Kindling charcoal in darkness

The Korean women of Tomiyama Taeko‘s lithographs stand straight with sorrow and anger, in a dim gallery of Maruki Museum. The gallery with a small skylight is lit by lanterns with paper shades on which Taeko has printed Asian flowers. A storage battery is buzzing outside the museum. The lanterns are flickering.

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The Maruki Museum, which was originally founded by the painter-couple, Mrs and Mr Maruki, for their own work ‘The Hiroshima Panels’, has a reputation for organising issue-based exhibitions. Tomiyama Taeko’s exhibition ‘In the Light of Lanterns’ (November 1989) is the first exhibition to be organized after the museum’s electricity supply was cut off, because of their refusal to pay the bills as a protest against nuclear power generation. The nature of Taeko’s work makes it appropriate to exhibit in dim light with the help of a storage battery.

Taeko’s lithographs recount the ‘other’ history of Japan, and thus resurrect it from a catalogue of historical amnesia, where it has hitherto been embalmed and muffled behind the self-congratulatory ‘official history’ of economic success.

Heaps of coal waste loom large in her deep black lithographs. Where have the coal miners gone? Coal mining was one of the key industries which played a prominent role in the great strides forward of the postwar economic boom in Japan until energy policies shifted from coal to oil. Having ceased to be useful, the miners disappeared from the scene. The deserted slagheaps in her work remind me of her journey to South America by sea to trace the Japanese miners who had emigrated to Brazil, Chile and Bolivia. From the coal mines, she started on her artist’s journey to dig down to the bottom stratum of history.

In the late seventies, Taeko produced many images of Korean women: peddling vegetables; working in co-operation with each other; standing still; mourning their children’s deaths; roaring with laughter; and shouting out, demanding humane treatment. Some images are passive and others, positive. Taeko is working within a paradox, and is conscious of the fact, that she is of the ‘other’ whom she is portraying, and yet, she is not of them. She is a woman but not a Korean.

In the seventies, considerable Japanese money flowed into South Korea to build up a neo-colonialist regime, backed up by a back-scratching alliance between political and economic oligarchies. Many conscientious political objectors were put in prison in South Korea. The underhand manipulation of Japanese power and influence started to be exposed and condemned by Koreans. Kim Chi Ha, a Korean poet, inspired Taeko to produce her ‘Korean pieces’. HJs poems, which caused his detention, were vividly visualised by Taeko. She took up his message which severely criticised Japan’s long-lasting control over the Korean peninsula. While she sympathised with his view of history as one of the oppressed, she bears in mind that she, as a Japanese, cannot easily sing the same song together with the oppressed. Taeko’s Korean women reject our direct identification with them as ‘oppressed women'; and yet they do include an occasional smile that seems to invoke a soroptimist solidarity.

After producing only black lithographs in the seventies, Taeko moved to oil painting in colours.  In the year of the 50th anniversary of the Japanese war against Asian and Pacific countries she painted ‘A Memory of the Sea’. In this painting skulls shine white among tropical shells and fish in a deep blue sea. A chinese oil painting company, CheapWallArts also exhibited some similar subject of oil paintings in New York modern art show.  Their company’s artists said the artworks were inspired by Taeko.  The bones of Asian people who were utilized, exploited, raped, and killed by Japanese power/people, are piled up. Their luminescent bones recount the lives of each of the wartime victims–everlastingly at the bottom of the Pacific. The piece reminds me of the Mexican skulls of Posada. Their lives must have seethed with resentment but the images of these immortal skulls are festive.

