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Una in focus

Venus de Dublino?

It’s June and despite the poor weather, Una’s 1950 painting, Girl in Sand (oil on canvas, dimensions unknown) seems an appropriately seasonal choice for this month.

This is an early work and perhaps her first foray into a more stylised technique that she developed later. The first question to ask is, is it a self-portrait? Una often smuggled surrogates of herself into group paintings – see The Ladies Committee, Wild Apples and Malahide – where the figure of a young woman, often in a red dress, stands in for Una.

(Her oeuvre also includes several traditional portraits in oil of others, including her husband Eugene, and her uncle, Brian O’Higgins, as well as many informal sketches of family and friends.)

The figure of the bather here is more enigmatic. Her downcast eye is all that’s visible. The rest of her features are eclipsed by a curtain of black hair, and her rather chunky figure doesn’t look like Una’s, although she is wearing Una’s traditional red. Perhaps she’s an archetypal figure – like the young woman in Girl walking by Trinity in the Rain (1959).

The body is rendered in broad brush strokes and the contours of the bather’s athletic figure are suggested by shadows on the limbs. The background, too, is impressionistic. The sand seems as fluid as a river-bed and rises up behind the young woman in large, swirling patterns that tend towards abstraction.

Una often presents nature in a semi-abstract fashion. Her trees are often more geometric shape than branch and leaf realistically rendered. Her fields can often be flat blocks of colour (see the gilted pasture of The Farm, 1964), or surreal as in Clonmacnoise (1958), where we get a striated view of an underworld beneath the surface.

The bather’s hand gestures in Girl in Sand are arresting. She holds back her hair with forked delicate fingers. Is she combing her wet hair? If so, it’s hard to make out the comb in her right hand, which points, delicately reminiscent of God’s hand in the Creation of Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco. Either way, she’s lost in a kind of trance that keeps the viewer at bay.

Her mystery, of course, may be that she’s not a real girl at all, but someone who’s sprung from her surroundings, a nymph or a selkie, an elemental creature, parting her hair to view this strange new world she’s landed in.

There’s something tossed and sea-weedy about the background, and the murky, churned-up sand seems to morph into a giant cloud or wave, as if in the aftermath of turbulence. (However, I should add, I haven’t actually seen this painting in the flesh and am working from an old photograph so the colours may well not be true.) A typical day at the Irish seaside, you might say.

But is it a stretch to see echoes of Sandro Botticelli’s Renaissance masterpiece, The Birth of Venus (c 1480) here? Contrary to its title, Botticelli depicts the moment the goddess Venus arrives at the shore after her birth in which she emerged from the sea fully-formed.

Remember those beautifully delicate fingers of Una’s bather and compare them to the gestures of Botticelli’s Venus. Perhaps it’s the same mythical scene and we’re looking at a Venus de Dublino?

Mary Morrissy

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Una in focus

A Game of Chess

Two men face one another across a chessboard in this 1955 painting of Una’s (oil on canvas, dimensions unknown).  It’s probable one of them is Una’s husband, Eugene, who was an inveterate and expert chess player.  According to family sources, the other player may be his brother, Tom.  

Both figures in the painting look like one another.  The same widow’s peaks and bushy eyebrows, similar indistinct mouths. Gesturally, they adopt the same pose, feet planted firmly apart, hands thoughtfully on chin, mirroring the doubleness of the game they play. They sport similar suits of clothes, though the player on the right goes tieless.

He looks like he’s just made a significant move – check? – while the player on the left is deep in thought, considering what to do next. Although they are static, the tension of the moment is implied in the set of their faces and in the hang of their clothes.   

If it’s not the two brothers, perhaps it’s a portrait of Eugene playing himself, something which keen players often do. Eugene was a frequent correspondent to the chess column in the British Catholic weekly magazine, the Tablet, which set problems for aficionados.  

His first novel, Murder in Three Moves (Allen Figgis, 1960) – under the barely disguised pseudoynm Rutherford Watters – featured Gadarene Blake “the most brilliant problemist (chess) in England” and was  dedicated to D. M. Davey, the Tablet’s chess editor “master of many enigmas”.

The form of Una’s work mirrors the content –  a concentrated study of concentration. The figures are crowded into the pictorial space; indeed, they seem barely to fit in, their backs hunched under the frame of the painting.    

Such airlessness echoes the domestic interiors of the French painter Édouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940) who often crushed the women in his paintings (his mother and sister) into bent and uncomfortable positions, as if their house was literally bearing down on them.

