Artsdesk: Diaphanous threads – Hughie O’Donoghue

Posted January 26, 2023 in Arts & Culture Features

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Hughie O’Donoghue’s artworks create an intriguing dynamic with the past, making visible the diaphanous threads that bind history to mythology, national ideology and fictional narrative.

The National Gallery’s Shaw room is a chandelier-adorned ballroom, spanning almost 90 feet from end to end. Passing through the double-doors flanked by a pair of balustrade staircases, you are led to a magnificent large-scale oil painting called The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife. Painted by Daniel Maclise in 1854, it is hard to overstate the impact that this artwork exerts on its audience – it is, as the programme materials note, a “monumental and meticulously detailed” picture that dominates the far wall. Maclise depicts the wedding ceremony between the Norman conqueror Richard de Clare, better known as Strongbow, and his bride Aoife MacMurrough, daughter of the King of Leinster.

This event dates back to 1170, and while the real marriage took place in Christchurch cathedral in Waterford, Maclise assembles his crowd of wedding-goers amidst the burning ruins of an embattled city; a symbol of the military violence experienced by Gaelic society at the hands of superior Norman forces. The intent behind this symbolism is replicated among the figures in the foreground: Strongbow stands on a broken Celtic cross as the father of the bride, Dermot McMurrough, looks on in alarm. The artwork is an acknowledged masterpiece by one of Ireland’s greatest history painters, which means that the museum’s decision to stage an intervention in the room, mounting new artworks that create an exchange with Maclise’s painting, is something of a leap of faith. Fortunately, the artist Hughie O’Donoghue is well suited to such a challenge.

“Hughie’s deep and long-standing interest in public and private history,” writes curator Brendan Rooney during our correspondence, “combined with his investigations of identity and memory, meant that he was ideally placed to investigate the complex relationship between Ireland and Britain that Daniel Maclise focussed on, over a century and a half earlier.” In Rooney’s neat summary, O’Donoghue’s “intervention serves to remind us that history is neither static nor objective.”

O’Donoghue’s artworks create an intriguing dynamic with the past, making visible the diaphanous threads that bind history to mythology, national ideology and fictional narrative. The artist has produced six tapestry-like paintings that each depict a single figure from Irish and British history, including the saint Deirbhile, Anglo-Saxon King Wuffa, Aoife McMurrough, William the Conqueror, and revolutionaries Michael Collins and Emily Davison.

As you’ll have noticed, the six paintings divide into three pairs, and each pair consists of one Irish and one British personage. O’Donoghue’s contributions to the Shaw room, while not individually as large as Maclise’s masterpiece, are nonetheless considerable works that cumulatively dwarf the history painter’s crowning achievement. According to O’Donoghue, he wanted to establish a material link with Maclise’s work, in order to elicit a more productive tension on the conceptual and symbolic level. “We now think very differently about history and memory than was the case when Maclise made his painting,” he writes. “So I chose to make paintings of a similar scale, that complemented the Maclise painting formally, whilst also questioning the Victorian Romanticism at its core.”

As with any artistic and intellectual movement, one person’s definition of Romanticism is highly contestable. Nonetheless, it’s uncontroversial to say that its adherents believed in the intrinsicity of beauty to the human experience. One of the movement’s founders was the German art critic Friedrich Schlegel, who wrote that “the basic error” of art theory prior to the 18th century was “to consider beauty merely as something given, as a psychological phenomenon;” for Schlegel, beauty was better understood as “one of the human spirit’s original ways of acting: not simply a necessary fiction, but also a fact, that is, an eternally transcendental one.”

From literary figures such as Goethe, Wordsworth, and Victor Hugo to painters like Caspar David Friedrich, Goya and Eugene Delacroix, Romantic artists frequently conveyed their vision of the awesome power of beauty – a power that could easily sidestep into the terrifying sublime – through nationalist imagery, scenes from folklore, and in depictions of individual heroism. Given that the representation of nationally significant historical figures is at the heart of O’Donoghue’s project in this exhibition, it’s clear how fertile this territory is for the contemporary artist.

Indeed, O’Donoghue’s investigation into the meaning of historical subjects as symbols and social constructs is something that predates this exhibition. A useful document to refer to is Art, Imagination and Public Service, a publication released in 2021, wherein O’Donoghue stated that, “History painting was for many years regarded as the highest form of art, but it fell flat on its face and died about 150 years ago. It had become exhausted; it was predictable, theatrical, and propagandist.” O’Donoghue’s paintings are anything but predictable: they are mixed media tapestries, consisting of several formats including photography, and unlike Maclise’s painting, each of these artworks employs a collage-effect, combining different images and materials on a flat, one-dimensional surface. Again, by contrast to the theatricality that typifies history painting and Romanticism both, the style that results from O’Donoghue’s aesthetic choices is overridingly cool, in the detached and impersonal sense, and this produces a rewarding tension within the exhibition space.

The detached aesthetic is also at play in O’Donoghue’s style of figuration, or put otherwise, in the manner of the characterisation of his painting’s protagonists. Maclise’s The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife characterises Aoife as a demure, innocent princess, brightly lit by the sunlight that breaks through the storm clouds; a pawn in her father’s Machiavellian strategy for power. Strongbow, on the other hand, is cast in shadow, his bearing regal and imperious; he holds his bride’s hand with an armoured glove, strengthening by reflection her status as a sacrificial lamb. Whereas the allegorical models of Gaelic princess and colonial general are clearly defined by Maclise, O’Donoghue’s figures are more psychologically opaque. His individuals are situated in a white non-space, and are either distracted in thought or else stare blankly at the audience. They are almost confrontational in their refusal to carry any emotional or metaphorical charge: their neutrality completely rebuffs our desire to project onto them meanings and values.

According to Rooney, this neutrality was carefully considered by the artist: “Hughie has always been keen to stress that the paintings are not ‘portraits’ in the orthodox sense, but reflections on historical figures.” This psychological restraint, an “eschewing of the pictorial tradition,” serves to give the audience the space they require “to consider what they actually know and feel about characters who have played important roles in the evolutions of the nations that we inhabit.” Aesthetic to one side, the actual selection of historical figures is another clue to the restless reappraisal that lies at the root of O’Donoghue’s practice. Unlike Maclise’s painting, where conquered and conqueror are held absolutely separate – virtue and violence distinguished in high relief – O’Donoghue creates connections between British and Irish nationalities. I was especially intrigued by the pairing of Michael Collins and Emily Davison, the suffragette; “both ideological activists who changed the status quo significantly by attacking the establishment,” as O’Donoghue noted in our emails.

Of course, given his personal history, O’Donoghue’s encompassing perspective makes sense: “I have lived in both Ireland and England all my life and know, through research of my own family background, that ideas of identity are rarely straightforward.” This intuition into the fungibility of identity leads to O’Donoghue’s primary assertion, that “history is complex,” and national narratives “often seek to simplify history to serve their own interests.” Undaunted by the challenge, O’Donoghue’s response to Maclise’s masterpiece raises the audience’s awareness of our national attitudes and historical assumptions, to place them in the foreground. The result, as you slowly make your way from one end of the long room to the other, is compelling.

Hughie O’Donoghue: Original Sins is at the National Gallery until May 21, free admission.

Words: Tom Lordan


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