Legacy | Casa Dipinta


Bedroom in Casa Dipinta, Todi, Umbria, Italy; photograph by George Tatge, courtesy of the author. Bedroom in Casa Dipinta, Todi, Umbria, Italy; photograph by George Tatge, courtesy of the author.

The recent death of renowned artist Brian O’Doherty (1928-2022) (a.k.a. Patrick Ireland 1972-2008) will inevitably lead to more in-depth assessments of his spectacular range of work as an artist, critic, arts administrator, editor, and writer, which contributed so much to Irish and international contemporary art. While Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (1967) and conceptual exhibition Aspen 5+6 (1967), as well as Patrick Ireland’s Name Change performance (1972) and environmental Rope Drawing installations are very well known, an evolving artwork in Italy for the past fifty years, is less so. Casa Dipinta (meaning ‘painted house’) is an eighteenth-century house, tucked away in the medieval town of Todi, Umbria, which the artist and his wife, art historian and painter, Barbara Novak, have owned since the mid-1970s. Over succeeding decades, O’Doherty/Ireland gradually transformed the house into a unique artwork. Opened to the public as a museum a few years ago, it now ranks as one of Todi’s most popular sites with locals and tourists.

I first stayed in Casa Dipinta at the invitation of the artist and his wife in 1998, while on a research trip about O’Doherty/Ireland’s art. Many engaging conversations took place over breakfast of toast and truffle paste. This was followed since then by many other visits, which allowed first-hand observation of the organic way in which the house changed, as a new wall was painted, repainted or, sometimes, obliterated. While Novak initially wanted to keep the “white, silent, walls” she eventually relented. Beginning in 1977, O’Doherty/Ireland began to paint the house in a dazzling array of colours and linear configurations, all of which related, I discovered, to abiding concerns within his art.

In the late 1960s, language, specifically the extinct Celtic language of Ogham (c. 2nd, 3rd -7th A.D.) dominated O’Doherty’s conceptual art, and sometimes Ireland’s signature three-dimensional Rope Drawing installations. Both are found at different levels of Casa Dipinta. In the context of his Minimalist-Conceptual background, the artist reduced his artistic vocabulary to Ogham vowels – “the horizon of language” – and the triad of Ogham-translated words ONE, HERE, NOW. These dominate the ground floor alongside another constant concern, that of the self and other. This is found in painted panels of Ogham lines that address the viewer with ‘I’(IIIII) and  ‘U’/You’(III). In others, the vowel ‘I’ alone dances across a gridded blue panel or in Dictionary of I in which it is depicted in a variety of configurations with the visual symbol of identity, the hand. Gradually, pristine white walls were replaced by walls that whispered vowels and the words ONE, HERE, NOW on separate panels throughout the first and second floors.

Importantly, as each level of the three-storey house was transformed into an artwork, daily life continued within. Simple, modest furniture, in stark contrast to the vibrantly coloured walls, clearly removed this house/museum from that which O’Doherty had so cogently critiqued in the acclaimed essays, ‘Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space’ around the same time. Instead of the white cube’s quasi-religious, transcendental space, this was a lived-in space accompanied by the constant sounds of the surrounding city. The presence of the artist and his wife is strongly felt, not least by half-finished and full-length portraits in different parts of the house. Like Schwitters’ Merzbau (c. 1923-37), the house became altered from within. But in contrast to Merzbau’s ever changing collage of found objects, Casa Dipinta was transformed using house paint that became part of the architecture itself. Yet, like Merzbau, it also became a non-static, living environment that constantly changed. 

Barbara Novak insisted, since a large part of his work was ephemeral, that Casa Dipinta would be a place where key works of O’Doherty/Ireland’s art would eventually be on permanent display. The mural, One, Here, Now: The Ogham Cycle (1996, restored 2018) at Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh, County Cork, is the only other permanent work open to the public (and dedicated to the Irish people in 1996). While important for this reason, Casa Dipinta does not, however, represent the full range of O’Doherty’s art, such as the large series of Ogham drawings on paper, Ogham wall sculptures, objects, chess-works, artist’s books, language plays, and labyrinths. 

The art and culture of Italy informs the first-floor living room in the form of a single rope drawing, Trecento. Its painted triangular shape, a secular echo of the numerous pedimented roadside altars dotted around Umbria, is accompanied by rope lines that stretch out into the room where the viewer can find the spot where rope and painted configuration align momentarily. There are also Ogham NOW and HERE paintings on this floor that incorporate anomalies of architecture (seen in many Italian frescos), such as for example, in the NOW panel where a pre-existing oculus in the wall becomes part of the work, while the HERE panel incorporates the entrance to a deep stairwell leading to the kitchen below. An Ogham Song of the Vowels painting lies opposite the stairwell. 

There is no Ogham on the upper bedroom floor. This calm predominantly blue room is dominated by the theme of inside and outside with its painted shuttered windows revealing an Italianate cycle of the times of day. In a corner, the theme is carried further with a double door rope drawing, a contemporary nod to Duchamp’s 11, Rue Larrey (1927).

The next phase of this unique museum, with its rich library of art books donated by the artist and his wife, will be an artist’s retreat and a valuable resource for artists and scholars in the future. Thus, this anti-white cube museum will allow art and life to continue to live side-by-side as intended by O’Doherty and Novak. The house was recently given to the people of Todi by the couple.

Brenda Moore-McCann is an author, art historian, medical doctor and critic, based between Dublin and Tuscany. A bilingual (English/Italian) book on Casa Dipinta will be published by the author in 2023.