: These beasts, the dogs, birds and fish and so on. Are they fully formed
characters that you use again and again?
J.P. : Not really.
- J. P. Donleavy from Karim White in Conversation With J.P. Donleavy
White in Conversation With J.P. Donleavy
by Karim White
KARIM : You’re probably
used to being asked more about your books than your paintings. Have you given
memorable interviews about your visual art before?
J.P. : Just once, for - of all people - The Financial Times - for an exhibition in London. But, yes, it’s pretty rare because the overall thing with authors is that any reputation comes to them for their writing and their painting is put to one side. It’s not really known by people just how many writers have, in fact, been painters - from D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller right up to the present day.
KARIM : Do you think that painting and writing are two sides of the same project?
J.P. : The only thing I’ve learned is that the hard work you have to put into the writing – I mean I’m working on a short story about New York at the moment and there is a tremendous amount of stress and energy that the brain has to channel in order to correct and rewrite and I turn to painting then as a more purely creative activity. And so I tried to switch from writing in the day to doing some painting or sketching in the evening but I found that both activities are exactly the same. I mean, you need just the same amount of intellectual concentration. You realise that once a line has appeared on the paper, then the next one confronts you. And it’s not that you are consciously thinking about the work, I mean, the whole point is not to. This is one of the reasons why I like to work quickly, get the thing down.
KARIM : Yes, you have something of a reputation for showing paintings that are barely dry! What is this technique?
J.P. : Oh yes. Well, I like to get the thing quickly obtained. With the watercolours, I work very swiftly, using a technique that has never been used by any other painter that I know of. Once the painting is done, you can dry it within five minutes. And there was a time when I was doing oil paintings in exactly the same way, using masonite board which absorbs a little of the linseed oil. And then I’d paint the image on the surface and I’d make use of a dry cloth, which at a certain moment I’d use to preserve the brushstroke. It would be dry in a few minutes and everybody would wonder how it was done and whether it would last but amazingly, fifty years later, these paintings are still perfection.
KARIM : So when did you first to begin to paint in this way?
J.P. : Well, when I was an undergraduate, studying microbiology at Trinity, I used to paint in my rooms. And I looked a lot at the time at the work of the White Stag group. I knew some of these people. There was Patrick Scott, Phyllis Hayward and John Ryan was a close friend. And I’d go along to life classes with him and then come back to my room where I’d set up easels and and start to paint.
KARIM : And was Ryan a
J.P. : Yes, he was and also there was a painter called Phyllis Hayward also known as Phyllis Teale. She used to say then that I was in my ‘celluloid penis’ stage.
KARIM : Celluloid penis? What did she mean?
J.P. : Hmm well, I’m not exactly certain but she meant really that I needed to simplify my work. So I did. I painted just this little flower-pot with some flowers coming out of it and next time she came around, I showed it to her and it was so simple that she was impressed with it. And shortly afterwards I started to show my paintings in Dublin. My first show was at 7 St. Stephens Green at the Prentice Gallery.
KARIM : And how was that experience, was it a successful venture?
J.P. : Well, I may have sold one or two pictures. In those days, it was very difficult to sell anything but it got better because I became conspicuous and had my first taste of actual fame when somebody in Dublin wrote a terrible review of my exhibition and Arland Ussher wrote a letter to the press which was published in which he said my work was reminiscent of Paul Klee. That suddenly put me on the map.
KARIM : Did you personally approve of the comparison?
J.P. : Oh yes of course! I find the work of Paul Klee immensely attractive. A lot of his work has this haunting quality, which I would strive to achieve. The difference though is there are often many layers to his work produced over time whereas I like to capture the image very quickly.
KARIM : How do feel now about your early work, does it still stand up?
J.P. : Yes, I think so and I’ve used it as a base to build on and it’s actually one of the reasons that I get very worried about selling anything because they help to remind me of things.
KARIM : Does the fact that much of your work is not intended for public display make you a little like an Outsider artist?
