(Another one of the features I did for Cara magazine way back when. This time about painter Sean McSweeney. This is the uncut version.)
Sean McSweeney is one of Ireland’s finest landscape painters. Since moving to Sligo in 1984 he has, to powerful effect, scarcely lifted his painter’s eyes from the bog pools that mark the landscape around his studio and home.
Sean McSweeney has visions of bog lands, or, more accurately, of bog pools formed as a result of years of rain and spring water filling the holes of worked out and abandoned cuttings. When I visited him in April he led me through a network of such pools to show me the ones that set off most of his work. He was excited to see the pink flowers of the bog bean plant beginning to mottle the greenery. “They’re early,” he said. “Beautiful, aren’t they? Squint, and you’ll see them better.” I complied, and the watery surface shimmered, the protruding vegetation blurred, and the flecks of colour danced. The scene became dreamlike. When I met him most recently he was on his way to the rugged island of Inis Murray off the Sligo coast to paint shorelines for a while, but expressed a self-mocking and joking concern, with maybe some truth in it, that he might still end up painting bogs.
Curious to say, bogs have been more important in Irish society than paintings. The Atlas of the Irish Landscape tells us that “the bog has been etched as deeply into the human as into the physical record in Ireland, to an extent unrivalled elsewhere in Europe.” Indeed, bogs were once the sole source of fuel in many parts of Ireland. But they have long since been superseded, and now have little or no utility for most people and a much-diminished function generally. Analogously, painting too once played a more day-to-day role in society as a powerful tool of graphic communication than it does today as mere supplementary decoration and “art”.
In relation to both bog pools and paintings Sean McSweeney is sensitive to that movement from utility to adornment, that tension between necessity and indulgence. He emphasises the craftsmanship and physicality of painting, and uses the label painter more often than he does artist. You might say he labours rather than creates, and he has a very disciplined approach to working. McSweeney’s father was a painter-decorator by trade, but attended the College of Art in Dublin at night for some years and became quite a skilled amateur painter. After his untimely death when his son Sean was only five, his paintings remained about the house, less as works of art than as household utensils such as fire screens and fans for flaming the wet turf. (McSweeney thinks one of his father’s best works was a painting of Ben Bulben in Sligo.) McSweeney, like his bog paintings, is about as down-to-earth as you get, yet from early on all he wanted to do was make pictures. And he has done so ever since, however difficult it made life at times and however marginal an activity it may have seemed. He is now a highly successful artist whose work is admired and collected by people all around the world.
But returning to earth again, easily, McSweeney knows a thing or two about bogs. He would know, for instance, that the mosses of bog land are among the oldest living entities in the world. He would know that the decayed and compressed mosses in these wetlands, preserving anything that fell or was thrown in, formed peat - the first stage in the transformation of vegetation into coal. And he would also know that the dried peat so associated with Ireland has such a high water content that it is not as efficient a heat source as the coal associated with, say, England. He would also, of course, be familiar with the saying: “You can take the man out of the bog but you can’t take the bog out of the man.” In a recent essay the writer Dermot Healy called McSweeney, his neighbour, “a true bogman”, and the latter was quite happy to have the label used in a catalogue for an exhibition in a London gallery. His mother’s family would have cut turf from the bogs that stretch out around his studio, and he has chosen the redundant pools that remain as his subject because he feels a strong connection with them. Of a short period working in Spain he says he felt acutely the lack of a personal connection with that landscape which bogs have certainly provided. But the connection is not just personal, I believe. As symbols too, McSweeney is drawn to those man-made marks in our landscape returned to Nature, in which state the only utility they possess for humans is as something to look at. And, in turn, though we may stop and admire and even from time to time look up at the sky, we too are destined for the earth. (McSweeney rarely lets the horizon into his pool paintings.) I joke with him saying that in Ireland Genesis should read, “for water thou art, and unto water shalt thou return.”
Healy also remarked in his essay that the paintings are like a second cutting of the bog, but that could mislead in that this work heals rather than scars and McSweeney is not so much digging as filling in where our ancestors dug. One is reminded very powerfully of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Digging’: “… the squelch and slap/Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge/Through living roots awaken in my head./But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.” Despite his down-to-earthness, McSweeney is no bog cutter. He is an observer, a visionary. His painted bog pools are not of this world. He does not concern himself too much with their botany, zoology or ecology. He does know their plants – the bog bean, the ragged robin, the irises, orchids and bog cotton, and their yearly cycles. He sees them as wonderful wild gardens, but he isn’t scientific about it. You could say that a bog pool is to him as a candle is to someone meditating. It focuses his attention, and sets off his ballets in paint. As the dictionary puts it, “the land of a bog is too soft to bear the weight of any heavy body upon its surface,” so it is a place more suitable for the lightness of imagination. McSweeney is first and foremost a lover of paint. He is a landscape painter but with emphasis on the latter term, and therefore his search for a theme is more about what it will allow him to do with paint than how recognisible it is as scenery.
