Technical developments enable artistic development’:
John Behan reflects on the circumstances which spurred his move to sculpture, in conversation here with Brian McAvera
B McA: How did you become interested in art? Did you draw as a child?
John Behan: I was interested in drawing and painting from the age of four, and I’m still interested. I work every day. All those images of cattle, pigs and birds. I was always fascinated by animals a bit like Basil Blackshaw. Farm tools were the first things I handled and I find it a very natural thing to do.
B McA: Archaeology (The Boyne Valley Boat), poetry (Ted Hughes in relation to the Crow lithographs), history and travel (Dove Boat, Bilbao Boat), Classical art (Sybil) and literature (Bloom in Bath, the works that relate to The Tain) are obvious source materials for you. What do you respond to the most?
J B: They are touchstones really. I’ve always been interested in Irish history, especially the Famine, and in mythology. And have been from the time I was a small child, living in the landscape which was very open and yet repressed by religion. Form is the dominant quality in sculpture for me, and seeing how other people deal with it like Henry Moore and Michelangelo. Then there’s the imagination: Picasso and his use of scrap metal, modern materials as used in assemblage.
B McA: You were born in 1938 in Sheriff Street, a working-class area of Dublin, a year before the Second World War was declared and just over two years before the Germans bombed the city. What was it like growing up then, were your parents interested in art, and what was the ‘world’ like that you explored as a child?
J B: It was a heavily industrialized world, with factories, the Lever Brothers Soap Factory, the T & C Martin’s Mill where Mat Talbot worked; the dock which was a part of my world, with the transport ships there during the war. My father was a grocer so we lived over a grocer’s shop on Sheriff Street. I was very accepting of that world. My parents were both from the country. Mother was a native Gaelic speaker from Donegal and father was a farmer’s son from Co Laois. From the time I was born I was taken by father down to the farm where my grandfather still lived, sometimes going every week. I went to school with the nuns in Seville Place where Jim Sheridan and Luke Kelly, Michael Smyth the poet, and other interesting people lived. I was taken to see the houses that were bombed by the Germans in 1941 when I was three.
I loved the whole experience of my childhood. The real Dublin working-class people were marvellous. I remember a two-year-old child’s funeral and the solemn dignity of the whole affair. In those days there was an open door policy, a great community spirit, very old houses and little back lanes. North Wall was known as the North Lots: houses built with little plots for Cromwellian soldiers. After the war, in 1946/47, the family was growing. There were six of us at that stage so we moved to Marino in North-East Dublin where I attended the Christian Brothers School. Charles Haughey was there before me! I felt that I wasn’t academic material. The Christian Brothers pushed people into the Civil Service. So I decided to book into the North Strand Technical School. The bomb sites were still there in the 1950s. My parents were not really interested in art but my mother took in lodgers during the war and one of them was a French polisher called Margaret Cummins. She allowed me to use her paints and varnishes and that’s when I really started to be interested in colours, shapes and forms. At school we had an art class, which was quite unusual.
My influences would be the country: animals on the farm. I loved the freedom of the countryside. You could just go in a door if you were passing. Also, we didn’t have a bull on the farm so we used to take a bull to another farm to service the cow – nature in action –it made a huge impact!
B McA: At the age of fifteen you were apprenticed for seven years and became a metal worker. You attended Bolton Street Technical College one night a week and a further two nights at NCAD. Obviously the craft element of this would become important for a nascent sculptor so tell us what exactly you did during this period?
J B: I was apprenticed to various craftsmen in a metal work company called J & C McGloughlin (1953-60), until I was twenty-one. I finished it! During that time I learned about the basic metalworking elements: hammers, hacksaws, mechanical saws, how to rivet and weld. There was a small foundry which I was extremely interested in. The good thing about a workshop environment is that there is a large creative element at work. I learnt how to use steel, stainless steel, cast iron, brass, bronze and aluminium. That gave me a basic understanding of how metal could be manipulated. So when I started to make small pieces of sculpture in my mid teens, I had the craft abilities to assemble materials into meaningful form. When I was sixteen I met Paddy McIlroy. Paddy taught an evening course in art metalwork in the North Strand Technical School. He showed me how to make small pieces of sculpture in copper and steel. One of these pieces was a small bull which was exhibited at (and sold!) Living Art in 1960, and was reviewed in The Irish Times by James White. That was the beginning of my career as a sculptor.
