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"Tony O’Malley"
2005-10-26 until 2006-01-01
Irish Museum of Modern Art
Dublin, , IE

A major retrospective of the work of the Irish painter Tony O’Malley, one of the most important and best-loved Irish artists of the past 100 years, opens to the public at the Irish Museum of Modern Art on Wednesday 26 October 2005. The exhibition, entitled simply Tony O’Malley, focuses particularly on certain core aspects and key moments in an extraordinarily productive career. It covers O’Malley’s early years as an amateur artist painting the landscape of his native Co Kilkenny, through his years in St Ives and the Bahamas and his return to Ireland in 1990, to some of his last works, created shortly before his death in 2003. The exhibition comprises more than 60 works, drawn mainly from private collections. Tony O’Malley is curated by the curator and critic Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith. It is presented in association with THE IRISH TIMES and H&K International.

Born in Callan, Co Kilkenny, in 1913, Tony O’Malley was until the late 1950s a part-time artist working, from 1934 to 1958, with the Munster and Leinster Bank in various branches around Ireland. Although suffering chronic ill-health, he continued painting throughout the 1950s, developing his craft through a process of trial and error and through studying, in reproduction, the works of the great masters such as Cezanne and Van Gogh. A number of works in the exhibition date from these early years. Winter Landscape, Arklow (1953) and Winter Landscape, New Ross (1957) present the viewer with bleak, geometrical landscapes where small houses huddle together against the elements, reflecting something of the economic and social conditions in the country and of the personal losses O’Malley suffered - the deaths of his mother and brother - around that time.

In 1960 O’Malley moved to St Ives in Cornwall, which he had already visited on a number of occasions and where he was to live for the next 30 years. The change wrought in his work by his new circumstances and surroundings - St Ives had been a well-known artists’ colony since the 1930s - can be seen in two self-portraits painted just two years apart. In Self-Portrait, Heavy Snowfall at Trevaylor (1962-63) the artist is depicted in muted tones, in a solemn, ordered studio as the snow piles up outside. In Bird Painter (1965), by contrast, he is suffused with an elemental energy, poised to transform nature into art, his interest in birds, present from the start, having taken on a new life in St Ives. This leitmotiv recurs again and again in a variety of works, including the powerful The Hawk Owl (1964) and in Hawk and Quarry in Winter, in Memory of Peter Lanyon (1964), his tribute to his close friend and fellow painter Peter Lanyon, who died in a gliding accident in1963.

In the early 1960s, O’Malley began one of his best-known series of pictures, which he continued until the late 1990s. Painted every Good Friday and frequently drawing on images from local Kilkenny tomb carvings, they address, often obliquely, the theme of Christ’s passion. These ranged from Wooden Collage, Good Friday (1968), a strikingly simple evocation of the Crucifixion in blackened fragments of wood and slate, to Good Friday Painting (1994), which bears the expanded repertoire of gesture and colour resulting from his visits to the Bahamas in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Tony and his wife, Jane - the Canadian artist Jane Harris, whom he had married in 1973 - made their first visit to Jane’s family in the Bahamas in 1974. This radically different environment initially posed some challenges for O’Malley, more especially in terms of the vastly different nature of the Caribbean light. However, O’Malley’s legendary persistence won out. In Bahamian Butterfly (1979) the formal idiom developed in gloomier climes is expanded to accommodate the visual resplendence of his new surroundings. During this period O’Malley’s work began to be exhibited much more regularly in Ireland, particularly at the Taylor Galleries. In 1984 he had a retrospective in Belfast, Dublin and Cork. A solo exhibition by the Newlyn Gallery in Cornwall toured to a number of English and Irish venues. The inclusion of four of his larger Bahamian canvases in the 1988 ROSC came as a considerable surprise to those whose knowledge of his work was confined to his paintings from the 1960s and ‘70s. The first exhibition of O’Malley’s work at IMMA was held in 1992-93. Following receipt of a major body of his work on loan from George and Maura McClelland in 2000, a further exhibition from that collection, was held in 2001. Since then the Museum has received a heritage donation from Noel and Anne Marie Smyth of 60 of the O’Malley works from that collection to add to those already in its Collection.

This new chromatic range was carried over into O’Malley’s later Irish paintings, following his permanent return to Ireland in 1990. Undeterred by failing eyesight, he found new modes of expression in works such as Sense of Old Place (1997) in which the watery depths of the pond spread out to encompass the entire landscape. Tony O’Malley continued working almost up to the time of his death in January 2003, true to his feelings, expressed in an interview The Sunday Tribune in 1984, “I have no time for people who mess about, doing nothing when it suits them …There’s so much to do. If I run out of canvas I just paint over something I’ve already done. I’m an old man and I started painting late. I don’t want to waste any time”.


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