Issue Number: 116
Hughie O’Donoghue RA talks to Horatio Clare about his work based on deeply personal acts of remembrance featuring in the latest of the RA’s ‘Artists’ Laboratory’ series
The painter Hughie O’Donoghue RA is preparing for his forthcoming show at the Royal Academy with a project that revolves around the idea of remembrance: his father, Daniel, sent letters home to Hughie’s mother during the Second World War, when he was fighting in Italy, among other places. The painter says of his father’s letters: ‘They have a candour, a directness, that is prized in art but very rarely achieved. They are unselfconscious.
‘My paintings are meditations on this, attempts to grasp something that is about to become distant and remote. There is a brief moment of intensity before living history slips out of our grasp; a flame flickers for an instant and then dies. In the case of the human experience of the Second World War, the flame is flickering now.’
Hughie O’Donoghue RA in his Greenwich studio, in 2012. Photo © Richard Dawson.
We are in his studio in Greenwich. There is no sign of the production of art, no paint or pencils. Instead, we are surrounded by finished works, some two metres high, their blistering colours and meditative compositions make the generous space (like a drill hall with a gallery) feel full, a treasury of images and objects, and their atmospheres and projections. The show will include pieces which he describes as part-painting, part-sculpture, composed of photographs, archive material and the pages of old books. It will also show grand paintings like Crossing the Rapido III, a large wash grisaille the same width, and the same height as the depth, of the waters of the Rapido river at its narrowest point, where Hughie’s father and the soldiers of the 4th division faced the German guns.
O’Donoghue speaks quietly, with a Manchester accent. ‘It will not be that long before the last person who remembers the War dies. So what did it mean? What did his individual life mean?
‘The divers and the figures in these paintings are partly inspired by photographs of my father and the soldiers with him diving into the sea at Cumae, after battle. In Antiquity Cumae was thought to be an entrance to the Underworld. The diver is a symbol of the inner journey – to immerse oneself in water is a potent image of a spiritual journey that has been used since Antiquity; a crossing from life to afterlife, as in the Greek Tomb of the Diver from 470BCE, found near the Greek temple of Paestum, also in southern Italy.’
O’Donoghue’s hair is fading blond to grey. He has a soft voice, and a gentle seriousness; he reminds me of Tony Harrison, the poet, but without the Yorkshire grit. O’Donoghue’s main priority when young was to get away from home, away from conflict with his father, away from Manchester.
‘When I was starting out, and I hadn’t been to art school, it was a problem in terms of being taken seriously as an artist. It’s not a big thing now, but back then it was different.’ Not having been taught in a conventional way strikes him now as a crucial advantage: an escape from Conceptualism, then all-powerful, which allowed him to form his own idiom as an artist.
‘There’s also a tradition of painting in this country, of working from models, which I don’t belong to because my work is not about something observed, but something that’s felt. To make an image out of this material, to respond to the material – it’s having a meditative relationship with it. You can take a philosophical approach. Artists traditionally learn by looking. I looked at Titian. I also admire De Kooning, a phenomenally good painter who was always challenging himself.’
Naturally, O’Donoghue is drawn to the very painterly painters: ‘Late Rembrandt, Cézanne and Van Gogh, Constable and Turner in English painting. I also love the work of Chaim Soutine, who worked in Paris before the war. The first time I saw his paintings I thought I was looking at abstraction, only slowly did it become clear. The actual medium is so sensual and so liquid and fluid that the paint is what you see more than the image – and at a certain point the paint and the image coalesced into a unity. That’s what I’m trying to achieve, a unity of the painting of an object, with the Renaissance idea of the painting as a window. So window and object are held in a tension, in which the painting has an independent existence.’
Hughie O’Donoghue RA, 'Tomb of the Diver', 2002. © Hughie O’Donoghue/Photo Anthony Hobbs. We talk about truth and memory. Hughie’s father is perhaps his son’s great subject. His regiment was brought back from Egypt, where they had been training, to Italy, and the fourth battle of Monte Cassino, a monastery on a mountain defended by German elite paratroops. At the bottom of the mountain was the first line of defence, the Rapido river. The Germans had dredged it deep and the flow was very fast.
‘My dad’s regiment knew the Americans had taken an absolute hammering in January in the first Battle of Cassino. They knew what they were going into, dreading it. His job was to lead his 40 men across the Rapido. I think it was his moment of truth. He lost both his corporals in the assault. It obviously affected him. He became a very troubled man.’
On a foundation of photographs, letters and paperwork that his father left on his death in 1994, which Hughie used to sort through in the evenings when he had finished his day’s painting, the son has built a testament to him, to his actuality, but also his place – places – in myths, both ancient and modern. The Greek diver of Cumae is not jumping into a pond, as the design apparently indicates, says O’Donoghue. ‘The water symbolises the Atlantic, which for the Greeks was the end of the world. The tree on the other bank is a projection, a representation of the afterlife.’
So the swimmers playing on the same beaches are at once faded photographs from the Second World War, and at the same time mythic figures on a journey between life and afterlife. They are also in O’Donoghue’s canvases, such as Tomb of the Diver, from 2002, where they are the beginning of another mythic cycle. They are object-windows with their own existences.
‘If you paint for ten hours, you’re lucky if that flow – when time stands still – happens for ten minutes. These paintings take a lot of work – longer and longer, they are built up. I’m interested in the alchemy of paint. I don’t have technique because I believe that technique is the enemy of good painting.’
For artists who work with memory (my own career as a writer is built on it) there is always a touchstone, a breakthrough. If you are lucky and good at your research there may be more than one. ‘What’s going through the minds of these figures on a beach at Naples, who have gone through a near-death experience and come out the other side?’ Hughie asks.
‘Looking backwards is still engaging with the present. The works in my ‘Artists’ Laboratory’ show engage with the idea of remembrance as opposed to memory. Remembrance is a creative act and you have to work at it.’
We both distrust memory. As the Irish writer Flann O’Brien says, a thing happens one way, we remember it another way, and tell it another way again. Remembrance, as Hughie sees it, is not a passive, reactive, mulling business – that is the stuff of memory. Remembrance is an active, positive, creative process, like an archeological dig, followed by construction and reconstruction, and (in the case of his paintings) by the creation and display of the consequences of remembrance.
When we have finished talking, Hughie lets me explore the studio, where works destined for his show at the Royal Academy and others for his summer show at London’s Marlborough Gallery, are displayed, as well as piles of newspapers and books that somehow fed into them.
I do not know the form in the art world, but in the fields of literature and journalism, when we have an interest we declare it. Reader, I bought one. My first purchase of a painting. If I could have afforded them, I would have bought five. Not for the thrill of possession, though it is strong, but for the association – for the taking of a small part in this extraordinarily clear, individual and moving myth-cycle, in which O’Donoghue is a pioneer, curator and sublime creator. No one who sees the paintings will think I exaggerate.