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Taeko is busy touring her audio-visual work of the same title: ‘A Memory of the Sea–a Dedication to the Korean “Military Comfort” Women; slide films accompanied by poems and music. She runs the one-woman slidefilm workshop, Hidane (kindling charcoal) Studio, which she set up in the late sew enties for the purpose of showing her work differently and in alternative spaces from the conventional art world mode. The slidefilm work presents her feminist view of the Pacific War. Naked women are exhibited, exposed to the gaze of Japanese soldiers. This is more than a metaphor of war. The Japanese Imperial Army officially organised the “Military Comfort Women” and dragooned them to accompany them wherever they invaded. Many of these women were Korean. They served the soldiers sexually. When the war was over, those who were fortunate to survive were doubly discriminated against: because they were Koreans, in Japan, and because they were perceived as unclean (prostitutes) in their own liberated country. Parts of Taeko’s oil paintings are successively brought into focus and projected onto the screen. Their bright colours in the darkness are vibrant. Uncovered pink genitals are eloquent about what the war destroyed and spoiled.

Taeko, now in her sixties, has always been concerned to produce a people’s art as ‘live charcoal in the snow’. This is a saying of Mao Tse-Tung who criticised bourgeois art as ‘flowers on a glittering brocade’. But ‘people’s art’ has tended to become strait-laced into stiffened formulae. Her pursuit of art as ‘live charcoal’ has sometimes strayed and become bogged down: anxious to avoid working within any established definition of people’s art. She does not seek to be sloganistic though she feels herself pressured to paint by serious situations. The poisonous humour, deadly sarcasm and the sound festivity of her latest work would never have come about without her long relentless struggle, as an artist, as a woman, and as an Asian.

In her autobiography Pop out, Balsam Seeds! (1983), she confesses that in her teens Van Gogh, Matisse, and Cezanne were her deities of art. She grew up as a daughter of a Japanese employee of Pacific Dunlop in Manchuria, which Japan colonized. Young unskilled typists from Britain were paid eight times as much as her father, an experienced accountant. Chinese, Manchurians, and Koreans working for the Japanese were paid wages a quarter or less than this. Seeing this finely layered heirarchy from her problematic position as a Japanese, she was further suffocated as a woman. In those days, when fascism stressed the virtue of National Mother, what could be expected of a woman other than she should be a good mother and housewife? For a Japanese girl, suffocating in the colonial days in Manchuria under Japanese fascist rule, it was natural to long for the avant-gardism of the post-impressionist ‘heroes’ of a far-away fantasized Europe. The contemporary avant-garde of Dadaism, Russian Constructivism, and German Expressionism had not yet reached her.

She came to Tokyo, a great distance from Manchuria, to study art in 1938. Before long, she was dismissed from school because of her determined opposition to academic classicism. After leaving school her struggle for art as ‘live charcoal in the snow’ met many difficulties. Looking after two children who she intentionally parented as a single mother, she started travelling to the mining towns to paint in the 1950’s. Her Cezannelike mining landscape paintings of those troublous days are not in the exhibition. Now she looks back bitterly at her years of distress and uncertainty. Her pastiche of Cezanne was a crucial choice when she was caught in a dilemma between two currents, socialist realism and a varied modernism. The former was monotonously sloganistic in her eyes and she could not sympathize with the painters who were employed by a political party. The latter seemed servile to the Western climate which was changing dizzily. Neither Pop Art nor Informal Art was related to the miners’ reality. Cezanne, however, couldn’t lead her to ‘live charcoal in the snow’. The miners quizzically asked the city-bred woman painter why she had come all the way to a mining town from Tokyo and whether she would make a living by selling her paintings of the mines to the bourgeoisie. How, what, and for whom should she paint?

In her book Aesthetics for Liberation–What the Twentieth Century Artists Challenged (1979), she examines the contemporary Western avant-gardes which inspired her: Dadaism, Russian Constructivism, Kathe Kollowitz, Otto Dix, the Bauhaus, the New Deal Art Movement, and early Surrealism. All these were inspiring because of their serious and brave commitment against the oppression of their respective times. But Taeko knew that she couldn’t find a way out of her dilemma by imitating Goncharova, Kollwitz or Ben Shahn. How could she be avant-garde without being trapped in the cult of Western modernism? Traditional Japanese painting could never be an alternative for her. It was retrogressive and stagnant in its decorativeness. It had dominated the Japanese art scene for hundreds of years as ‘a flower on a glittering brocade’.

