They are described by their shadows.
Brian O’Doherty on Edward Hopper
With the death in New York of the Irish-American artist, writer and critic Brian O’Doherty, on November 7th, it can be said of the Irish literary landscape that another oak has fallen. This was the description of the passing of Seamus Heaney in 2013, and Seamus Deane in 2021, the image being particularly appropriate since Doire, the name of both writers’ native county, means an oak grove. The association of trees with knowledge goes back to the Ogham alphabet associated with the Druids in ancient times, and no contemporary artist did more to rekindle interest in this abstract system of lettering in contemporary art than Brian O’Doherty, most famously in his Mondrian-like Ogham on Broadway (2003), now hanging the National Gallery of Ireland.
As the crossovers between words and images in the arboreal (or ecological) language of Ogham suggests, O’Doherty was not only one of the leading Irish artists of the last half-century but also a novelist who established an international reputation. His first work of fiction, The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. (1992), was succeeded by his Booker Prize-shortlisted novel The Deposition of Father McGreevy (1999), and in 2014 by his panoramic historical novel The Crossdresser’s Secret.
Born in Ballaghaderreen in 1928, Brian O’Doherty qualified as a medical doctor in UCD in 1952 before emigrating to America in 1957 to embark on a distinguished career as an artist, writer, art critic, arts administrator, curator, university professor, television director and presenter. As a visual artist, he was a leading figure in Conceptual and Installation art, installing three-dimensional rope drawings in dialogue with strikingly coloured abstract configurations on walls and, drawing on his Irish background as noted above, intricate patterns based on the ancient linear Ogham alphabet. His work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York; Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; National Museum of American Art, Washington DC.and elsewhere. He worked as art critic for The New York Times in the 1960s and editor-in-chief of Art in America in the early 1970s and his influential critical works include American Masters: The Voice and the Myth (1974); his creative/critical project, Aspen 5+6, in Colorado (1967), with contributions by Marcel Duchamp, Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag among others; and his landmark book, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of Gallery Space (1976, 1999), which changed irrevocably the relations between the art-work, gallery and wider cultural fields. His Collected Essays, including discussions of major figures such as Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, and fellow Irish artists Nigel Rolfe and James Coleman (also from Ballaghadereen), included a follow-up to Inside the White Cube, and was published in 2018.
The argument of Inside the White Cube was that the reverential awe of gallery space could no longer seal the aesthetic purity of art off from the rough ground of the world outside – or inside, as floor space became a site for installations, performance, and even walk-on parts by gallery personnel. In the hushed atmosphere of Vermeers and Fragonards on a visit to the Frick in New York in 1956, O’Doherty could not resist an everyday aside: “To be an Irishman visiting the Frick is to become important – or most of the attendants are Irish, with names like Boland, Walshe, Lee, McDonald, McQuaid. Courteous, full of information about the pictures, friendly and eager for news of Ireland, they gathered at the doorway as I went away.”
O’Doherty’s first novel, The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P., is located in late eighteenth century Vienna, and can be seen (though this is not necessarily what the author had in mind) as a parable on the trope of the blind bard, such as the Irish harper O’Carolan (1670-1738), in which loss of sight is compensated for by the gift of music. This interplay across modes of perception was already signalled in O’Doherty’s early ink-on-paper drawing The Five Senses of the Bishop of Cloyne (1967-68) and takes on an evocative and even tragic expression in his novel. The story weaves a compelling fictional account of the complexity of real-life events surrounding the alleged restoration of sight to the accomplished musician Marie Thérèse Paradies, by Dr Franz Mesmer, the founder of modern hypnosis. The real-life Marie Thérèse’s talent was such that Mesmer’s friend Mozart wrote a concerto for her, but for Mesmer, “the darkness … was in her mind and not her eyes”. His theories of animal magnetism and universal fluids regulating behaviour obscured his real discovery for subsequent psychology – that of unconscious forces shaping the self, and the mind’s exertions on the senses. On leaving Mesmer’s care, “Mademoiselle P” reverted to blindness but regained her musical prowess: the ultimate casualty, in a world where powers of suggestion rule, is truth – “How does the truth survive at all?”
