Artist Blackshaw a romantic hero who brought magic into my life
'Female Nude', a painting by Basil Blackshaw, who died last week, was always a symbol of hope for Ciara Ferguson. She pays tribute to the genius behind this work of art
My father Vincent Ferguson had two heroes: businessman Tony O'Reilly, and painter Basil Blackshaw, who died last week aged 84. My father was himself both businessman and art collector, and this perfectly reflected his passion for the dual worlds of creativity.
For Dad, a hero was a romantic, wise but devoid of cynicism, imperfect perhaps, but fuelled by unwavering belief and something magic, someone who pushed the boundaries even when that often meant being alone. Above all, a hero had courage and integrity of spirit. These days more than ever, we should hail our heroes.
After Dad died in 2007, and it came to the necessity of selling his art collection, I put on a brave face. I could oversee this duty without emotional attachment and in the interests of helping my family. Or so I thought. Christie's came in and it was going well, given the underlying sadness. Until, suddenly, it wasn't okay. One painting became the manifestation of loss. And survival.
To me, the measure of a great painting is that it is alive, encapsulating something of the human spirit beyond words. This painting was a 6ft portrait of a nude torso by Basil Blackshaw, one of Ireland's greatest painters. I could watch the others go under the hammer, but this loss would have been much greater. The painting is powerful, revolutionary, striking, but it goes deeper than that. It is heroic.
It is an extraordinary portrait. The girl is standing squarely facing the viewer, at once exposed and vulnerable yet vaguely defiant and untouched. She is a warrior, a survivor, naked, but neither sexual nor sensual, just bare, she has seen things, lived things, her breasts exposed, yet luminous like armour, her expression inscrutable, at once knowing and innocent. She is otherworldly, yet very much born of flesh and blood. This painting was around from when I was a teenager. I hung it in my apartment in Pembroke Road and greeted it as an old friend when, later, it hung in our old house in Sligo.
I think it may have mirrored something of Blackshaw himself, given that his studio and most of his work was destroyed in a fire the year before and this marked a new beginning. And Basil, not given to compromise, and not particularly prolific, was yet to create a number of masterpieces in his career.
I remember Basil explaining somewhat mischievously how his model, Jude, just back from a holiday in the sun, took her clothes off to model bearing a bikini line and almost blue-white breasts. "I just wanted to paint her white bits," he said. "I was expecting something more like the whiteness of the breasts as symbol of the purity of innocence. Nope. We laughed and the painting became known as 'The White Bits'."
The painting may have been priceless to me, but nevertheless, it had a very large price tag. I couldn't hope to ever acquire it myself. But there was a man in my life at the time, whom I met in Shanghai not long before. He sensed more than he knew and said he wanted to buy the painting for me. I looked at him differently, knowing it wouldn't be easy for him to raise the funds. We split up shortly after, and I became resigned to losing the painting. Three months passed and I got a message from the man to say he still wanted to buy the painting for me, or at least lend me the money. Something deep inside was touched, made better, and that was the man I would marry. Hope restored.
The portrait to me is an emblem of resilience, an elegiac lament, a totem of the survival of the human spirit. Recently, I found a letter from Blackshaw to my dad, written 30 years ago when he made that painting.
"Sometimes I think it is quite impossible (to make paintings) and maybe I'm attempting the unobtainable - to paint so close to the edge, to walk the tightrope, to find the place between reality as we see it that could easily become fantasy - does that not sound nearly impossible?" he wrote.
"I have a model who comes out to pose for me. When she goes away I paint her - never while she's with me, you see, I don't want to paint her - I just want to paint a figure without clothes - I don't want her to exist. So how do you paint something that doesn't exist? This week perhaps I made a little progress - a big naked girl, you wouldn't even want to kiss her, a 6ft canvas and I only got half of her in. She doesn't exist!''. But the essence of hope does.
Blackshaw was born in Antrim in 1932. Although his early paintings gained him critical praise and a loyal following of collectors, Blackshaw refused to stand still and had, on several occasions, changed his approach to painting, such as the magnificent Window series of paintings, gifted to IMMA by my parents.
The poet Seamus Heaney described his work best: "The earth and its creatures, its game cocks and blood horses, its lurchers and its loved ones, all these things have been richly 'Basilised', as it were, 'Blackshawed' into pigment, turned into an element that is as rich as the muddy banks of the Bann valley and as recognisable as Basil's own gleeful personality."
And no, dear Basil, it was never too late for a revolution. Some people, not many, are just born heroes and what they do is utterly timeless.
This article has been adapted and updated from one that Ciara Ferguson wrote for the Living section in 2012