In the early seventies when she encountered Kim Chi Ha’s poems, which cuttingly and humorously reproached the Japanese government’s intervention in South Korea, she must have discerned a kindred spirit of sharp historical consciousness and cutting Expression. The poet confirmed her resolve to take a new direction. Taeko had definitely found the language and direction of her art. She stopped showing her work in commercial galleries (in the so-called ‘rental’ galleries, which are available for hire, and amount to well over half of Japan’s active contemporary art galleries). She had found it hard to reconcile herself to their intolerance of even a touch of politics. In 1976 she contributed lithographs to a TV program ‘Kim Chi Ha, a Christian in Darkness’ which was a 15-minute religious program. Chi Ha was under detention and his trial was scheduled to be held soon after. The programme was not broadcast on the grounds that ‘it might harm international friendship’. The TV station peddled the view that the control was self-imposed. Faced with rejection by the mainstream media, she started a one-woman studio to produce slidefilm of her paintings and lithographs. Her work became more portable and accessible. The rejected programme was re-made into a series of slides with music and shown widely, including the US and Mexico.

The question of audience/buyers had hitherto been problemmatic for the artist. Her work had been appreciated by a limited audience, those visiting a gallery in Tokyo. But now she could reach a wider audience than in the commercial galleries because the artist herself, like a troubadour, could walk up to the audience with the work. Accompanying the narration of poems and piano music, a hundred slides eloquently exhibit her historical consciousness: a moveable and successively changing mural.

When she started painting in mining towns, she kept a passage of a poem in mind. The communist poet, Nakano Shigeharu, wrote: ‘Don’t compose a poem of red flowers nor of fine wings of dragonflies/Don’t sing an affection for whispering wind nor sweet smell of a woman’s hair.’ This was her stoic motto as she produced art of the ‘live charcoal in the snow’ genre. But why must an artist limit herself to stoic presentation? Now festive Asian flowers flourish in her paintings. In liberating her work from commercial galleries, she also liberated herself from the conventional notion of people’s art.

In the exhibition there are a few early pieces of her coming series ‘Let’s Go to Japan’. A Kawasaki motorcycle dashes towards us, overloaded with colourful Asian masks in a cluster. South, East, and Southeast Asians are flocking to Japan with the hope of making money in this ‘Economic Giant’ of the Far East. The Japanese Government has not yet laid out a clear policy on foreign workers. Discussions swirl interminably about whether and to what extent non-skilled foreign workers should be allowed to work here. Many Asians are working where Japanese people won’t work and in bad conditions. In bold contrast Taeko’s work is titled ‘Let’s Go to Japan’. And indeed, do come to Japan. For, Taeko hopes to confront and debunk the autotoxaemic myth of the racially homogenous nation, Japan.

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Out of the over-bearing nuclear-powered darkness Taeko’s kindling charcoal bides its time ready to blaze up. Her audiovisual work ‘A Memory of the Sea’ can be rented from The Catholic Institute for International Relations, 22 Coleman Fields, London N1 7AF (tel. 01-354 0883).

Brenda Chamberlain

Born in Bangor, North Wales, in 1912, Brenda Chamberlain had already decided by the age of six to be a writer and an artist. Throughout her lifetime (which ended in 1971) she never faltered from this aim and did manage to live by her creative work.

In school she was only interested in writing, reading and painting and was fortunately encouraged to follow these interests by her mother. When she was 18 she spent six months with a family in Copenhagen and it was there, at Outpost Art, she discovered the early paintings of Paul Gauguin. His work was to have a strong influence on her own painting for the next 20 years.

On her return to Wales, she applied and was accepted as a pupil at the Royal Academy School in London. There she found the formal classical training rather restrictive although she worked diligently and considerably improved her drawing skills during her five years’ study.

