‘Ulysses is a big, democratic book... and Joyce has a tonic sense of humour’

Artist Charles Cullen

Artist Charles Cullen. 

Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Artist Charles Cullen. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

This Saturday, June 16, is Bloomsday and the Town Hall Theatre marks the occasion with a superb exhibition, Nighttown, featuring Joyce-inspired prints and drawings by Charles Cullen, which runs until the end of July.

Cullen has long been recognised as one of Ireland’s finest draughtsmen and painters and this is the first solo exhibition of his work in Galway. When he was in Galway a few days ago to hang the exhibition, Cullen sat down with me to talk about his work and his enduring love of James Joyce and Ulysses. I began by asking about his family background and what first sparked his artistic impulse.

“I was born in Granard but we moved to Longford town when I was about four; we had a drapery business,” he tells me. “My mother was also a trained musician and I remember my father having a set of books called The World’s Greatest Paintings and I used to look at those all the time. There wasn’t much encouragement regarding art in the late fifties in Longford as you can imagine, so I had to more or less delve into it myself.

“There was one teacher however called Ken Clarkin who I did art classes with and he was very encouraging. My father died when he was just 44, leaving seven children, so that was hard on us. I was lucky then to get a scholarship to go to the National College of Art and Design because otherwise I could not have afforded to go. When I started there, Sean Keating was the professor of painting and Maurice MacGonigal was his assistant. Keating was very old by that time so he didn’t call around very much, McGonigal was the main teacher. I still know a lot of the guys I met in NCAD then. ‘Galway’ Joe Dolan, the singer and artist, was a great friend of mine.”

It was during this period Cullen first encountered and became smitten by Ulysses. “Joyce was kind of forbidden then but I loved Ulysses,” he says. “It’s such a big, democratic book - you can go into it anywhere - and Joyce has a tonic sense of humour. His worry about the book throughout writing it was would people find it funny; that was a very important aspect for him. The book was never officially banned, though they banned everything else, but it wasn’t easy to find a copy. I also loved its panoramic picture of Dublin.”

After leaving college, Cullen spent some time living in Barcelona before returning to Dublin where he was part of a new wave of emergent Irish artists, founding, with John Behan and others, the New Artists Group, and, in 1966, the Project Arts Centre. He then began teaching at NCAD where he got caught up in conflicts between students and the college authorities; “I sympathised with the students,” he states. “When I began teaching there I felt compromised. I liked the students but I was being warned by the authorities that some of them were ‘troublemakers’; then they started to think that I was a troublemaker too, by association. The students were rebelling against outdated practices at NCAD which was then pretty much like what any British art school would have been like in the 1920s.

“There was an antique room where you’d make copies of Greek sculpture with, of course, fig leaves applied by the Board of Works to stop the nuns complaining about nudity. A guy would come in with a bagful of plaster fig leaves and screw them on to these wonderful pieces of sculpture. In the Hugh Lane gallery for example there was a standing male nude sculpture called The Age of Bronze by Rodin, and it was the only copy of that piece that had a fig leaf – the original didn’t!”

Cullen’s involvement in NCAD campus disputes actually led to his being fired but he was later reinstated and went on to become head of the painting department, a position he held until his retirement in 2000. Among those he taught were Martin Gale and Michael O’Dea, two of our foremost contemporary painters.

‘There was an antique room where you’d make copies of Greek sculpture with, of course, fig leaves applied by the Board of Works to stop the nuns complaining about nudity’

It was in 2004, just a few years after retiring, that Cullen first presented a Nighttown exhibition, which largely drew on the incidents described in the ‘Circe’ chapter of Ulysses, where Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus visit Bella Cohen’s bordello. As Cullen’s introduction to that show explained; “I first came to Dublin in the late fifties. Later, living off Cork Street near the Coombe and reading Ulysses, I started making urban drawings on the theme of Nighttown. Frank Budgen noted that ‘Circe’ was ‘the longest, the strangest, and in many ways the strongest episode in Ulysses, it is steeped in the atmosphere and governed by the logic of hallucination’. I made the first print on the theme in 1973. I see the present suite of prints very much as a work in progress, the theme far from over or exhausted for m.”

“I loved that chapter’s hallucinogenic, dreamlike quality,” Cullen tells me. “That gave me more freedom and scope in devising my own response to it. I like its darkness, which is why there is so much black and white and grays in the exhibition. I used to wander around that area of Dublin described in the chapter, which was known as Monto. At that time it still looked much as it did in Joyce’s day but a lot of the buildings have been pulled down now. I could identify with that episode, Nighttown lent itself to the dark, or the darkness of my vision! Most of the prints from that 2004 show are in this exhibition but then I made more works in the series at different times and they are in the Town Hall as well.”

‘I did charcoal drawings of Nora Barnacle recently.I thought they’d be nice to include in the show given her connection to Galway’

The works in the show are full of Joycean vitality and variety, ranging from the bawdy carnality of ‘Can I Help?’, depicting Bella Cohen squatting on Bloom, to the delicate loveliness of ‘Molly at the Mirror’, showing Molly Bloom applying her make-up. When the exhibition was first shown, in 2004, Irish Arts Review warmly praised its “power and audacity” and declared that ‘the graphic style is typical Cullen, energetic and measured yet still edgy’.

This 2018 edition of Nighttown extends beyond Ulysses to engage with Finnegans Wake in pieces like ‘The Haunted Ink Bottle’ and there are also three fine portraits of Nora Barnacle. “I did those charcoal drawings quite recently,” Cullen reveals of his Nora images. “I thought they’d be nice to include in the show given her connection to Galway!”

As we wrap up our chat I ask Cullen for his thoughts on art today after a lifetime working as an art maker and art teacher; “At the moment anything goes, there is no ruling ‘ism’,” he notes. “The arts now are a very open situation and digital technology is another factor which I am not familiar with in the sense that I’d be a traditionalist. I’d be quite happy with a stick of charcoal and a few sheets of paper. I’m 78 now and in that sense I suppose I am part of my time –but who isn’t?” Our interview done, we stroll toward Quay Street, pausing briefly in Bowling Green, where Cullen takes pleasure in seeing the house where Nora Barnacle grew up.

Nighttown, curated by Margaret Nolan, runs at the Town Hall bar and will be officially opened this Saturday at 3pm by cartoonist Tom Mathews.

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