Connecting words and images at the National Gallery


After a break for midterm & a reading week, we were back and as arranged met in the foyer of the National Gallery.

Usually when I bring a group to the Gallery, it’s for a creative writing exercise whereby I get them to choose a portrait from the collection and imagine it’s of a patient. I ask them to write a response of some sort to that particular patient’s situation. However, this module is about (creative!) reading, so I had a different plan in mind.

First, though, I had to do the weekly ‘Paudeen’ reading. I guided them through the various sections of the gallery to Yeats’ ‘The Singing Horseman’ and sparing them the embarrassment of having to recite aloud in public, I read the poem once through for them. Possibly just as embarrassing, actually. (Will have to get them to read it on their own next week.) I mentioned that I associated the ‘Singing Horseman’ painting with ‘Paudeen’ – hinting at what was to come.

Next, I brought them to the Zurich Portrait Prize exhibition, mentioning for later reference that here they’d find the only really contemporary work that’s in the Gallery at the moment. Specifically, in order to connect with our previous module and with medicine, I showed them Fionn McCann’s ‘Cézanne’s Apple’, a photograph of artist Brian O’Doherty. (Fionn’s medic mother, Brenda, did her art history doctorate on Brian’s work. Fionn’s medic dad, Seán, was our coordinator for the medical humanities module up until a few years ago. Fionn’s portraits of general practitioners at work hang in the halls of the TCD Biosciences building where these students spend most of their days these days.)

Next we convened in the amazing courtyard between by Joseph Walsh’s ‘Magnus Modus’ and ‘Finding Power’ by Joe Caslin (Wow!) for a briefing. I explained we were in the Gallery to explore the relationship between word & image. By way of example, I showed them Paul Durcan’s ‘Crazy About Women’ book, and read his poetic response to Jack Yeats’ ‘In the Tram’ painting.

I explained that I had reservations about the concept of the ‘Crazy’ project when it happened (so long ago … before they were born?) and it prompted me to organise a very different exploration of the relationship between word & image.

The Bridges & Crossroads project involved getting a group of four living Irish poets – Katie Donovan, Brendan Kennelly, Catherine Phil MacCarthy, Micheal O’Siadhail  – to make a selection of poems from the Irish canon (that is, by dead poets) and read the selection to a group of living Irish artists who were then asked to respond to one of the poems in a visual work. (I wanted to deconstruct Durcan’s divilment! In the end, my divilment was further deconstructed by Alice Maher’s contribution to the exhibtion, wherein she refused to respond to someone else’s words as if art was only capable of illustrating the great literary works, and instead chose to, well, paint a poem.)

I explained that I didn’t expect them to either write a poem or make an image, but instead to take a poem each from the batch I had with me and go find an image that they felt resonated with the poem in some way. I gave them a poem each – with medical connections – by among others, Katie Donovan (‘Marked’), Brendan Kennelly (from ‘The Man Made of Rain’), Angela T. Carr (‘CAT Scan’), Karen J. McDonnell (‘A Bad Dose’), Philip Brady (‘Diagnosis’ & ‘Respiratory Failure’), Leanne O’Sullivan (‘Tracheotomy’) and some fella called Micheal D. Higgins (‘The Crossing’).

I suggested they read and reflect a little on the poem they got, and then just wander about the Gallery checking out the art and seeing if anything jumped out at them as connecting with their poem, and to come back when they were ready, to tell us all how they got on, read their poem, talk about their choice, and show us a snap of the painting they had chosen. (No one chose a three dimensional piece.)

They did just that.

As anticipated, we discussed – arising from the connections – different aspects and themes of the poems than we might otherwise have done – especially visual elements; but we also ended up discussing how different aesthetic styles are picked up in both art and writing (the more abstract the poem, the more abstract the art chosen in some cases).

We heard how some people found very obvious and quite literal representations of their poems, while others struggled to find anything, and still others were too spoiled for choice and changed a few times.

One students’s initial reading of Katie Donovan’s ‘Marked’ brought her to one painting (the portrait of Maeve Binchy and her husband in the Zurich exhibition?), but as she walked on she saw another painting (involving an infant) that completely changed her reading of the poem and so she opted for that painting and reading instead.