The action in O’Doherty’s second Booker-nominated novel, The Deposition of Father McGreevy (1999), is set during “the Emergency” of World War II in a remote mountain village in Co Kerry, cut off from the nearest town by two severe snow-bound winters. In the near starvation of the first winter, the women in the village (bar the priest’s housekeeper) die from an unknown illness, and though the local curate, Father McGreevy, prays that tragedy will not strike again the following winter, a series of events brings destruction to the entire community. The fate of such outlying settlements is compared in the novel to the inhabitants of the Blasket Islands whose removal to the “mainland” was considered inevitable in the same period, but it is the manner in which the mountainside village falls from grace that is unforeseen. As if in a parody of Flann O’Brien’s An Béal Bocht/The Poor Mouth, drained of humour but maintaining its blackness, a brain-damaged young man’s “unnatural practices” (as the legal terminology went) with animals is projected onto the whole community by small town gossip, emanating from a disgruntled source with a score to settle: “They’re all tarred with the same brush now, innocent though they may be.” As the respectable townspeople trade on their prejudices, the death of the deranged young man leaves his father, Muiris, as the scapegoat, leading to his imprisonment and eventual transfer to a mental home: “Why on earth you would charge Muiris I don’t know … It’s a sad day when anyone would believe them. He was the only one left and they had to charge someone I suppose.” The historical backdrop of other deserted villages and the guilt-ridden memory of the Great Famine, not to mention other valleys of squinting windows in Ireland, is given a twist through the linking of Fr McGreevy’s faith in God’s providence, the belief that good may come out of harm, with the aisling genre of eighteenth century Gaelic poetry: in a dream of Muiris’s, however, the deliverance figure of the aisling is not a “sky-woman” but a sacrificial lamb “who wanted to free her and her kind from the calumny of those who saw her and her flock as degraded creatures”.
That truth is the first casualty not only of war but of forces within one’s own camp is the subject of O’Doherty’s third and most ambitious novel, The Crossdresser’s Secret (2014), charting the extraordinary life of the famous eighteenth century diplomat, spy, swordsman, author and crossdresser, Charles de Beaumont, later the Chevalier d’Éon (1728-1810): “In all this excitement, Truth, as in an allegory, wandered without a home.” The real-life d’Éon came to prominence as a diplomat in St Petersburg, securing a valuable alliance between France and Russia after the Treaties of Versailles in 1756/1758. His achievement was partly due to his successful passing as a woman to gain admittance to Empress Elizabeth’s inner female circle, following this a year later by reintroducing himself as her brother, in his role as secretary of the embassy and persuading the empress to dismiss her anti-French foreign secretary.
But he was not just a diplomat: he was also a spy, operating in a shadow intelligence unit of the French foreign service known as “The Secret”, known only to the king and handful of others (hence the double coding of the title in O’Doherty’s novel). In recognition of his skills, Louis XV made de Beaumont captain of the dragoons and during the Seven Years War his bravery and military prowess, and negotiating skills at the Treaty of Paris that ended the war, earned him the Legion of St Louis and the title, Chevalier d’Éon. That he was an outstanding swordsman, becoming one of the master fencers of the age, added to his fame but also to his notoriety, for he performed in female garb: as late as 1794, he fenced dressed as a woman on the Cork stage.
The Crossdresser’s Secret explores in fascinating detail how d’Éon’s impersonation of a woman was not a matter of posing but extended to his personal identity, making his sexual indeterminacy one of the great causes of scandal and gossip in the late eighteenth century: “I had practiced the art of concealment all my life – as diplomat and spy. Now I had to conceal my nature even from myself. And what is that nature? Not who I am but what I am.” Based as a spy in London, his possession of state secrets prejudicial to the king placed him in a dangerous position when the existence of “The Secret” became known to Madame de Pompadour, but his private life also was in jeopardy, Louis XV forbidding him re-entry to France unless he declared himself unambiguously a woman – ‘La Chevalière d’Éon’. Such was the confusion over his fluid identity that it became subject to enormous bets, leading to a number of cases in the English courts that turned on the right to privacy against voyeuristic and salacious gossip. Part III of The Crossdresser’s Secret ends with a summary of Lord Mansfield’s landmark ruling: “What is at issue is the violation of an innocent third party’s right to privacy … The peace of mind, reputation, and honor of the third party is profoundly compromised.”