B McA: From 1957-60, while you attended NCAD, what did you study, what benefit was it, and did you make any useful friendships?
J B: I didn’t do a full course though the life modelling was very important for me. My teachers were Seán Keating, Maurice MacGonigal and John F Kelly. I also did a small amount of clay modelling but the teaching of sculpture was very limited at the time. I made associations with full-time students and we’d meet in O’Donoghue’s pub after the life class. There was Charles Cullen, Joe Dolan, John O’Connor, de Sachy and T MacSweeney. They would later become the New Artists’ Group. MacGonigal and Kelly were the most sympathetic. Keating was a nice man but remote. MacGonigal encouraged young artists and actively tried to get them new facilities and studios. With Keating it was a narrow nationalism with no acknowledgement of Modernisn, as if it never existed.
B McA: In 1960/61 you went to Ealing Art College. Why did you go to London, how could you afford to go there, and what was the difference between NCAD and Ealing? You were also in London at a very formative time. Pop Art was just beginning as, crucially, was the overlap between the Geometry of Fear sculptors of the 1950s, the Old Guard represented by Moore, and the young Turks like Caro, Turnbull, Paolozzi and Tucker – so what did you see?
J B: I was more interested in the Geometry of Fear group, the 1950s ones like Armitage, Paolozzi, and also Moore. Reg Butler was fairly influential and then there was the poetry of Ted Hughes that I picked up on. I was definitely more into sculpture than I was into American Expressionism. I was very interested in and saw the major Picasso exhibitions at the time and I was most influenced by David Smith. He was a huge influence in terms of my feelings about art.
I went to London because it was a big centre for the arts. There was nothing modern taking place in NCAD which was extremely conservative. I’d saved up money from my apprenticeship and I tried to get into the Central School of Art. They thought that I would be unable to support myself. I had been accepted by Leslie Thornton there but the Head of School, Morris Kesselman I think, refused. I decided to go to Ealing as a night student and I concentrated on life drawing – that was very important for me. Then I met the painter Bernard Cohen who was very sympathetic and helpful. Peter Blake was a teacher there but I didn’t really meet him. I used to have long discussions with Cohen who said that with my background I should kick off on my own! I also met the West Indian painter Frank Bowling and I’d meet and talk to him. It was a casual but not an academic background. I was going to Bond Street and Cork Street, to Waddington’s, and I went to see Robert Clatworthy’s sculpture, a large figure of a bull cast in lead in Roedean Girls’ School, Roehampton. I went to the open-air exhibitions at Battersea and I was influenced by Herbert Read’s Concise History of Modern Sculpture.
I had to work to support myself, in a metalwork shop in Putney. Any spare time I had I was out to the galleries, reading, meeting people and discussing art. Going to outdoor exhibitions was really important for me. Battersea had a tradition of outdoor sculpture and that continued into the 1960s. I had to go to Birmingham for six months to earn money: pile-driving. There were a lot of Irish artists in London at the time. I associate it with John Kelly, Charles Cullen, Patrick Hall, Michael Kane who came to visit, Joe Dolan the painter, and there was a German sculptor in Chiswick called Rolf. Dillon I met later, and George Campbell I knew in Dublin.
B McA: You were back in Dublin in late 1961 and along with Tadg McSweeney, Charles Cullen, Joe Dolan, Leon de Sachy and Joe O’Connor, you founded New Artists, which lasted for three years, your first exhibition being at the Building Centre off Baggot Street. What were your aims and how did the group come about? Were the socially-conscious works like The Rabbi or The Arrest (somewhat reminiscent of Michael Kane’s imagery) of this period?