J.P. : Yes, that is absolutely the case. When I was living in London I produced many dark images of birds, cattle, very dark images, not very happy-looking at all. And I remember doing those only for my own gratification. Or my cemetery pictures that I don’t think I’ve ever shown.
KARIM : You need to keep the paintings to speak back to you in a way?
J.P. : Yes, because you see my writing has made me such a scandalous figure and this can mean that I’m also a very isolated figure. Even now some of my books are still banned. But as you know, the art world is a gregarious world and painters are often very social. But as I’ve moved more and more into this isolated writers’ world, I feel that nothing would happen with my painting if it wasn’t for these exhibitions.
KARIM : Do you seek dialogue with other painters?
J.P. : Well, I’ve met Louis le Brocquy and I’ve known Pat Scott from the very earliest times. And I knew Gerard Dillon too. And Barry Flanagan often visits me when he is in Ireland but we hardly ever talk about art. We have picnics down by the lakeshore with a bonfire. He really likes to do that.
KARIM : Do you care whether or not your paintings reach a wider audience?
J.P. : The exhibitions are good for me because you often meet highly informed people who tell you things. But isolation is not good for you, so I try to get up to Dublin or London for the night. The exhibition is a good focus and it is social and it is an enjoyment somehow to know that your paintings will go to people who want to keep them.
KARIM : Is that because your buyers have a personal interest in you as a man rather than in your work as a commodity?
J.P. : Yes, I think so. Or they like me in a literary sense. In fact lately, I’ve been entitling my paintings so that the words describe the expressions on the faces. I’ve noticed that I’ve started to do it and I think it is this literary sense of the work that people seem to like too.
KARIM : So are your paintings directly illustrative of your writing?
J.P. : No, I wouldn’t have thought so. They have an independent life. I have, in the past, tried to illustrate some of my books – The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B and actually Edward Gorey produced some illustrations too, for The Onion Eaters, one of my strangest books.
KARIM : Now that’s a good match! He has a wonderfully macabre style, which is in certain ways similar to your own.
J.P. : Yes, certain of my drawings do have that macabre look as you say. Especially, I think, in my drawings of beasts. I do try to capture it in the expressions on the faces of the beasts though most people are not aware that I am making that effort. But with the macabre thing, it just tends to happen that way. Like with the painting I have of the man in black about to hit the little bird with a stick.
KARIM : These beasts, the dogs, birds and fish and so on. Are they fully formed characters that you use again and again?
J.P. : Not really.
KARIM : But you do have a sort of repertoire of creatures that crop up repeatedly in various different ways.
J.P. : Yes, I think that is the case. But really I’m looking at handling similar concerns, balance, tension, contrast, it’s a language all of its own and I’m trying to contain all these elements. I mean, with the paintings of the dogs with the erections, they are really about balance. The tail goes up and I have the penis going down.
KARIM : But why the dog? You use the figure of the dog a lot.
J.P. : Yes, and actually I’m working on a short story about a dog which I have to finish and send off today. It’s about a man who is asked by his friends to look after a dog in an apartment halfway up a skyscraper in New York. The man is too lazy to walk the dog in the park so he just bounces a ball around the apartment to exercise the dog. This is all going very well but one day he has all the windows open because it’s a hot day and the air conditioning is broken and he’s bouncing the ball around and it bounces off a wall and goes out of the window. Of course the dog jumps after it.
KARIM : So we’re back to the black comedy, which seems to be as true of your paintings as it is of your fiction.
J.P. : Yes, it would tend to come out in the paintings.
KARIM : Is that really all?
J.P. : Well, I’m sure people wonder what I’m really about and what I’m up to. Dogs with erections. Viagra perhaps.
KARIM : Are they symbols of anything else? Human savagery, for example?
J.P. : Well, probably. In The Unexpurgated Code, there is something of that. But you know I do take a very practical view of them. I suppose my education is that of a scientist. I studied zoology and sometimes when I wonder how I ever got into doing those sketches, I realise that I had to do these drawings in zoology and so maybe that was the source of it.
