Does Sean Scully Deserve the National Gallery?

It’s a quiet Saturday morning in the National Gallery. A handful of the tables in the gallery’s sun-drenched Wintergarden Cafe are taken. Visitors trickle in from Clare Street and make their ways up the wide marmoreal steps to the first floor where, due to ongoing refurbishments, only two wings of the museum are open to them.

One wing showcases the best of European masters like Caravaggio and Vermeer, with a dash of the cream of the Irish by way of Yeats and le Brocquy. The other houses the slightly controversial Sean Scully exhibition. It’s the latter I’ve come to see.

The public tour, provided by the gallery free of charge, starts at 12pm. I take a seat at the meeting point on the bench outside the gift shop directly across from the information desk. Next to me is an ecstatic-looking grey-haired man and his wife.

I ask if they’re waiting for the tour. They’re not, just taking a break. They’re tourists from Australia. They’ve just come from the Scully exhibition. What did they think?

“Wonderful,” the man says. “Wonderful. I’m an artist myself, and a big Scully fan. We didn’t even know the exhibition was on in Dublin.”

What’s so wonderful about his work? Before he can answer, the tour guide, a short young woman with long red hair, starts speaking to a crowd of about ten who’ve suddenly gathered for the tour.

I first encountered abstract art in primary school, when I was about ten years old. For some reason, we were painting this day in class, a rare occurrence. Everyone had painted the usual representational stuff: houses, dogs, football matches. Everyone except a good friend of mine.

He’d made something that represented nothing. It was just shapes: curves and lines and arcs and circles. But the reds and yellows and greens of the thing popped off the A4 page and drew you in. He named it Ronaldo after the Brazilian footballer.

Whenever I come across an abstract, I think of that painting. It has become the gauge by which I measure my reaction. Does this painting move me as Ronaldo did?

Following the guide, we make our way up the steps and turn left into the Millennium Wing, which houses the Scully exhibition.

€1 Million Man

The exhibition, which opened on 9 May and will run to 20 September,celebrates theseventieth birthday of the Dublin-born artist, and showcases works from the 1980s right up to 2014. It brings together a group of major paintings on loan from the Tate, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Kerlin Gallery and Arts Council England, as well as some from his own private collection.

Scully moved to London with his family when he was just four. He spent a couple of his teenage years as an apprentice at a printing shop, before going on to practice graphic design. But his heart was in painting, and after attending evening classes at a local art school, he became a full-time art student at Croydon School of Art in London and then Newcastle University.

After his studies, he began teaching at third level and worked on making and exhibiting his art. It wasn’t until he moved to New York – where he still lives and works – in the late 1970s to take up a fellowship, that he began to establish himself as one of the world’s leading abstract painters.

He is now among the rare crop of contemporary artists whose paintings fetch in excess of €1 million. Twice short-listed for the Turner Prize, Scully’s use of a reduced palette of colours and his style of stripes and squares has garnered a global following and an almost universal appeal.

“I think Sean is one of a handful of abstract artists whose work is always imbued with emotion,” says Marc O’Sullivan Vallig, curator of Scully’s upcoming exhibition in the Crawford Gallery in Cork. “His paintings are soulful; I think that’s why people the world over have responded to them with such enthusiasm.”

The Tour

The guide leads us down to the far end of the wing to the work titled Aran (2005). It is a collection of 24 black-and-white photographs of stone walls of the Aran Islands, the horizontal, vertical and diagonal patterns of which are similar to those found in the artist’s paintings. Some of the stones are rough-edged while others are smooth – like the stripes in his work.

Then the guide brings us to Fort 2 (1980), oil on two canvases. The painting, navy and charcoal, can be seen as the starting point for Scully’s motif of stripes. The thin horizontal stripes are dead straight, very precise and exact.

With the next painting, How It Is (1981), we see how Scully’s stripes have progressed to vertical as well as horizontal, and how the edges of some are rougher than others, revealing the underlayer of paint beneath. There is a lot more colour too: maroon, green, orange, grey and blue.