For two of the more dense poems, I actually gave them to two different people each, and it was interesting to see the similarities and differences between the choices made for the same poem by different readers. One student thought of a song first as they read the ‘CAT scan’ poem by Angela T Carr, Massive Attack’s ‘Voodoo in My Blood’, and that influenced their choice of painting.

With the Brendan Kennelly poem I had the excuse to play them a clip from Ailís Ní Ríain’s musical setting of extracts of the poem. (And mention impressionism & abstraction in music briefly.) The Man Made of Rain (extract) – Ailís Ní Ríain from Ailís Ní Ríain on Vimeo.


Projecting at the National Gallery

'A Musical Party' (1615) - Gerard von Honthorst
‘A Musical Party’ (1615) – Gerard von Honthorst

M = middle figure, R = right and L = left

M: Why’s my lute lying on the table?

R: … Why’s your lute lying on the table?

M: Yes, why’s it just lying on the table?  Face down?  So the bridge can get all warped?

L: You wrecked it, you had a grand rhythm going there.  ‘Lute’ and ‘lying’ and all.  There was song-writing potential.

R: I don’t know, maybe because you left it lying on the table?

M: Why would I leave it lying on the table face down, for god’s sake? Why would I do that?

R: Man, I don’t know.

L: Come on!  Ye were giving me grief about forgetting my sheet music, now you’re the ones wasting time.  Let’s just start.

R: Yeah, let’s go.  What’s that music you’ve got there anyway?

M: It’s a new piece.  It’s actually a totally new style, they’re calling it ‘opera’ in Florence.

R: “They’re calling it ‘opera’ in Florence.”  Ah would you listen to this.

L: Sure that’s why I can’t understand it so, it’s all written in Italian!

R: Ah here, what’s the point of songs all written in Italian?

M: (muttered) … try to make an effort, introduce a bit of culture…

R: (loudly) what’s that?

M: And don’t act all unimpressed either!  Don’t pretend like you didn’t start growing that nose-shadow about a day after me.  Now that’s bloody impressive.

R: I didn’t.. M: And don’t pretend you don’t go scouring every haberdashery from here to fecking Rotterdam looking for hats as fine as mine!

L: Lads!  Lads.  Steady on there now.  We’re here to play some music, yes?

R: Yeah!  Honestly, some people.

L: Right so.  Now, ‘opera’ was it?

M: … yeah.

L: Grand job.  Sure it doesn’t matter about the words.  I’ve been meaning to learn Italian anyway.

M: It’s by Monteverdi!

R … I actually heard he’s supposed to be really good.


The Sick Call, Mathew J. Lawless, B. 1837, D.1864
The Sick Call, Mathew J. Lawless, B. 1837, D.1864
I feel the water swell around me as I guide them through the mantras. I feel the smile I know is kindly fade into my face. I hear the stifled sobs of those who bring me. The echoed fervour of their words.
Crossing a river means facing death, but it is not my end I go to meet. I am no Caesar* with his Rubicon; I do not float across the Styx; Those around me are not my Charon – no, I go to play that part. I go to ease another crossing.
There are prisoners on the other side, waiting for a key.
There lies a lonely -and beloved – child wanting to be free.
There are anxious friends and family,
And there is me.
As the prayer soaks into the brine I step inside myself. You never truly adapt to this. Always the doubts resume.
With a gentle mask of sympathy,
and solemn words of dusty Latin I know I shall bring them peace, but I know I could give them harmony equally well should I quote from the Quran, or Kabbalah books of “Devilry”.
Why do I choose the Pie Jesu?
Because my father died to the tune of the rites I go to give? Are my words of hope and trust just a continuing deception?
Where is the faith I once possessed? Where was the fire of conviction quenched? Have these rivers, these dying innocents made me doubt?
I want to still believe.
But it was the people who gave me robes and food, a flock and a direction. I owe my happiness to those who owe the cost of holy bread.
I only wish I could give them that which they deserve. A God with less apathy or antipathy or both. A cure, or at least the certain treatment of no God to lay them low.
But alas, there lies inside a darker thought which keeps me in the collar. A balance for the thought of a Godless world: A Godless people.
For what will befall, when that day comes where I am no longer “needed”?
No baptism or last rites to guide or offer comfort.
Life shall be a process and death shall be the end – no, worse:
Birth shall be one bank, death shall be the other.
Life shall be motion without emotion.
Ebbs and swell but lacking depth.
Nothing at the end but ocean,
Life shall be a river.
*Just realised this was stolen almost verbatim from Arrival of the Beebox by   Plath.


