Artistic License: Michael Cullen

PENNY McCORMICK talks to Wicklow-born artist MICHAEL CULLEN about his work, travel and latest exhibition at TAYLOR GALLERIES … 

Known for the vitality and sense of humour inherent in his work, Wicklow-born Michael Cullen has been painting for more than 50 years. His latest exhibition “Tír na nÓg, A land of perpetual youth” is currently on at Taylor Galleries, Dublin 2, and is characterised by its literary references, boldness of colour and inclusion of circus figures and animals.

Cullen has spent some half of his life outside of Ireland, and now divides his time between Spain and Ireland. His works are in many important collections including the National Gallery of Ireland, the Ulster Museum, the Arts Council of Ireland and under several collections in IMMA, the Irish Museum of Modern Art.


The inspiration for your new exhibition was Irish myths and poetry. Are these particular poems of special significance to you?

Over my lifetime as a practicing painter I have followed my instincts and attempted to navigate or penetrate the internal world of my own unconscious being; this has afforded me much material and informed my painting greatly, then and now. Generally, inspiration comes unbidden – but in the course of a working life the painter must be in a state of preparedness because inspiration comes dropping out of the blue when it’s least expected. So, a word or maybe a piece of prose, a poem, an object encountered by chance as it were, provide the woof and warp, thus prompting the nucleus for a painting.

Tír na nÓg, a triptych, and the title of this show, represents, for me, the Cycle of Life. Cuchulain in the Underworld is my visual response to Yeats’ penultimate poem, Cuchulain Comforted, penned from his death bed in the south of France. I came across the poem many years before while reading Roy Foster’s biography of Yeats. The title I used for this painting was Yeats’ working title for the poem.


When did you start working on this exhibition?

Painting is an evolutionary process. Bodies of work (the mythical paintings in this case) are formed in a sequential way. One painting evolves from another, from what went before, in flow and ebb thus facilitating the creation of new bodies of work. I have painted in this fashion since commencing to paint full-time in the mid 1960s. If you were to transpose the lot to a film medium it would sort of emerge as an animated series of images.

The sense of energy and youthfulness of the subject matter is reflected in the choice of colour and creation of the artworks. How and where do you work?

When painting in oil, primarily in my studio. My watercolours have in the main being painted en plein air. I am always sketching however and have a note book to hand so I can draw wherever I am; the back of a bus, hotel rooms, a café, the side of a road, on the seashore, in the forest – desert – wild mountain ranges. And as to the how – as best I can.

Have you had any mentors over the course of your long career?

My most beloved of mentors has been Vincent van Gogh, perhaps because he was my first. He was the reason I first travelled out of Ireland in the 60s. I was searching for the colours, the light, the deep shadows – products of the heat of southern Europe.

Many people, artists or otherwise, living and dead, whom I have encountered along the course of my life have been mentors. Fellow travellers. At times I have followed in the paths of certain heroes: literary ones; Joyce, Beckett, Yeats, Cervantes. Painters; Velázquez, Goya, Poussin, van Gogh, Cezanne et al.

Travel has been a part of your artistic career – what place stands out most and why?

From the very beginning I have been interested in travelling to and living in out of the way places: the wilds of Andalucía; north Africa; southern Morocco; on the edges of the Spanish Sahara; hitchhiking the highways of the American south-west; the neon lit Hades of ‘Flash Point’ West/East Berlin in die Mauer Zeit (Berlin Wall time); the Mexican-Guatemalan rain forest with the Lacondon Indians; and the wild, high, Catalonian Pyrenees. Why? In search of the light.

I have spent most of my life as a voluntary exile as I have found that it has given free rein to my development as a painter.

Need to know: Michael Cullen’s Tír na nÓg is on at Taylor Galleries, Kildare Street, Dublin 2 until May 5.

Penny McCormick

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