J B: I suppose the New Artists’ Group was the equivalent of the Kitchen Sink group in England. We lived in poverty and to get in a few drinks was a triumph. I was painting at this stage. I was essentially a painter at this stage though I was associated with James McKenna who was the only sculptor I knew well and he was back and forth to England so I lost contact. Early in 1962 we decided to establish a new group. The aim? To establish a forum for ourselves! We had no desire to create an ‘ism’. We were young people trying to get the public to take note of us, to garner a few sales, and to survive. I made up my own canvases and stretchers, used the cheapest materials we could find. It was an Irish form of Expressionism! An Irish stew! In 1963 I did the first Rabbi (Fig 8). I took him from the streets of Dublin – strange looking men with big coats and hats and ringlets. Very exotic. Michael Kane depicted the working class; the back lanes of Baggot Street. Michael was a close friend and associate.
B McA: You started doing theatre sets in the 1960s graduating from Abbey and Gaiety backdrops to Deirdre O’Connell’s production of Doris Lessing’s Play With a Tiger, and even Tom Kilroy’s The Death and Resurrection of Mr Roche. Was this purely financial?
J B: I did three plays at the Gate, Pinter’s The Lovers, a play by Murray Schisgal, and three, one-act plays. I was working with Jim Fitzgerald who was very active in the 1960s. I started off for financial reasons, got reasonably good at it and was offered work. Jim Fitzgerald and Colm O’Briain (former director of the Arts Council) were important in getting that discussion going, and also Hugh Leonard and Edna O’Brien, and many other writers, poets and visual artists. The biggest ever meeting of such people took place in the Gate Theatre in 1966-7. It launched Project ’67.
B McA: You joined the Independents in 1964, helped to found Group ’65 (Michael Kane wrote the manifesto) were living in a room in James McKenna’s house in Geraldine Square off Cork Street, and you were primarily producing graphics and paintings, rather than sculpture. In fact the first Project show (an organization that you helped to found) was of your lithographs, and you had previously won a joint first prize in the 1965 National Portrait competition and in the same year you won the Dante prize. What had happened to the sculptor?
J B: George Campbell, Gerry Dillon and Arthur Armstrong attended the opening of the Project show, and each of them purchased three or four lithographs. I felt so honoured by their recognition and generosity. I had just become obsessed with painting. The group took over my life. I was still tapping away with ideas for sculpture as my sketchbooks of the period indicate. I couldn’t afford welding equipment but always my desire was to produce sculpture. Alex Sadkovsky helped us with the exhibitions for Group ’65. He arrived out of the blue one day in Dublin, he had been living in Zurich. He was of Russian/Jewish origin and was very encouraging to us. We had work from Switzerland in the joint exhibition at the Irish Times Gallery and that was the origin of Group ’65. Following on from that James McKenna came back from England and established Rising Ground (a horse-racing term). Edward Delaney became involved and I started to exhibit sculpture. In 1966 I worked with Delaney on the Wolfe Tone Memorial. I had been producing small bronzes in his workshop.
In 1964 I’d been invited to join the Independents by Michael Lydon and I accepted readily. The object of the Independents? They were younger people than those in the ILEA and wanted change and a bit of elbow room. I exhibited paintings for the first number of years, semi-Baconesque works (‘Muddy Bacon’ according to Charles Brady – as usual!). In the event, I exhibited sculpture later on.
I was a good deal younger than older members like Pye. I was always reasonably good at organizing and would help out with the committee work and with the practicalities of moving sculpture. Around 1966, McKenna made A Horse for the People. We hired a truck and Miss Waldron [at the Municipal Gallery] said: ‘Too heavy for the floor upstairs’. James objected. We hired a horse and dray on a Saturday afternoon, loaded the sculpture and took it back to McKenna’s house. As we left, John Kelly shouted from the steps of the Municipal: ‘Home James, and don’t spare the horses!’