KARIM : And the comments on the drawings then are like the labels on zoological drawings of animal life?
J.P. : Yes and my professor, James Bronte, one of the world’s greatest zoologists at the time – I had sent him an invitation to my exhibition – and he saw this line of continuity between my work and these zoological drawings.
KARIM : Yes but there seems to me to be a satirical or a blackly-comical comment being made in your work on the parallels between human and animal nature, perhaps to do with the shared ferocity and savagery of humans and beasts.
J.P. : Well, yes and that’s because of this instinct towards self-preservation. The book, The Unexpurgated Code, was very blatant in its exposure of that. In fact, the inspiration for it was this idea I had whilst crossing a busy street in New York, which is that a certain kind of person knows that when they’re crossing in front of oncoming traffic, it’s better to have a cushion of people on one side of you so that if the taxis don’t stop then at least you have a buffer, you know, a cushion, so someone else gets it first, you know. And being self-aware about that instinct is a form of social climbing. And I think New York is this kind of unpredictable place where suddenly people could turn and snap at you or things could suddenly veer out of control – and I’ve seen it happen. I remember once a woman with a dog standing in the street and she was screaming at this man in his car through the open window. He had the engine racing but the clutch was down or something. But what was clear to me was that the man obviously could not help whatever was wrong with the car. The woman, however, just couldn’t grasp that this thing was not his fault and so she was screaming and the dog was barking. I was with a lady friend of mine and I just knew that this something was going to happen, I could just sense that it was about to go off and I grabbed her by the shoulder and said "Quickly, into this doorway" and so we took shelter there and then suddenly whatever was holding the car back failed and the car shot forward and killed the woman and the dog and pandemonium broke out. But I knew there would be this chaos.
KARIM : So these characters in your paintings are survivors like yourself?
J.P. : Yes, they have this awareness about how to survive.
KARIM : Okay, that explains their expressions.
J.P. : Yes, well often I will see a picture in a magazine, a certain angularity or the look on a woman’s face and it will fascinate me and I would try to capture that energy or that actual expression and get that subliminal awareness of survival.
KARIM : You obviously take a lot of inspiration from New York City life but what about your life here in Ireland or in Dublin.
J.P. : Well, Dublin and New York are becoming more and more alike but when I first came to Dublin it had slums worse than Naples. But I never complained, I mean, I was just fascinated by it all and could walk the streets looking at it all, noticing all sorts of things. It was pretty chaotic, the parties every night, the Catacombs [these were the extensive basements of Georgian houses in Fitzwilliam Place used as illegal drinking dens at the time Donleavy first came to Dublin] were very active. In those days it was purely drink, drink seeking drink and drunkenness, this was the condition that had to be kept going.
KARIM : And yet you have come from that chaotic life to this very isolated, placid location in the Irish countryside.
J.P. : Yes, well it is hard to complain because it is so beautiful here. You have the trees and the beautiful lake and I love to work outside. I’m a stonemason you see, I can build dry stone walls and I love working down there on the road. And anyway, I was never that actively eager to go to parties and all that sort of thing, except when I was struggling, you know, as a means to an end. Before I wrote The Ginger Man and when I was living in London. And afterwards, when I was better known, I was always suspicious of the attention because of all those years before when I had been obstructed and ignored. Recently a woman I had spoke to on the road when I was repairing the wall, came up to the house to ask for J.P. Donleavy, not realising that she’d already been speaking to me!
KARIM : That’s a bit of fun. Is the relative anonymity of this country life, what appeals to you? A break from being J.P. Donleavy?
J.P. : Well I think anyone who has an identification strong enough gets to a point where they have to decide whether or not they want to be obscured by it.
KARIM : It sounds, from what you were saying earlier about painting in London when you were at a low ebb, that painting was a sort of refuge.
J.P. : Yes, it could be that painting is a refuge but the exhibition is a very social occasion. And for you to come down here today, it really takes me out of that world of writing and painting. I mean I’m not looking forward to showing the paintings as such, but I enjoy the occasion.
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