Published: 6 September, 2012
by JOHN EVANS
Hughie O’Donoghue RA argues for a distinction between “remembering” and “re-membering”, favouring the latter with his interest in a “poetic form of history”.
The focus of his new one-man show, which features just five large works, is the experiences of his father Daniel during the Second World War. “The relationship we have to history moves from being something vivid… to something that’s remote”, he says, adding that the war “is about to slip from living memory”.
Daniel O’Donoghue served with the 2nd Battalion The King’s Regiment and his photographs, Imperial War Museum archives and Hughie’s own photographs, taken when visiting places where his father spent his war service, are the main sources for the works. Some private letters and a few wartime artefacts are also displayed.
One of the aims of the Laboratory series is to allow the working artists at the core of the Royal Academy to display less familiar aspects of their practice.
At nearly seven metres, and reflecting the narrowest width (and minimum depth) of the Italian river which gives it its name, Crossing the Rapido III, 1998, is unusual for the artist, being graphite wash on gessoed canvas. With echoes of Picasso’s Guernica, it references attempts to cross the bloody river and “the most traumatic moment of my father’s war” during the Battles for Monte Cassino in May 1944, says Hughie.
It’s an intensely “personal subject” but also “an everyday, everyman’s, story… only told through an individual”.
Other large paintings displayed are Napoli and Tomb of the Diver I, both from 2002, the latter a “remaking of a painting from antiquity” with a motif of plunging into the unknown. A related new oil, Old Time Music, also incorporates a flute; Daniel carried one, and a piccolo, during the war.
Hughie says all these works came about as a consequence of sorting out his father’s personal effects after he died in 1994. He was particularly struck by the candour and directness of the letters… “they are unselfconscious” he says. “My paintings are meditations on this, attempts to grasp something that is about to become distant and remote.”
The centrepiece of this Laboratory is Road, comprising 36 panels on a long plinth following Daniel’s wartime journey, part painting, part sculpture. It’s prepared using an early Victorian book, the Gramina Britannica, depicting and describing British and Irish grasses; so the work is viewed as a story.
“No picture is painted on a blank surface. There’s always a history there” says Hughie, “…this work is meant to be a meditation on the act of remembering”.
So he’s not presenting a history book, rather looking for a history.
•Artists’ Laboratory 05: Hughie O’Donoghue RA, runs until October 14, Weston Rooms, Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, £3 or complimentary with a valid exhibition ticket, www.royalacademy.org.uk or 020 7300 8000.