Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Jack Yeats returns to Skibbereen

Coming Home resonates in Skibbereen because the drama of the Famine story transpired here in tragic reality. The local significance of the exhibition is heightened, however, by the inclusion of a figure of both national and local importance.

Jack Butler Yeats was one of the most important figures in Irish art in the 20th century.

One of the great titans of Irish art - and one of my own personal, favourite painters- Jack B. Yeats is on display in the Coming Home exhibition. This is a particularly special occasion as it is the first time the Romantic landscape painter, Yeats, has been exhibited in West Cork. Considering that early in the artist's career, he spent considerable time perfecting his style here in Skibbereen this makes this occasion all the more special.

I first heard of Yeat’s important connection to the town through Philip O’ Regan of Skibbereen Heritage Centre. A programme of historical walking tours was created in collaboration with the Heritage Centre to coincide with the Coming Home exhibition. It was during this animated and informative talk that the significance of Yeats’ inclusion in the exhibition was made clear to me. Additionally, Philip kindly provided West Cork Arts Centre with an article he had written about Yeats’ time in West Cork during the summer of 1919. The artist, I was surprised to find out, sketched and painted Skibbereen and Schull extensively in his early career. His sketchbook, Sketchbook 123, contains  58 sketched pages, with a further 11 manuscript pages detailing the summer of 1919. An array of paintings emerged from these sketches in the years to come, including Castle near Skibbereen, The Return from the Picnic, The Sleeping Tinker and The Bridge at Skibbereen.

Yeats was the son of the established portrait artist, John Butler Yeats. His brother William Butler Yeats is one of Ireland’s most famous poets and his sisters Susan and Elizabeth (affectionately known as Lily and Lolly) were pioneers of the Irish arts and craft movement. A truly artistic family their influence on Irish culture is still felt today.

Jack B. Yeats managed through a use of thick impasto oil paint and a unique kind of romantic expressionism to create a celebratory vision of Ireland. His colour palette seems to embody Irish rural-ness and his bold use of blue, white, red and green have become synonymous with the Irish countryside. The use of symbolism and motifs is another feature of his work, with horses appearing regularly in his paintings.

Derrynane  (1927) by J.B Yeats is on display in Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre

Derrynane painted in 1927 forms an important part of the exhibition. Ostensibly a seascape, the use of broad brushstrokes in combination with pure colour and the materiality of the paint abstracts the scene. Yeats’ Derrynane transcends a representation of the bay and allows an air of rural romanticism to revel throughout the painting. He imbues the scene with ‘Irishness’.

The painting is included in the exhibition to remind us the effect that the Famine had on national identity. Yeats along with other Irish artists such as Sean Keating and Paul Henry (also featured in the exhibition) established a visual Irish identity within Irish life. Derrynane was also home to the Great liberator Daniel O’ Connell. O’ Connell, a giant in Irish politics, campaigned tirelessly for Catholic emancipation. However, the statesman suffered a controversy when it was reported his tenants experienced terrible conditions. The Catholic’s rights advocate’s challenged these accounts but a scandal had been created. Yeats’ painting incorporates many narratives into Coming Home’s visual exploration of the Famine story.

The Bridge at Skibbereen (1919) by J.B Yeats (Image credit:

The exhibition marks Yeats’s arrival in Skibbereen and is a quite seemly event given the artist celebrated the town with paint in The Bridge at Skibbereen. This particular painting, created in 1919 is a good example, when compared with Derrynane, of how much the artist's style progressed during his career. Yeats also saluted Inishbeg during his time in West Cork, with the creation of Flowing Tide, Inishbeg, Near Skibbereen. The island is located on the estuary of the Ilen river which flows through Skibbereen town. The nature of this seascape allows the artist to be more expressive in his mark-making. The painting is dominated by a body of water in its foreground.Yeats approaches the water with playful brushstrokes that bring this feature to the point of near abstraction. The looser approach found in this painting is indicative of the style that emerges in Yeats' later works such as Derrynane.

Yeats' return to Skibbereen would be celebrated in any context. However, his inclusion in, such a culturally significant exhibition as Coming Home seems apt given the extent of Jack B. Yeat's own cultural significance.

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