Sean Scully (b.1945), Helen, 1997, private collection, © Sean Scully, Photo Courtesy Kerlin Gallery & Sean Scully. Photographer: Michael Bodycomb.

The paintings carry on in this vein of rough and smooth stripes, alternating between vertical and horizontal, thick and narrow, brushstrokes which are either smoothly, thickly or hastily applied, the variations of which, as well as the layering of colour, indicate the passion and emotion the artist is trying to evoke.

Paul (1984), a colossal piece dedicated to Scully’s son, who died tragically about a year before the piece was painted, is the most emotional work in the exhibition.

The painting is a triptych. The section on the left is made up of thick horizontal bands of light pink and dark blue. The one on the right has three vertical bands of red with an underlayer of yellow and a similar dark blue. The middle section, which is raised, consists of very roughly applied white and black stripes.

The guide speculates that the middle relief element could be seen as a representation of the artist’s son, and the flanking pieces possibly as his parents, or the world around him.

Window One (2014), oil on aluminium, from the artist’s private collection, is the first painting you see as you walk into the exhibition. The latest of the paintings in the collection, it is the most vivid in colour.

Sean Scully (b.1945), Window One, 2014, private collection, © Sean Scully. Photographer: Robert Bean

It has a wavy blue vertical band on the left, and white and navy horizontal stripes on the right, which are partially covered by a square patch of bright yellow bordered by a thin strip of red. The colours of the piece are wonderful and evoke the sensations of a summer’s day at the beach.

Window One is the guide’s favourite, and by far the most joyous piece in the collection. And for me, its only Ronaldo.

Concluding the Scully part of the tour, the guide touches on the controversy the exhibition has caused.

“Cultural Vandalism”

Earlier this month, on Joe Duffy’s Liveline show on RTE Radio 1, Dublin City Councillor Mannix Flynn described the move by the National Gallery to place works by Irish masters such as Paul Henry and William Orpen in storage to accommodate the Sean Scully exhibition as “cultural vandalism”, especially when space in the gallery is already at a premium due to refurbishments.

The timing is particularly sensitive, given that the exhibition will run right through the height of the tourist season, when many visitors come to the gallery hoping to see artists such as Henry and Orpen.

On the same radio show, Irish artist Robert Ballagh said he’d proposed an exhibition of his own to the National Gallery to mark his seventieth birthday back in 2012. He said the director of the gallery had turned down his offer on the grounds that the showcasing of uncommissioned work by contemporary artists was at that time outside its remit and, moreover, that hanging space was at a premium during the refurbishment. Priority was being given to works from the permanent collection.

So why did the National Gallery make an exception for Scully? According to an email from the National Gallery’s press office, “organising exhibitions of contemporary work is not a new departure for the National Gallery of Ireland. The Gallery regularly engages with contemporary art, artists and writers, through temporary exhibitions and displays.”

Yet according to the Gallery’s website, the Scully exhibition is “the first time the National Gallery of Ireland has dedicated a suite of galleries to a contemporary artist.” So, really, it is a new departure.

So why make the exception? What is it about Scully’s work that is so special?

Street Cred

I head back to the exhibition after the tour has ended to find out. As I roam from painting to painting, I can’t seem to make it out. The colours are, for the most part, drab and lack vibrance. The stripes, while varied, are just stripes. Their application is slapdash, facile.

Standing opposite A Happy Land (1987), a large black-and-yellow striped canvas with an insert of maroon and navy bands, I get chatting to Kevin, a man who has ambled in to see what the exhibition’s all about. He asks what I think of the paintings. I ask what he thinks.

“They’re just boxes,” he says, baffled. “Ten artists probably do the exact same thing, why is he the one chosen to be famous?”

I tell him a little of what I’ve learned from the guide, about the passion and energy involved in the stripes, the layering of colour, the brushstrokes, the way some are smooth and others are hard and thick and rushed, signifying a mood. It’s supposed to elicit an emotional response, I think.

“It elicits a response, alright,” he says.

But Kevin and I seem to be in the minority. Of the people I talked to who visited the exhibition, everyone else seems to love it.

