Co-curators Donal Maguire & Brendan Rooney introduce Jack B. Yeats : Painting and Memory, an exhibition currently showing at the National Gallery of Ireland celebrating the work of one of Ireland's most iconic artists.

'No one creates. The artist assembles memories' - Jack B. Yeats

Jack B. Yeats was born 150 years ago this year. He is celebrated as one of the most important Irish artists of the twentieth century, and remembered as a gifted painter and instinctive draftsman who excelled in numerous visual artforms. Yeats was a talented illustrator and deft watercolourist, but painting in oils was his definitive artistic language.

Yeats completed more than 1,200 oils before he died in 1957 at the age of eight-five. Astonishingly, he produced 56% of his oil paintings (some 672 pictures) in the last fifteen years of his long life, and the majority of those (594) between the age of seventy-two and eighty-one. These included many of the most expressive and experimental pictures by which the artist is perhaps best known.

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Listen: Art historian Jessica Fahy walks us through the exhibition Jack B. Yeats: Painting & Memory at the National Gallery of Ireland.

Yeats did not take up oil painting until he reached his early thirties, and only began painting in oils regularly at the age of thirty-eight, when he abandoned watercolour altogether. Yeats’s confidence in oils seems to have grown from this point and over the next four decades, his painting style and technique were characterised by a progressively fearless approach to experimentation in the medium. The freedom of expression and imaginary content often admired and valued in Yeats’s oils represents, therefore, the pursuits and interests of a mature artist.

Via Sunday Miscellany: The Younger Brother - Dermot Bolger on Jack B Yeats, the much-loved painter who "described everything twice"

Memory was a consistent preoccupation for Yeats. ‘The true artist’, he wrote, ‘has painted the picture because he wishes to hold again for his own pleasure … a moment, and because he is impelled … to pass on the moment to his fellows, and to those than come after him’. While some of Yeats’s paintings represent a straightforward reimaging of early experiences, others are graver and more metaphysical reflections. Memory allowed him to explore opposites in human experience and extremes in human emotion, evidence of which he found in folklore and mythology, but also in his own personal history.

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Watch: Jack B. Yeats exhibition opens at National Gallery, via RTÉ News

]Yeats preferred not to talk at length about his paintings, or to provide explanations or meaning. Instead, as Thomas MacGreevy recalled, he wanted his audience ‘to contribute to the work of art in [their] own way’. His pictures are, as a consequence, deeply personal but at the same time strikingly universal and open to interpretation.

The 150th anniversary of the birth of Jack B. Yeats has provided the National Gallery of Ireland with the opportunity to remember an artist for whom the act of remembering, and looking back, was central to the progression and originality of his art.

Comprising 84 paintings and spanning 5 rooms, this exhibition brings together the largest collection of Yeats’s oils in fifty years.

Jack B. Yeats : Painting and Memory is at the National Gallery of Ireland until 6th February 2022 - find out more here.