His work is self-consciously simplifying of nature. Having become all too aware that colour in nature is hundreds of times more subtle than anything we get from a tube of paint or from our own blending, McSweeney has reveled in exploring the range of his palette for its own sake and to a lesser extent for the dramatic relationship between it and the landscape.
His pool paintings move from often darker, monochromatic margins to vivid centres where life is happening or stirring. He often puts the paint straight on to the canvas or board, squeezing it directly from the tube so that the palette is done away with. He then works the paint around with a knife or brush, a rag or even his hands, covering the area completely with whatever colour he is using as a base, red or blue or ochre. This he considers his ground to work in, a field of colour. He layers and blends colours very skillfully to suggest the subtleties of nature, but he is not afraid of using the pigments straight to give more dramatic effects.
He has been described by one critic as the most original colourist in Irish painting since Yeats. He shares stylistic approaches with the likes of Patrick Collins and Nano Reid - in particular a passion for colour, a sensuous, unrestrained handling of paint, and a struggle for original and often organic form rather than traditional structure.
Yet, while very much about painting, McSweeney’s Zen-like work with the bog pools is as vital to our relationship with the landscape as that of ecologists and botanists. It shows us ways of looking closer and finding form and seeing colour in our bleak climate. It dramatises both the historical relationship with our surroundings and our underlying molecular connections with the earth – where we come from and where we are going.
But bogs have not always been his subject matter, nor indeed has the countryside. McSweeney grew up in Dublin, leaving school at 16 and working in a variety of jobs, painting all the while and attending, like his father had, night classes at the College of Art as well as other informal classes. He feels he was freed from much of the baggage of the academy, on which subject he refers to Patrick Collins’ wish that he could wake up some day and forget everything he knew about painting. So McSweeney is effectively self-taught, and gives a lot of credit to time spent in the Hugh Lane Gallery near his family home, and the RHA, looking closely at work by the likes of Paul Henry and Emile Nolde. “I learned from looking first and foremost,” he says.
He was a loner, shying away from organised groups of artists. He and his wife Sheila eventually left Dublin to live in west Wicklow, suggesting that McSweeney was a countryman at heart, desirous of closer proximity to nature than occasional visits to Phoenix Park gave. He does not believe that it is a prerequisite of good landscape painting to live in the country, but he did feel the need himself to get to know the seasons and light more intimately, “to get to grips with the structure of landscape” as he says. He does not romanticise the life in any way, emphasising the austerity and difficulties. They were lean times for painters and their families. (McSweeney is implicit about how important his wife has been in his career, talking always in terms of “we”.) At around this time he entered what one might call, after Dickens, ‘a bog of uncertainty’. He had a row with his dealer over the sale of a painting, he was barely making ends meet in the harsh landscape of “a hungry mountainside”, and one or two critics had been pointing to a lack of structure in his work. What got him out of the hole, he says, was going into the landscape with his sketchbooks to look hard at the marks man had made on his surroundings. “Through those drawings the compositions hardened,” he says. Things began to pick up. He did a series of paintings based on a clearance of the land by the Forestry and on scarecrows. He also moved to Sligo.
As with his father’s county of Meath where the beeches and oaks gave “a vertical accent to the place”, Wicklow’s hills and trees had meant that he was always looking up to take in the uprightness of the landscape. But the part of Sligo he settled in was very different, lying flat and beneath eye level. It took him a while to adjust but once he did the work took off – literally, in that he had to imagine himself as a bird flying over the pools in order to get a functional perspective on them.
Of course, County Sligo offered many famously picturesque sights - Ben Bulben, Knocknarea, Lough Gill, to name a few; but McSweeney’s artistic vision never drew him to such obvious spectacle. Ben Bulben is surely an exception though, especially considering the connection with his father and with Yeats. I ask him when he will paint it and he answers, smiling, “Oh, when it’s ready”, and continues his whistling stroll through the bog.