I knew James from NCAD, got to know him through Charles Cullen. He lived in a tiny house then and did these enormous sculptures there and lived on bread and jam and tea. Then he had a very successful play on in London, The Scatterin’, and when he came back he bought the house – a home for artists. Brian Bourke worked there, Charles Cullen, myself and Alex Sadkovsky, and McKenna himself. He created these huge statues outside the house in the square. He went away to England again and someone had to look after the house – we all moved in!
B McA: In 1966 you began to make bronze sculpture, using the lost wax method, and in 1968, with help, you built a drying kiln for plaster moulding. How did these two events come about?
J B: I met Tony Stevenson who was a superb technician but didn’t know anything about art. We set up the kiln and a gas-fired foundry in Glasnevin called The Crucible. That’s where I did my own personal castings with his help. It just went on from there. When you do a wax, a big mould, you need to be able to get the wax out of the mould and so you need a kiln, a big hot oven really, under the mould anD the wax melts out. You can recover and re-use the wax by using pots or metal bowls. When the wax is melted you put the crucible on and you melt the bronze. The moulds must be hot, the bronze is poured in and so you have a casting. There were some facilities in Dublin (Delaney did casting for himself and Werner Schurmann and his wife Gerda Frömel). But they were irregular operations. I felt a growing need and there were a lot of artists who previously had to go to London, Milan or Rome, and so we continued with our experimental castings and then in 1970 I met Peter O’Brien (Colm O’Briain’s [sic] father) who was a very successful businessman who owned an engineering suppliers, and he supported us with money and expertise, and that was the 1970 Dublin Art Foundry which is still going today.
B McA: In 1968 you were at the Royal Academy School in Oslo and you’ve represented Ireland at Lugano in Switzerland and at the Indian Triennale in New Delhi. How useful were these experiences and at what point did you become the inveterate traveller?
J B: The first thing was Oslo. I got access to a house near Munch’s graphic studio and I went to study etching in a marvellous wooden studio. I decided to do life drawing as a way to keep my hand in and so I went to the Royal Academy and when the snow began to melt away I went to the Vigeland Sculpture Park and saw all of this fantastic sculpture. I find that as a sculptor I need to keep in touch with the human body, and there were some very good models there – ones who knew what they were doing, who could give you a pose and hold it. I visited Sweden and Denmark on the way back. My friend Michael Lydon had a studio in Stockholm. That was the beginning of the wanderings and I haven’t stopped since. It’s part serendipity and part targeted. If I go to Greece I always go to the Archaeological Museum in Athens. You want to know firstly what the past was, and secondly you want to look at their technology, at how their things were actually made. The cultural aspects – what was the philosophy behind the sculpture of the time? I’d read Plato but it was the process that fascinated me. Almost any primitive culture emanating from the Middle East – Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Sardinia – interests me.
B McA: Before 1970 you were using two distinct processes to make sculpture: the creation of an armature using steel rods; and the ‘scrapyard’ or ‘bin-hoking’ approach whereby interesting bits and pieces of scrap would be, Picasso-style, assembled. How do you view your journey from this point to the present?
J B: The progression was as a metalworker. The first exhibition I had was largely made up of scrap metal with a few bronze pieces thrown in. A friend of mine called Henry Page – his family had been in art metalwork for over a hundred years – loaned me an electric welder and gave me access to his scrap and so I welded up a lot of animal forms and I had the Project show in 1969. From there on I worked, with the exception of the odd graphic piece, at nothing else except sculpture. That’s because I had access to bronze and also because there was a demand by clients. Everything has become much more sophisticated in terms of technology with ceramic moulding replacing plaster brick. The metal produced is of a higher quality – no impurities. I remember in Edward Delaney’s bronze castings, finding little bits of bedpost! The welding became much better. It was just like the engineering situation in the bronze castings. The quality of the work worldwide was much higher now. Technical developments enable artistic development. It’s allowed me to make very large sculpture when I’ve been commissioned that I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do. With the technology, the ambition is unlimited. All the sculpture of my generation is small sculpture, being sketches for big ones!
