Hughie O’Donoghue: The Tempest, Carlisle Memorial Church, Belfast, 10 – 28 October, 2017

accessed on

The slowly self-destructing 19th C neo- gothic building has offered genuinely enhancing milieu to view the tarpaulin sized paintings. The Steady Drummer and Night Visitor are both 12x18ft and Cargo measures 12x24ft. With the smaller paintings  the installation has evoked not only the four characters-chosen by the artist but also the viewer’s memory and  recognised truth.

photograph by Jonny McEwen

How does this painted world occupied by four characters ( the revolutionary, the soldier, the sailor and the rural farmer)  enhances and disables our methods of viewing and thinking?  When the judgement criteria of modernism are no longer sufficient  how does one read the fragmented information contained in each image? Moreover the oversaturation with films, TV, media  pursuing the dominance of speech, language, sound, words is immediately challenged by the mute images, even if – as in this case – they are routed from older films to current paintings:  Kurosawa 1951 Rashomon, F.W Murnau 1922 Nosferatu.  Language treats a particular model of time  as the only correct one – sentences have start and an end, verbs place fragments firmly either in the past, presence or future.

The idiom of  painting  answers those questions  by dispensing of consecutive order of any narrative flow.  Instead it offers  generous freedom that allows both growth and insecurity,  “ecstasy”  of what Martin Heidegger describes as “authentic present”.  What you see and feel in the presence of the paintings disables the need for verbal information. It is not that different from the experience of travelling, being in another landscape, when the fragments of the perceived real add up to a freshly invented whole. I suspect that amygdala (or both of them)  has (have) some input in this.

Yet – what has permeated my perception of O’Donoghue’s paintings was  my layered  experiences over the time of one painting : Tiziano Vecellio – Flaying of the Marsyas. 1576.

Not trusting my instinct I searched … and found that O’Donoghue indeed has continuous interest in the subject.  He could have seen(without travelling to Kromeriz))  either the whole painting when it was exhibited in London ( either 1983 or 2003)  or  a fragment of Titian’s Marsyas in  NG London – where it appears behind the portrait of Iris Murdoch whose philosophy and novels are my  other continuous interest.


In an interview Murdoch describes Titian’ painting with words that fit Donoghue Tempest.

The Flaying of Marsyas has “something to do with human life and all its ambiguities and all its horrors and terrors and misery,” she told the BBC, “and at the same time there’s something beautiful, the picture is beautiful, and something also to do with the entry of the spiritual into the human situation and the closeness of the gods … I regard Dionysus in a sense as a part of Apollo’s mind … and want to exalt Apollo as a god who is a terrible god, but also a great artist and thinker and a great source of life.”  (

The Tempest as a whole edges towards becoming  a one (fragmented)  history painting – a O’Donoghue says “of 20th C”.  In scale  more like Delacroix than Altdorfer,  in spirit more like Altdorfer with Holbein’s blend of pain and serenity (Dance of Death).

Another observation  is still apt both for Titian’ Marsyas and  and O’Donoghue’s Tempest in Belfast: “Titian’s swiftly moving brush summarizes ceaselessly. The objects in his world aren’t formed of polished, solid stuff but of palpitating light. The world itself seems flayed.” (Paul Richard, The Titian Tour de Force The ‘Flaying of Marsyas’ at the NGA, 1986 accessed

The installation of the Tempest in this church  added to the painted light the active ingredients of natural light. The painted light of the  range of hues and tonality remembers the exquisite  power of Turner’s.   The natural light, daylight, sunlight, evening light, act promiscuously both on the painted surfaces and from the dorso.

The yellow rectangles disappear when the clouds stop the sunlight reaching the back of the tarpaulin.

Indeed, O’Donoghue’s  painted light recalls  Rembrandt’s range of  layered hues, and Rothko’s  tragic truthfulness.    Not registered in this shot (credit to Jonny MacEwen) in the highlighted four areas are  pentimenti under the final surface.

An object in The Tempest  is not always  formed and polished  to persuade an illusion to stay (akin to the Goethe’s Faustus call for a precious moment) as it is in earlier painted versions.  I sense the discrete mystery  being given greater freedom on the monumental scale.  These tarpaulins are younger siblings of frescoes  – staying with Italy and Marsyas – Giulio Romano at Palazzo Te in Mantua  comes to mind.

It works even in print and on a smaller scale.

Departure, carborundum etching, 59 x 99 cm

Polished or not – the objects of The Tempest are often “made of palpitating light”.  At the same time  shedding the Dionysian principle ( or in Murdoch’s version: joining the Apollonian one) the light leads us back  to the Marsyas, the boat appears as if flayed…


Better images of the Tempest   including O’Donoghue  commenting and operating the movable sculpture  titled A Distant Thunder are accessible on Watching O’Donoghue push it  on the rails, and letting it go reminded me of  childhood (as well as of another, extremely dark history)

Belfast  installation of the Tempest  appears like a window into another time/world… not the Albertian  window, rather the ribbon one as in  Le Corbusier.   It is interesting that  Tempest  as a theme appears in music and plays and novels far more often than in painting.  The best known one – and probably not called that in nascendi-  is The Tempest by Giorgione  in Galleria dell’Academia, Venice.

What if anything does the  Tempest   share with that commissioned by Gabriele Vendramin between  1506 – 1508?  Here is my list : anticipation of change; domination by two hues; silent atmosphere; unusual poses/ fragments; multiple meaning; ambiguity  bound to accuracy…paradoxically ?

O’Donoghue invites me for a  kind of cleansing passage through the layers of remembered truth,  browsing the changes, the metaphors, the responses. My journey will be different from yours, and his paintings will not move the proverbial eyebrow.

Yellow of a Kodak film, O’Donoghue once said.


Jonny McEwan





About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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