T.P. Flanagan, who exhibited his work for some five decades, is largely recognised as an important landscape artist of his generation with counties Sligo, Donegal and his native Fermanagh especially drawing him in. While his paintings often celebrate the formal features and natural elements at work in a landscape, some also embrace and rinse up social and political undercurrents invested in a terrain. Still life and figurative works also feature in his oeuvre and this essay sets out to bring together and explore sub-themes in paintings and drawings which relate, inter alia, to nostalgia, loss and the dignity of silence.
It should be noted that Flanagan’s landscape work has never been strictly representational. It is naturalistic in the sense that it holds onto visual referents in a particular location but his achievement resides in his ability to reframe the experience of place in order to create something self sufficient – something independent of nature; something poetic and increate. Such an interventionist approach contributes to the ‘becoming’ of landscape, so that we see it through his purposeful aesthetic restructuring. Relating to this mode of seeing he has said,
‘Everything that I have enjoyed, say in the way of landscape in Ireland, I have enjoyed initially because I saw it with the sanction of a particular painter who took it and made something out of it. For instance, I can’t go to Connemara without seeing the Twelve Pins the way Paul Henry saw them. That’s why I never paint them…’ 1
T.P. Flanagan is both literary minded and painterly minded. As a young boy Flanagan was allowed to freely roam Lissadell, the Gore-Booth family estate in Co. Sligo and initially his interest in landscape came by way of WB Yeats rather than his artist brother JB Yeats. Images that he painted began as literary images – thinking of something in words and then materialising it in paint.
Brian O’Doherty has said in commenting on writers and artists that ‘Irish artists occupy the gate lodge to the literary Big House. Listening to the heavy traffic up and down the driveway’. 2 While this may have perhaps held true as of 1971 when it was written, today with a new confidence in the visual arts writers and artists tend to live in the same terrace. O’Doherty, in the same essay, goes on to register a cultural benefit in the isolation in Ireland induced by World War Two.
‘Yet for painting the war proved fortunate in the most unexpected way. Before the war cut off the trickle of ideas a few important ones were introduced. The ensuing isolation allowed them to be examined, related to local temperaments and developed within a context of local needs. An artificial situation – deprivation - was, by accident, turned into one of natural and leisurely assimilation’. 4
In Ireland during the post World War Two period there has been an easy and perhaps at times a cross-fertilising relationship between poet and painter. Two examples immediately come to mind in the north of Ireland, Michael Longley and Colin Middleton as well as Seamus Heaney and Terry Flanagan.
While Flanagan has always maintained a literary engagement with landscape he has always checked and tempered his romantic inclination with a classical structuring and use of composition and line. The subject may be unruly but it is ordered and disciplined by a classical grammar and phrasing. ‘Bogland Totems’ or his ‘Gortahork’ series are good examples of this purposeful re-structuring. He is fond of the diptych in a 3:2 ratio, the informal feeling for the Golden Mean and the deployment of line as a means of orchestration within the composition to control and offset mass – all this declares a debt to classicism. This is not to deny other influences at work but there is an easy facility for a formal vocabulary of proportion and harmony muted but as indelible as a watermark.
His landscapes often register a quietude in locations as well as rhythms, alignments and energies that reside in the ‘inscape’ of certain places. His working method is reductionist in that he strives for simplicity; his canvases always painterly but often spare and at times frugally conceptual. Indeed some commentators have recognised or suggested a Japanese sense of silence at work.
‘Pages From A Summer Diary’, a series of some seven drawings, is a reflection on stillness ,stance and solitude in relation to landscape/place. Like a literary diary the artist wanted to note down by the end of the day what had been preoccupying him during the day – ‘ I wanted to make a drawing rather than a literary account ‘ 5
He was interested in these ‘pages’ in the notion of creating a receptacle for holding space or emptiness in much the same way a bog-hole is a cavity holding that mysterious element bog water. He has observed: ‘When you look down into a bog hole you are reflected darkly.‘ 6
It is as if there is a tonal filter at work, depth-charged by the density and stillness of bog water - in Seamus Heaney’s line – ‘The wet centre is bottomless.’ 7 In the same poem ‘Bogland, for T.P .Flanagan’ bogland is registered by the poet as a stratified site – a cultural repository, a knowing terrain of social and political investments.
In ‘Summer Diary 3’ such investments are devined. The drawing is in two tiered parts.
On the upper part there is the imprint of a bowl as if revealed by radar in the grass – a psycho-graphic siting. On the lower section the 3D form of the bowl rests on the ground. Between the two is located something of a metaphysical tension. A bowl is associated with food or lack of food and the drawing has always prompted in me the notion of hungry grass where the earth is still troubled by its history and demands respect.
Flanagan recalled to me that as a child on the Lissadell estate being chastised by a woman for idly beating the grass with a stick and cautioned that it was hungry grass. This
speculative interpretation of mine was not necessarily the intention of the artist but the work is rich enough to prompt and carry such a reading. The drawing is multilayered in its correspondences.
