Re: Re: Solstice Arts Centre, Navan

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Modern Moment

Mary O’Donnell isn’t sure that artists need so many arts centres Temple Bar used to be like many Irish places where artists worked: tatty, unkempt and lacking street cred. But an artist could hover without pressure, as van Gogh did in Arles

Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night, from September 1888, portrays a world that seems significant, appealing, earthy and vital. Of course this one-stop visual impression of a warm evening in Arles, in southeast France, beneath poached-egg stars, with a casual group scattered at small round tables on a cafe terrace, would attract me. It combines companionableness and aloneness, conversation and silence, cafe light and starlit dark. But something more, too, perhaps because of the brushwork describing the cafe front and its awning: the scene has enough texture and depth to make me want to jump in and live in that yellow place, at that time.
The painting contains possibilities in a variety of directions. A number of female twosomes are sitting on the terrace, most likely sipping absinthe or thick black coffee as they talk. At the distant end of a dark street a grey horse pulls a lit carriage. Towards the near end of the street a man and a woman take what appear to be definite and intimate footsteps into the darkness, away from the conviviality of the terrace.
What characterises much of van Gogh’s work is its excess of strength, its tension, its turmoil. Van Gogh’s aperture of artistic vision was both circumscribed and liberated by his temperament as an artist, as well as by material circumstances. Cafe Terrace at Night is more drawn-in, more restrained than some of the disquieting work in which trees are twisted, mountains have arched spines or houses are skewed out of shape.
Is it apparent, I wonder, that his lineage springs from the great traditional art, full of balance, of the Dutch past? From de Hooghes, from the van der Meers and their canvases so full of patience, so meticulous? There is nothing like that here, yet all is meticulous and, of equal importance to me, utterly sincere. It seems remote from the delicate, somewhat cloudy and sombre colours of the northern lands. But there is no mistaking the atavistic laws that govern van Gogh, because he did not transcend them, or forget the lineage of Frans Hals, though his temperament ensured that he retained all his life a naive and brutally raw sensitivity to all he saw.
The richness he draws together in this painting moves me so completely that I feel all the more the curious absence of opposites and oppositions in today’s Irish towns and cities. It is a richness that over-rides the ordinariness of some of his subjects, indeed is defined by them. The cafe terrace in Arles is the opposite of any cafe terrace today, especially a metropolitan one. Its simplicity is its strength.
The time has passed of uncomplicated outings to the Irish equivalent of the cafe terrace (the European version didn’t arrive before 1992): the indoor cafe, tea room or unreconstructed pub lounge, where people could go not so as to say they had eaten and drunk there but because they wanted one another’s company for a few hours.
What defines that time for me is Temple Bar before it was modernised. Like the rest of the inner city, it sagged with neglect. But on a few occasions it came alive, when the little pubs were not fashion icons, when it also housed a cluster of beautifully shabby artists’ studios. I took part in a workshop there conducted by one of our older leading poets, and to me that studio looked like a place where a painter could do good work without the self-consciousness I associate now with some of the enclaves where art is encouraged, in ergonomically designed social pens, as if for an endangered species.
Temple Bar back then was like many places where artists worked in Ireland: tatty, unkempt and with absolutely no street cred. An artist could hover without pressure, a bit like van Gogh, who painted Cafe Terrace at Night on the spot, in the Place du Forum. Temple Bar is a place where art is supposed to be facilitated, displayed and enjoyed, as are the arts centres studded around the country, which seem to be awash with funding for writers’ workshops, for theatres, for studios. Despite these tailor-made delights, some are administration-heavy and dismally art-light. Their well-produced brochures and catalogues often arrive in duplicate, and sometimes triplicate, because different people keep firing them off in the post. I am not calling for a return to the squalid attic retreat so much as for less self-consciousness about having to be associated with a particular arts centre, the correct cultural gig or site.
An arts centre is not an end point in itself, a place at which to fling mediocre amuse-gueules so that funding can be justified. It is an architecturally designed space, combining a vision of artistic idea and practice, in a location through which art can flow energetically and move out into the world, which is where art belongs. Dunamaise Arts Centre, in Portlaoise, and the Market House, in Monaghan, are two of the best examples.
Art happens in silence. It inhabits the everywhere and the everyone and can survive independently of the hectoring presence of a PC location, something worth remembering.
Today, the cafe in Arles has, inevitably, been renamed Café van Gogh. It is still yellowish, and the street the couple vanished down in 1888 is still there. But the good faith and harmony that the painting exudes, its glow and communality, assert something far more significant than any perceived romance of the past. This is about the search for truth, something the visitor to Arles can never hope to recapture by romancing the past with a camera, which will reflect only the obvious. The best we can do is to look at the painting, again and again, and to wonder how we, too, can be daring at a time when that word almost always corresponds to display and yet more display. To be daring is so much more.
© The Irish Times – Aug 19, ‘06

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