Patrick Pye, life and work – A counter-cultural story
By Brian McAvera
Four Courts Press, Hardback, €35

“I was brought up between two females…. My mother seemed to me perfectly normal and my granny seemed rather sad and quiet.” That is how the artist Patrick Pye began an autobiographical talk in St Teresa’s Church in Clarendon Street in Dublin in 2007. “Granny was sad because mother wasn’t a believer,” he said. “I remember my granny clearly reprimanding my mother for wearing lipstick. At that stage I had sympathy with my mother because I liked colour, I liked red lips, but then at about the age of eight I discovered Granny’s Bible…” Pye is an Irish painter of what are nowadays occasionally termed “unfashionable” religious subjects. He can be passionate, funny, engaging, informative and intense when he talks about his life and work, but you wouldn’t know it from Brian McAvera’s new biography of the man, now in his late eighties.

McAvera announces straight up that he is wary of story-telling: “Almost every creative artist… is framed within the shapes of their own myths,” he writes, before outlining the “problems” associated with writing about artists while they are still alive: “a tendency to the unrevealing anecdote, a lack of critical distance, and an inclination towards being partisan.”

He worked with the artist’s co-operation, but his laudable determination to produce a serious, arms-length assessment of Pye’s contribution to twentieth century Irish art is unavoidably tempered by his deliberate decision to do himself out of a real opportunity to mine the live source for personal insight.

McAvera sketches the biographical details and pins down dates, but his main concern is to argue for the artist’s overlooked central role in the development of Irish modernism. It’s an entirely worthwhile endeavour. He claims rightly that Pye has been sidelined and left out of the official history.

He does not dwell long on formative influences – Pye attended exhibitions with his mother as a teenager in the 1940s and found his key influence, El Greco, in a school library book – preferring to concentrate on situating Pye’s work solidly within an international contemporary and art historical context.

The valid list of subsequent influences is almost amusingly comprehensive. It ranges from the early medieval period through to Francis Bacon, and includes Giotto, Fra Angelico, Masaccio, Tintoretto, Georges de la Tour, Chagall, Rouault, Bonnard, Matisse, Degas, Seurat, Picasso, Van Gogh, Gaugin, the Nabis, the English painter Graham Sutherland, Irish artists Colin Middleton, Evie Hone and “his early mentor, the painter Elizabeth Rivers” as well as William Blake and the poems of TS Eliot.

Still, the book is shorter and less comprehensive than one might expect, given McAvera’s access to his living subject. Seeking to “re-position the artist, as well as the notion of a ‘religious artist'”, he dismisses art critic Dorothy Walker (who “regarded [Pye] as being retrogressive) and the accepted narrative that places artist Mainie Jellett at the centre of Irish modernism, describing her as “a third-generation Cubist… who produced a considerable quantity of work that can be best described as second-rate.”

Pye was born in England of an English father and a Protestant, later agnostic, Irish mother. McAvera eschews anecdotes but does quote Pye on those dual formative female influences: “I knew that one day I’d have to make up my mind between my granny and my mother about God.” Pye was brought up by his mother in Ireland and converted to Catholicism at the age of 29, five years after she died in 1958.

He showed early promise, exhibiting in the annual Oireachtas art exhibition and with the Dublin Painters while still a teenager. In the 1950s, he showed eight times with the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, at the annual Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) show and in group exhibitions at Victor Waddington Gallery, Ritchie Hendriks Gallery and the Dawson Gallery. “For a young man in his twenties this is an impressive track record,” writes McAvera, “he had shown in all of the major annual exhibitions and at the four most prestigious Dublin commercial galleries.”

“In the light of later comments by others that ‘Patrick was never fashionable’, one is tempted to think that a career which seemed to be taking off splendidly in the 1950s, somehow stalled,” writes McAvera. Not true, he says. Pye went on to work successfully in stained glass, “the powerful Hendriks Gallery was his main dealer” and he was a founding member of the Independent Artists group and the Figurative Image exhibition. He co-founded and edited an art magazine, Introspect, in 1975.

McAvera persuasively rescues Figurative Image and Pye’s magazine from their roles as obscure footnotes to a more central place in the story of Irish modernism. Pye chose artist writers for Introspect, “I had the sculptor Michael Biggs, Louis le Brocquy and Patrick Hickey. I wrote the editorials and I infuriated Dorothy Walker: the neck of me to edit a magazine! We survived for three years, and then being in debt, we closed down”.

As the establishment changed, Pye became part of it. He began exhibiting with the RHA in 1982, in 1991 he was elected a member and in 1997 he was the subject of a large-scale retrospective there.

The book establishes valuable chronologies and its central assertions are thoroughly worthwhile, but there are less quotes from Pye than might have been expected, too many rhetorical questions and open-ended presumptions (“how many schoolboys in the early 1940s would have preferred TS Eliot to the Georgians? How many young Irish artists in the early 1950s were reading Encounter and the New Statesman?”). Many of the descriptions are long-winded and focus on pinning down art historical influence and aspects of technique without really illuminating the work. There is not enough about his stained glass.

When Pye is quoted, it serves to underscore the fact that more direct quotes would have made for a more lively and engaging book. On the Impressionists, he says: “They are loved by everybody but the trouble is the subject matter – picnics and domesticity. It doesn’t really deal with my subject matter which is poor suffering humanity.” On Bonnard: “it’s the sense of space which is wonderful; making space with colour; and the fact that his women are real women, not men’s dreams. Compare them to all of those classical Venuses!” On Matisse: “I love the humanism. I agree with Matisse: a thing should be simple to see. The subject should be absolutely clear. You shouldn’t have to think about it.” On interpretation of biblical narratives: “I’m for the popular understanding.”

McAvera positions Pye as a painter of human experience and emotion. He argues persuasively that Pye is a history painter rather than religious artist, because he focuses on “the significance and emotional impact of the stories he chooses to tell.” He claims correctly that enjoyment of this artist’s work does not “require a shared system of belief.”

He points out the essential paradox in the way Pye has been viewed: by modernists as being outmoded in subject choice; by fans of traditional religious art as being too modernist in style. “I didn’t want to be thought of as anything but a contemporary painter,” he told McAvera.

McAvera admits “further research is needed”. The book is an enjoyable but too frequently shallow scratch at the surface of the life and work of an artist that deserves more attention.

In all of his art historical referencing the author seems to have missed the simplest, most salient point about Pye: despite the apparently old-fashioned nature of his subject matter, he remains a thoroughly contemporary artist. This is because he paints what he sees as the essential questions about life and human nature. He is a master at his chosen task. His recent work continues to be vibrant and alive, fuelled by the palpable energy that ignites when an artist’s personal concerns as a human being are made universal through art. This is what makes his work entirely moderm, not necessarily the “maverick” of McAvera’s thesis, but a contemporary Irish master in his own right.

Pye answered the question that has dogged his career with humour and acceptance, in that 2007 talk: “How can you be modern and religious? You can’t please everybody all the time,” he said.

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