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Dereck Mahon

Exhibition catalogue Anne Madden. A Retrospective
, Irish Museum of Modern Ar, 2007
27 June 2007 - 30 September


‘I imagine’, says Anne Madden, ‘that most artists, whatever their medium, are trying to uncover or discover a reality beyond actuality, trying to make visible invisible aspects of the world… Of course, many things that are real to us are invisible: imagination, feeling, and consciousness itself which defines us as human, as well as the unconscious psyche which houses our dreams, symbols, intuition and instinct.’1 She is a poetic artist. Dreams, symbols and intuition are her themes; instinct, the quick flick of knowing what to do next, inscribes itself decisively in her work like a watermark. Madden says that she uses the image as an ‘emotive charge, even when it becomes very abstracted’.2 Yet narrative lingers, and a distinctive feature of her work is its transparency-in-opacity, its almost paraphrasable ‘meaning’. It’s not only about paint but about recognizable subjects of a more general nature. If sometimes formidable, it asks us in; often, we can even tell what’s going on (her titles help), though this is not to suggest that she isn’t, above all, devoted to her raw materials.
It would be a mistake to think of her as primarily a cerebral artist, for she is a very physical one: ‘I want to not know,’ she says.3 The canvases correspond to her height and reach – she lays them on the floor and moves around them. Watching her in her Dublin studio, or on documentary film, you notice how she handles them like life-size models. She works on a large scale. Deeply engaged in her materials, a friend to the saturated colour field, she identified once with the New York School of the 1950s and set aside illusion and anecdote. Crucially, however, she ‘retained the image’, a frozen narrative.4 Her work is, in fact, quite autobiographical, and often refers explicitly to recent events and bereavements seen at a short distance in time. The megalith paintings of the 1970s, for instance, based on the Stone Age tombs of the Burren, County Clare, ‘seek out the symbolic order and hidden secrets of the… Burren of my youth’.5 These ‘reflections on personal grief’ try to ‘find or extract light from the darkness’.6
Not everywhere is dark with grief, by any means. The delightful early pictures Meadow with Sun and Blue Landscape (both 1958) seem bright with the summery, youthful ease that precedes the difficulties of later life (but note the proleptic crimson sphere top left in each, dripping like a severed head in the second of these). Even her grimmest episodes have an exuberant formal panache. An uncomplicated, high-definition daylight illuminates the ‘poured paintings’ of Burren rock formations done in the 1960s – Land near Kilnaboy (oil and sand) and Transformations (both 1964) – the bony limestone of County Clare lending itself to an almost scientific clarity.7 ‘Stony hills poured over space’, says Betjeman in ‘Ireland with Emily’, thinking of the Burren (‘far and foreign’).8  No living presence, it seems, disturbs the geological silence of this realm, and it’s not until the Megalith series of the 1970s that human drama begins. The stage curtains (acrylic on cotton duck) are sheets and ribbons of openable stone. Dolmens, menhirs, stone circles and passage graves – an Easter Island in the Atlantic – provide these powerful arrangements with their structural rationale, but these paintings are at a remove from literal representation, being primarily about colour and form.
We meet for the first time her signature midnight blue, an ultimate ultramarine gazing starlessly back at us through the funerary uprights: ‘Ignorance, silence and the motionless azure’, in Beckett’s phrase.9  These monumental blocks, stove red or chimney black, act perpendicularly just as the mystic blurs act horizontally in Mark Rothko’s classic works – ‘One doesn’t read his tiers and veils of paint primarily as form,’ says Robert Hughes of Rothko; rather, they are ‘vehicles for colour sensation’.10 Not quite the reverse is true of Madden’s standing stones. They are most definitely form, a celebration of form, a formal principle made paint; but the restrained colour blocks (no question of ‘sensation’ in the popular sense), both bold and subtle, are forceful and imposing as only restraint can be. Tension, yes – but there is no conflict between disegno and colore: each is an achieved, authoritative object containing within itself ‘the reason why it is so, and not otherwise’, as in Coleridge’s definition of a good poem.11 In Clive Bell’s phrase, they are ‘significant form’, a sign language like language itself; but that intense midnight ultramarine, once seen, is never forgotten.12 As in Rothko, there is mystery, but mystery with a sharper edge and a clearer vision.

