Art critic Cristín Leach’s new memoir offers a very modern portrait of a marriage breakdown. She talks about the importance of art and writing in her life, and the freedom that can come with realising you’re married to the wrong person
By the time she reached her late thirties, Cristín Leach’s life appeared to be in good order. She was a married mother of two happy and healthy children, and was at the top of her game professionally as one of the country’s best-known and longest-running art critics.
One evening in November 2014, Leach recalls returning to her home after judging at the HearSay International Audio Arts Festival to find the kids, who were aged six and eight at the time, in bed and her husband on the sofa, watching TV. They listen to the winning piece — a tenderly romantic work called A Kiss by Kaitlin Prest — together.
“Listen to what is said and not said. Listen to how two people experiencing the same thing can be experiencing not the same thing at all,” Leach tells her husband. “Listen to how two people can be so embedded in their own perception and understanding of an action or event or situation that the other person’s experience, perception and understanding is actually a different story altogether.”
Her observation would turn out to be eerily prescient. The very next day, her life as she knows it is upended. This moment is the starting point for a marriage breakdown and, in some ways, a journey back to herself.
Within weeks, her professional duties as an art critic for the Sunday Times had brought her to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, to its What We Call Love: From Surrealism to Now exhibition. Standing amid iconic works by famous artists from Luis Buñuel and Louise Bourgeois to Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol, Leach was perturbed to find herself more irritated at the wondrous displays of love than anything else.
“I think this happens to a lot of people whose marriages end — I got really cynical about love,” Leach smiles. “I just looked around and went, ‘Oh my God, all marriages are rubbish.’ It was like I couldn’t really see the show without the lens of my own experience.”
While Leach’s work as an art critic often demands an impartial eye, she couldn’t help but realise that what was happening in her own life was having a bearing on how she was examining, and writing about, art. This idea became the jumping-off point for her memoir and book debut, Negative Space.
In it, Leach examines the importance of art and writing in her life, and how they helped her to process and assimilate big moments, from motherhood to divorce. She writes about what art can do to help anchor us, or connect us to the world.
Equally, Negative Space reads as an unflinching self-exploration of a woman at various major life stages, not to mention a refreshing portrait of a very modern Irish marriage breakdown, divorce and family break-up.
First things first: Leach and her family are in a very happy place. She now lives in Cork, where she moved from her native Kilkenny as a teenager. Her children, now 14 and nearly 16, are co-parented by Leach and her ex-husband.
“I really wanted to put forward a story about how staying together [in a marriage] isn’t the best thing,” Leach says.
“There was a point when it was stressful and things were falling apart, and it was not fun and enjoyable in any way. But one of the things I learned during that time was that the antidote to despair was gratitude. It sounds pat, but it’s true. I’m really grateful now, for this. It feels like getting a whole other life again. There’s something amazing about not feeling fixed and tied to that shape. In a few years, my kids will be adults living their lives, and if I was still married, I would be living a life that was with another person. I feel now like there’s an amazing freedom coming my way. Like you get another go of life, or something. I mean, if it turns out that you married the person you really weren’t meant to be married to, well, isn’t it great to be able to undo it and start again?”
Negative Space began life as a collection of 46-year-old Leach’s art criticism. Yet, perhaps not surprisingly, she was also doing plenty of personal writing as a way to make sense of her new life — a habit she has nurtured since childhood as an avid diary keeper.
After she got divorced, Leach stopped doing journalism for a while, and pivoted to other forms of writing: she accepted catalogue essay commissions, and worked in technical writing and corporate communications. A call with Conor Graham from Merrion Press soon helped her galvanise the form for her first book.
“I told him, ‘I’m thinking we could publish previous criticism alongside an essay which talks about what’s going on in my life when I saw the work,’ and I told him a story about being in the family law court in Cork and seeing the Maud Cotter piece on the wall there. I wrote that out, sent it to him and [we realised] that this was a memoir.”
In Negative Space, Leach describes her separation and divorce proceedings in vivid detail, in passages that anyone who has ever gone through a divorce will readily relate to.
“Even post-divorce, debate about what is best for the children keeps you dancing together out of tune,” she writes. Leach, her ex-husband and her two children all made it out the other side, even if it was a labyrinthine journey.
“This is one of the mistakes I’m glad we didn’t make, and I’ve seen this happen,” Leach reflects, over coffee in Dublin’s Bestseller Café. “People fight a lot about who gets access to the kids. We never did that. Our priority is to make sure they’re okay. We don’t have a ruling about where they spend their time. We co-ordinate this between ourselves.