Brooke Masek, from Nebraska, says she was unfamiliar with Scully’s work, and found it “so eye-opening to see. He’s got a great aesthetic.” Sasha Kushnirenko, while having a preference for the later and larger works like Coyote (2000), enjoyed the exhibition as a whole. Niamh Kennedy feels the same. She loved Scully’s use of colours and shapes.

None saw a problem with the gallery having a contemporary artist in place of the Irish masters.

“It’s the National Gallery,” Niamh Kennedy says. “They have to show contemporary Irish works, not just the masters.”

This sentiment is shared by many in the small commercial galleries that surround the National Gallery.

Jessica, a gallery assistant at SO Fine Arts Editions, says that any show that brings people in to see Irish art is a good thing. “Maybe it’s not the old masters and maybe it is contemporary, but it still brings people here,” she said.

Few Irish artists make as big an impact on the international stage as Scully, says Ian Whyte of Whyte’s Auctioneers. “His work hangs in the Metropolitan in New York,” he says. “From that point of view, the National Gallery should put on a show for Sean Scully.”

Marc O’ Sullivan Vallig, who is curating the upcoming exhibition in Cork, calls Scully “the most prominent Irish artist of our times” and “one of the most successful artists in the world, period”. “It’s his seventieth birthday on June 30, an occasion that marks his fiftieth year as an artist, and I’d be embarrassed if we hadn’t made such a fuss of it in the country of his birth,” says Vallig.

Scully’s Biggest Fan

What does Sean Scully think of the controversy surrounding his exhibition?

He didn’t respond to my query, but in Monday’s Irish Examiner he was quoted as saying, “In relation to the people who moan about giving me the National Gallery, it’s not a coincidence that both Beckett and Joyce left Ireland. They should think about that for a while.”

He went on to say: “The National Gallery should be happy that I showed there. It’s not me who is the fortunate one in this marriage. People should celebrate having someone as big as me coming from Ireland, not moaning about it.”

This sort of self-aggrandising statement is as common a trait of Scully’s as the stripes of his paintings.

Nobody is a bigger fan of his work than he is. One of his greatest talents seems to be his ability to unashamedly talk up his own work and to have anyone who’ll listen take him at his word.

His painting Wall of Light Orange Yellow (2000), which hangs in the Scully Room of the Hugh Lane Gallery, was selected as one of the masterpieces in RTE’s Ireland’s Favourite Painting.

In a promotional video for the series, Scully talks of an Irish woman, a dear friend of his, who told him he “was the most Irish artist”. He asked her what she meant, and she told him to look at his work, look what it’s based on, it’s based on repetition and on endless line and that’s Irish Art.

“And she’s absolutely right,” Scully said. “It goes back to the Book of Kells . . . these lines that go back on themselves all the time; it’s endlessly linear.”

There’s hardly an article or a YouTube video in which Scully appears where he doesn’t big-up his own genius.

In an interview he did with the Irish Times in April of this year, he was quoted as saying: “I think that I make chords when I paint . . . It’s deep and it’s resonant. A lot of people have compared me to Brahms.”

In that same article, he discussed the topic of creative block. In essence, he doesn’t believe in it. He doesn’t think writers should have writer’s block. He thinks they should just write. “Imagine you were a bus driver and you said, ‘I’ve got bus-driver’s block.’ Get over it,” he said.

To me, this remark says more about the paintings of the Sean Scully exhibition in the National Gallery than all of the artist’s rhetoric and theorising about his own work.

It suggests a lack of thought and care, a lack of craft and artistry. And some of the paintings seem to reflect this. They look rushed. They look as though anything will do and anyone could do it. They look as though his arrogance spilled over onto the canvas in the process of their making and dried into a finish of contempt.


Damien Murphy: Damien Murphy is Dublin Inquirer's Northside city reporter.

Reader responses

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Cac O'Day
at 8 November 2015 at 22:00

An excellent review – thank you. A very similar conclusion was arrived at by a reviewer at The Institute of Real Art: […

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