O’Doherty’s multiple personas, operating under different names as artist, critic, and novelist, leave little doubt that he is no stranger to enigmas of identity: “I wish I could preserve a steady state of mind, but there were so many different selves within me that one overlaid the other the next minute.” The narrator of The Deposition of Father McGreevy, the London-based William Maginn, is based on the real-life Cork exile in London, William Maginn (1794-1842), who wrote under the pen-name “O’Dogherty”. Though set in the eighteenth-century, The Crossdresser’s Secret could be an allegory of contemporary debates about sexual identities, exploring the pathos of uncertainty that surrounds the deepest negotiations of the self: “When I write about women’s virtues do I have a woman’s feelings? And what are woman’s feelings? When I wear dresses, what are my feelings? No matter how long I wear a dress, I possess the certificate of my manhood.”
D’Éon’s narrative voice strikes a chord not only with European but Irish readers: in one scene in White’s famous coffee house in London, “an ugly, bald young man with an accent not unlike my brother-in laws” listening to a “corpulent fellow … pontificating with his little group” can only allude to Oliver Goldsmith, trying to get a word in edgeways with Dr Johnson. D’Éon’s “brother-in-law” refers to another ebullient character in the novel, the Clare-born Chevalier Thomas O’Gorman (1732-1809), who in real life eloped with, and married, d’Éon’s sister Marguerite, but who returned to run the family’s wine business in France. O’Gorman entered the Irish Brigade in France and, like his brother-in-law the Chevalier, later volunteered for service as an officer in the French army in support of the American War of Independence.
A native Gaelic speaker, O’Gorman used his proficiency in Irish, and his wealth, to become one of the outstanding antiquarians of Gaelic culture, establishing a close scholarly friendship with Charles O’Conor of Belanagare, Co Roscommon, and amassing a valuable collection of manuscripts on the continent, including The Book of Ballymote, which he donated as a founding text to the Royal Irish Academy. This establishes another connection with Brian O’Doherty’s work outside the novel: O’Gorman (with his namesake, the poet and scribe Muiris O’Gorman) was the first to translate the Ogham sections in The Book of Ballymote, and this book provided one of the key sources for O’Doherty’s modern artistic engagements with the Ogham alphabet, as in his wall series, ONE HERE NOW , installed at the Sirius Art Centre, Cobh, Co Cork, in 1995, and reopened to the public in April 2018, and Ogham on Broadway in the National Gallery.
In 1972, as a response to Bloody Sunday in Derry, O’Doherty changed his artist’s name to “Patrick Ireland” and did not relinquish the pseudonym until the consolidation of the peace process in 2008, interring his persona in a mock-funeral in the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Despite his long, immensely productive life, questions relating to last days and late style were there from the outset. He and his wife, the eminent art-historian Barbara Novak, were among the small group of only six people who attended Edward Hopper’s funeral in 1967. He was the last to draw a portrait of Jack B Yeats, visiting the painter shortly before his death in 1957, and instead of painting a portrait of Marcel Duchamp, O’Doherty (drawing on his medical training) took an ECG of his heart, signing it as if by a technician: Doctor B. O’Doherty.
Living in an apartment in a building on West 67th shared with Elizabeth Hardwick and her estranged husband Robert Lowell, O’Doherty was among those who helped the poet as he stumbled out of a taxi to die in front of the building in August 1977, seeking to return to his wife. On a visit to New York with my partner, Dolores, last September, Brian O’Doherty and Barbara Novak kindly invited us to call at their apartment. Though illness had taken its toll, his mind went back to his recent visits to Ireland and the unexpected pleasure at being awarded the Freedom of Roscommon by Roscommon County Council at a ceremony at IMMA in 2018. In a poem, “The Golden Age”, published in a recent anthology of Roscommon poetry and dedicated to Barbara Novak, O’Doherty recalls how voices from the past haunt even walks through Central Park:
The world is born anew, the Golden Age returns just
Inside the Park at Sixty-Seventh Street
West. We reach out, touch – the slight depression of flesh ignites
The rush of liquid gold from head to toe –
Light dazzles – we disappear – the sun has made us blind …
Who is singing? Are we singing? No, not us.
Are you there? You are always there.
The singing is sweet and far away
like the voices of grandparents …
It was as if Broadway had indeed brought it all back home.
Luke Gibbons’s review of Brian O’Doherty, Collected Essays, ‘Once Upon a Space’, appeared in the Dublin Review of Books in December 2018.