Paint Run Amuck

Frank Kermode

  • Jack Yeats by Bruce Arnold
    Yale, 418 pp, £29.95, September 1998, ISBN 0 300 07549 9

We attach the epithet ‘great’ rather loosely to artists, but there is probably some tacit agreement about which ones deserve it. It doesn’t seem wrong to call W.B. Yeats a great poet, and in certain contexts he may be called a great Irish poet, though most of the time it might seem odd to insist that Dante was a great Italian, or Shakespeare a great English, poet, partly because we vaguely think of them as transcending nationality. But Yeats was the necessary great poet of the national cultural renaissance that accompanied a struggle for political independence with which he was inevitably and willingly associated: he would have been a great Irish poet even if he had not become supranational, more universal than that description suggests.

The new nation also needed a great Irish painter, and Jack Yeats, brother of the more famous W.B., was seen to supply the need. The question whether he was just a great Irish painter or a great painter haunts this book. If you think of him as a gifted artist with an inextinguishable interest in depicting the posture and movement of horses, donkeys, droll Irish characters and Sligo scenes – everybody has seen those pictures of horse-races on the sands of Rosses Point, reproductions are widely available – you may be content to leave him to the nationalists, who in any case wouldn’t accept that a great Irish painter isn’t a great painter tout court. But it is the virtue of this book that you cannot honestly avoid the issue. It raises with urgency the question whether Jack Yeats does not deserve, like his brother, to be hailed, even by the non-Irish, as great in the more absolute sense.

That Bruce Arnold has a profound admiration for his subject is evident from the minute care of his research, but he avoids idolatry, and this measure of reserve lends credibility to his estimate of the painter’s stature. His text may be too long, too conscientious in recording details of exhibitions, banquets and committee meetings, but these rather tedious passages testify to a determination to be a biographer on whom nothing is lost. Yeats was a private man, seemingly incapable of the usual excesses and vanities, and to know a lot about him is to admire a life of prodigiously hard work made tolerable by innocent diversions like making model boats and then helping Masefìeld to sink them, and collecting vast quantities of ephemera. He also enjoyed violent and exotic action but always as an observer rather than as a participant.

The publisher has done the author proud, for this is a great slab of a book, on heavy paper, with over two hundred black and white illustrations, mostly disposed in wide margins, and there are 17 colour plates. The book is carefully designed, though less carefully copy-edited and proof-read; perhaps having it set in Hong Kong and printed in Singapore created problems.

Still, the volume has an appropriately monumental air, and the author will surely be forgiven for ignoring the painter’s frequently reasserted ban on reproductions of any kind. The instruction in his will is clear enough: he required that ‘no photographs or reproductions of any kind be made of any of my paintings or drawings, and that [of] photographs or other reproductions of any of my paintings or drawings already made there shall be no publication and no further copies shall be made’. During his life he reluctantly permitted very small, imperfect reproductions in catalogues, but believed they put a screen between the work and the viewer: ‘the better they are the worse they are.’ A painting was an event and these images turned an event into a reference and deflected attention from the works.

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