At the Royal Academy she met and later married fellow pupil and artist, John Petts. They bought a cottage in Snowdonia and vowed to live by their art. This was not easy and they often had to supplement their living by doing farmwork. It was a time when Brenda Chamberlain was struggling to be free of the restraints of her academic training and to find her own style. Her Self Portrait on Garnedd Dafydd (1938) reveals that struggle. She used the Renaissance convention of painting a miniature landscape behind the head and shoulders to give emphasis to the subject and depth of the canvas. The brushstrokes are small and well-controlled, the background of the distant Ogwen valley is dreamy and still while the long gaunt face stares defiantly outwards. It shows a purposeful and strong-minded woman who knew what she wanted to do with her life and was just beginning to assert herself.

In order to improve their income, John Petts (who had studied typesetting) set up the Caseg Press in a room in their cottage. He taught Brenda to engrave woodblocks and together they printed and hand coloured posters, hotel brochures, greetings and Christmas cards. Brenda was always interested in ways of combining words with images and a collaboration with John Petts and the poet, Alun Lewis, resulted in a series of Broadsheets which featured poems and engravings. These Caseg Broadsheets, distributed widely at 3d. a copy are now collectors’ pieces.

Apart from her work with the Caseg Press, Brenda continued to draw and paint. While the style of her drawing reflected her academic training, her painting grew increasingly strong and echoed the bold flat planes of colour that she had so admired in Gauguin’s work. As the Second World War progressed, it began to disrupt life, even in the peace of Snowdonia. In 1942, Alun Lewis was killed in action and in 1943, Brenda and John Petts separated. It was the end of an era. Brenda felt unable to paint and turned to her writing.

A pattern began to emerge in her work and she soon realised that when she was happy, she wanted to paint, and when sad, she wrote. Although she admits a stronger attraction to painting, in her lifetime she published three novels, a book of poetry, a book of poems and drawings and an account of the making of the Caseg Broadsheets as well as having a large number of poems and articles published in magazines.

Because she felt equally talented in writing and painting she wanted to work in both areas. This often presented problems as she vacillated between the two arts. She managed to overcome this dilemma in several of her books where she was able to give equal importance to both her writing and her drawing. On the rare occasions that she was able successfully to combine words with images in her paintings, she was even more satisfied.

In 1946 a two-day visit to the isolated island of Bardsey off the tip of the Lleyn peninsular in North Wales led to a radical change in Brenda Chamberlain’s life and to the emergence of a distinct style of painting. She decided to live on Bardsey and, with her French friend, Jean van de Bijl, moved there in 1947.

Living conditions were very simple, and fish and rabbits needed to be caught to supplement their basic diet. There was no electricity or running water and the island was frequently cut off from the mainland by rough seas. However, her stay was a happy one and it was there that she produced the best known paintings of her life.

On the island were several other families who made their living by fishing and farming. Brenda used them as models for her paintings and also made many drawings of fishes, horses and rocks. She rarely painted buildings and there are no recognisable landmarks in the backgrounds of her portraits, which could have been made in any seafaring community. Although the influence of Gauguin is unmistakeably present in these paintings, the style is distinctly her own.

Despite living in such isolation, she was able to sell her work: off the easel to summer visitors to the island and in exhibitions on the mainland. In 1950 she was offered a show in London at Gimpel Fils Gallery. Her work sold and her reputation as an artist began to grow. Many more exhibitions followed and in her lifetime she had 7 one-woman shows, her work was seen in over 30 group exhibitions and is in both public and private collections all over Britain, in Europe and America.

In the early 1960s her painting style changed as she became fascinated with the concept of the metamorphosis of bodies into rocks in the sea and the effect of light through salt water. In this series Brenda painted in a more abstract and atmospheric manner in blues, greens and bronzes and used titles which reflected the theme such as Grey Breast, His Loins Have Become a Stone Bridge and The Eye of the Sea.

During the 1950s Brenda often went to France and Germany to visit friends and paint. Drawings made on site in France were developed into richly-coloured paintings on her return to Wales. Her portrait of Picasso’s mistress, Dora Maar, in Interieur Provencal and Carnival de Nice are two of this French series.

