IMMA 1993 Retrospective Catalogue
Patrick Swift, by Aidan Dunne

In his introduction to the catalogue of an exhibition of work by Barrie Cooke at The Hague's Gemeentemuseum in 1992, the then director Rudi Fuchs discerned a kind of alternative tradition of modern painting, a tradition of outsiders, within which he included Cooke. He listed off several others: Kokoschka, Soutine, Rouault, Yeats, Asger Jorn, Eugene Leroy, Per Kirkeby.
What the work of these various individuals share is a disinclination or inability "to surrender to" the lure of "pure painting". They have not, that is to say, embarked on the road to abstraction opened up by Cézanne, the "classical consequences" of Cézanne's art. They are observers, reporters, "experiential" painters who stand apart from the central Modernist enterprise.
A moment's thought will furnish many more contenders for this particular Salon des Refusés. For it is a fact that, while the advent of abstraction is the most salient fact about painting in the 20th century, vast numbers of estimable artists have, contemporaneously, pursued a diversity of representational strategies...
Undoubtedly Patrick Swift lines up with Fuchs's outsiders in his passionate attachment to providing descriptions of the world...
His own portraits, and he was an outstanding portrait painter, have a great deal in common with that distinctive Kokoschka directness whereby the painter is indifferent to awkwardness that might arise in the image because that's the way it is. And the most important consideration is a Hemingwayesque imperative to tell is like it is...
To say that much, however, provides nothing like a full account of Swift's scope or interests. As a painter, Kokoschka has a restless, omnivorous eye. He's an optical predator who must keep moving, a shark. Each sitter is a new personality to be consumed. He snaps up whole people and whole cities, always new people and new cities, all the time.
Swift, by contrast, has a side to his character that is ruminative, even obsessive, and he is, like many 20th century painters, addicted to the series. He'll worry about a single face, a single view, over and over again, going beyond immediate description in two respects. He'll enter into a structural analysis of what is in front of him, and he'll address the mechanics of its representation. If fact, more than once throughout his career you'll see him take a purposeful stroll some way down Cézanne's road of painterly "purity", and sometimes he seems to go even further along the road, seems to arrive at some specific destination.
Does this contradict his antipathy towards abstraction? Perhaps that's the wrong question to ask. Perhaps we shouldn't, at this stage, too meekly accept the notion of the mutual exclusivity of figuration and abstraction. Lars Nitve, a curator... remarked during the course of an interview that he is always drawn to those segments of an artist's oeuvre that go against the grain.
You could, he said, always find it if you looked, the works that were in apparent contradiction to the, again apparent, trend, but that were, puzzlingly from the point of view of the academic who sorts artists into schools and categories, made without any acknowledgement of contradiction...
Swift's work, though it always finds its way back to the representational mainstream, frequently allows elements that lead potentially in radically different directions.
Art in Europe after the Second World War was dominated by abstraction, whether geometric abstraction or, especially in the decade immediately following the war, informal, organic abstraction. This was still the case when Swift began exhibiting in Dublin... and it largely accounts for the rueful, even aggrieved tone of his essay, "Official Art and the Modern Painter"... A barbed meditation on the problematic relationship between the individual artist and the cultural establishment, it was in all likelihood prompted by reports of Documenta II at Kassel that year, the painting section of which concentrated on non-figurative work, and perhaps by the touring exhibition, New American Painting, from New York's Museum of Modern Art, which was seen in London that year...
Writing in X, Swift also expressed concern about the perceived shift of focus from Paris to New York. We've seen all this before, he suggests, and it means very little. All that is proclaimed as new, was invented and explored before 1920. In many respects he was quite right, but the avant garde race was by then well under way.