The artist also recalled while making such works on the theme of silence in his Belfast studio during the 1970’s, a particularly tense and violent period of the Troubles in the city, the background noise of events – what Michael Longley has called ‘… The stereophonic nightmare of the Shankill and the Falls’, 8 which hovered in the background.
Stillness is a prevailing condition in many of Flanagan’s works. A bowl, filled with light, also appears in ‘A Rose Wrapped Up 1’ in juxtaposition to a rose wrapped in tissue paper. The rose is also a favourite motif of the artist, symbolic of both love and sadness, but chosen by the artist, as well, for its formal appeal in painting it, with its curves and enveloping cylinders.
‘ These days wedding bouquets and funeral flowers equally are delivered in sealed transparent wrappings, through which the shapes of the flowers compete with a shatter of reflected light. A bouquet is a totally different object before its wrapping is removed, more impersonal than its intended function.’ 9
The painting has a powerful sense of reverence in its quietude and graphic spare depiction, recalling the edited elegant mark making of a Japanese print.
In ‘A Study in Stillness No 4’ 1974) and ‘A Study in Stillness’ (1972) the artist pushes his work as close to conceptual art as he ever allowed himself. The former is a composite work comprising four canvases; the latter combining words and images (A Tree, A Bowl, A Shared Stillness) with much of the gestural painterly brushstrokes gone or reduced in favour of a more wordy saturation of silence.
New York, where Flanagan spent a sabbatical year from his post at St.Mary’s College of Education,Belfast in 1973, was then the hub of conceptual art where ‘thinking’ substituted ‘feeling’ and where language was often integral to art practices. It is tempting to see ‘A Shared Stillness’ filtered indirectly out of that experience and where he met and interviewed a number of artists in that grid-iron city.
After his return from New York the artist also painted a series of ‘Emigrant Letters’ (1974/5), using phrases from the letters as extensions to the generic title. The New York sabbatical triggered the interest. However an old friend, the botanist Norman Caruthers
(originally from Lisbellaw, Co Fermanagh) who had sparked an interest in plants for the artist, also had a collection of letters of people who had emigrated to America – many moving there totally out of the blue to make a better living. These people wrote back about their journey, the new country and how they gradually made a living for themselves.
Flanagan drew on some of these available letters but also invented some of them. They were often written in a florid, cursive style of writing. Their previous experience of being taught writing at school in Ireland would have entailed copying a lead sentence by the teacher several times. There is something of a ‘yearning’ encoded into the graphic notation of these letters that comes out of that learning by rote – a thinking long. It is this that Flanagan refers to when he says he was ‘… moved by a kind of poignant naiveté in so many of the letters’. 10
The dilemma of emigration is that the emigrant seldom becomes fully integrated by the adopted culture but has lost something, perhaps irretrievable, from the native culture.
Education carries the same gain and loss, especially moving from a working class background into the potential liberation education may provide.
T.P. Flanagan’s depiction of these letters often contains a rose cutting, laid diagonally as if in a gesture of respect to the nostalgic condition of emigration but also to assist his picture
making. He was also as much interested in their material qualities – their foldings, stainings and seepage - as in their literary or sentimental content. Some of the letter writers would request plant seeds to be sent over from Ireland and often would receive these seeds secured in the folds of the letter. When the seeds matured into plants they would remind them of home. On their extended Atlantic journey the seeds would imprint copies of themselves into the creases of the folds of the letter. In this state Flanagan also records a bio-graphic history.
An open fire is atavistic in that it throws us back in time – our ancestors, despite fluctuating degrees of domestic comfort, have always gathered around a fire, which draws us in and draws out conversation. In Frank Lloyd Wright’s domestic architecture the hearth is located as the vertical axis around which the horizontal disposition of open plan living is arranged – it is both the spiritual and conceptual heart of the design. In Flanagan’s ‘Roughra Hearth’ series (1972-3) he has recorded the maturing effects of soot encrustations and stainings in his Donegal cottage. The artist had the original cooking range removed and an open hearth remodelled with a swinging crane to carry pots (a suspended still life) and protruding thick side walls on which you could sit or place objects. Every so often during periods when he was alone in the cottage he would have the hearth whitened back to its virgin state or do it himself. Then over weeks/months he would paint the changing effects of the turf fire on the hearth – at first light yellow, then Venetian red evolving towards a rich and deep furry black – the hearth as ‘a potent reliquary’ 11 as Ken Jamison has put it.
In a work such as ‘Ulster Pastoral’ with its ironic title (1991) the artist registers the imposition of an army watchtower on the landscape. However two of Flanagan’s most layered works related to the Northern Ireland political troubles are ‘Ulster Elegy’ (1971) and ‘Victim’ (1974). It has to be said Flanagan dislikes art that verges on the propagandistic but acknowledges the power of TV reportage of political or violent events with which he does not
want to compete. He has never felt the need to be a commentator for the moment – ‘everything has to be retrospective’. 12
Such was the case with ‘Victim’, which relates to the murder of Belfast Judge Martin Mc Burney, a friend of the artist. McBurney was shot dead while cooking breakfast and still in his dressing gown. As reported on TV his body was removed on a stretcher covered by a light sheet and, as witnessed by the artist, with a foot protruding, making the scene more poignant.