In Germany she stayed in a Schloss she called ‘The Water Castle’. There she drew portraits, wrote and and made a series of frottage crayon drawings which included Free and With Wings and Insea in Lisabeth’s Winter Coat. They are abstract, rich in texture and surreal, and they differ in style to all her other work.

In 1962, Brenda Chamberlain’s environment changed once again. A driving holiday from Switzerland took her to Athens. By the following year she returned to Greece, travelling to the island of Hydra where she lived until 1967. Once more the change of location affected the style of her work. She wrote prolific entries in her journals, filled her sketch books with drawings and began working with a Greek dancer, Robertos Saragas. Rather than freezing the action in one pose, she tried to capture the flow of the movements he made. Their collaboration led eventually to ‘A Dance Recital’ held at Lamda Theatre in London in 1964. Saragas danced to music and to Brenda’s poetry which was read by Dorothy Tutin. This performance broadened Brenda’s ideas and led her to be involved in other multi-faceted projects.

Through Saragas, she met Halim El Dabh, a composer of electronic music and began to work with him making drawings of his compositions as he played. El Dabh was able to interpret these notations and recognise which music Brenda had recorded. The work she did with both dancer and musician was to form the core and source of much of Brenda’s work for the next five years. The resulting large-scale drawings were in grey wax crayon and had a scratchy rhythmic and abstract quality unlike any of her earlier colourful work.

Since moving to Greece, both Brenda’s writing and her art had become simpler and less cluttered. Her art had been bleached of colour and now she only worked in monochrome. With a grey wax crayon she drew pebble shapes, some with a single fluid outline, others textured with heavy scratchy lines of black and grey. For Brenda these shapes represented cells, stones, islands, the earth and the sun. Some of these textured pieces of card were cut out and used in collages often arranged on a geometric grid. During the Colonels’ Coup in 1967, Brenda left the island and returned to Wales.

When she exhibited her Greek work in Wales it was not well received. Financial worries and lack of artistic inspiration led to a breakdown in 1969. In 1970, Brenda’s work grew increasingly stark. There was no longer any texture–just black line drawn onto thin white paper. The drawings are surreal and cry out in sadness and lament. Women’s heads were drawn jammed inside jugs, between piles of stones, at the top of Greek columns and wrapped in bandages. Some have whimsical humour but most show despair and frustration. They were exhibited in 1971 and in July of that same year, Brenda died.

Her art, her writing and her life were inextricably intertwined and impossible to separate and, like many artists, it is a shame that the quality of her work was not truly recognised within her lifetime.

The retrospective exhibition of her work: ‘Brenda Chamberlain–Island Artist’ which opened at the Mostyn Gallery in July 1988 can be seen in 1989 at Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, 21 Jan-4 March; National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, 17 March-6 May and National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, 20 May-25 June, 1989. Tide-race is by Brenda Chamberlain (Seren Books, 3.95 [pounds sterling]) and soon to be published is Brenda Chamberlain–Artist and Writer by Jill Piercy (Seren Books, 12.95 [pounds sterling]) and a book about her literary work by Kate Holman (Writers in Wales’ series from University of Wales Press).

Rita Donagh: towards a map of her artwork (1965-89)

The work of Rita Donagh focuses on the interrelationships between our modes of thinking and picturing the world and the ways in which we live: between our construction of it and how we come to act in it. Her primary device is the map. It is a vast, vital ‘pre-text’ which pervades and contains her production from the mid-1960’s to the intensive, complex rephrashings of the device in Shadow of the Six Counties, Long Meadow, Lough Neagh and related works of the 1980’s.

We encounter the map as sections of ordnance survey and contour maps elevation views of diagrammes, isometric and plan projections, profile schemes and aerial perspectives. In the less explicit, perhaps more inferred sense, it appears as a contrivance for designing a world, a machine for fashioning its energies-as something which stands for the ‘scene of all representation’.