The 1950s were a time of exceptional dynamism in British art, characterised by what Bryan Robertson has called "a sudden expansion of awareness", a great "making up for lost time": that is, of course, the lost time of the Second World War. Swift was a perpetually restless artist, but there is a consistency of approach in his work, and to the extent that one can speak of him as employing a style, it was one formed in the crucible of the 1950s in London, as various movements vied for pre-eminence. His own personal style, reduced (unfairly) to the sum of its constituent influences, might be best described as a compound of Kokoschka, Cézanne and Bomberg: Kokoschka's attack, Cézanne's analysis and Bomberg's tactility.
He clearly possessed an ability to absorb and understand ideas in art, but when he moved to London in 1953, he entered a complex artistic scene in which his own position was practically predetermined. From the mainstream and thoroughly competent academicism of his early work he moved into a meticulous though strongly subjective realism close to that of his friend Lucian Freud. Of Irish painters, he admired Nano Reid...
While the issue is open, and chiefly of academic interest, it is tempting, in the light of his and Freud's subsequent development, to see Freud's influence on Swift as being more significant than his on Freud. This is not to disparage his achievements of the early 1950s, when he produced many portraits, figure paintings and still lifes, usually charged with an atmosphere of wistful melancholy, that are really exceptional by any standard, but to suggest that these pictures represented just once facet of a complex, sophisticated artistic personality.
His work of this time was certainly instrumental in shaping the mature style of the portrait painter Edward McGuire, as Anthony Cronin, who knew both, and the painter's widow, Sally McGuire, have acknowledged, and as any number of his paintings from the early 1950s demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt.
When he voices his disappointment, his unease about the course of art practice, he is in part reiterating a long-standing, intermittent rivalry between figurative and non-figurative art. More than this, perhaps, he is echoing the deep seated British antipathy to the frightening flexibility of Post-Impressionism...
Abstraction in British art had a similar genesis to abstraction in Ireland, that is as an import from Europe (if we ignore, for a moment, Celtic art)... And in a curious way, Swift's work came to embody, in its development, the ambivalence and contradictions of the tensions and play between figuration and abstraction, modernism and regionality.
In Britain, the division between abstraction and figuration, though often emphatically and passionately delineated, was in reality less clear-cut than it might appear at first glance...
The 1950s saw the energetic resumption of interest in various strands of both figurative and abstract art in Britain. But it wasn't just a question of picking up where things had left off. The mood was radically changed...
It is hardly surprising that he and other figurative artists felt that the rug was being pulled from under their feet. But that is not the whole picture.
Nicolas de Staël, who died in 1955, unflinchingly combined abstract methodology with figurative subjects, and his attractive, vibrantly coloured paintings were enthusiastically received in England. As was that of the sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti, a major retrospective of whose work was held in London in 1955... Giacometti was during these years a hugely popular and influential figure whose spindly figures embodied, like Bacon's paintings, existentialist philosophy and the post-war gloom and uncertainty about the human subject, and it seems likely that he influenced the development of Swift's work.
It is not so much the sculptures, however, but the paintings, which cumulatively hedged in isolated figures or heads with a dense linear scaffolding, that made an impact on Swift. Giacometti worked obsessively with the same few sitters all the time. They were invariably people close to him. There is an echo in this procedure of Freud's attitude to his subjects, and it holds true of Swift as well.
In the light of his own work and background, there is a logic to his championing the work of David Bomberg, then an unjustly neglected painter whose career extended back to Vorticism. Though he never consistently heaped on the pigment in the way that became the trademark of Bomberg and his students, particularly Auerbach, Swift was certainly influenced...
Those painters associated with Bomberg had, with a certain justification, an embattled, defensive attitude to the rest of the art world. Swift aligned himself with them in the pages of X. Their work was not a million miles removed from that of many other socially-aware painters, a collective trend that culminated in the Kitchen Sink School, a visual equivalent of literature's Angry Young Men. Kitchen Sink realists like John Bratby made rough hewn images of workaday, deglamourised subjects. In many of Swift's studio still lifes of the time, a similar concentration on and celebration of the mundane is apparent...
