Saturday 22 September 2018

Side by side, Van Gogh and Irish artist who discovered him

One of our greatest painters, Roderic O'Conor, was both a lover and a genius, writes Niamh Horan

THE ARTIST: Roderic O’Conor Self-Portrait (1903). Photo © National Gallery of Ireland
THE ARTIST: Roderic O’Conor Self-Portrait (1903). Photo © National Gallery of Ireland
Roderic O'Conor Le Cap Canaille, Cassis, 1913 Private Collection
Van Gogh’s ‘Wheat Field with Cornflowers’ (1890), Beyeler Collection
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Why paint if you have no audience? That was the central question posed in Somerset Maugham's book Of Human Bondage, based on the life of one of Ireland's greatest painters - Roderic O'Conor.

The conclusion was simple: it is in your bones. When you have a passion, you have to see it through. There is no other choice.

For decades, O'Conor "plugged away" without much success, according to art historian and researcher Jonathan Benington.

"His studio filled up, filled up, filled up with these artworks to the point that it was bursting."

Some distance away from O'Conor's studio in France, the same fate was happening to another young painter - Vincent Van Gogh.

The story of how the lives of the two masters eventually intertwined is laid out in fascinating detail in a major exhibition of the work of O'Conor at the National Gallery of Ireland this summer.

The exhibition captures a man who was a handsome lothario in his day - keeping a string of lovers and marrying a woman in her 30s when he was in his 70s.

He also shared a studio, and was a staunch friend of the world-renowned painter Paul Gauguin - one of art history's greatest dilemmas.

Gauguin was a paedophile - taking girls of 13, 14 and 15 from the South Pacific islands of Tahiti and Hiva Oa as his brides. But he also produced some of the world's greatest masterpieces including When Will You Marry?, which went on to become the second most expensive painting ever sold ($300m).

Gauguin's work will appear alongside O'Conor and Van Gogh's at the exhibition.

Asked whether we can appreciate the beauty created by a man we know carried out such repulsive acts, Benington is conflicted - but says it is possible.

"If you or I looked at a Gauguin painting - such as one of his beautiful landscapes - and we didn't know anything about the artist, we would think: 'Wow, this is a beautiful picture and I would be happy to have that on a poster in my bedroom.'

"And then you find out these things about him so, yes, it sullies the character. But I think the paintings still stand as beautiful artworks in their own right because you have to, to some extent, separate the two things."

Describing O'Conor's own private life, Benington, co-curator of the exhibition, says he was "a handsome Irish painter and a favourite of the ladies", but a significant and painful heartbreak made him fearful of serious relationships.

Describing how, after a young friend of the artist found him in bed with yet another conquest, the young boy subsequently wrote home "same old O'Conor, mistress in bedroom", Benington says a bad break-up "poisoned O'Conor against undergoing serious relationships with other women because he was fearful the same thing could happen again".

Eventually, however, he married one of his models who was 34 years younger than his 73, and their relationship lasted over 18 years, says Benington.

"She was very devoted and caring toward him and he would write really tender letters to her when she was away. He taught her how to paint and, despite being very well educated, he recognised that she had her own style and didn't try to take that from her. Instead he encouraged it to come out."

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of O'Conor's story can be traced directly to Van Gogh.

"People will probably hate Paul Gauguin even more when they hear this," laughs Benington, "but his greatest fear was that the art world would discover this artist in their circle - Van Gogh - died by his own hand. He felt that maybe the pundits would assume all members of Van Gogh's group were madmen and potentially suicidal so he didn't want that news to get out."

Roderic O'Conor was different, however.

"When Roderic discovered he was shocked. But rather than wanting to cover things up, O'Conor went the other way. He wanted to find out more about this mysterious and unknown artist," says Benington.

Eventually O'Conor brought along Gauguin and "they managed to elbow their way into the [Van Gogh] brother's apartment and view 345 of Van Gogh's paintings before the art world knew anything about them.

"He certainly [discovered] Van Gogh for himself when Vincent's work was completely unknown and at time when the art world and no dealers or collectors would support or buy it. Vincent was just a rank outsider."

Now the two men's works, Van Gogh's (whose eventual success story is legendary) and O'Conor's (whose paintings have fetched up to £1m) will appear side by side in the National Gallery of Ireland. Over 60 major artworks will feature, including Van Gogh's Champ de ble aux bleuets (Wheat Field with Cornflowers - on loan from the Beyeler Foundation in Basel); O'Conor's Field of Corn, Pont-Aven (on loan from the Northern Ireland National Museum); and Gauguin's Bowl of Fruit and Tankard before a Window (on loan from the UK National Gallery) for the first time.

Benington describes how O'Conor "was one of Ireland's greatest wielders of colour".

"He worked magic with it. Until Jack Yeats, there is no one else to compare with him for his use of colour."

The co-curator advises art lovers that if they are to see just one painting, to make a direct line for O'Conor's work Head of a Breton Boy.

"It's a small painting of a young boy with the deepest blue eyes and it is as progressive and daring as anything Van Gogh would have painted.

"Here was O'Conor in a backward province of France with its own language and customs - almost medieval in its ways - and this little uncouth urchin boy appealed to him

"He produced two or three drawings and paintings of this little boy, but this particular work shows the boy with a very, very direct look. He locks on to your own gaze and once it does you can't turn away.

"It's also beautiful in its use of colours and the use of paint in the background. You can see the pink and green stripes form a halo curving around the head.

"Here was O'Conor saying, well actually this little boy might be a peasant and an urchin - but he also has some very saintly qualities."

Sunday Independent

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