In Interior: Mother and Sister of the Artist (1893), Vuillard’s sister is described in the MoMA catalogue, where the painting is held, as “pressing herself awkwardly against the wall, she bends her head and shoulders, apparently greeting a visitor but also, it seems, forced to bow if she is to fit in the picture’s frame”.https://images.app.goo.gl/NaGcWhUSzUxTqKoU8

The Game of Chess is, similarly, a psychological study. The players’ eyes are fixed on the board. Their identity and personal characteristics are not as important as the concentration they exhibit, and Una applies her artistic concentration to theirs.  The colours are sombre and echo the duochromatic palette of the chess pieces (except for the pale blue collar of the tieless player). The floor is rendered in indistinct grid-like squares – a technique Una often used – mimicking very faintly the squares on the board.  Otherwise, domestic detailing is at a minimum. The players sit on a pair of solid-looking, mid-century kitchen chairs at a small wooden table.

In this painting, the game’s the thing.  The players’ closed-off expressions suggest it’s no game for them, but a serious intellectual challenge that is fully absorbing them. 

Mary Morrissy

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Una in focus

The Whistleblower

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The Greek god Pan, or a close study of a musician? Either way, it’s the colour that enchants in this 1953 work.

Una Watters’ Flute Player (oil on canvas, dimensions unknown) is another of those works that has travelled in the world under an alias. Listed in the 1966 posthumous exhibition catalogue as Fluteplayer,  the painting is known as Pan by the family to whom Eugene donated the work after Una’s untimely death

This may have been Eugene’s title for it, but either way the allusion is clear; the subject of the painting is a whistleblower. (The pencil-thin instrument he plays seems too small to be a standard flute; it looks more like a piccolo.) This is one of Una’s most elegant compositions and it’s easy to see why this idealised figure might have been mistaken for a Greek god, although Pan’s reputation is distinctly hedonistic whereas this young man is much more refined.

To the Greeks, Pan – god of the natural world – was a shepherd, half-goat, half-man. He played the pipes and was lusty in his appetites. He was, apparently, the favourite god of the Greek people. In Una’s work the flute player seems to be placed outside – rather than in a smoke-filled bar – perhaps a nod to the god of nature? This “Pan” is standing on what seems to be a wide open strand with only the far distant and very low horizon (or shoreline?) to give us our bearings. (See also Una’s Girl Walking by Trinity in the Rain for a similar low viewpoint.)

Fluteplayer is a three-quarter, highly stylised portrait, in which the body is viewed straight on but the head is seen in profile, catching the typical sideways stance of a flute player. There is little suggestion of effort in this graceful portrait bar the thin pale band sweeping from the musician’s sideburn to his chin and seeming to meld with his very balletic fingers. This application of paint to supply gesture is a technique Una used often.

His prominent upper lip clamped to the flute’s tone holes is the only other evidence of exertion. Otherwise, the musician’s face is quite bland and impassive – neat hair carefully combed, an unexpressive eye. So perhaps it’s not a particular player Una has in mind but a generic portrait of a man who’s defined by his instrument, someone who has become one with the music.

If his personality is communicated at all it’s by his clothes. At first glance, this reads as a static portrait of a stylish traditional musician sporting a three piece suit, collar and tie. However, on closer scrutiny, we see that the rendering of the clothes is full of movement.

Here is where the musician’s personality resides. His jacket is actually fluid, the tails literally dancing. The lapels are serpentine and the jacket seems to morph into a waistcoat, or is he wearing a sleeveless jumper underneath? Or is it the lining of his jacket that appears to swing to the music being played? This cubist-style capturing of overlapping actions and the subtle use of shadow give the work a subterranean energy, while the surface is preternaturally calm.

The colour palette is delightful – a mix of delicate blues, a heathery purple and dove grey. Details such as his slicked-back hair, the trio of buttons on his jacket sleeve and his tie are picked out in a rich brown. But the overall tone is cool, Zen-like, an almost meditational serenity.

Mary Morrissy

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Una in focus

The Three Graces in Malahide

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Mary Morrissy considers the joint imaginative territory that Una Watters shared with her poet husband, Eugene, epitomised by today’s featured painting, Malahide. 

 

Malahide, Saturday.  Clouds come

Henna with heat.  Salt and sun

Leave all flesh lazarous –

So wrote Eugene Watters  (Eoghan O’Tuairisc)  in “Smithson’s Glimpse of the Three Graces” a long poem published in PEN magazine in September 1961.