He made, at virtually every stage of his career, many paintings of trees. For much of the time the trees are part and parcel of some naturalistic scene, like those, for example, seen from the window of his studio in London. But many paintings zoom in on the motif itself, delighting in the hectic rhythms established by the orderly but profuse curvilinear sweep of the branches. Even earlier studies of back gardens reveal him to be drawn to the abstract qualities of tangled stems and foliage.
But when he gets into his stride in the London tree paintings, we can see not only the influence of Giacometti's spidery line, but also unmistakable echoes of Mondrian's remarkable, sustained deconstruction of the image of a single tree which, with one or two other fixed motifs, were subjected to a withering geometric analysis, and carried his art from involvement in several naturalistic styles to the most rigorous abstraction...
Swift, who admitted to respect, perhaps even admiration for Mondrian, did not subscribe to the idea of inexorable, linear progress towards formal abstraction...
...his approach to Cézanne, the artist of greatest relevance to his work after he moved to Portugal, is close to Coldstream's: rewind the film to some moment before Braque and Picasso reach the point of no return and devise an alternative line of development. Similarly, he followed Mondrian's analytical instinct, but he wanted to retain it within an expressive, representational framework, stopping short of treating the underlying geometric structures and processes, remaining committed to the object itself. It seems fair to say that his abiding belief in the descriptive and expressive possibilities of painting never wavered...
The catalogue of his work suggests that there followed a hiatus on his output as a painter. The merest acquaintance with the range of his activities in Portugal suggests why this is so and marks him out as a man of exceptional energy and determination. However, his painterly energies had by no means been spent and when his position in Portugal was consolidated, he returned to his old levels of productivity. He had though, like Cézanne, removed himself from the art world per se. Again, it was not a unique resort among figurative painters of the day...
The London painters Swift had left behind generally stayed the course, building a public for themselves and, slow burners all, eventually achieving some sort of breakthrough in the 1980s, as the climate became more receptive to expressionism, figuration and painting generally. But, despite his exhibitions in Portugal, or appearances in group shows in Ireland, Swift interacted only sporadically with the art world...
But in the Portuguese work, we find him endlessly, and, it must be said, often inconclusively refighting the same old battles of allegiance...
These things, however, are constants: his enduring interest in describing the world around him, people, things, landscape, his structural curiosity as he rehearses the same subjects, whether Monte Gordo, the fig tree or George Venn's blocky head, and his exploration of physical gesture. His world is rural, even bucolic, and his subject matter is his world...
He likes sketchy first impressions. And sometimes the gruffness, the anti-elegance, the urgency combine to make images that are effective, telling and eloquent... He clearly feels the need to push each picture to its limit, but there is an inconclusiveness to a great deal of the later work.
Much the same thing could be said of Cézanne, who was no natural. He struggled desperately with the mechanics of picture-making and it is no exaggeration to say that his greatness lies in the measure of his failure to be an academician. Such "failures" can open up areas of exploration, can ask awkward questions of official art.
There is another kind of outsider with which Swift might usefully be identified, and that is the breed of Irish painter who, having gone and worked in France, finds him or her self cut adrift from Ireland, Britain and even France itself. Mainie Jellett, Nathaniel Hone the Younger and Roderic O'Conor are just such awkward customers... O'Conor in exile, a bristling presence closely in touch with developments in the art world, working steadily but rarely exhibiting, remote and unaccommodating. There are obvious parallels with Swift, who seems always to have wanted nothing more than to be allowed to be himself.
Aidan Dunne, IMMA Patrick Swift (1927-83) Retrospective Catalogue, 1993


