The following review was written by Dr. Michael Casey, Helsinki University, Finland for "Fifty Years of Imaging: A Celebratory Exhibition of Photography" by Pádraig Ó Flannabhra in the Kennedy Gallery in Dublin 12th - 30th June 2001
What does it mean to be a classic in the world of contemporary art or literature? I recently asked the Irish poet, Séamus Heany - the Nobel prize winner - who answered: "To be a classic in contemporary painting, photography, literature or poetry, is to be alive".
To be a classic, therefore, is something more than having a niche among the immortals. We already know that Pádraig Ó Flannabhra has a place up there with Paul Strand, George Hoyningen-Huene, Herbert List, and numerous others whose pre-eminence is still in dispute. But there are two kinds of classic - those in the Pantheon and those on Mount Olympus. In the Pantheon they are immortals. On Olympus they are forces that still structure and influence our lives. Each generation must answer the question of whether its classics are dead or alive. In Ó Flannabhra's new works, those hand-tinted images in colour and black-and-white, we discover a phoenix - a mythical bird of the Arabian desert that constantly rejuvenates itself from the ashes. Moreover, one must question the validity of too desperately seeking the classic. These days, the very notion of a classic, together with its mirror image, the genius, is in question. How often has one heard the declaration that someone is attempting to write the great Irish novel or the question, who is the Jack Butler Yeats or Louis le Brocquy of the decade? For many, it is clear that we are asking the wrong questions. At best one's life is like a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; more recently William Shakespeare's idea was rephrased in terms of Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame. Not Ó Flannabhra's importance but rather his meaning to us as an artist/photographer in the twenty first century.
Today, we can say that Ó Flannabhra is a master. He has a vision both deeply serious and almost religious in its hunger for a new reality. Every one of his prints is ripe and centred in space, every image seems at the centre of the planet, whether in Ireland, England, Italy, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, China or the United States, etc. "We conceive of realism as dynamic", Ó Flannabhra declares in messianic terms, "as truth which sees and understands a changing world and in turn is capable of changing it, in the interests of peace, human progress and the eradication of human cruelty, and towards the unity of all people". "And what is the role of the artist/photographer?" he asks with the full scope of the prophets. "The artist/photographer is one who makes a concentrated statement about the world in which he lives and that statement tends to become impersonal - it tends to become universal and endearing because it comes out of something very particular." And Ó Flannabhra is a very particular artist/photographer.
The eagle of wisdom, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it, only takes flight at sunrise. In the first decade of the twenty first century, Ó Flannabhra graciously acknowledges the contributions made by his Irish and international counterparts: Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mary Ellen Mark, John McGahern, John Montague, etc. "All have wished", in his opinion, "to change the world, capture reality, enrich our lives, and give us a new certainty." Ó Flannabhra operates equally within this milieu. And his greatness lies as much in what he attempts as in what he achieves. Today, as pointed out by the art historian and critic, Ernst H. Gombrich, "we are more sceptical and less ambitious". We accept a more modest, perhaps degraded role; we may grasp more but embrace less. Ó Flannabhra holds a generous vision. Everything for the artist/photographer is an archetype, the physical manifestation of a universal soul. What bridges the distance between the organic and the inorganic world is the artist's physical hunger. His best photographs are filled with an unusual amount of substance per square inch. His density brings to life the inanimate. The classical ideal elicits an attention from viewers beyond the local claims of form or style or subject matter alone. What is wanted especially - in terms of style, signature, intention and theme - is a close study of the points of rapport within Ó Flannabhra's work as a whole, a phenomenology of the dynamism within and among pictures. What binds the artist's pictures together? Does his work in fact achieve the unity he desires? What does he mean by "human or cultural interest", and where and how does he seem to find it? Is the argument of his photographs convincing, important, necessary? Meaningful discussion of Ó Flannabhra's oeuvre begins here, in the experience of the work.
In Ó Flannabhra's photographs, images exist in stubborn motionless eternity. Both humanity and nature - in a duality that is at the door of Western art and values - are pulled out of time by the artist/photographer. His work is rooted in separateness and intense proximity, almost at the antipodes of the floating world of Eastern art. The unity of all things, of humankind and nature, which dominates Eastern perception - floats like clouds or foam above the earth-bound images of Ó Flannabhra. There is, nonetheless, an ideal - an ideal that is ideal. The substance, the physicality of the artist/photographer, overwhelms you, but it is no accident, no passive awareness; rather it is the deliberate pursuit of the classical ideal in a Post-Modern context.
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