A Lady Writing a Letter, with her Maid , c.1670 Johannes Vermeer
A Lady Writing a Letter, with her Maid , c.1670 Johannes Vermeer

Consider the woman that writes a letter – what story must she tell? With her left palm pressed flat against the paper, posed for business, this task must be done. Does she write, in a dictation from her maid, an order to a local enterprise perhaps, some eggs maybe, or a juicy piece of meat.  Her chest is raised, tense, holding a breath as if hit suddenly by a bucket of ice sharp water or a gust of cold air on a hot day.  Some news has caused this intake, the agitating broadcast flung, crumbled, to the tiled abyss beneath her feet – out of sight but not of mind. Her eyes are fixed in a determined concentration, she is lost in a world searching for those words, exploring vagrant phrases that she could use to fence up all her thoughts and emotions – every treasure that lies hidden with that breath beneath her chest. In her world she is the master sitting on her throne quietly contemplating her predicament, devising strategy, moving her words like an army, the aggressor will be appeased.

Consider the distant maid lost in a monotonous daydream – what world does she inhabit? A foot soldier waiting for duty, her arms are folded tightly, defensively on guard. She was conscripted from her daily chores for a mission she wants no part of. The messenger whose duty it is to weave her way through the minefields of no-mans land between the two forces. She stands now, waiting, inhabiting a world outside the window. A world where the sun is shining, the birds are singing perhaps even there are children playing, a world in contrast to the boring muddy trenches she has become accustomed to. She stares in amazement.

Two women, two lives, two worlds.


Portrait of Charles Coote, 1st Earl of Bellomont, by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Portrait of Charles Coote, 1st Earl of Bellomont, by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Today is the day my existance becomes solidified through a timeless work of art. My portrait shall hang proudly amongst college Halls, it is what you shall leave behind for the future. At least, that’s what my father said. He was quite a crass man my father. Never understood why I could never find an appropriate suitor, never contemplated my awkward mannerisms or “untoward animation” as he put it, in court.

“Just boyish curiosity” I once overheard from his drawing room.

Instead, today is a day that I will be dressed in decadent pink and luscious hat with such a contrived stance. The artist had drawn many portraits of men in Parliament. When the artist started snickering whenever I spoke I began to recall the groups of men in the House of Lords flaring nostrils at me. They’re a judgemental, yet often precise group of fellows over in Parliament.

So, what do I leave for the future? Well, my line is sure to end with me. I will fade out in a time to stringent for me. Amongst these plush robes and curtains however, is my poignant face. Not knowing whether to look proud and powerful as father would want or to retaliate against the mockery I am being held subject to by this meager artist. I can only hope that someday a person like me can be understood. Maybe this portrait can endure until then… ~ Surrounded by darkness, He see’s the light, Hoping his pain Will be ended this night He has suffered in silence He has fought the long fight He has been poked and prodded He has dealt with his plight But the end is nigh And he feels no fear For somewhere better awaits, Somewhere far from here.


Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 00.05.38 Lonely on the Terrace

The clouds look like mountains, or the mountains look like clouds – I can never tell. Just when I think I’m getting closer to the truth, I follow a thin thread of cloudy smoke, following in the footsteps of our very own Theseus, only for my eyes to land on stale ashes, strewn across the marble stones. A remnant of a lavish party, one could think, as I stand here, alone, on this terrace that could fit fifty. No, the ashes are nothing more than reminders of the lost afternoons spent tapping out cigarette after cigarette after cigarette, looking out at a world I can only imagine. The wind picks them up and they snicker around my feet, making fun of me the way the trout does when it stares back up from my frying pan. I flip it over, and the sizzle brings me a short-lasting relief until I notice his mocking eye still on me, because he knows the truth you can only know when you’ve been hooked, gutted and fried – the obvious truth you were born to forget and die to remember. The ivy vines slither towards me, climbing over, around, and under anything that gets in their way, and the wind blows through the tall cypress tree, creating a a soft rumble that awakens all the surrounding creatures. Selfishly, I like to think that all this is playing out for me, that somehow, nature is trying to get my attention. But looking out at the strict vines and the potted plant praying for a little more room to grow, I know that nature will never need me, or my attention, or my carefully sharpened shears. So frame it, because it’ll only ever look good from the outside, surrounded by gold, hanging up by 2 strong and sterile strings of metal. Catch this glimpse and catch it now, because in a second I’ll turn and smile at you, laughing warmly, and you’ll wonder whether the light played a trick on your eyes.


