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Friday 19 September 2014

Cezanne exuded immense aura of life

Coming from a real lost generation, the French artist smote me with an extraordinary sense of awe, says Con Houlihan

Con Houlihan

Published 15/06/2008 | 00:00

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Ernest Hemmingway was fond of saying that he belonged to a lost generation. Seemingly he was talking about his fellow Americans in post-war Paris. I always thought of Ernest and Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos and other American writers and artists as an extremely fortunate generation.

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They were living in a lovely city at a time when the exchange rate between the dollar and the franc was very much in their favour. I suspect that Ernest was indulging in a kind of romantic self pity.

I belonged to a lost generation -- and I make that assertion without the slightest trace of romanticism or self pity. I attempted to grow up in a community where we had a choice of only two games -- you played Gaelic Football or Rugby. The mental climate was so unhealthy that you couldn't play both. There were no under-age competitions.

In another and perhaps more important field we were left in woeful ignorance. You could come through primary school and secondary school without being taught much of any value about Music or Art. Our books on History told us little or nothing about Science. Isaac Newton was as much a giant as William Shakespeare -- we never even heard of him.

It was in Art most of all that we were neglected. Many a time and oft I have talked about my awakening in that field. I have told it in the bog and the meadow and in public houses before and after hours. I have even told it in print.

The story goes back to a day when I was 16. I was reading through a periodical called The Saturday Book when I came on a picture that almost startled me. I said many years later that the picture smote me with an extraordinary sense of wonder. It was a drawing of a mountain in black and white. An immense sense of life seemed to emanate from it. I was entranced.

It was the work of a man called Paul Cezanne. It was our first meeting. He was to stay with me for the rest of my life. We will come back to him later in this article.

Soon I became aware that we had famous painters here in Ireland, especially Paul Henry and Jack Yeats. It has long been fashionable to say that Paul Henry painted pictures that would look well in the living rooms of the newly rich Irish in England, especially builders from the West. It is a cynical verdict. Paul Henry's friends would tell you that he was a man of the utmost integrity. That virtue shines through in his autobiography.

Henry grew up in Belfast when it was very much an industrial city; when he went to Connemara to work, he was fascinated by this new world. He depicted it romantically but not sentimentally. I believe that the West of Ireland enabled Paul Henry to fulfil himself.

It has also long been fashionable to say that Jack Yeats was only a journalist. This, of course, means that he often tells a story. This doesn't prevent him from being a brilliant painter.

It was long after I encountered Paul Cezanne that I first met a living painter. I was very lucky that this man was James Le Jeune. I will always treasure the memory of a conversation we had one evening in Searson's pub in Baggot Street. It was one of those cold, damp and dark evenings that seem almost peculiar to Ireland. When I entered that pleasant pub, I saw James seated in a far corner looking as miserable as the weather.

After we had a few drinks almost in silence, he told me that he was very worried about a commissioned portrait that wasn't working out. He needed to have it ready for an exhibition and he was under the pressure of time. He knew that it wouldn't work out but he had to make the best of it.

I told him about a passage that I had read in the letters of Vincent Van Gogh -- that nothing is as depressing as work that is going badly. James gave a great laugh that cleared the worry from his face and we went on to have an intimate exchange of experiences.

James was what you might call a painters' painter: he was greatly respected by his fellows but not as well known to the public. He had the invaluable gift of being able to laugh at himself. He was a brilliant catcher in the wry.

I knew Bob Ryan long before I became aware he was a painter. To me he was a diplomat for Allied Irish Banks. And when he invited me to an exhibition, I thought it was just part of his job. To my surprise and delight the exhibition was his own. That was typical of Bob: to him a painter was like any tradesman -- a carpenter, a plumber or a blacksmith, somebody who does his job.

I was able to buy some of his work that night long ago; he has since sold far beyond my pocket and I am delighted for him.

I have a similar feeling about Tadhg MacSweeney; he too has gone to the good. I came to know him when he had a small exhibition in The Peacock Theatre. I was able to buy some of his work. In the meantime he has exhibited in England and in America and in the European mainland.

Tadhg would agree with Van Gogh who said that you can see poetry in a furrow and with Patrick Kavanagh who said that there can be an undying difference in a corner of a field. One of Tadhg's first pictures was of a horse on his farm. That splendid animal is now stabled in my kitchen.

I was lucky enough to see an exhibition in Sach's Hotel in Dublin by a very young girl from Limerick called Geraldine Sadlier. I was enthralled by her freshness. I managed to buy a few of her paintings. She is now working in Switzerland. She had an exhibition in her native city a few years ago but I was unable to be there. Before she went away, she gave me a present of a painting: it depicts a row of houses on Portobello Road; in the foreground there is a glimpse of the canal. To me that little painting is "a thing of beauty and a joy forever".

Arthur Power, like James Le Jeune, was greatly respected by his peers but he hardly ever became famous. I love his lyricism. He and I have an affinity: we both love water. If you had asked him to paint some part of the Burren, he would somehow have worked a stream into it though all the water in that strange country is underground.

We will come back to Paul Cezanne. He was born in Provence in 1839. His father, believe it or not, was a liberal banker and saw to it that his son wouldn't ever lack for money in his ambition to be an artist.

And so when Paul went to study in Paris, he didn't exist on dark bread and on wine that came in unmarked bottles from unmarked vans.

He lived in Paris at a time of political upheaval and a revolution in art -- and yet he was almost unaffected by it.

He was very shy -- and though he occasionally went to those cafes frequented by painters and artists, he stayed on the fringe of the company and rarely spoke.

His work got little attention. His boyhood friend, Emile Zola, depicted him as a tragic failure in his novel L'Oeuvre. A terrible core of confidence enabled him to endure loneliness and lack of appreciation.

He admired the work of the Impressionists, most of them were his neighbours in Paris, but he wasn't influenced by them. He went his own way.

Henry Moore said: "Cezanne battled against all that he admired in painting. He believed that it is better to attempt what was not done before." In this he resembled Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetry is the most original in modern English.

Cezanne spent his later years in the family home in Provence and painted there almost every day in the fields. He was obsessed with capturing a local hillside that is called the Mont Saint Victoire. Its slopes are gentle and its contours pleasant and it has been cultivated for centuries and yet it fascinated Cezanne endlessly.

He painted it again and again and was never satisfied that he had captured it.

One evening while working in the fields, he was caught in a thunderstorm and collapsed by the roadside and was brought home in a laundry van. He was up and around in the morrow but he died a few days after from pneumonia. He was 67. He wasn't altogether lonely in those late years in Provence: a little local group of intellectuals idolised him, possibly as much for his heroism as much as his art. And every morning as he went to work, the soldiers on guard saluted him.

The world has been saluting him since.

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