Iam dies alibi, illic nox omnibus noctibus nigrior densiorque; quam tamen faces multae variaque lumina solvebant.
Elsewhere there was daylight by this time, but they were still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night, which they relieved by lighting torches and various kinds of lamp.
Letter from Pliny the Younger to Tacitus 13

Pliny is describing Pompeii on 25 August ad 79, the day after the eruption. ‘At last’, he writes later, ‘the darkness thinned and dispersed into smoke or cloud; then there was genuine daylight, and the sun actually shone out, but yellowish as it is during an eclipse. We were terrified to see everything changed, buried deep in ashes like snowdrifts.’14  He and his mother have made their escape and are staring back from the road. There were no reports from those trapped in the city, many in their homes, but the fatal experience can be (and has been) imagined – the artisan houses and airy villas swiftly inundated by hot pumice and volcanic ash.
It was reading Pliny’s description of the calamity that gave Anne Madden the idea for the magnificent Pompeian group she produced in the early 1980s, exchanging County Clare for a Graeco-Roman setting. This was not an entirely new departure, since these paintings and drawings came as a natural extension of the megalith motif. ‘By then [the end of the 1970s],’ she says, ‘theory, such as it existed, went out of the window – literally, with a series of window forms… made of bands of the colours of the spectrum… These paintings were thresholds between interior and exterior space, a reconciliation of opposites.’
These colour bands, with their partitioning of the canvas, are a favourite device, indeed almost her autograph. If we look again at the diptychs and triptychs of the 1970s with titles like Megalith (1974), Alignment (1975) and Menhir (1978), we can see ground-plan and elevation taking shape: strong rectilinear uprights, ember red and midnight blue, bisected or trisected by vertical inset pages of eloquent ‘text’ – tonally pure, silent and motionlessly azure. These manuscript pages, glimpses of infinity framed by classically formal columns on either side, frames within frames, increasingly come to resemble windows and doors. Through a thin blue slash in Alignment – an initial chord which is not exactly a quotation, but is perhaps derived from Matisse’s Porte-Fenêtre à Collioure (1914), and which almost shyly introduces the idea of an opening – we leave or enter the house of historical memory. Door into the Dark (1982), the title borrowed from Seamus Heaney, picks up this theme, frames the aperture with doorposts, lintel and threshold, blows smoke, cuts with vertical median strip-lighting, and we’re looking at the inside of a garage door with exhaust fumes and a slice of the sky beyond.15 If we’re looking in, as in the Heaney poem, we’re looking at a Sibyl’s cave or a tabernacle, but I don’t think we are; I think we’re inside trying to look out. It’s we who are in the dark, trapped in the garage, shed or house. Those fumes are disturbing; something is very wrong. Either a car engine has been left running or there is a fire somewhere – outside perhaps, smoke trickling in at the ever-so-slightly open door: a rich and alarming image composed of sombre, shifting blues and greys, one crack of light admitting narrative and paraphrase. It’s a short step from here to Pompeii.
Frances Yates researched ‘the art of memory’, a mnemonic technique practised by hermetic philosophers of the cinquecento, based on the idea of the soul as a house, a metaphor later adopted by Carl Jung.16 Similarly, Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, studied the poetic evidence for rooms as ‘abodes for an unforgettable past… the topography of our intimate being’.17 Chapter nine, ‘The Dialectics of Outside and Inside’, incorporates the suggestion that a door presents ‘the temptation to open up the ultimate depths of being’, and imagines ‘incarnated in the door… a little threshold god’.18 The thought was familiar to the ancient world, of course: in Roman times, the god was called Janus, he of the two faces looking before and after, at the threshold of beginnings and endings.19 ‘How concrete everything becomes in the world of the spirit,’ says Bachelard.20 Menhirs and megaliths, dolmens and passage graves, abodes of souls, transform themselves under Madden’s hand and hazel eye into the open graves of Pompeian houses. The eruption has taken place, and now we have the irruption of boiling volcanic ash into these mural-decorated private spaces.