The Woman in White

This place I am in
So pretty and bright
But I don’t belong here
Though I’m dressed in white.

A Convent Garden (1911) by William John Leech (1881-1968)
A Convent Garden (1911) by William John Leech (1881-1968)

Flowers surround me
They bring me much cheer
I spent my time with them
They hold back my tears

These women in white
They just do not care
I know they’d prefer
If I wasn’t here

But I have my flowers
And they keep me strong
I won’t let these women
Make me feel I don’t belong.

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 00.12.39The evening stretched like a pale skin over the taut sky. Wispy red-lined clouds stood still as purple and navy fringes seemed to frame them surreally. The river seemed peaceful, almost asleep and the people leaving the library on the opposite bank appeared intent and purposeful. With practised ease he opened the backdoor and placed the shopping on the backseat, feeling a twinge in his left arm before he sat down behind the steering wheel. The St. Christopher medal rocked in slow arcs from the rear view mirror as he waited to gather his composure. The voice on the radio said it would rain later in the night and a lone heron perched precariously mid-stream, oblivious to the weather, the flow of people that thronged the bridge and the old man who sat in the car opposite.Turning off the radio he sat in silence for a moment as the pain surged through his arm once more and then it was gone. It was an unfamiliar sensation, a tightness that felt like he was being squeezed from within. He knew what it meant and so he stared out the window and watched life dissipate. He heard children singing in the play park and he gazed at the blue mist that hung in the evening light that made everything surreal. The cars moved in procession past him, slowly stirring to and from the town. Music from stereos crackled and blared as the colours of the street seemed like swirling rainbows. The pain returned all too soon and he realised what was to come, what was going to happen. He had the face of a sad angel that day; an angular face that radiated wisdom and strength. He felt older, weary and tired.Minutes passed and he suddenly found himself back in Enniscorthy, a young man living in a younger time. He remembered how different life had been, how it moved much slower in the country where everyone knew everyone else. The Smiths lived two fields away and the O’Briens lived at the end of the laneway that the families shared. They ate in each other’s kitchens and dreamed each other’s dreams. Peter told stories from times they all imagined, tales of British soldiers and Black and Tan raids that mixed mythology with the expanding memory of a storyteller. He related stories of romance and gossip and no matter how often they were told they transfixed the listeners. It was a place of magic and the strange perfumes of the countryside were everywhere and were at once alien and familiar. The aroma of the river water immediately assailed his senses. It smelled stale and fresh and brought the paradoxes of the strange synaesthesia of country life back to his memory.He listened to the gentle flow of the water as he ambled up the dirt road to the farmhouse following the smell of his mother’s freshly baked soda bread. Wednesday was baking day and he could still taste the fresh bread with the grainy strawberry jam in his mouth. He remembered sitting down with his family for dinner, a daily ritual. “I don’t care if you’re goin’ to meet the bleedin’ Pope”, his da used to shout as the family gathered quietly around the great pine table. Nobody could eat until their mother had joined them and Grace had been said, then the verbal interrogations and jousts began. The middle child of five, he soon learned how to fight and stick up for himself. Mealtimes were battles and the real wars were enacted outside as he remembers wrestling with John and Sean over a bloody hurley! They tore his books and laughed at his concentration when he read about Odysseus and Aeneas, mocking his pretensions. Long gone now, they teased him for being interested in school, for wanting to get somewhere, and he did get somewhere.Cathedral Street was slowly filling up with workmen, office clerks and students rushing home. This street was forever thronged with youths, gathering in the mornings before school or in the afternoons for frivolous conversations and liaisons of the heart. He remembers how he too met the love of his life on this very street. He had just graduated from UCD with a degree in English, Latin and French; young, naïve and jobless he had offered to teach French to a daughter of the local pub owner. He smiles to himself now as he sees her, boldly walking up to him, her golden hair tied in a bun sitting at the nape of her neck with eyes you could drown in. He knew from that moment his life would change forever and after seven years he finally plucked up the courage to ask for her hand and so he began on a new adventure.

