Existential Observers


Early portraiture can be viewed as an historical instrument of class identification, patriarchal gaze and institutional hegemony. It could also be argued that, over the years, important significations of portraiture have been exploited and aesthetically challenged through the deconstructive approaches of key historical and contemporary Irish artists. This complex field has huge public appeal and carries immense prestige for artist and subject at the level of national identity, recognition and status.

The historical context for contemporary Irish portraiture and the breadth of current practice have been highlighted in a range of recent events: the Freud Project at IMMA; the reopening of the National Portrait Collection; and numerous high-profile portrait commissions by the Royal Irish Academy (RIA), the National Gallery and the Hennessy Portrait Prize. The specific genre of portrait painting in Ireland has been largely sustained through the work of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA). Such ongoing efforts to collect, exhibit and commission portraiture attest to the importance of the genre within many of this country’s most important institutions.

Irish portraiture has, by virtue of its practice, innovated the process of commissioning: practical fulfilment of criteria generally conveys the significance of the sitter’s esteem or office as part of a strategy to celebrate national life in general. At the same time, in a parallel postmodern development, the commitment to producing a likeness of the sitter has increasingly been dispensed with. The cultural context and the historical agency of the subject (portraiture itself), as a paradigm of political and social capital, have become the artist’s main frame of reference. In contemporary visual culture, pictures and portraits flatten out hierarchies of either fame or achievement and, in so doing, undercut linear approaches to the subject. Nowadays, the criteria determining achievement and notoriety are less clear cut. These conditions not only reprioritise the motivations behind choosing the subjects of portraiture but also drive practices of painting which utilise the image of the person to ends other than veneration and commemoration.

Archival Traditions

The commissioned portrait relates to the archive according to customs governing an index registrar of state. A good example is the commissioning of a portrait of every serving Taoiseach, producing a relatively simple customary requirement for the visual record of government. Reflecting the complexity of an evolving society, more complex commissioning criteria are now commonplace regarding the election of both sitter and artist. Consequently, in the field of portraiture today, public and private interests compete to register and authorise more socially inclusive and politically diverse figures of authority for commendation.

Historically significant and accomplished portrait paintings by Irish artists continue to convey a mastery of technical detail in describing the sitter’s likeness and the context of their achievements. Many officially commissioned portraits specify the accurate depiction of vestments, symbols of office and other regal insignia. Following in this tradition, Irish artists of rigour and commitment include Carey Clarke, James Hanley and Conor Walton – true image-makers in paint and perception who persist in innovation through distinct signature styles. Similarly, Mick O’Dea is a relentless portrait artist, but, in pursuing images beyond presidents and chairs, he has developed a more personal archive of portraiture. Through many projects of his own design, O’Dea has increased the circle of social inclusion in his eclectic and ever generous practice. O’Dea’s 2013 portrait of the artist Stephen McKenna (1939 – 2017) is a notably moving example of his ability to negotiate such paradoxes of affinity and affiliation. The painting gently acknowledges McKenna’s institutional legacy but primarily foregrounds his presence as an artist in a studio. Viewed from a similar moment of contemporary hindsight, Nick Miller’s affirmative portrait of the late Barrie Cooke (1931 – 2014) also provides an important historical record, not least in terms of friendships between artists. Miller’s Last Sitting: Portrait of Barrie Cooke (2013) conveys Cooke’s presence in a direct and uninhibited encounter and was awarded the Hennessy Portrait Prize in 2014.

By contrast, following the example of painters such as Lucian Freud, sitters often remain unnamed, the paintings testament to the artist as existential observer. However, Freud’s complex painting of Queen Elizabeth II is an exceptional work which contradicts this characteristic approach, driven to an extreme image realisation in his request that she suffer the duress of wearing the weighty crown of England for the duration of the sitting. It seems significant that 2016 – a year of Irish commemoration – saw the establishment of the Freud Project at IMMA. The portraits on show emphasise an Irish legacy to Freud’s oeuvre, much in the way that the transposition of Bacon’s studio to Dublin in 1998 reasserted an Irish dimension to post-war British figurative painting. In this way, the portraits themselves will no doubt deepen the dialogue surrounding the Anglo-Irish milieu depicted in Freud’s work, including familial histories, sporting achievements and other examples of cultural exchange between our neighbouring states.

In a survey of Irish portrait painting, globally accelerated and conflicting image-agendas are influential factors, especially when one considers the all-pervading presence of photography and digital imagery. In Colin Davidson’s 2015 painting of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel: In Abstentia, commissioned for the cover of Time Magazine, we can observe many complex factors at work. The influence of Freud on Davidson is evident in his equivocation of the immediacy and materiality of paint. This painting is also a significant cultural landmark and succeeds in addressing subjects wider in scope than the depiction of person and place, expanding the structural paradigm of Davidson’s practice as painter-auteur. It functions as a point of origin for widespread mediation and signifies the dividing/unifying paradox of the European project as perceived by a Northern Irish artist. The portrait manifests the gendered artistic and political identities at stake in the performance of painting. Davidson’s heroic artistic project becomes the embattled lens through which East-German-born Merkel’s stabilising presence comes to be globally visible.

