One evening after Mass a parishioner slipped me an envelope, with the brief comment, ‘something nice for yourself.’ I was delighted to open it when I got home and find inside a single ticket for “Jack B Yeats: Painting and Memory”. I knew that the National Gallery was hosting this unique exhibition, bringing together many pictures from private collections and museums because I heard Joe Duffy ballyragging the organisers about the ticket price. I had it in the back of my mind to go alright, but what often happens is by the time I’d actually go looking it might be over!
So, I went, courtesy of the thoughtfulness of another. It was just wonderful. I had some awareness of the Yeats style as some of his painting are well known, but to see so many pictures, beautifully curated, with themes that found expression in different years was just fantastic. The majority of the paintings are from 1920-50 and most depict Irish people and places of interest to him. Time spent in Rosses point was reflected in almost photographic images, and highly abstract paintings too. His observations of people are fascinating, at song, in the circus, at the races, the seaside, fleeting glimpses of vibrant life. He also tackles themes of youth and aging and had a real interest in the poorer people who populated the world he moved in. The style of painting is captivating, he uses an abundance of oils, building a texture and complexity of colour which reproductions just can’t communicate.
There is a magnificent image painted for his wife four months before she died, she is seen in it walking with him and a beloved uncle, it captured all three, but allowed her presence to captivate the eye. And alongside it a painting of a solitary man, sitting in near darkness on a park bench, it was himself in the despair that engulfed him when he lost her. And finally, there was one luminous painting that was his deeply spiritual reflection on eternal life, radiating hope.
I found it an almost spiritual experience to spend an hour in the presence of the works of true genius. There wasn’t a single overtly religious image or reference but an abundance of the themes and hopes that people of faith carry with them. God certainly finds expression here.