Patrick Swift In His Time, Anthony Cronin (IMMA Retrospective Catalogue, 1993)

Patrick Swift may have been a night-time student in the College of Art when I first met him in the late forties, but I never thought of him as an art student. To me he was a painter; and already someone whose certainty of purpose was as remarkable as his talent. Of course he had a job, but it was understood that this was a temporary inconvenience; and within, I think, some months of our first meeting he had in fact given this up in order to do what he wanted to do most and did best.
Looking at his early work now I am amazed at the maturity and self-possession that was already evident in it. And there is not only a clear grasp of technique and purpose, but his principal subject matter has already been decided on.
He was never in any doubt that painting was a re-creation of what the painter saw: in his own case at least not what the painter had seen or could imagine, but what he was actually looking at during the act of painting. A faithfulness of this sort was part of the bargain, part of his contract with his art. In conversation he — we — associated this faithfulness, this "truth" which might be possible in painting with an equivalent truth or honesty to experience which might be possible in literature, even in poetry, generally speaking the least faithful and the most false of the arts...
But this truth of which we spoke had nothing to do with description... Description is usually illusionism of one sort or another, the quickness of the hand supposedly deceiving the eye. What was at stake was a faithful re-creation of the truth to the artist of the experience, in the painter's case the visual experience, the artist being admittedly only one witness, one accomplice during and after the fact.
Of course this faithfulness did not rule out expressionist overtones. The truth was doubtless subjective as well as objective. Swift's blues and greys were usually properties of what he was painting. They were also part of his vision of things, properties of his mind.
We felt then that time could only find its full expression through an art that was frugal, ascetic, puritanical even... In faraway Paris, Samuel Beckett felt the same thing, writing the trilogy that was to give asceticism, frugality, puritanism and the bitter humour that lies at the heart of the joke that is life, their full expression. Swift's avoidance of warm colours... was born in that time and afterwards harked back to it...
He had met Freud by 1949... My grasp of chronology is not always accurate, but certainly the acquaintance was well-developed by 1950 when we shared the ground-floor of a house in Hatch Street together. Lucian, who was staying in Ireland, used to come around in the mornings to paint, so that sometimes when I would surface around ten or eleven I would find them both at work in the studio next door...
Certainly the influence of Lucian was strong, as why should it not be?... But there is, it should be said, an inevitability in such conjunctions which is part of the zeitgeist for those who feel it intensely enough. The obscure psychological alchemy which brought Swift to the painter's art in the first place brought him also to the requisite acquaintance and the requisite influence.
There is in both painters an intensity which may at first not seem justified by the actual subject matter, a sense of life as always, even in its banalities, perhaps especially in those, verging on horror and partaking of tragedy, something which overtly surrealist painting often aims at and misses. There is the same unwavering regard for the object, an entelechy which has somehow come into existence in a manner that supersedes time and abrogates all space except the space in which it now stands. Doubtless such a painting as Interior in Paddington had a profound influence on Swift (though I see it is dated 1951 when he was already painting works whose manner would seem to have been affected by it... But beyond a certain point influence is really no more than an indication of possibility; and some of the differences were apparent to me even then. He is for example less concerned with surface and texture than Freud was at that point and less obsessional in his painting of it...
In the pages of X and in his writings generally, may be seen also the influence of Charles Baudelaire, which was profound. In what I believe to be his only imagined work, painted from the Nadar photograph to which I directed him, he has acknowledged this influence. Baudelaire stands in Swift's own studio, behind a table strewn with his brushes and jars, the workaday clutter of the space in which art is created. Swift was a literate, but not a literary painter. His judgement of literature was usually very sharp and accurate, though this sharpness is not reflected in some of what he wrote about it.
The influence of Cézanne was lifelong... Because his only show took place in Dublin in the 1950s, an impression was created in these parts that he had given up painting. For the decreasing number of those who knew or cared anything about him, he had somehow disappeared off the map. We live in a time when all activities take place in the shadow-land of media publicity... Swift of course went on painting and paying homage through his work to the trees and foliage of the natural world. His painting became not less austere or less ascetic but more affirmative. In the contemplation and re-creation of these woody, self-supporting stems and trunks with their abundant leafage he found a happiness which was not dependent on human response or the satisfaction of ambition.
Anthony Cronin, IMMA Retrospective Catalogue, 1993


Dublin Oil - Dublin Watercolour/ Ink - Italy - Oakridge/ Ashwell Watercolour - Oakridge/ Ashwell Oil - London Oil - London Watercolour/ Ink - France - Algarve Oil - Algarve Watercolour/ Ink - Self-Portraits - Trees - Portraits I - Portraits II - Porches Pottery - Books - Misc - Algarve Studio
Note: many of the reproductions displayed here are of poor quality

By Swift
Nano Reid - Some notes on Caravaggio - Italian Report - The Artist Speaks - X magazine - RHA Exhibition 1951 - Eça de Queiroz & Fernando Pessoa - The Portuguese Enigma - Notebooks - All

About Swift
Patrick Swift: An Irish Painter in Portugal - IMMA 1993 Retrospective Catalogue - Dublin 1950-2 - By His Friends - X magazine - Poems - Further Quotes About - All

By His Friends
Anthony Cronin - John Ryan - John Jordan - C.H.Sisson - Martin Green - John McGahern - David Wright - Lima de Freitas - Katherine Swift - Tim Motion - Lionel Miskin - Jacques D'Arribehaude - Brian Higgins - George Barker - Patrick Kavanagh

Further Quotes
Brian Fallon - Aidan Dunne - Derek Hill - Brendan Behan - Lucian Freud - Patrick Kavanagh - Elizabeth Smart - Further Quotes About