New York

Jack B. Yeats

New York Cultural Center

Jack B. Yeats was an uneven but remarkably good Expressionist painter. Roughly on a par with—but sometimes better than—Soutine, he occasionally equalled Kokoschka, except that his sensations were commoner and less articulate. It is difficult to assess Yeats fairly because he has been made a cult figure in a homey Irish chauvinism that doesn’t do him justice at home and vulgarizes his reputation overseas. In fact, many Irish devotees of Yeats’ painting ignorantly and anxiously deny any relations between his work and Expressionism in the rest of Europe, even when such parallels could add demonstrative conviction to his worth.

There is also the difficulty that his subjects are often so local that outside Ireland we have to remind ourselves that a steady throb of melancholy runs through them, even when they look cheerful. There really is only one subject, and that is a sort of compound personification of the common people of Ireland. In this sense the works require a certain amount of explanation. But right now, when the news daily furnishes us with background information, we have the chance to see Yeats’ art more than ever in the terms of reference in which the Irish always see it. In other words, meaning in his art is so much a function of the sad, relentless press of Irish political life, that we now have available to us some insight into the elusive nature of Irish soul.

“Jack B. Yeats, 1871–1957” is the largest corpus of pictures by the artist shown in America. The exhibition, organized by James White, has already been shown at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, and the Ulster Museum, Belfast, i.e., on both sides of the Irish border. This is its final mounting, here at the New York Cultural Center; it closes in June. Despite the comprehensiveness of the exhibition, we perhaps do not see enough of those paintings which would stake out Yeats’ claim to eminence within international Expressionism. And we may see too many of those which can nowadays tickle pseudonationalistic feelings both in the Irish Republic and in Ulster—Irish kitsch, as in some awful pictures of horses and mock-bardic narrative scenes.

In the face of nearly 150 works from such a long career, it might be useful to take up a few of the issues that seem, here and now, to turn the viewer either on or off. On the negative side, it could be said that Yeats too often injects superfluous figures to soup up his landscapes with “poetry.” True, he was preeminently a figural painter, but he never quite lost the illustrator’s habit of dealing with a scene as a mute setting, a setting in fact for people who may be doing nothing more than standing there looking into the landscape and blocking our own view. The painting of the actual landscapes can be terrific, so that we have to address ourselves to the question of why the artist compulsively “spoiled” them this way. This could be a function of the visual illiteracy of his audience, a sort of overly graphic way of driving his points home for an audience really only receptive to literary values. interestingly, this same predisposition led Yeats, even in early works, to rely on cutoff foreground figures that relate back to such works of the previous century as Manet’s Luncheon in the Studio and forward to the cinema.

Influences do abound, despite the misguided wishes of his native critics. Van Gogh is a main 19th-century source, either in a very generalized way, or as acutely as in the Man on a Train Thinking (1927), a portrait of a man who had cut his throat in a suicide attempt. A work as early as the watercolor The Rake (1901) has cosmopolitan overtones somewhat suggestive of Munch. Also Munch-like is the anxiety-charged “family” of figures around a table in A Silence (1944), a very good example of a scumbled, raw, coloristically brash, late Yeats manner. The Clown Among the People (1932), one of the strongest works here, recalls Ensor. The mourning women with shawls of The Island Funeral (1923) obviously refer to Blue Period Picasso. On the Old Racecourse (1922) is clearly indebted to Franz

Marc’s Horse in a Landscape (1910): too bad Yeats had to crop the horse so that the scene is “rationalized” into a view from the saddle. One of the finest works, A Race in Hy Brazil (1937), is a Kokoschka-like landscape with sketchy, attenuated figures that suggest Giacometti’s paintings.

Sometimes there seems to be attention to Sicken, the Englishman who painted more prettily but had less to say than Yeats. The most curious extra-Irish relation is between the loose and plastic but flat painting of figures like those in the fine The Liffey Swim (1923) and A Full Tram (1923) and the work of The Eight New York. Yeats had visited (and exhibited) in New York in 1904; he also sold pictures to John Quinn—some of them appear in this exhibition. It is not impossible that crowded urban scenes like these, rather infrequent motifs for Yeats, owe something to American painting.

Despite these coordinates which help to Jocate Yeats’ work in international terms, an accurate characterization of the nature of the painter’s nationalism is vital to any just consideration of his limits and to an understanding of the political content of his art. Unlike his brother William, an Anglo-Irish political reactionary, Jack threw his lot in with the progressive forces that emerged in the time of the Irish Revolution. Thanks to Miss Devlin and the urgency of recent events, we have been reminded that the Irish struggle against British rule had (and has) two distinct sides to it: Home Rule, involving nominal removal of Crown sovereignty with perpetuation of the economic status quo, vs. Republicanism, the rebuilding of an independent Ireland along socialist lines. What confuses foreigners is that both movements involved nationalism, but in the first case nationalism was a bourgeois goal and satisfaction, and in the second it was a revolutionary means to an end. The Yeatses belonged to the Anglican “Ascendancy,” and W. B. always seemed rather ruffled by anything much more nationalistic than an affection for Irish tunes or the roll of the hills in Sligo. (Ironically, even today ordinary Irishmen consider his poetry “Protestant” and respect him more for his touristic eminence abroad than his notoriety at home.) But Jack B. Yeats—make no mistake—opted for the revolution in its full meaning and promise.

This distinction is necessary because while his art is a meditation on his country, it is not an exercise in the jingoistic coyness of the nationalists. It has a visible Republican edge to it. For instance, most of his funerals—five of six here—have Republican (i.e., Socialist) themes. The Funeral of Harry Boland (1922) was once called The Funeral of a Republican, and this painting is of further interest because some of the mourners represent Cumann na mBan, the women’s Republican army. Of the overtly political paintings the rather Sloan-like Communicating with Prisoners (1924) is one of the best: seven women stand beside a fence plastered with notices and advertisements for a “bazaar” and a “sale,” looking up toward clusters of women Republicans who wave from the high windows of Kilmainham Jail; we see the foreground women at a moment when they overlook “ladies’ affairs” and become politically conscious, in the face of what we would now call their sisters’ bust.

Joseph Masheck