The Cathedral bell chimes twice bringing him back to the present. He looked across the churchyard through the gates and sees himself standing proudly on the front steps at his youngest daughter’s wedding. He remembers the faces in the crowd that day, their innocent and childlike awe as the newlyweds appeared from the gothic arched door. He thought of the smiles and the light of all the wonderful things he had been blessed with in his life. People laughed and congratulated him as the confetti and rice showered through the air.

He suddenly felt his breath tighten. He could sense the pounding of blood in his ears. Straggling students hurry past his car window, rushing back for study. The feeling of terror in the pit of their stomach, as they reach the school doors, he knew all too well. He liked to petrify his own students for being late but would always give them a cheeky wink when he had finished giving out. He smiled. Outside he saw children running out of primary school filled with innocent joy and laughter, sharing longwinded stories with their parents about what had happened that day at school. Stopping to catch his breath he remembers collecting his own granddaughter. A smile crept on to his face as he recounted how he used to spend endless days of adventure with her. He used to bring her to the local park where they rested in the shade watching people coming and going, or teach her about gardening – “Bellis Perennis”, that’s their true name Clasey his deep booming voice echoed, as he sees her running after him, always tripping, always in the way. When they were finished, he would softly kiss her forehead and retire to his sun chair under the great oak. He loved her clear blue eyes and the way her left eyebrow raised slightly when she was amused, how she would wag her finger when nobody else was looking. Her laughter was infectious something which he liked to think he had passed onto her.

The town bustled with energy as people gathered after work. His heart fluttered with nerves as he glanced up at the Cathedral clock once more. It was nearly time. A sudden hush descended over the street, as if they knew what was going to happen. He slowly rolled down the window to feel the humid evening air assuage his face. He saw the ghosts of all the people who had come and gone, memories that showed up so quickly but now leave him far too soon. He closes his eyes and sees her face; like a porcelain doll, with her sun-kissed hair in a bun just below her neck and wind flushed cheeks. Her voice soft and light like the first snowflake to fall. He looks into her deep blue eyes and almost drowns in them.

The St. Christopher medal rocked in slow arcs from the rear view mirror as he waited to gather his composure. The lone heron perched precariously mid-stream, oblivious to the weather, the flow of people that thronged the bridge and the old man who sat alone in the car opposite. The pain escalated and that was it.

“More and more, when I single out the person who inspired me most, I always go back to my grandfather.”


Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 00.27.04

Surrounded by darkness,
He see’s the light,
Hoping his pain
Will be ended this night

He has suffered in silence
He has fought the long fight
He has been poked and prodded
He has dealt with his plight

But the end is nigh
And he feels no fear
For somewhere better awaits,
Somewhere far from here.


Art exhibition reflects creative activity among mental health community

Open to anyone using the mental health services throughout Cork City and county, the project aims to encourage creative activity, raise the profile of the artists, increase awareness of talents, and use art as a bridge between artists and the wider community. In total, 87 paintings go on display.

“Any of the artists will tell you this exhibition empowers them and gives them a sense of purpose,” says Brendan McCarthy, development manager at Cork Mental Health Foundation. (Examiner) >

Living/Loss: The Experience of Illness in Art, at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery in UCC

Fiona Kearney, who has curated the show in association with Prof Fergus Shanahan of the APC, says she wanted the show to be empathetic. “While there have been a number of exhibitions which have used a diagnostic eye, there have been very few, if any, which have looked at it from a patient’s perspective,” says Kearney. “We felt that to really honour that, it was important to structure the show in that way.” (Examiner) >

Experience of Illness: Learning from the Arts from Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre at UCC

Hughie O’Donoghue ‘Knocknalower, Hill of the Lepers’ (University College Cork Collection)

[From the Irish Times >] Peter Whorwell: “Some of the current questions we ask to diagnose depression are quite intrusive, such as ‘have you ever thought about killing yourself?’ which is very difficult to answer.” The only caveat is that such a screening model would have to be validated in different cultures, as red can be a positive colour in China for example. Colours can have different cultural connotations around the world. Whorwell and Carruthers are also currently trying out their model in schools with younger children who can sometimes find it difficult to articulate illness.

