The Burton Gallery on the first floor of York Art Gallery holds many treasures. The collection doesn’t appear to have an overriding theme or credo, unlike the new “Art and Music” exhibition currently being showcased in the downstairs gallery. However the Burton collection brings a together a sporadic series of art from the most eminent painters from the Britain and Ireland. The centre piece of the gallery is a huge canvas depicting a group of soldiers returning to the front in the First World War, painted by Newcastle born artist Richard Jack who donated the painting to York Gallery in the twenties. Despite the confrontational quality of the piece we are faced with upon entering the gallery, the real find of the exhibition is a smaller, more subtle piece of work, Jack Butler Yeats’ “That we may never meet again.”
This is an unusual piece compared with other pieces in the gallery. The painting shows Yeats’ expressionist phase and his interest in the fleeting, ephemeral nature of life. He painted “That we may never” in the mid-fifties before his death. The painting shows two figures – one in the foreground, dominant, painted in deep blue. The second could be the other’s reflection, he is painted in lighter, rippling colours. He is frailer, somehow older than the younger man in the foreground. Like his literary brother, WB Yeats, Jack may have been preoccupied with the theme of death in his later works. William Yeats writes in his magnum opus, The Tower, that “Decrepit age that has been tied to me / As to a dog’s tail?” The figures in Jack’s work seem to also be tied together in someway, the limbs merging together, tangling together like boughs from a tree, expressing intimacy within a dream. Perhaps the artist is exploring how togetherness exists only momentarily in the painting. After their parting, as the title suggests, they may never be as close again. Between the essence and the descent, as it were, falls the shadow.
This is an enigmatic painting open to many readings, like the literary work of his brother. Its ambiguity makes it, for me, the most interesting piece in the Burton Gallery. It may be of particular interest today, the opening of the Olympic Games, as Jack Yeats was the first Irishman to win a medal at in the 1924 Olympics. His “The Liffey Swim” won a silver medal in the arts and culture segment of the Games, a section which sadly no longer exists in 2012.
The painting’s title seems poetic, no surprise considering Jack Yeats’ links with the literarti of the period. Besides his brother, Yeats was good friends with Samuel Beckett, the leading avant-garde Irish writer of the 20th century. Beckett said upon his death that “Yeats is the great of our time…he brings light as only the great dare to bring light to the issueless predicament of existence.” Beckett’s clever use of “issueless” here is as evasive as Yeats’ work. He may mean the flowing nature of Yeats’ subjects, or indeed the idea of the topicless nature of living, that is without meaning, issue-less.
Certainly Beckett’s analysis is true of this late painting, but Yeats started life as a working designer, much less glamorous than the artist he would become. He drew comic strips of Sherlock Holmes and wrote for satirical magazine “Punch” under the pseudonym W. Bird. Only after Joyce’s groundbreaking Ulysses and the rise of modernism in the twenties was Yeats’ able to experiment. His early work used thickly applied paint and bold colours – he was interested in the expressive power of block colour and its ability to portray his Irish subjects. Although little is known about his technique. Despite his success, Yeats’ refused to take students and never allowed himself to be watched in the studio.
Despite Yeats’ secrecy he became the most important Irish artist of a generation and the first painter from Ireland to sell for over a million pounds. You can see Yeats’ “That we may never meet again” in York Art Gallery to get a flavour of his genius.
(Image is Jack Butler Yeats, “Communicating with Prisoners”)