B McA: In 1974 you had a one-man exhibition at the Sean Desmond Gallery in New York. What was it like and why did you stop showing there?
J B: My connections were through the Kenny Gallery: Desmond Kenny, and Jack Ghene in New York State. The gallery was near the IBM centre. There was a small show in New York City first. I should have stayed there as I sold six pieces, then there was a full-scale show in the AIB Bank on 5th Avenue in 2000, but the biggest thing in New York is the Famine Memorial (Fig 11). I also had a show at Quinnipiac University, and bits and pieces around America. Also a lot of people who have bought the work live in the USA.
B McA: You’re best known for your bulls, and one thinks of everything from the French animalier tradition to Elizabeth Frink, Armitage or, even, César! How would you trace your development from, say, the small, early, energetic bulls to the 1992 The Secret Life of Toby Diskin?
J B: Toby was a dog – it was actually based on a real dog (Fig 2). I love welding: joining pieces of steel. It comes from the continental tradition and as you said – César and Julio González. I did one of a cat. I took liberties. I did animals at a time when I had built a new studio in Galway and had oxy-acetylene equipment. Picasso was a huge influence: that free and open tradition. There’s a wonderful novel by Michael Ayrton which is based on Picasso. He is being re-assessed as is Keith Vaughan who was in London when I was. I’ve a magpie mind unlike, say, Eddie Maguire who was very organized, being like a chemist!
B McA: You’ve produced a wide range of Public Art for Ireland and elsewhere. What, for you, are the key works and why?
J B: The key works are The Famine piece in Murrisk (Fig 12), and Arrival: New Dawn, the UN Plaza piece in New York (Fig 11) and the one in China of Daedalus. Why? It’s because I was allowed to have a personal interpretation of probably the most significant element of Irish history, the Famine. The horrors of it always struck me and after 150 years of suppression we can only talk openly about it now. It’s taken much more seriously in America. The UN was a fantastic job for me – I went to Ellis Island and tried to recreate the feeling of hope – the ‘new dawn’. The famine ship is the tragedy. Henry Moore, several Pomodoros and Hepworth are in the plaza. The Chinese commission was an adventure made possible by Tony Ryan of the GPA. It was a gift to the Chinese government. Myself and Leo Higgins went over and had a great time putting it together. The Chinese officials were probably not aware of what I was trying to do. I met artists who had fantastic skills in landscape painting, for instance, and I met Amanda Coogan in Beijing who showed nude photos of herself working as an artist, and they were gasping! The Chinese felt they had lost out as the Renaissance had never come to China – they had lost touch with the civilisation of Europe and were now catching up. There was a real respect there for both high art and popular Irish culture: from Beckett to Riverdance.
B McA: You have remarked that ‘in terms of Irish art we have a gap between the Middle Ages and the 20th century. So I had to go back: the future was in the past’ Explain!
JB: I felt that before the 19th century, there was no feeling that there was any visual art at all. There was no Renaissance here, no critical discourse from critics on the visual arts. The O’Neills and O’Donnells were expelled, thrown out of the country. They should have been our patrons. Artists were honoured in other countries whereas in Ireland the artist had the same status as an off-season hotel! It’s the insularity: that’s why I went to London in the 1960s. The attitude was ‘If you can’t afford to live here, piss off!’ DeValera’s attitude of ‘Labour must wait showed that he didn’t give a shit about the arts. Jerome Connor, the sculptor, came back from America in the 1920s. He was a fantastic modeller, and yet he received practically nothing in commissions. There was no appreciation or consideration. When power did come, it was through the political parties and the architect was Michael Scott, through narrow political patronage. Everything changed from the 1960s onwards – the Foundry, Graphic Studios, the Artists’ Co-Operatives.
Brian McAvera is an art critic.
From the IAR Archive
First published in the Irish Arts Review Vol 30, No 4, 2013