Harry Kernoff RHA (1900 - 1974)
The Family - Oil on Canvas
Harry Kernoff is one of Ireland's most distinguished artists. Initially, in the mid 1920's, he was regarded with some lack of understanding, as an eccentric innovator, in an artistic environment largely dominated by the powerful orthodoxy of William Orpen. However, he persisted with, and developed his original and innovative expression, the mark of which was the great emphasis he placed on form. Most of his predecessors and contemporaries were producing dreamily-conceived paintings; Kernoff most certainly reacted against this 'romantic twilight'.
Although Kernoff attaches great importance to the formal element in his work, he always gives precedence to the general purpose. Kernoff's best work is credited with clarity of vision, with meticulous, objective craftsmanship, and a refusal to poeticise. He was an earnest painter, but his work is not without humour: see his "Composition in Space-Time", which was the subject of much indecision at the 1941 Academy.
The excellence of Kernoff's woodcuts "Man with a Pint", "Peasant Woman" and "Dublin Cab" testifies to his success in this medium. Ireland had no tradition in woodcuts, so no national standard existed at the time of his work. Any comparison must be made with continental workers in the medium. There is an undoubted affinity, for example, between Kernoff's work and that of contemporary French and Russian workers: their work shares a certain freedom and drama. Kernoff's shows a very modern sense of composition. It is imbued with a certain naivete and directness, as was to be seen in the early days of the craft. His wood block is cut plank wise, which means that the grain and texture of the wood require a simple cutting technique and preclude elaborate engraving. These constraints combined with Kernoff's compositional mastery, almost always produce bold, dramatic works. There are two schools of thought on woodcuts: the first is that they should represent recognisable objects in a naturalistic manner, through the use of every elaboration technique. The second says that there should be "woodiness" in the resulting piece, where the medium and the artist's joy in working his knife should be obvious.
Kernoff's approach lies between these two ideas. He works out his composition, unifying the subject and the background. Despite the limitations of the medium, he manages to convey the character of his subject with great subtlety through his masterful manipulation of the knife. This can be clearly seen in "Peasant" and "Peasant Woman". The original raison d'etre of the woodcut, i.e. as the sole means of reproducing a drawing, was long gone when Kernoff was producing his work. However, the use of this medium was not a mere sentimental nod to the past; it was a well-justified medium of expression for artists, particularly one such as Kernoff, who valued forthright conception and strong composition and who was well in tune with the severity of the discipline involved in woodcut. Kernoff's woodcuts are in no way intended for multiple reproduction of black-and-white drawings. Kernoff's woodcuts also reveal his philosophy and predilections as a painter. He was usually thought of as an urban man, taking his inspiration mostly from Dubliners moving against a backdrop of Dublin pubs, grocers' shops, factories and steamer-filled quays. Through an element of caricature, he invests his fellow-citizens with certain angular idiosyncracies. This native twist finds its literary parallel in works such as Ulysses, At-Swim Two Birds, or Tumbling in the Hay. Its conversational equivalent was to be found in any Mooney's bar on a Saturday afternoon, where "yer man" took his "jar". Kernoff's people are also subjected to his egalitarian vision, which divests them of all class pretensions. They are all somewhat dwarfed, seemingly aware of a hostile and stifling environment. This comes across clearly in "Dublin Worker" and in "Unemployed", while its opposing symbol finds its expression in Kernoff's portrait of James Connolly.
Despite the fact that Kernoff is so well associated with Dublin, he nevertheless beautifully captures the essence of the country-dweller, for example in "Kerry Peasants" or in "Old Blasket Islander"
Edward Sheehy (arranged by Joan Dobbyn)