She concentrates on one house in particular, perhaps the most famous, the Villa of the Mysteries, with its spectacular life-size frescoes of gold and black on a ground of cinnabar red. Apart from the fine proportions of her interiors, squared-off and faintly ‘baroque’, with their remote echo of Leonardo’s architectural perspectives, there are, so to speak, depths without perspective, flat surfaces haunted by anecdote. There is a ghost of patrician reserve, even a gnostic hauteur, in these distinctive panels of darkness and light so reminiscent of long-ago Georgian tenements; but if we take these memory boxes as (almost) life-size too, we are visiting the sort of modest artisan houses most people used to inhabit in Dublin and Belfast. The connection is not immediately obvious, but becomes so when we remember the elegiac Megalith series referring, in part, to events in Northern Ireland during the 1970s.21 Here too we have the remembered dead, overcome by disaster, their private space invaded, homes desecrated and lives destroyed.
The original frescoes, executed by a Campanian painter working from Greek models, depict the initiation of a young woman into the Dionysian mysteries (whence the name of the house), and Madden has dwelt at length on this figure, studying her posture in a series of graphite drawings. The scourged, weeping girl became for Madden ‘a metaphor of enlightenment and illumination’.22 Anne herself speaks quite naturally of art as ‘vision’ and ‘revelation’, spiritual in its impulse and mysterious in its force. ‘Smearing mud on cloth’ (in Hughes’s trenchant phrase), painting is primitive magic, a transformative alchemy in its effort to transmute ‘its prima materia, paint, into an “other” reality’, says Madden.23 Even factory paint, like the globe itself, comprises ‘earths’ and minerals, some relatively uncommon. A highly literate and articulate artist, she has noticed that quantum theory shares (with the Upanishads, for example) ‘an order which links everything to everything else – links us to the stars for instance’.24 Tat tvam asi: that, too, are you.25 The universe is a woven text, a web of particles; space and time
are inseparable. Madden recognizes ‘dark doors opening into luminous spaces’ which she can ‘enter and move through to a beyond – the void’, a void which is
her ‘canvas’.26
One luminous space that now opens for her is the garden; another, the sea. The two announce themselves simultaneously with the moonlit triptych Night Paths (1988), where a white wave breaks in a vigorous arc between two leafy midnight lanes. The illuminist Chemins éclairés (Lit paths), light shining out of darkness, belongs to the same year, as does Le Jardin (The garden). The related Entrance to the House of the Tragic Poet, one more Pompeian piece, was started at this time and finished two years later; meanwhile, Le Bateau (The boat, 1989) and Night Garden (1990) were in hand – the whole group aglow with deep greens and blues, dark leaves, bright steps and quiet immanence. The garden pictures, beautifully lit and easy on the eye, are among the most thrillingly restful and watchful things she has done. At a difficult time, Beckett urged her to ‘tackle her dark’, as he had tackled his own.27 ‘I just tried’, says Anne, ‘to paint my way back to the studio – through the garden and along the sunlit paths leading to it, a box of light’ – a space she and her husband, the artist Louis le Brocquy, shared for many years at Carros (Alpes-Maritimes) before moving back to Ireland in 2000.28 That ‘box of light’ is a place of peace and work, a house of the soul that Bachelard would have acknowledged. How concrete everything becomes.