“What you realise is, if you spend five or six years fighting about this, the kids will literally grow up while you’re doing this. Quite soon it will be irrelevant [who has custody of whom] because they will be teenagers doing their own thing anyway.”
Leach and her husband faced a decision. They could stay together in the marriage, or they could move along with their lives separately.
“Stay together for the kids. Stay quiet for the kids...” Leach writes in her memoir. “...there is a weird societal requirement to preserve face, so that even though everything has fallen apart behind closed doors, it all looks like it is still standing from the front.”
I ask Leach about what they did when things fell apart. “We went to therapy,” she recalls. “We tried to see if we could fix it. In the process of doing that, we just discovered that wasn’t the future for us.
“I think another reason I wanted to write the book was to be able to talk about that alternative narrative,” she adds. “The narrative that you get a lot, especially in Ireland, is that you must stay together for the kids. That this seems to be the right thing to do. I wanted to provide a counter-option or narrative to that — that maybe not staying together is the right thing for the kids. What I discovered was, for the kids, that this [separation] was just okay,” she adds. “It was just something that was happening, in a way. The kids take their lead from you — you’re the adult in this situation. And this is not strange anymore for them. They’re surrounded by different-shaped families. The ‘mom and dad and kids’-shaped family is not the only shape of family that they see now.”
And yet Leach’s bid to keep everything amicable amid her separation from her husband hits a snag early on. During separation proceedings, they take one last family holiday together, although it turns out to be a mistake.
“Inside, I am trying to disappear,” she writes. “I am sick of the size and volume of the feelings inside myself. I am trying to shrink them, trying to shut them down.”
On which, Leach says now: “It felt like a pretence to go on holiday and look like the family lying by the pool. The disconnect between what it felt like and what it looks like on the outside caused me a lot of anxiety.”
She also writes about another facet of marital breakdown that very few people have elaborated on: the financial aspect of life as a newly divorced woman.
“I had sleepwalked myself into a situation where, as the primary carer for our two kids, my financial independence had slowly ebbed away,” she writes.
“You would hear of past generations talking about their ‘running away’ money, like it was a really common thing,” she says. “I don’t hear people say that much anymore. I realised, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have any money.’ One of my friends said, ‘Well, you have all these transferable skills — you can do these other things’.”
Leach found herself teaching technical writing to biopharmaceutical engineers, doing UX writing and working in communications, in addition to her journalism work. Soon, she was able to buy her home in Cork.
Time and time again, despite a number of short breaks, Leach has returned to her role as an art critic.
“A gallerist once said to me, ‘I don’t always agree with what you write, but I respect what you’re doing’,” she says.
The youngster somewhat explains the woman. Leach’s mother is an artist, so she has been going to art exhibitions since she was in the womb. She grew up just outside Kilkenny city, in Castlecomer; the shadow of Kilkenny’s Butler Gallery looms large in her childhood. Additionally, her great-grandfather owned newspapers in Donegal: in the early 19th century, both of his daughters were editing and managing local newspapers.
Leach writes about her first brush with “professional” writing at the age of eight, when she won a competition to become a book critic in the RTÉ Guide.
“The RTÉ Guide was one of those things that came into the house,” she explains. “In the kids’ section, they wanted kids to write a book review, so I sent one in. I was then told: ‘Congratulations. You’re one of our book reviewers now.’ I was over the moon. I was paid in books, which was great for my mum, who couldn’t keep me in books. And when you see your name in print like that for the very first time, well, something happens.”
Despite flirting with the idea of becoming an anthropologist, Leach joined the radio station at UCC and began presenting shows. A master’s in journalism followed not long after, and she realised that it was working as a critic that made her “the most excited”.
“I don’t want to know what drove me to make me want to do it,” she reflects. “It’s hard to do well, and in a way it’s like a magic trick if you do it well.”
She is excited about what the immediate future holds for the Irish art scene; the Covid-19 pandemic has been a blessing and a curse for many artists.
“I think [art] sales were better than anticipated — I mean, people were all stuck in their houses looking at walls,” she notes. “I do feel there’s an energy around, where some artists are taking control of themselves and having direct relationships with their audience via Instagram. [Covid] was devastating for artists that had shows that never happened, or got called off. But I do think there’s an interesting energy there.”
Not surprisingly, her passion for art, and writing about it, remains undimmed.
“One of the main reasons I do art criticism is because I want more people to think about art,” she says. “I want to elevate the fact there’s a huge amount of contemporary art out there and what we are doing that’s as good as anything that’s happening in Europe or the US.
“We know so many people in Irish music and literature and acting, but [the names of] Irish artists aren’t falling off people’s lips, and they should.”
‘Negative Space’ by Cristín Leach is out now via Merrion Press