Another Partial Portrait

A review of Portrait of the Irish Artist directed by Seán Ó Mordha and broadcast on RTÉ 1 on 16 December 2001.

Seán O Mórdha is a film-maker who has specialised in documentaries about individual Irish writers. His studies of Beckett and Joyce, while not scratching too far beneath the surface, are honourable and enjoyable pieces of work. Portrait of the Irish Artist, shown on RTÉ on 16th December, 2001, is broader in scope, purporting as it does to outline the links between the arts and the Irish state since its inception.

Although the academic and poet Bill McCormack acts as a somewhat hieratic anchor man, the documentary drifts from one contribution to another with a certain waywardness. A researcher from Mars, hoping to learn something from this film about the proverbial ‘Irish psyche’, would return to his/her/its spaceship in a fine state of disorientation. Judging by the frequency with which Hugh Leonard pops up, one might conclude that the sporadically genial Dalkey archivist is the leading Irish writer of our time. Seamus Deane, normally incisive, has nothing more cogent to say about Samuel Beckett than that he ‘transformed the boredom of Irish life into metaphysical angst’. Had our Martian paid a short visit to France, he would have learned that Beckett wrote his major works in French and is regarded there as a founding father of the nouveau roman. Similarly, we have a sad glimpse of Brian O’Nolan in his very disagreeable cups, followed by a clip of Brendan Morrissey reciting ‘A Pint of plain’s yer only man’ – no hint that At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman are two of the most formally subversive novels in the English language. This parochial focus has become all too familiar, and in principle isn’t that far removed from the ‘theme-pub’ fetishisation of Joyce & Co. that is excoriated elsewhere in the programme.

As for the Irish writer’s political perspective, we have John Banville contending that art and politics are like ‘oil and water’ (farewell, then, to Verdi, Tolstoy, Celan, Picasso…), and anchor-man Bill pronouncing that ‘Provoism has completely demoralised a whole set of principles that were somehow so important in Paris in 1898 but that were foul’ (enunciated with lip-smacking relish) ‘in 1998.’ The principles themselves, forsooth, and not any deformation of them? Our Martian might come to the surprising conclusion that the Harold’s Cross of Bill’s childhood, so lovingly evoked at the heart of the film, is a cozy corner of Dublin 4.

Fortunately, we are not entirely confined to the lucubrations of our national bards in their off moments: painting also gets a look in. Seán McSweeney has interesting things to say about Jack B. Yeats and explains why he himself left Spain and returned to Sligo, Patrick Collins tells us that he never really moved to France – he merely left Ireland, Tony O’Malley celebrates the presence in our midst of ‘hundreds’ of painters. There is fascinating footage of the 1967 Rosc exhibition , when ‘the new interest in the visual arts – which had been so long in coming – came with a bang’.

At this point a well-informed music-lover might expect the words ‘two years later the Dublin Festival of 20th Century Music also came with a bang’. However, such naïve expectations would be cruelly dashed. The only mention of music comes in a reference to Gael-Linn having in the ‘60s given us ‘access to the music of the west which was not sentimentalised, or orchestrated for Hollywood’. This pronouncement is followed by familiar footage of Ó Riada in his natty fishing-gear telling us why he abandoned the Pale, the whole brief sequence rounded off with a highly Hollywoodish orchestral excerpt from Mise Éire. Indeed the entire film is underpinned by music by Bill Whelan, scored for the inevitable oboe and strings, which bathes everything in a nostalgic hue of pastel green. To expect anyone involved to notice the contradiction between text and music would be laughable.

Now none of this would be worth more than passing mention if Ó Mórdha had called his film ‘Portrait of the Irish Writer (with a Nod towards Painting)’. Instead, we have that word artist and that standard exclusion: composer. Someone might have recalled the imaginative decision by the state to commission an ‘ascendancy’ composer – the late Brian Boydell – to compose a cantata passionately celebrating the 1916 revolution in 1966 (matters possibly regarded as too foul to bear mention). We might have had something about the role of the Dublin Festival and the significance of its demise in the mid ‘80s. Even Harry White might have been trotted out to tell us why Famous Seamus makes all composers superfluous, thus at least exposing the mentality that condemns composers to ‘the honour of non-existence’ (to quote my own phrase that has gained gratifying currency).

Of course the exclusion of composers from any review of the symbiosis between art and the state has a self-fulfilling justification: they have no influence on our self-image because we deliberately impede such influence. Yet today it is primarily composers and visual artists who are expanding the boundaries of artistic practice. Our perennially canonised writers are content to regurgitate nineteenth-century forms, while academics and journalists conspire to remove the sting from genuinely radical figures such as Joyce, Beckett, and Flann O’Brien by trivialising them into commodities feeding our ineradicable smugness.

The first film-maker who attacks the history of musical composition in modern Ireland without the customary prejudices will have performed an invaluable service to us all (and to the Martians). Why am I not holding my breath?

Published on 1 January 2002

Raymond Deane is a composer, pianist, author and activist. Together with the violinist Nigel Kennedy, he is a cultural ambassador of Music Harvest, an organisation seeking to create 'a platform for cultural events and dialogue between internationals and Palestinians...'.

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