Flanagan’s response in painting ‘Victim’ was to avoid, with a suitable time lag, the actual in reportage and adopt a timeless archetypal neo-classical figure. His treatment of the figure is conditioned by two factors – his admiration for Nicholas Poussin and his travels in Italy and Greece.
‘Victim’ (1974) draws on Poussin’s ‘Echo and Narcissus’ as a pictorial and moral source. Poussin’s works carry a gravitas, solemnity and poetic mood in his handling of mythological themes. As such it provided the timeless quality Flanagan required. ‘Victim’ is about all victims everywhere regardless of time and place. The other enabling source was the Tuscan tombs he had visited while in Italy. The earth red used as a neutral and still backdrop in the painting also contributes to the universal outreach rather than merely the local reference. The work for me also recalls the dignity of the Dying Gaul (Roman copy after the Greek original)
Drawing has always been important to Flanagan and his experience as a student under Romeo Toogood at The Belfast College of Art were work in the life room was important. A book ‘The Art and Craft of Drawing’ by Vernon Blake advocated by Toogood and impressed the young student and its impact remained with him. One of its recommendations is that if you want to learn how to paint a landscape, learn how to paint the nude. Flanagan made several
studies of Poussin’s ‘Echo and Narcissus ‘out of which his draped classical solution for ‘Victim’ emerged.
‘ Poussin’s paintings have been a source of pleasure and inspiration throughout my career for their superb ability to combine and relate all the elements of picture making with a profound human understanding. At this stage of my life I very much agree with Cezanne, who claimed ‘everytime I come away from a Poussin I have a better idea of myself ‘. 13
‘Victim’ is frozen in time and in ‘Ulster Elegy’ (1971) this condition is extended, inter alia, to the frozen politics and attitudes of Northern Ireland. Flanagan has long painted Lough Erne – its changes of mood, plotting in its islands as horizontal stretches or building verticals from bulrushes but always passing the experience of landscape through a personal filter.
‘Ulster Elegy’ relates on one level to the tragic story of a postman William Rooney being frozen to death in his boat on Upper Lough Erne during extreme weather conditions in December 1961. His brother James was also drowned trying to rescue him. When William’s body was finally found beneath the ice his ‘….body was enthroned as in a glass coffin’ 14, recalling John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851/52).
Flanagan in painting this elegiac response avoids any narrative content or detail and allows his structuring and re-structuring of the elements in the landscape to carry the tragic and emotional charge. On the right hand side of this diptych a black boat is blocked in under a foreboding sky and what may be read as white petals discretely form a floral tribute. The left hand side is semi-abstract with an amalgam of swirling stokes and circular forms conjuring up a deconstructed Celtic cross. The diptych form allows for purposeful juxtapositions and correspondences within and between its two elements. Here stillness is off set by flux and by extension the turbulence of the times in Northern Ireland where frozen attitudes underpin
progress and prevent events to be assimilated into history. ‘Ulster Elegy’ is about being trapped in perpetuity.
There are, of course, a number of correspondences symbolic or pictorial at work in the paintings of TP Flanagan. There is the inverted correspondence of silence to the turbulence of the times. There are the pictorial concerns within all his canvasses – elements off set to play against each other. There is also the deployment of the diptych form, allowing, as we have seen, for probing juxtapositions. Then there are the cognate interchange between words and images as well as literal correspondence as in his ‘Emigrant Letters’ series.
While TP Flanagan celebrates the formal features of landscape without including the human figure, as Heaney has said ‘ …the pictures typically imply nature by human visitation’. 15 There is a recognition that the landscape has already been worked culturally as well as physically. In Flanagan’s practice the land is an interactive site between nature and culture. This selection of works, under review, including some still lives form sub-themes in his oeuvre and attempts to set up and draw out interactions, quiet interrogations and correspondences that percolate within the surfaces of his canvases.
!) Mike Catto, Art in Ulster: 2, Arts Council of N.Ireland, Belfast ,1977.
2) Brian O’Doherty, Rosc ’71 – The Irish Imagination 1959-71, Dublin, 1971.
4) Conversation with the author, March, 2010.
6) Seamus Heaney, Bogland, for T.P. Flanagan, Door into the dark, London, 1969.
7) Michael Longley, ‘To Derek Mahon’, Poems 1963-1983, Salamander Press, Edinburgh; Gallery Books, Co Meath, 1985.
8) T.P. Flanagan, Notes on Selected Pictures by T.P.Flanagan and J.K.Jamison, in T.P. Flanagan, by S.B.Kennedy, Four Courts Press, Dublin in association with the Ulster