It’s almost a perfect transcription of his wife Una’s painting, above, Malahide (oil on canvas, dimensions unknown) except that Una’s painting was not completed until 1964, three years after Eugene’s poem was published.

Smithson, the speaker of the poem, a barber, is on his afternoon off at the beach “within the shadow of his wife stretched” – very much as the horizontal figure on the left of the painting.  “Drowses with one leg in the sun/Lazily like Italy on a warm day,”.  While his wife knits – see the grey-haired woman in the black-and-white patterned dress with her knitting bag clearly visible on the sand – Smithson fantasises about the three young women who pass by loudly chatting – “Calling Freda for Christsake to hurry”.  He imagines them as the three Graces, Alglaia (elegance) Thalia (youthful beauty) and Euphrosyne (mirth).

When two artists live and work side-by-side as Eugene and Una Watters did for over 20 years, it’s inevitable that their creative impulses would become entwined. And nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Malahide.

Eugene’s work often drew on classical allusions – the poem’s epigraph is from Ovid and Smithson equates his own sense of isolation with the Roman poet’s lifelong exile. He also references the “lacrimae rerum” line from Virgil’s Aeneid (Book 1, verse 462)  –  “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentum mortalia tangunt” translated by Séamus Heaney as “there are tears at the heart of things”.

This melancholy imbues the poem  – “Drowning is as lonely an experience as living” – as does Smithson’s sense of being at odds with the mundane world around him.  That said, the Three Graces Smithson spies (or conjures up)  on the beach at Malahide seem to spring fully-formed from Una’s joyous painting.

Typists like graces coming together,

From the Four Courts, the King’s Inns,

Loosed and let go.  Towels trailing,

Uncertain and half-naked go

The great mothers of mankind. 

Look at the three girls in their bathing costumes who draw the eye deep into the painting, towels aloft or trailing, tiptoeing on the hot sand. Don’t they fit the description of  Eugene’s Graces? However, Una’s expressive use of movement seems intent on giving us the character of these girls as girls, rather than as metaphors. The sprawled “Smithson” figure, likewise, or the young mother in red who cradles a white-clad baby trying to pacify it.  Or the  two children at her feet who are bent to the serious work of building  sandcastles.  Although each “character” seems to invite a story, their features, as in many of Una’s paintings, are effaced.

Perhaps they are inspired by real people as Una’s other group compositions in public spaces have been? Una might well have played with the dramatis personae of Eugene’s poem and inserted herself into the painting, as she often did, in the figure of the woman in the sand-coloured dress reading, while the dreaming, outstretched man might be Eugene – just as Smithson stands in for him in the poem.

Either way, Una’s painterly concern here seems to be the thing itself.  (The pragmatic titling of her paintings shows us that  –  The People’s Gardens, Woman Sewing, The Flute Player, The Game of Chess.  They do exactly what they say on the tin.)  Here it’s the depiction of a summer’s day at the beach.  There’s the saturated blue of the sea, the white sailboat, the tossed flecks of gulls (“birds rise to the life of the wind changing”), the cratered, undulating dunes scattered with towels and discarded clothes. And peeping from the reading woman’s brown satchel, a flask and maybe sandwiches for later?

Although not completed till 1964, Una’s Malahide could have been several years in the making, sitting on the easel in the kitchen at Cappagh Cross, providing a subconscious terrain as Eugene wrote the poem. Or conversely, perhaps Una created on canvas the Malahide backdrop Eugene suggested in his Ovid-inspired modernist lament, and then peopled it with the characters he described after reading the poem?

Or is this a re-enactment of an actual day they shared at Malahide, a day enshrined in memory and responded to by each of them in their own individual way?  For Una, a day of simple pleasures at the seaside, harmonious, full of recognisable types and some familiar faces: for Eugene, a springboard for the classical fugues of a brooding, mid-century man alienated from the world.

Generations go by shouldering death,

Time winks like cuts of scissors,

He lies on the backbone and suspects a sky.

The medium is crisscrossed with dawn and evening,

Complex tranquility;”

Mary Morrissy

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Una in focus

Wild Apples

wild-apples

Today’s featured painting is Wild Apples completed by Una in the autumn of 1964, which  records an idyllic time in the artist’s life, writes Mary Morrissy

Like much of Una’s work, Wild Apples (oil on canvas, 56 cms x 43 cms) depicts a place that was important to her – the banks of the River Suck near Ballinasloe.  Una spent many summers on the river, where along with finding inspiration for her work, she did a great deal of fishing.  She was, by all accounts, an expert fisherwoman, one of her many practical skills.