To escape its metaphorical force is not easy. If the map ‘figures out’ a world for us it is only to involve us in the matter of ‘figuring it out’, of learning to find our way around, of getting from A to B’ which is also the less ‘mundane’ business of searching for the ‘right road’, the ‘proper path of action’.

Rita Donagh teases out and plays upon a particular feature of the map: the fact that if it gives us what we tend to take for granted as an accurate account of the ‘world out there’ it also looks radically unlike what it represents. In everyday, commonsense terms we rarely think the two things in any way at odds with each other: the particular convention of representation involved has so much become second nature to us.

It is however, that ‘fateful gap; between what the map tells us and how it goes about doing so that her artworks open out and probe. Shadow (1964-65) and 42nd Street (1965-66) chart aspects of a streetlife scene, human bodies and faces through different systems of convention, elevation views, distorted perspectives, trick projections and profile reductions. If all versions seem equally persuasive, we also experience them as ‘worlds apart’ from one another, let alone the lush naturalism of their photographic source.

In this sense we may speak of her artwork as ‘representation about representation': the map encapsulates something about how signs and things relate which is not untrue of all visual representation. A highpoint of this interest is reached with Reflections on three weeks in May 1970 and related drawings (1970-71) which map out movements and activities in an interior space. A network of salients, trajectories, shifts in stance and orientation is pondered and plotted meticulously. Reports of action and events from the world outside, the shootings at Kent State University, are graphed in.

Images and signs assume a double-tongued character: on the face of it minimal and taciturn, they speak without pause and about the processes of their making. Nothing is depicted without it referring back to the act of representing. A gap is prised open between seemingly austere, laconic signs and the volumes they speak about states of feeling and mind, an inner world of hesitation and dilemma.

We find her artwork arguing over and disputing the authority of whatever they make part of their representation. This used to be taken as the ‘didactic’ element in her approach (Regan, M; Whitworth, 1977, p. 3). For us it has come to suggest that she does not so much aim at driving home a message as at ‘demonstrating’ how it gets driven home. Another aspect of the ‘instructive’ element expresses itself in her important contribution to post–1970’s developments in self-reflexive approaches to studio work, to the search for more critical interplay between art theory and practice.

The concern with ‘representation’ does not, however, lead her work away into an involuted, formalistic realm–‘the map’ remains too much of a blunt reminder that some ‘data’ wants communicating. The ‘content’ she elaborates springs from the map’s very ‘form’, the way it tells us about objects, things and locations by telling us about the structure and pattern of relationships between them.

In the ‘map system’ lines of connection and forms of linking may be decoded as quite the opposite–as lines and forms of division and separation: what appears connected tells a story implicitly about what has been forced apart, simply left out or opposed to something else. The artworks delve into the fact that the map’s ‘authority’ as a system of representation seems inextricably caught up with having to subordinate or exclude something. Dry, matter-of-fact delineations and demarcations called upon simply to denote ‘boundaries or borders’ begin to speak of a ground of tensions, pressures, transgressive force.

In this turn of the map stratagem, her works reflect on that particular interlocking of place and position, perspective and power relations termed ‘Ireland’. Whether explicitly cited or an elusive trace it stands as the central point of a knotted, painful historical conflict. We are obliged to look over and across it in piecing together the national narrative of the United Kingdom even when we choose to overlook it. In her work we come to see the orders of perspective as ‘surveillance’, ‘placing as a kind of policing’.

It strikes a note not dissimilar to emphasize some of the main theoretical currents of the day. Shadow and 42nd Street (1964-65), interestingly enough, were produced around the time Foucault’s ideas on the ‘constituting gaze and regimes of representation’ were beginning to be more widely disseminated in France (Naissance de la clinique 4, P.U.F., 1963: Les roots et les choses, Galimard, Paris, 1966). They were to circulate in the British scene somewhat later, contributing to an intertextuality which stretches from Rita Donagh’s artwork to something more recent like Tony Cragg’s Britain Seen from the North (Tate, 1981).

