There are indeed striking similarities and borrowings between O’Conor’s and Amiet’s canvases, but what the National Gallery of Ireland’s new show, Roderic O’Conor and the Moderns, makes clear is that this was not unique to the duo but rather indicative of the proximity and rivalry characterising a febrile period of artistic activity that led to the formalisation of new European movements such as Synthetism, the Nabis, Fauvism and Expressionism.

Roderic O’Conor, The Glade, 1892, Museum of Modern Art / ScalaWhile the exhibition resolves into a dialogue between O’Conor and Amiet to end with two self-portraits, it opens as a group show. Paul Sérusier’s luminous Breton Woman next to a Field of Corn, c.1890-9, Émile Bernard’s vertiginous landscape Near Yport, Normandy, 1892, Armand Séguin’s lyrical Breton Peasant Women at Mass, c.1894, and Van Gogh’s austere Rooftops in Paris, 1886, hang in the first room, attesting to the diverse approaches taken at the time among a loose group of (mainly) French artists. In O’Conor’s The Bridge at Grez, 1889-90, red dots under the arches heat the shadows with an optical technique borrowed from Pointillism, while Amiet’s Giovanni Giacometti in Shared Lodgings in Paris, 1889, literally depicts his fellow artist peering out a window from their hallway. Attentiveness to these artistic differences combined with close social relationships and is summed up in Séguin’s thoughtful remark to O’Conor: “I think what you see first is the colours round about you; whereas what charms and takes hold of me is, above all else, beautiful lines.”

In the wake of the Impressionists having broken definitively from the Academy, new ways of making marks, laying paint, conveying sense and understanding colour led to an array of artistic approaches and O’Conor experimented and borrowed prodigiously. Over the course of the exhibition his work becomes a prism by which to see how the influence of his contemporaries and near-contemporaries travelled. Three still lifes, one by Gauguin and two by O’Conor, relay the compositional and chromatic influences of Renoir and Cézanne; a vitrine holding Amiet’s Post-Aven sketchbook, 1892-3, open at a page depicting Breton women recalls the confident lines and bold movement of Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon, 1898 (not displayed); Vincent van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cornflowers, July 1890, is paired with O’Conor’s Field of Cornflowers, 1892, to demonstrate how Van Gogh’s pure lines of thick impasto were absorbed into O’Conor’s technical repertoire.

Roderic O'Conor, Breton Peasant Woman Knitting, Private  Collection, Image © Browse & DarbyYet, the difficulty is not that O’Conor’s work is directly derivative, merely that he seldom attains the kind of focus required to deliver something wholly of itself. There’s often something unfulfilled, ever so unurbane about his work. So comparing van Gogh’s field with his, the paint colours are muddier, less assured, and while it feels possible to pitch directly into van Gogh’s maelstrom of cornflowers skittering across wheat heads, O’Conor’s surface feels unavoidably present  a skin packing the image tight against a bleed of feeling. Emotional protectionism is present too in the striking Breton Peasant Woman Knitting, 1893, in which half the subject’s face is striped out by red and green lines attributable to Divisionist optical theory. Incredibly it still registers as her face, but for a humble sitter it’s a reduction that knits her, the background and her labour into a flattened plane of distinctly violent formal technique. Hung next to Amiet’s Breton Woman, 1892, which uses swathes of fresco-thin green for the far side of her tilted, curious face to startlingly graceful effect, O’Conor again cedes to another artist’s greater sensitivity.

These comparisons are more informative than they are flattering but canvases which balance subject with technique are notably more poised. The Glade, 1892, striates a deserted forest floor with crimson filaments woven with glutinous hot yolked light. The technical punch is synaesthetic – you can almost smell the hot earth baking. Still Life with Bottles, 1892, dapples light in short glassy dabs across Pont-Aven cider bottles and in the final room, three tumultuous seas lash brazen rocks. Dating from between 1898-1913 they glow, assuredly. Warm Waves Breaking on the Shore at Sunset, 1898-9, seems to lift off the wall with its nacreous play of light on the waves. The sense that O’Conor is settled radiates. He has found his place.

O’Conor’s surface feels unavoidably present – a skin packing the image tight against a bleed of feeling


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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