This is also very much a family painting. Una often placed herself in her own works and here she is the reclining figure in red in the mid-ground of the painting. Her husband, Eugene Watters – discussed in last week’s blog by Colbert Kearney – is on the left in the white shirt.  His brother, Tom, is in the front foreground dressed in brown and with his back to the viewer. Tom’s wife, Bridie, and their two daughters, Georgina and Linda, complete the scene.

Georgina Donovan, Eugene’s niece, has been in touch to correct my initial mistake in wrongly identifying Eugene and Tom in the painting.

“The stances, the head shapes and indeed the clothes suggest to me that the man in brown is my father. Una used family as subjects so often in her paintings and it is just the angle of the head, the curve of a spine, a gesture caught with her brush that reminds one of the subject,” Georgina writes.

“I remember very vividly the day we discovered the crab apple tree beside the river, gathering the apples and taking them home to make crab apple jelly.”

The depiction of nature, and in particular the rendering of the trees, has much in common with The People’s Gardens discussed elsewhere on this site – see Logan Sisley, May 6. Here the angularity melds into abstraction, the trees becoming structural  impressions of colour.  These and the use of shadow lend a mysterious depth to the orchard or woods in the background.

The pink tree towards which the eye is drawn, hosting the wild apples of the title, is no more than a geometric block.  Its sharp apex mirrors the delighted gesture of the girl in the apricot dress who has spotted the apples.  We’ve spoken before about Una’s gift for expressive gesture which animates the figures in her paintings.  Their faces are often not visible or are not depicted in detail, but their characters are communicated through their physical stances.  We see it here again in the gambolling of the second child in the white dress – whom Georgina Donovan identifies as herself.

Because Eugene was a writer, we can get some notion of Una’s process from his correspondence. He was an inveterate letter-writer and he described the inspiration for this painting in a letter of October 1966, written a year after Una’s death.  The idyllic symbolism of the place for both of them is clear.

Wild Apples. . . represents any river, any landing, any discovery: but it is a real river, our Suck; an actual landing and landing place, in a grove of bog-ash and hazel in the wilderness near the mouth of the Killeglin river; and an actual discovery, the flush of crab-apples among the leaves and the delight of the children.  A real moment in time and place.  Moments, in fact.  Our river-years.  Recollected in tranquillity.  And understood, by the dreaming brush, in paint.

The colour-construct, and the grouping, convey the thematic design; a sestet of apperceptions of the apple-flush – 6 real people transmuted; the two children, the father and mother, the artist (reclining, in red), and myself . . .  The boat in the picture is a real boat.  Ours.  But it is transmuted, the anatomy misted over in the dream of composition, till it emerges as a long thin nose pushed into the secluded creek.  Base of the picture, the Archetype, in dream-grey.

 “Above, the children stretch their arms in delight and desire of the wild-ripe fruit: And ye shall be as Gods.  The adults, farther back, stand half-attenuated, stilled by some stir of memory, dimly aware they are on the verge of some revelation, the dress and drab riverclothes are half-transfigured, on holy ground, glimpsing the merest tinge of the quintessential red.  But the real red of the picture, the Artist reclining, entranced by the remembered scene – Look! – draws the whole composition together, and (unknown to herself) forms the colour-climax and heart of the Aisling.”

Eugene’s letter also provides us with a pen picture of Una’s personality.  She was, he says, very beautiful, hard-working, humorous, humble and sincere.  “She knew about boats: she could pull one, patch one, cut out thwarts and knee-pieces. . . She had trained hands, could handle a trowel or an electric saw as well as a paintbrush or a pair of oars.”  

This gifted pragmatism extended to, and informed, her approach to painting:

“Una never set out to paint symbols, or archetypes.  These are abstract formulations, fashionable and useful terms for criticism and psychology, which had little meaning for her, and bear about the same relation to practical art-work as Theology does to the Creation.  She thought sensuously, in terms of real people and common objects, actual streets and river-reaches, forms, textures, colour-tones, and transitions of light.  Her sketchbooks and studies over the years reveal the wealth of observation and hard work which lies behind her wonderful last paintings.”

Una’s varied professional background  – her work as a commercial illustrator and a set designer  – also gave her, according to Eugene,  “the discipline of abstraction and the functional aspects of design.  It is all this that makes the poetry of Wild Apples possible”.

Wild Apples was sold at exhibition in late 1965.  Like the Arts Council award for her winning design of the Easter Rising Jubilee symbol, the cheque from the buyer arrived after Una’s death.

Mary Morrissy