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Saturday 3 December 2016

Paul Funge

Wexford-born artist put his money where his mouth was in ensuring art belonged to us all, says Emer O'Kelly

Published 27/02/2011 | 05:00

The Bourn Vincent Gallery at the University of Limerick is the home of the National Self-Portrait Collection of Ireland. The impressive collection comprises more than 400 pieces, and the pity is that it is not on display more often.

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It began modestly: a man called John Kneafsey (who ran Independent Newspapers' Limerick office for many years) was an enthusiastic patron of the arts, and a collector. He was particularly interested in the way artists saw themselves.

After his death, the then National Institute of Higher Education far-sightedly purchased 15 artists' self-portraits from Kneafsey's collection. That was in 1977, and in the collection was a recent self-portrait by the artist Paul Funge. Even at that early stage in his career, people found it difficult to imagine how Funge managed to find time to paint, given his Renaissance-style involvement in all aspects of art, including patronage and administration.

And it's even more interesting to see how Funge saw himself in this work: a large drooping ruff surrounds his neck, drawing attention from his rubicund face, almost seeming like a defiant external image which defies entry into the soul. And, of course, the shape of the ruff whispers "clown" far more loudly than it does "courtier"; almost a wistful suggestion that to choose art is to choose tragedy and the loneliness of being mocked.

In 1977, Paul Funge already had an impressive CV. He was born in Gorey, Co Wexford, into a prosperous merchant family. But there seems never to have been a doubt that he would look outside the commercial world for his future.

He studied under Sean Keating and Maurice McGonigal, but was to move far from their rigorously academic approach in his own work. He also studied with John Kelly, (with whom he was later to co-operate, along with other luminaries such as John Behan and Michael Warren, in setting up the Project Arts Centre in its first home in Abbey Street in Dublin).

His early career included running the tiny Lantern Theatre in a Merrion Square basement, where he was responsible for the sets for most of the productions ... on an almost non-existent budget. Like many such undertakings (but few of such determined aspiration and talent) the Lantern foundered. But Funge's determination and enthusiasm won out in most of his other undertakings. He taught art at second level in several Irish schools, and at university level at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

And with the Project Arts Centre up and tottering proudly if not actually running (in the days before subsidies for artistic undertakings) he looked back home to Gorey in pursuance of his long-held belief that art should be made available outside big cities.

In 1970, that resulted in the Gorey Art Centre and the three-week annual Gorey Arts Festival (an unheard of length at the time), which he ran for 15 years. He was also instrumental in the opening of Limerick's Belltable Art Centre while he was Regional Arts Officer for the Mid-West. Back in Dublin he was chair of the Oireachtas Independent Artists from 1979-1982. He also had a spell running the Wexford Arts Centre in Wexford Town.

And all the time he was painting: exuberant, painterly works that made landscapes explode with his vision, while eminent sitters queued up to be immortalised by one of his portraits. And once again, when the time came for a retrospective, it was located not in Dublin or even Cork, but in Drogheda ... the man who believed art belonged to us all was putting his money where his mouth was, reaching out from his studio in the south inner-city of Dublin ... not a million miles from the United Arts Club where he was a longtime member, frequent mischievous presence and equally faithful exhibitor.

He was only 67 when he died last week, not even achieving his biblical quota.

And a day later came the news of the death at 80 of TP Flanagan, one of the most distinguished landscape painters in recent Irish history, and an artist for whom the landscape of his native Fermanagh was a renewing and lifelong inspiration. A sad week for art in Ireland.

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