Geraldine O’Neill was commissioned by the National Gallery of Ireland in 2015 to paint a portrait of the Hong-Kong-born fashion designer John Rocha. Rocha has lived in Ireland since the late 1970s and was awarded a CBE in 2002. In O’Neill’s full-length portrait, he is depicted informally in an interior setting that suggests a draped studio, consistent with O’Neill’s abundant paintings of brightly-coloured studio interiors, often warmly inhabited by family members. In this painting, O’Neill’s characteristically robust structuring of space and her use of a muted colour palette is attuned to Rocha’s minimalist sensibility. This mediates a conceptual alignment between divergent aesthetic agendas – linked to craft, surface and colour, as well as implied cultural transactions – that are highlighted through the depiction of Rocha’s materials.

Recent Commissions

Beyond the significant new portrait commissions by established Irish artists, younger artists are beginning to get a crack of the whip. The Hennessey Portrait Prize recently commissioned Gerry Davis – who won the 2016 award with his intimate portrait of fellow artist Seán Guinan – to make a portrait of All-Ireland championship hurler Henry Shefflin. The portrait was installed in the National Gallery – the first time a GAA player has ever been included in the collection. Davis is a forensically accomplished painter. In the two paintings cited, his range of focus, from close-up to infinite distance, conveys the ‘airspace’ inhabited by the subjects, lending a temporal poignancy of heroic melancholy.

Another artist who has made remarkable contributions to the expanded field of portraiture in Ireland is Vera Klute, who won the Hennessey Portrait in 2015. One of Klute’s most tender works is her official portrait of Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, commissioned by the National Gallery in 2014 in recognition of her life’s work as a campaigner for social justice. Klute was also invited to develop four new portraits for the RIA’s  ‘Women on Walls’, a commissioning project that sought to “make women leaders visible” through a series of new portraits. Klute’s sensitively observed portraits depict eminent historical Irish female scientists – the first female members of the RIA – elected in 1949 (164 years after The RIA was first established). 

Perhaps the most outstandingly original work of portraiture to be completed in recent years in Ireland is Blaise Smith’s group portrait, Eight Scientists (2016), also developed for ‘Women on Walls’. This painting has been the subject of much commentary and celebration, both for its technical accomplishment and the way in which it imaginatively communicates the spirit and personality of its subjects. Smith’s rationale behind the portrait was to promote notable achievements among leading female scientists in Ireland today. His composition is witty, original and skilful and is significant because it reinvents the genre of academic group portraiture according to our times. Each figure depicted in the painting appears to possess special powers, their dynamic research discoveries wielded bodily like magical totems, mythologising these female scientists as superhero archetypes – the ‘X-Women’ of Irish science.

Narrative Gestures

Aside from the conventional matrix of commissioning and the depiction of notable sitters, many Irish artists paint faces and figures as important central motifs of their practice. As in Freud’s works, the sitter is often unidentified and the historical model of the genre itself evoked for narrative and dialogical effect. Genieve Figgis is another prolific Irish artist who has become internationally recognised for her paintings, which make reference to the ‘big houses’ and landed gentry of imperial history. Anglo-Irish culture and literature frame Figgis’s work, pointing to familiar narratives of identity made ubiquitous through art and costumed period drama. Her work reimagines the art historical canon of portrait painting as a nightmare of darkly comic satires, in which Rorschach-style abstraction conjures figures of colonial whimsy according to the dictates of historical cliché. Her paintings appropriate from all manner of portrait iconology, subjecting the genre itself to a systematic evacuation of its contextual historical fetishes, biases and privileges.

Sheila Rennick is another iconoclast whose work addresses questions on how the human subject is approached in contemporary terms. In Rennick’s work, idiomatic likenesses and the durational process of optical analysis are dispensed with in favour of a gestural approach and palette, not unlike the aesthetic posture of Austrian painter and perpetual self-portraitist Maria Lassnig or the neo-expressionist Philip Guston. Characterised by freewheeling compositions, feckless improvisation and the abject application of thick impasto, Rennick’s loud and bawdy paintings are concerned with eliciting empathy for the marginalised subcultures she depicts. In her double portrait The Doggers (2014) – runner-up in last year’s Marmite Prize for Painting – the masked lovers return our judgmental gaze, in a composition reminiscent of a television screen, creating a fly-on-the-wall frame for deviant, alienated identities, made only partially visible to our world via broadcast media.

Mark O’Kelly is an artist who lives and works in Dublin and Limerick. He is a lecturer in Fine Art at Limerick School of Art and Design (LSAD). His work is the outcome of a practice of research that explores the space between the photographic document and the cosmetic image.


Images used: Blaise Smith, Eight Scientists, 2016, oil on gesso panel; collection of the Royal Irish Academy; commissioned as part of Accenture’s ‘Women on Walls’ Campaign;  winner of the US Council/Irish Arts Review Portraiture Award 2017; image courtesy of the artist. Nick Miller, Last Sitting Portrait of Barrie Cooke, 2013; image courtesy of the artist and the National Gallery of Ireland. Geraldine O’Neill, John Rocha (b.1953), Designer, 2015, oil on linen; commissioned for the National Portrait Collection; image courtesy of National Gallery of Ireland. Shiela Rennick, The Doggers, 2014, acrylic on paper; image courtesy of Hillsboro Fine Art.

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