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Una in focus

The Grim Reaper

“Harvest” has a valedictory air because it was painted very near the end of Una’s life. But could this work also have been the key to a new artistic direction?

Harvest (oil on canvas, 70.5cm x 57 cm) was, according to family sources, Una’s last painting before her death on November 21, 1965, although Eugene Watters’ biographer Máirín Nic Eoin gives that honour to Thar an GPO, discussed in our last post. Either way, both Thar an GPO and Harvest were completed very shortly before her death and can be seen as companion pieces.

While Thar an GPO is a public work, capturing the transcendent light of the new Republic at the origin location of the national story,  Harvest is intensely private. Its territory is the past, the idyllic days of childhood when the land around the McDonnell family home was being farmed – see also The Farm (1964). But there are similarities in composition.  Both feature child figures through which the action of the painting is narrated, and it’s likely that both represent Una as a young girl.    

In Harvest, “Una” holds almost centre stage in a painting that is divided into three planes – a technique seen in also in Wild Apples (see blog June 24).  The foreground inhabits a luminescent realm, the pearly light set out in almost architectural blocks. Una is standing in the brightest quadrant, a perky child in a rose pink dress bearing a tea caddy to the workers bringing in the harvest. Nearby is an agile brown dog, tail up, gambolling around all the activity.  

In Una’s plane of the painting three men are stacking bales of hay. The man to the right with the hat (and jacket?) may possibly be Una’s father – again that theatrical use of prop. The hat speaks of authority and seniority, while of the other two workers, both are in their shirtsleeves, one is hatless and the other sports a soft cloth cap.  The stooks of harvested hay look solid and sculptural but they also manage to suggest mobility. Despite their geometrical aspect ( like the trees in the background) the bales look animated and the men look as if they’re trying to tame them rather than stack them.  

The mid-ground is taken up with a wide band of uncut field, like a golden wall bisecting the work.

The background portrays a different mood altogether. Unlike the foreground which is drenched in light, the sky is greyly overcast and the hills are pewter-coloured.  There is no sign of the sun that bathes the rest of the painting. The threshing machine, rendered in black, seems to meld with the very sharply angular trees and the silhouettes of farm buildings to lend a brooding presence to the top of the canvas, as if a very black mood is descending.  The machine dominates, a large prehensile beast, driven relentlessly on by a man intent on his work.  The grim reaper associations are inescapable.

It’s tempting, perhaps, to read too much significance into such painterly tropes, when we know as viewers that Una’s death is close, but there is a symphony of mood in this work, a range of competing emotions – nostalgia, melancholy, presentiment – that suggest existential concerns. Gone the one-note cheery realism of The Ladies Committee, or the witty outward-looking social observation of Cappagh Road.

Although the work is listed in the posthumous 1966 exhibition catalogue as Harvest, it’s referred to colloquially among Una’s family as Tea in the Fields – a much more Una-like title.  We’ve remarked before how straightforward her titles were – Girl Walking by Trinity in the Rain, The Ladies Committee, The People’s Gardens – so it is possible that Eugene may have titled it for the 1966 exhibition.  (On the other hand, the work may have had two titles – one as a work-in-progress, another when the painting was finished.)

But the titling issue recurs in relation to The Emerald Ballroom Watercolours (see dedicated page on this site) which were executed in the weeks prior to her death. It’s a moot point if Una would have titled these works at all since they appear to be studies towards a bigger idea. 

However, when Eugene was donating them to the Ballinasloe Bridge Club, he added titles to the 25-strong collection  – e.g. Dawnscape in Grey Limestone, Duskscape in Harvest, Nightscape in Black Basalt – which bear the hallmark of his poetic imagination rather than Una’s. Of course, titling them was also pragmatic; paintings without titles are like orphans sent out into the world without their name tags. By identifying them and keeping them together as a body of work, Eugene accorded Una’s swansong the significance he felt was their due.

“About a fortnight before the end,” he wrote,” she painted a remarkable series of watercolours, in a style and technique she had not used before.  These pictures, 25 in number, were all painted in a single day, the artist working at high speed, as hypnotised, in a final burst of creative energy.”

Although this may have been a new departure, there’s some evidence that in this flurry of artistic activity Una was also revisiting the past, even if it was only the past of her most recently completed oil.   Duskscape in Harvest, no 7 in this sequence, bears a striking resemblance in mood and tone to Harvest and is the only watercolour in the impressionistic sequence that suggests figures in a landscape. 

