Artistic License: Roderic O’Conor

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RODERIC O’CONOR and the Moderns. Between Paris and Pont-Aven” is the summer block buster at the NATIONAL GALLERY OF IRELAND. Penny McCormick speaks to curator JONATHAN BENINGTON about the exhibition which was launched last night …

Jonathan Benington

Featuring over 60 major artworks, including works by Van Gogh and Gauguin, showing colourful French scenes, this exhibition celebrates Roscommon-born Roderic O’Conor’s creative inspiration and his distinctive style. Curator Jonathan Benington tells us more about this exhibition – the first in 30 years dedicated to the artist.

Roderic O’Conor, A Tree in a Field.

What was your starting point for this exhibition?

To demonstrate Roderic O’Conor’s modernity in discovering the works of Van Gogh so soon after he died, and to drill down to the level of which pieces he saw and was influenced by. Also to highlight O’Conor’s role as a collaborator and mentor within the Pont-Aven School, in his turn influencing others in his circle. Within the exhibition we attempt to do this very visually by placing the works of his companions alongside his own paintings, drawings and prints. Thus visitors to the show will be able to see originals by Van Gogh and Gauguin as well as exceptional pieces by O’Conor, including several that have never been seen in public before.

Roderic O’Conor, Head of a Breton Boy with a Cap.

How did Roderic O’Conor’s style evolve throughout his career?

O’Conor started out in the 1880s as a plein air painter, working outdoors in all weathers on landscapes and scenes of everyday life. Once he arrived in Pont-Aven in 1891, however, he quickly grew dissatisfied with Impressionism. As one of the first artists to understand and be influenced by Van Gogh, O’Conor saw the potential to develop an expressive style using sinuous parallel lines. In his paintings these read as stripes of alternating primary colours.

What was the Pont-Aven school?

It was a group of young revolutionary artists who followed the painter Paul Gauguin to the village of Pont-Aven in southern Brittany between 1886 and1894. Brittany was then a province apart with its own language, customs, religious practices and distinctive folk costume. Gauguin was immensely attracted by its geographical remoteness and the fact that the trappings of bourgeois civilisation still seemed a world away.

Vincent Van Gogh, Champ de blé aux bleuets.

The exhibition includes works showing O’Conor’s link with Van Gogh, could you explain this for us please …

I have been able to show that O’Conor visited the Van Gogh memorial exhibition staged by Vincent’s art dealer brother, Theo, in his Parisian flat in September 1890. O’Conor was able to view over 340 of Vincent’s canvases – a unique opportunity – before they were removed to Holland the following year, after Theo’s death. O’Conor took this knowledge with him to Pont-Aven and embarked on a series of wheat field paintings that constituted his personal response to the remarkable late works of Van Gogh. I have also proved that oil paintings and letters by Van Gogh were available for scrutiny in Pont-Aven during 1892-93, thanks to the efforts of his friend, Emile Bernard, who campaigned for his recognition.

Roderic O’Conor, Breton peasant woman knitting.

Do you have any favourite paintings by O’Conor in the exhibition – if so, which and why?

O’Conor’s Breton peasant woman knitting of 1893 is an extraordinary painting that places its maker at the forefront of European avant garde art. The bold stripes used to paint this picture of an elderly Breton peasant function as expressionist gestures. No surface is granted immunity from the stripe which swallows up details including, most radically, the model’s facial features. The movements of O’Conor’s brush descend the background, enter the woman’s shawl and then reappear in her knitting, energising the surface in a way that echoes the subject’s intense concentration and repetitive movements.

Roderic O’Conor, Still life with Apples.

There are several supporting events to this exhibition could you tell us a little about these other events please?

The programme includes exciting new strands including an artist residency with Una Sealy RHA, a series of conversational podcasts imagining France at the turn of the century, and a very special project which brings together three Irish musicians to respond to the exhibition and to create and perform music in the Bal-Musette tradition; the iconic French sound synonymous with Paris at the time. Finally a large scale collaboration with Art in the Open, Ireland’s International Plein Air Festival will see film screenings, talks and workshops take place in Wexford during the festival and a range of events at the gallery culminating in a mass paint out at Merrion Square.

Roderic O’Conor, Field of Corn.

Need to Know: “Roderic O’Conor and the Moderns. Between Paris and Pont-Aven,” runs from July 18 – October 28 at the National Gallery of Ireland. www.nationalgallery.ie. Tickets are €15 with concessions available.

Penny McCormick

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