With the Pompeii and Garden series, we stand a few steps from the subject, door or tree; with the Odyssey pictures, we soar startlingly to a considerable height and, in a species of aerial photography, look directly down on a solitary boat at sea – the sea ‘an image’, says Anne, ‘of the unconscious and the unpredictable’.29 The vertical sectioning of the canvas is now replaced by diagonals and vortices; rectilinear structure by a fast, dabbing, rotary action; monumentality by flux; disegno by colore; saturated fields of blue – a sea-change, literally, into ‘something rich and strange’.30 Odysseus’ boat, a vague skiff in most of the pictures, has the proportions of a ship’s lifeboat in Le Bateau (1989) and in Transposition (1995), seemingly unmanned or manned, perhaps, by that ‘No One’ who tricked the Cyclops.31 It lies down there athwart our line of vision between sand and water, sun and shadow, light and dark – not exactly Rimbaud’s ‘drunken’ boat but self-evidently adrift, ‘at sea’, perhaps literally a ‘life’ boat.32 The swirling density of the picture surface, an extreme weather of violent storm and shocked respite, points up the lonely poignancy of the boat and the heroism of the voyage – one minute, thrown about in the dark; next minute, helplessly at rest in some transitional trough:

As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.33

The boat is usually at the centre of the composition, the eye of the storm like a shaped consciousness peering up and back at us, a keyhole into the light. Take away that chink of light, and we have the void, ‘chaos and old night’, a random universe of elemental forces.34 The boat and its double in Vortex (1995) skirt a black hole that suggests a ‘black hole’ in space; the crowded, dimly shining brushwork of De Profundis, from the same year, bespeaks frantic supplication and a faint hope of relief.35 The quick, importunate strokes, paint laid on thick, the almost audible crush of turbulent souls, or so I read them, are fanned by an impersonal luminescence – the rich tactility of the chiaroscuro heartfelt and urgent. Darkness visible: ambient blue-black but somehow ‘a dark white’, as in Beckett’s Watt: ‘The sky and the waste were of the same dark colour… the source of the feeble light diffused over this scene is unknown.’36 The boat itself, perhaps, a white chip of thought in the cosmic confusion?
A reader of Mircea Eliade, she sees myth as a door into notional worlds. It helps to lie in the sea, out of season, in the floating world between Nice and Cap d’Antibes, away from the traffic on the N7, and watch a hazy sun shine down through the wings of a spread gull. This is the Baie des Anges, the Côte d’Azur of Bonnard, Matisse and many another drawn by the colour and light. Anne and Louis lived in the hills and colour fields of Provence proper. Icarus struck the sea, says Ovid, between Mykonos and Samos, but Madden’s Icarus paintings take place, I think, in the Baie des Anges, where the flier and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry vanished in July 1944. ‘I was the boat,’ says Anne, which ‘grew wings to negotiate another dimension in space’.37 She continues, ‘Birds play the part of the artist in the Icarus paintings and in A Space of Time.’ Ptolemy thought the sun in some sense responsible for afflictions of the sight and sinews; Leonardo studied wing mechanics; for the poet Saint-John Perse, a migrating bird was a sort of seaplane or flying boat, its life a perpetual quest.38 ‘Consuming solar energy like a plant, driven by two strokes to the spectral limits of flight’, his bird ‘seems close to losing its wings up there’.39 Madden’s tough paraclete, gull or hawk, is seen at a distance but from below, already at the point of coming unstuck, before dropping like a bolt from the blue, or even flying straight into the sun.