As well as being valedictory, could Harvest have represented the new beginning hinted at in the watercolours, work Una Watters never got the chance to complete?

Mary Morrissy

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Una in focus

Passing the GPO

November is Una Watters month. To mark the anniversary of her birth on November 4, 1918, we’re looking at “Thar an GPO” (By the GPO) painted in 1965.

The painting was one of several Una painted in the prolific last year of her life, and carries a title in Irish, presumably because it was shown at the Oireachtas exhibition of that year. Máirín Nic Eoin, Eugene Watters’ biographer credits it as the last painting Una completed, although some believe it was Harvest. The painting stands out as being an overtly political work and according to her sister, Nora McDonnell, in an interview with Nic Eoin for Eoghan Ó Tuairisc: Beatha augus Saothar (An Clóchomhar, 1988) Una saw it as a 1916 commemorative piece.

The 1916 Rising was very much in the air that year with the 50th anniversary coming up. Musicians and artists were engaged in exploring and reviewing the seminal event – e.g. George Morrison’s two Gael Linn films Mise Éire and Saoirse? with scores by composer Seán Ó Riada that entered into the national consciousness rather in the same way Riverdance did in the 1990s. Una herself had also been working on the design of a symbol for the 1966 commemoration for a competition sponsored by the Arts Council. (Her design won the contest, although, sadly, she did not live to collect the prize.)

It wasn’t only a memorial impulse. In 1966, Nelson’s Pillar was blown up by republicans, causing damage to the GPO, so the Rising and its fault lines was also a live political issue.

Thar an GPO (oil on canvas, 75 x 85cm) is an austere work in muted earth tones and more reflective in mood than Una’s other oils. The sombre palette of the painting serves to emphasise the ray of light shining from high right to low left of the canvas. A small girl in a russet coat – thought to be a depiction of Una herself as a child – is the only figure in the painting who notices the celestial beam, which slices through the ribbed columns of Portland stone of the GPO. The light forms an illuminated pathway into which the girl steps. This motif in the work could be seen as an Annunciation of sorts, a child of the revolution (Una was born two years after the Rising) bathed in the benign light of the new republic.

As often happened with Eugene and Una, there are subliminal echoes of each other’s visions in their work. Here’s a moment in Eugene’s long poem Aifreann na Marbh published in his 1964 collection, Lux Aeterna, that seems to embody the spirit of Una’s painting.

I see them naked, the bones of beauty,

The fluted columns, the empty stone of Corinth,

Rising from the haze on the left.

The pure virgin.

The figures crushed into the narrow space – both pictorial and actual – of the building’s portico between the columns and the forbidding granite face of the GPO represent every walk of life; a priest, a newspaper seller, a stylishly dressed young woman in a fawn suit, an elderly matron with a hat with her back to us. This hatted female figure appears in many of Una’s group scenes – in The People’s Gardens where she has been identified by family members as Una’s mother, and in City Bridge, where she appears in the bottom right of the frame in almost identical attire. There’s also a beaky, Beckett-like student with a scarf worn like a cravat, a newspaper seller and a nun among the throng.

Interestingly, the figures in the crowd are rendered transparently, their silhouettes overlapping so that, for example, we can see through the stolid gent rugged up in the overcoat and trilby in the centre foreground to the young girl in the tawny dress and the newspaper the seller is proffering.

As in many of Una’s group portraits, the “characters” are recognisable as archetypes, although the faces are rendered broadly and indistinctly. Here, though, they melt into one another, unified by the historic building and elevated by the revolutionary light, even if they don’t notice it. Their function is as a crowd, standing in for the many generations who have passed by the GPO.

There is some instability about the ground of the painting, given the overlapping figures so that the girl looking up at the light seems to be almost levitating. The other non-realist trope in the work is the rendering of the entrance to the GPO on the left of the painting which is suffused by a bronze light. The large entrance portal seems to open out into the pavement and we see the grey stone warmed up by an autumnal light emanating from the bronze decorative sashes on the glass.

Perhaps too it’s a subliminal reference to the bronze sculpture of The Dying Cúchulainn by Oliver Sheppard (1865-1941) which was designated by Eamon de Valera as an official memorial of the Rising in 1935 and has sat on its marble plinth in the GPO since then. Although the sculpture had not been created by Sheppard as a monument to the Rising, its placement in the GPO twinned it in the public mind with the events of 1916.