Another speaker who has articulated her own illness is leading bipolar disorder expert, Dr Kay Jamison, a professor of psychiatry from Johns Hopkins University and an acknowledged world expert on mood disorders.

In 1995, Jamison wrote a book entitled An Unquiet Mind, where she admitted that she lived with bipolar disorder. Her admission was regarded as a brave move, and she received broad support from her family and colleagues. She will deliver a talk on the consequences of public disclosure of mental illness, relying on her own experience and the stigma that still surrounds some mental health illnesses. I ask her about how people with bipolar disorder feel about being honest about their condition when applying for a job.

On the medical side, Prof Fergus Shanahan from the department of medicine, University College Cork, will speak about what it feels like to be ill, while Dr Aoife Lowney, who specialises in palliative care, will talk about how new media is helping patients communicate their illnesses.

Experience of Illness: Learning from the Arts will be hosted by the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre at University College Cork on Friday (5pm-8.30pm) and Saturday, from 9am. It is free, but pre-registration is required.

Art meets the Science of Alzheimer’s

Pictures at an Exhibition: Art meets the Science of Alzheimer’s

Royal College of Physicians, Kildare Street, Dublin; Wednesday 28th November 2012; 2.30 – 5.30pm

Pictures at an Exhibition: Art meets the Science of Alzheimer’s is a programme of projects, culminating next Wednesday in a unique seminar, exploring the experience of dementia and the arts.

Renowned composer Ian Wilson and members of the Irish Chamber Orchestra (ICO) were in residence in the Age Related Health Care Unit at Tallaght Hospital for three months. Visual artist Lucia Barnes also completed a residency earlier this year where she worked with people with dementia and their family carers and created work in collaboration with them.

The residencies will culminate in a unique seminar, Arts and Alzheimer’s, to be held on Wednesday November 28th 2012, from 2.30 – 5.30pm at the Royal College of Physicians Ireland. Wilson’s new work will be performed by the ICO (Kenneth Rice, Violin, Joachim Roewer Viola and Malachi Robinson, Double bass) with soloist Cathal Roche Saxophone. Barnes’ art will be on exhibition. Composition and fine art students are an integral component of this project as they learn about the role of arts in healthcare and with particular reference to patients with dementia.

The seminar brings together the art and science of dementia and will reflect on the interplay between the rapid advances in the sciences of Alzheimer’s disease – from neuro imaging to novel insights into personhood – with the ferment of creativity provided by two unique artist residencies.

This event is a Dublin City of Science 2012 event, held in conjunction with the Heritage Centre, Royal College of Physicians, Ireland and the Meath Foundation.

Tickets free but places are limited. To book please email or telephone 01 414 2076

Find out more:

Patients soothed by internet messages

A trial of the web-based service from Irish start-up company Vivartes was carried out among patients of the National Stem Cell Transplant Unit at St James’s Hospital in Dublin.

‘Open Window’ transmits images and videos of artwork along with positive messages from family members directly to a patient’s room using the internet and mobile networks. Denis Roche, who founded the company which has one part-time and two full-time employees in Kilkenny, said the results of the Trinity College study would boost the rollout of ‘Open Window’. (Independent) >

Brenda Moore-McCann review of Apertures & Anxieties: Artists Celebrate 300 years of TCD’s School of Medicine, Royal Hibernian Academy

Medicine only became ‘scientific’ in the early twentieth century with the transfer of diagnosis and treatment from the privacy of the home to the public space of the hospital. There was also a shift in perception of the doctor. To distance themselves from possible charges of quackery, doctors adopted the scientist’s white coat, a metaphor for the serious pursuit of knowledge but also a symbol of the cleanliness then lacking in public institutions. (Circa) >

Des O’Neill wrote about the same exhibition in the BMJ >

Medics and artists study anatomy in 3D

Students from both disciplines can now study human surface anatomy in precision detail and in full 3D. The results of the venture will go on public display tomorrow at the Royal Hibernian Academy.

The work is a two-year collaboration involving the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Trinity College Dublin and the academy, Prof Clive Lee, professor of anatomy at the RCSI, said. (Times) >