We can’t look for long at death or the sun, said Rochefoucauld; but gold, the sun’s representative on earth, can be contemplated at length.40 Think of the mosaic art of Byzantium, St Mark’s Basilica, the Book of Kells and the work of Gustav Klimt. Madden too risks working in gold paint. The mud-yellow tesserae of Aran Field (1957) prefigure this. Icarus’ vast sun (Transition, 1997) is a roaring globe of coppery gold, a permanent explosion of throbbing solar activity. Gold plays a part in the eidetic Garden of Love series (2001–2) and is the active principle in Winged Figure (2004–5; Dublin City Hall) and Aurora b. (2005). The Garden of Love takes its title from Blake: ‘I went to the Garden of Love… And I saw it was filled with graves.’41 The El Greco-like heavenward soaring of rained-on conceptual crosses creates a sky cemetery for the disparus, the dead, all souls – to be presided over, perhaps, by the angelic ‘winged figure’, an enfolding shape, irresistible in its authority and warmth. This figure shares a genetic code with the Northern Lights of the Aurora series, a festival of cosmic creativity and renewal. A bravura performance: each shower of refreshing, delicious colour – plum, lime and apricot – remembers earlier motifs: fields, glimpses of the sea, the sun’s surface, eruptions and apocalyptic geology. Spun, fiery coils of electricity blow about in rag-painted space, as seen from the Wicklow hills or in transatlantic flight. What with its whirling, breezy hues and igneous exultation, it almost looks like the birth of a new planet: ‘and there was light.’ 42
She explores ‘the old Berkeleyan question’43: ‘Does an objective reality exist and, if so, what is its nature? Does it lie in fact and appearance or in an invisible order of things? And does the face of things hide or reveal this invisible order?’ She is trying, she says, ‘to make sense of being-in-the-world’.44 This is a philosophical task, but philosophy has always been a useful resource for artists, and it’s a measure of her ambition that she should think in these terms. An alchemist, she has worked with the four elements (earth, fire, water and air, in that order), but earth and air are her main co-ordinates, the elements Simone Weil identified with gravity and grace, the sticking fast and the letting go, the weight of the past and the flight of the heart, Yeats’s ‘lonely impulse of delight’.45 Author of durable images rooted in traditional symbol and myth, she has spread her wings and flown to aleatoric space: Icarus is ‘an artist figure reaching for the out-of-reach’ and failing, who ‘dies into the immaterial’.46  Madden continues, ‘The artist attempts to seek the sun, the light, enlightenment, all too aware of the impossibility of reaching that place – knowing, as well, that there is nowhere else for her to go.’47 Growing initially from a specific landscape, her work has taken flight into a variety of lyrical abstraction. Not so much merely beautiful as sublime in Burke’s sense of the word (‘I want to not know’), it nonetheless keeps faith with reality.48 Though still girlishly eager to ‘bound off into the universe’, she keeps her feet on the ground, or perhaps the threshold.49 Yves Bonnefoy, another poet of thresholds, who has also lived in Provence, has a two-line poem that goes like this:

Tu as pris une lampe et tu ouvres la porte.
Que faire d’une lampe, il pleut, le jour se lève.
You took up a lamp and now you open the door.
What use is a lamp, it is raining, the day breaks.50


1       Anne Madden, ‘A quest: Some reflections on my experience of being a painter’, delivered as the Hermione Lecture at Alexandra College, Dublin, 2001, printed in The Recorder – The Journal of the American Irish Historical Society, Summer 2001, 14/1, 37.
2       Ibid. 44.
3       Conversation between Anne Madden and the author, 10 April 2006.
4       Ibid.
5       Anne Madden, ‘A quest’, 38.
6       Ibid.
7       As she has written, ‘I poured the paint to allow it a kind of freedom-from-my-will and hand.’, Ibid. 44.
8       John Betjeman, Collected Poems (London: John Murray, 1958), 99.
9       ‘Ignorance, silence et l’azur immobile, voilà la solution de la devinette, la toute dernière solution.’ [Ignorance, silence, and the motionless azure, that’s the solution to the riddle, the ultimate solution.] Author’s translation.
10       Robert Hughes, ‘Mark Rothko in Babylon’, Nothing if not Critical (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 233.
11       Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, chapter 14, Kathleen Raine (ed.), Selected Poetry and Prose (London: Penguin Poetry Library, 1957), 195.
12       ‘For either all works of visual art have some common quality, or when we speak of “works of art” we gibber… There must be some one quality without which a work of art cannot exist; possessing which, in the least degree, no work is altogether worthless. What is this quality?… Only one answer seems possible – significant form. In each, lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colours, these aesthetically moving forms, I call “Significant Form”; and “Significant Form” is the one quality common to all works of visual art.’ Originally published in Clive Bell, Art (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914); available at www.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/phil%20of%20art/clive_bell.htm, accessed on
7 February 2007.
13       Pliny the Younger and Betty Radice (tr.), The Letters of the Younger Pliny (London: Penguin Classics, 1963), Letter 6.16, 168.