These two lights, dying bronze and transforming white, one of hope and one of defeat, seem an apt metaphorical configuration of the Rising itself.

Mary Morrissy

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Una in focus

The Bliss of Solitude

40 Meditation - Adams pic

Meditation is one of Una Watters most enigmatic paintings, writes Mary Morrissy, not least because it’s undated and presents a marked departure from the social realism of her  later work. 

There have been many times in the course of looking at Una Watters’ work that I have wished she were still alive to ask her about aspects of individual paintings. None more so than Meditation, which seems to me her most mysterious work.

Meditation, (oil on canvas, 69 x 59cms), is clearly a late work although there’s no date on the painting. In terms of its subject matter, it’s an outlier. Unlike her cheery, social realist group portraits in city settings, this harks back to an emphasis in Una’s early work on religious subject matter.

Her first work to be exhibited publicly – in the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA) exhibition in 1949 – was an Annunciation (1948). The IELA had been founded in 1943 by Sybil le Brocquy , playwright and patron of the arts, to promote modernism.  It was a direct response to the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) rejection of work by her son Louis le Brocquy and of modernist work en masse. The IELA’s mission was to provide a forum where work by living Irish artists could be shown irrespective of its “academic” credentials.  This suggests that although Una’s theme might have been religious, her interpretation might have been more unconventional.

However, at the moment we cannot say that for sure. Both Annunciation and Madonna of the Ash Tree (1943), two early religious paintings, featured in the 1966 posthumous exhibition organised by Una’s husband, Eugene Watters, but we have have not managed to trace either of these works.

We also know of the existence of at least one other early Biblical painting, The Flight into Egypt, which was placed by Eugene Watters’ Irish language biographer, Máirín NicEoin in a classroom in St Canice’s School, Finglas, in 1956/57, at a time when Eugene would have been teaching there.  Later, it appears to have been gifted to Una’s sister, Sr Mel, a member of the Holy Faith congregation.  Eugene mentions it in correspondence but due to an oversight it did not appear in the 1966 exhibition, and has since disappeared.

So we are left with Meditation.  Although clearly a religious painting, it’s rendered in an intellectually abstract fashion and in a highly stylised form. The colour palette is cool – soothing blues and mossy browns. The madonna-like figure in the blue robes, viewed in profile seated on a stone throne, is fluid but sculptural. (Her face is averted so we’re not tempted to try to identify her as a “real” person.) The religious symbolism of the golden pathway of illumination – or could it be a tongue of fire? – leading through the brown portal and towards a vanishing point suggests the painter is trying to evoke a state of mind.

The only fleshy part of this “madonna” is her hands which are warm and life-like. And that brings us to the first of the conundrums in the work.  How many figures are there in Meditation?  There is a darker shadow-self cloaking the madonna that suggests another “presence” in the painting, and there seems to be more than one pair of those life-like hands.

The mixture of religious symbolism and secular abstraction reaches its apex in the  rendering of the figure’s veil. This element of the painting comes to dominate but what exactly is it? It could be a hat with a dove grey veil swathed around it, or is it a goitred, acorn-shaped, Picasso-like eye?

The dominance of the image brings to mind the Wordsworthian “inward eye”, the thing of beauty remembered in tranquility which can only be experienced in the “bliss of solitude”.

It’s quite likely too that there is a double meaning to this inward eye – it may not simply be a spiritual vision that is being celebrated but the mystical power of the artistic imagination.

The provenance of Meditation is not entirely clear.  Although a late work and an oil, it strangely, did not feature in the 1966 show.  Whether it had been already been sold and/or gifted before 1966 is not known, but it disappeared from view until the early 2000s when it was purchased by Irish collector Sean O’Criadain, who acquired City Bridge (1964) at the same time – see blog of June 9.  It was put up for auction again at Adams’s Dublin in 2007 where it was bought for €11,000.

When it came up for public auction, only one of two of Una’s works to do so, the Adams catalogue noted her religious sensibility and the sense of humility and quietude evident in the work.  The painting “exhibits this quality, the rounded simple forms and autumnal hues creating a harmonious intimate mood”.

Elegant and restrained, Meditation does not yield up a reading easily.  The mystery makes it all the more powerful.

Mary Morrissy