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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Robert Ballagh

Oh, Not Again, Robert Ballagh
Robert "Bobby" Ballagh was born on September, 22, 1943, exactly two years, minus a day, before I was (September 21, 1945). He was born in Dublin, Ireland (Northern Ireland, today). I was born in Marietta, Ohio, U.S.A. (not that it matters particularly). Robert Ballagh became Ireland's most famous artist. I became...I think the comparison has gone far enough. Ballagh grew up in a ground-floor flat on Elgin Road in Ballsbridge, the only child of a Presbyterian father and a Catholic mother, which, if you know anything about "The Troubles" of Northern Ireland from the late 1960s until 1998, must have made for a few tense moments at family reunions. Actually, Ballagh's mother insisted that the family not discuss politics or religion. Perhaps not surprisingly, Ballagh grew up to become an atheist.
Ballagh is in great demand as a portrait painter.
A very un-Irish
Fidel Castro by
People often call Robert Ballagh a dyed-in-the-wool Dubliner. He's a part of the city, having walked it, photographed it, and painted it. Dublin, in turn, has embraced him. Bobby has painted practically everybody in Dublin--politicians, artists, poets, musicians, architects, sportsmen, scientists, even himself a few times (above). To be painted by Ballagh is something of an event as he negotiates the meeting of two minds--the sitter and his own--with typical Irish tact. His portraits include that of Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, and a full-length rendition of Fidel Castro (left). Among Ballagh's other portrait subjects are James Watson, the co-discoverer of the genetic structure of DNA, and several prominent Irish political and business figures. Fortunately, these have not led to charges that he is either a politician or a scientist. During his career, Ballagh has left a record of Dublin during a difficult era that will always be an extraordinary window into the life of this city.
The coming of the euro was a godsend for banknote
designers such as Ballagh.
Before turning to art as a profession, Ballagh was a professional musician with the show band, Chessmen. As a bass guitarist, he met the artist, Michael Farrell, who recruited him to assist with a large mural commission, which he was painting at Ardmore Studios (a Dublin movie studio). Having studied art and design as a teenager at the Bolton Street College of Technology, Ballagh found himself more adept at painting than..."guitaring." He gave away his instrument and hasn't played since. Among the theatre sets he has designed are those for Riverdance, I'll Go On, Gate Theatre (1985), Samuel Beckett's Endgame (1991) and Oscar Wilde's Salomé (1998). He has also designed over 70 Irish postage stamps and the last series of Irish banknotes, before the introduction of the euro. Northern Ireland's conversion from British pounds to the euro kept Ballagh and other designers up late many a night meeting deadlines between its adoption in 1995 and its release in 1999.

Two artists, one French, one Irish, one raft, and one scandal.
During the late 1960s, Ballagh's concern with the political issues, violence, and terrorism in Northern Ireland and elsewhere was reflected in a remarkable series of paintings that reproduced in starkly simplified, Pop Art style scenes of insurrection or violence from classic masterpieces of European painting. His Raft of the Medusa--after Gericault (above) is one of his best examples. Géricault exhibited the original painting only three years after the event. It was quickly seen by the French as a metaphor for the corruption and incompetence of the French State. To put the painting in the context of 1816, off the west coast of Africa, the captain of the Medusa (an incompetent boob promoted beyond his ability because of his connections) drove the ship onto the rocks. He and the other officers made off with the lifeboats and abandoned 150 struggling passengers and seamen on a raft. When they were finally rescued, only 15 were alive. With the advent of the worldwide economic crisis of 2008, Ballagh was struck by a fascinating parallel. The very people who were responsible for the wreck of the Medusa were the ones who got the lifeboats. In the case of northern Ireland, the same people who caused the collapse through greed and incompetence were the ones who being bailed out with taxpayers money.

Ballagh's "tribute" paintings reflect the simplified color and
highly linear qualities of the artist's early efforts in Pop Art.

A stamp design featuring
a figure from one of his
Some of Ballagh's earlier works along the same line referenced Jacques-Louis David's The Rape of the Sabine Women, Goya's Third of May, Dela-croix's Liberty Leading the People and Ingres' The Turkish Bath (all seen above). These works reappeared as a series of lithographs in the early 1970's. The original lithograph of Liberty Leading the People was utilized in the Pearse commem-orative stamp (left). Besides his paintings, stamps, banknotes, and theater production designs, Ballagh has also shown an affinity for stained glass. Indeed, his "tribute" paintings all have the dark outline suggesting the leaded isolation of shapes and colors seen in stained glass. Ballagh's An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger, below), memorializes the 1.5-million who died during Ireland's great potato famine between 1845 and 1852. Another two-million refugees who fled Ireland to avoid the same fate.

An Gorta Mor, Quinnipiac University’s Great Hunger Museum,
Robert Ballagh.
Three People with a Jackson Pollock,
1973, Robert Ballagh

Portrait of Rachel as Marilyn,
1974, Robert Ballagh

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