14       Ibid. 172.
15       Seamus Heaney, Door into the Dark (London: Faber & Faber, 1969).
16       Frances Yates, The Art of Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), xxxvi, xxxvii, 222–3.
17       Gaston Bachelard, La Poétique de l’espace (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1957); trans. Maria Jolas as The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), xxxvi.
18       Ibid. xxxvi, 223.
19       From Janus comes the month Januarius in the Roman calendar (now called January) lying at the nexus of the old and new years. Saint Januarius (San Gennaro) is the patron saint of volcanic eruptions.
20       Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 224.
21       As Madden has written, ‘They [the Megalith paintings] were elegies to the terrible and tragic events in Northern Ireland in the seventies.’, Anne Madden, ‘A quest’, 38.
22       Ibid. 45.
23       Robert Hughes, ‘Earning his stripes’, Time, 14 August 1989, available at www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,958342-1,00.html, accessed on
7 February 2007; Anne Madden, ‘A quest’, 39.
24       Anne Madden, ‘A quest’, 40.
25       The Upanishads are among the principal Hindu texts. This pronouncement appears at the end of the Chandogya Upanishad. It has been interpreted in many ways, but is thought similar to a Gnostic interpretation of ‘The kingdom of God is within you’ (Luke 17: 21, King James Bible).
26       Anne Madden, ‘A quest’, 43.
27       Ibid. 44.
28       Ibid.
29       Ibid. 45.
30       William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act I: Scene 2 – Ariel’s song;
            Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
31       In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus and his men are trapped in a cave by the Cyclops Polyphemus. When asked his name, Odysseus replies that he is ‘’ (i.e. no one, no man, nobody). When Odysseus and his men blind the drunken Polyphemus with a sharpened stake and escape, Polyphemus cries out that No One has attacked him. Unfortunately, the other Cyclopes think he’s lost his mind rather than his eye.
32       Arthur Rimbaud, Le Bateau ivre (The drunken boat, 1871). The narrative voice is that of a boat lost at sea.
33       Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
34       The phrase derives from Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), Book I, lines 540–544:
            Sonorous mettal blowing Martial sounds:
At which the universal Host upsent
A shout that tore Hells Concave, and beyond
Frighted the Reign of Chaos and old Night.
35       The title De Profundis is an allusion to the first line (and hence title) of the Latin translation of Psalm 130: ‘Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord’ (King James Bible).
36       Samuel Beckett, Watt (London: John Calder, 1953), 249.
37       Conversation between Anne Madden and the author, 10 April 2006.
38       Saint-John Perse and Georges Braque (illustrations), Oiseaux (Paris: Au Vent d’Arles, 1962).
39       Saint-John Perse and Derek Mahon (tr.), Birds (Loughcrew, Co. Meath: The Gallery Press, 2002), 21.
40       ‘Le soleil ni la mort ne se peuvent regarder fixement.’ François de la
Rochefoucauld, Les Maximes, ed. Jean Rohou (Paris: Livre de Poche, 1991), No. 26, 80 (author’s translation).
41       William Blake, ‘The Garden of Love’, Songs of Innocence and Experience.
42       ‘And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.’ (Genesis 1: 3, King James Bible).
43       Anne Madden, ‘A quest’, 38.
44       Ibid. 37.
45       Simone Weil, La Pesanteur et la grâce (Paris: Plon, 1947); Gustave Thibon (ed.) and Emma Craufurd (tr.) Gravity and Grace (New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1952). W.B. Yeats, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’, Collected Poems (London: Macmillan Co. Ltd, 1950), 152.
46       Anne Madden, ‘A quest’, 45.
47       Ibid.
48       Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Part II: 1–8 (Oxford: World Classics, 1990), 53–68.
49       Conversation between Anne Madden and the author, 10 April 2006.
50       Yves Bonnefoy, tr. Galway Kinnell and Richard Pevear, Early Poems 1947–1959 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1990), 150–151.