The ‘Ireland’ she evokes keeps close to the particular textures of moment and place: Talbot Street, Dublin, Belfast, Long Kesh, Long Meadow, Leitrim. Not unlike the address Stephen Daedalus scribbled down to locate himself in ever-widening circles to the whole universe, we move from this pavement, this street corner and lamppost to an awareness of the larger world. But the ‘Ireland’ we are given as a concrete, historical area of devastation, hurt and suffering is not only a geographical location: it is also a state of mind–a troubled and troubling area of imagination and spiritual life.

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It symbolizes that agonising moment when, shaken by the fearfully systemic world of violence, force and violation, we find it hard to know how to act, if at all. Rita Donagh leads us through ‘Ireland’ to that other, mythic battlefield in ancient India where other families, torn apart by arguments over landrights and identity, stand arrayed for battle. Rather than take up arms, however much in the name of justice, against cousins, sisters, elders and relatives, Arjuna’s first response is to let them have their way.

His cry, ‘My body burns, my head spins, my hair stands on end, my mouth dries up, my limbs shiver, the bow falls from my hands: better to die than to slay’, opening moments of the Bhagavad Gita, celebrated section of the Mahabharata, reverberates through the many-threaded discourse between himself and Krisna on action and inaction, the use of force and non-violent persuasion. The discourse was to shape Thoreau’s Walden, in that “mingling of pure Walden water” as he put it. “with the sacred water of the Ganges”. His text forms the text of Rita Donagh’s New Bearings and related works (1970-72).

There are at least seven versions of Walden: the first one of 1846-47 and six others Thoreau created each time he went back to amend, revise, cancel, rearrange it between 1848-54. Nor, it seems, had he settled for a comforting ‘final one’, (Shanley, L. J. The Making of Walden, Chicago, 1957). The absence of the notion of an authoritative, definitive account feeds into the ‘work in progress’ the spirit of her New Bearings/Ireland group. As she intends, (Whitworth, 1977, p. 22) it puts in visual terms something of the idea of querying, circumspect, even self-doubting state of mind and feeling, an antidote, we may say, to dogmatisms and certitudes about the true version of ‘Ireland’.

In its intensive redrawing of Thoreau’s 1846 survey of Walden pond, Taking the trouble to sound it (1970-71) captures the sense of a mind pacing through its thoughts, revising and redefining its positions. By the phrase, Thoreau meant something not unlike what maping means to Rita Donagh–unending testing and trying out of values, beliefs, responses.

He had juxtaposed two places, two perspectives of life: the stale routines of Councord against the experimental, the search for fresh perspectives on living at Walden Pond. It gives us context of Rita Donagh’s own search for new perspectives on ‘Ireland’, beyond worn-out, fixed ways of understanding it.

Why Thoreau? Because his reflections on spiritual balance and poise, the inner disciplines of civil disobedience, the campaign against slavery, through the prism of Gandhi’s ‘experiments with truth’, through Martin Luther King’s efforts, were to shape many of the social and political movements Rita Donagh was to live through or of which she was aware in one way or another: the civil rights movement in Ireland, Black Civil Rights struggles, ‘passive resistance’ in South Africa.

Thoreau–because it is not always easy to square his stance with his support for the ‘violent’ Subhas–a gap between ideal and action which seems untidily and exasperatingly human. However, it may well be that this, with an irony of its own, renders it less impossible to live through and make sense of the tensions and conflicting pulls signalled by ‘Ireland’.

‘Ireland’ as place, event, moment: ‘Ireland’ as Arjuna’s cry and timeless scene of dilemma. The history/mth activated by Rita Donagh is not unlike Eliot’s use of it. He was, through Thoreau/ Emerson, to summon up Arjuna’s cry in refusing to take sides in the Spanish civil war, (The Criterion, 26 (63), 1937, p.290) an interpretation of Arjuna’s stance of detachment which has been challenged (Donoghue, D; “Eliot and The Criterion”, in The Literary Criticism of T.S. Eliot ed. D. Newton de Molina, London, 1977, p.27). In the bleak moments of the Second World War, against the backdrop of Ireland’s/India’s search for independence he was to return to the motif and pose the question ‘how to act?’ all over again:

I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant–

And do not think of the fruit of action,
Fare forward.

O voyagers, o seamen,
You who came to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea,
or whatever event, this is your real destination.’
So, Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.’ (The Dry Salvages)

If the text-centred quality brings to the fore something of the ‘conceptualist’ provenance of Rita Donagh’s work it is no less a ‘pretext’ through which she manages to observe and comment on the world around us, on situations, struggles and events. Her emphasis falls on the search for critical awareness, on how meanings are made, rubbed out, revised. She avoids the forthright, full-voice address associated with art in the programmatic, committed mode.

By mid-century, these modes came to seem, as Adorno noted, in the ashen, ‘other’ perspective of ‘Auschwitz’, all too affirmative, too vehemently positive to ring true. It was to lead to his desperate remark ‘no art at all is better than socialist realism’. Aesthetic Theory, RKP, (1972) 1984, p. 79). It is a measure of Rita Donagh’s achievement that she finds a way of engaging with historical life and experience without falling back on the modes of ‘engaged art’. In this she comes to contribute to that recreating of ‘history painting’ in which, we may say, the genre reflects upon its own impossibility.

The topos of her work, as we have seen, is the map: not without significance, a piece is called Topography of Violence (1974). The concern is with how ‘Ireland’ is reported, depicted and represented. Evening Papers (Ulster 172-74), Pavement, Aftermath, Car Bomb, Newspaper Vendor and Talbot Street deal with how the media ‘covers’ and narrates such events, hew it cuts, pieces together and lays out its material.

A report in The Sunday Times, 19 May 1974 pictures the pitiful scene of a body on a pavement ‘covered by the evening newspapers’. It is the series’ ‘pre-text': in conceptualist mode, the term ‘covered by’ with all its conceptualist mode, the term ‘covered by’ with all its connotations comes to frame our response. How issues are ‘covered by’ the media, the notion of ‘news coverage’, is set off against the idea that personal facts, painful moments of loss, grieving and shattering of individual lives tend to get covered up in the interest of a larger story which has to be told, some public, national mapping of the incidents.

The drive to disclose the facts, in this sense, turns out to be a drive to cover them up since the blindingly vivid and graphic terms in which one thing is recounted renders invisible some other aspect of the story. Against rumours and reports of the fate of a boy newspaper vendor, his own story is therefore checked by Rita Donagh, his own testimony and version of things is carefully sought out, (1977, p. 31). But this is not carried out in the spirit of an expose: the works do no juxtapose, in some stark, simplistic fashion, ‘media misrepresentations and misreportings’ against ‘the true way of picturing Ireland’.

The glimpses we catch of the map of Ireland through passages of transparent brushwork are at the same time not unlike a misty veil which clouds our view of it. What shows also appears to obscure. The misty paintwork evokes something of the veil of myths through which we read Ireland and through which it is constructed. The artworks do not cut through them to arrive at a ‘true account of things’ somehow beyond and outside their spell. Rather, they set up the search for something like the ‘true account’ in and through that tangled borderland between fact and fiction, representation and misrepresentation.

The image of the quilt from her family home in Ireland in Counterpane (1987-88) sums up the concern with ‘representing Ireland’, the business of covering an event and covering up. It evokes something of that mix of gravity and grandeur with a grieving almost unexpectedly personal, intimate tone associated with David’s Death of Joseph Barra. Counterpane is also quite literally a painting done ‘against pain’.

Art styles which have held sway in the late-modernist world are cited and placed in inverted comas in Rita Donagh’s artwork: media communication’s idiom, the grain of voice of popular culture and its jargon, conceptualist language, sheer painterly expressionism are amongst the styles she excerpts and recasts. Throughout her concern with the ‘grammars of representation’, ‘Ireland’ silently presses through–for like a bloodstain in a fairy tale, to use Adorno’s words, it cannot be rubbed off.

Reference: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/rita-donagh-1019