Shady ladies, gangsters of the pinstripe and other varieties, malevolent chefs and scowling sailors: the art of Graham Knuttel, who has died at the age of 69, is instantly recognisable.
A symbol of Celtic Tiger Ireland, Knuttel’s work was much imitated, and widely collected. His prints adorned many a Dublin 4 diningroom, and his originals, which at their peak sold for six figures, hung in the homes of luminaries including Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro and Frank Sinatra. He was also commissioned by An Post for a pair of postage stamps in 2008.
It was even rumoured that so good was Stallone’s relationship with Knuttel, after a fire destroyed part of Stallone’s California home including some of the artist’s originals, Knuttel agreed to paint them again. Fire featured in a different form in 1998, when Knuttel won a court settlement after the Turk’s Head pub was proved to have commissioned three imitations of his originals. Night on the Town, Love in the Afternoon and Foyer Regent Palace Hotel were separately owned by Sylvester Stallone and Frank Sinatra’s manager and, court case won, the artist was reported to be planning a ceremonial burning of the ersatz works.
In another court case in 2004, the artist, who jealously protected his reputation, successfully sued gallery owner Dermot O’Grady, whose Knuttel Gallery sold works by Graham’s brother Peter, and nephew Jonathan. “I felt that people would be led into the gallery expecting to see my work. If they saw paintings in the shop by Peter Knuttel or Jonathan Knuttel, they might think they were mine,” said the artist at the time.
Knuttel was more eclectic than was often realised. His early, intricate sculptures of animals occasionally appear at auction, and make you wish he had made more of them. Instead, even as he mainly focused on painting, he also made silver chess pieces for sets in collaboration with Viscount Linley, who later became Lord Snowdon. There was a ceramic tableware line with Tipperary Crystal in 2010, and tapestries with the Dixon Carpet Company of Co Galway.
But if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, critical success in the more intellectual circles of the art world eluded him. And while his influence did appear in early works by his nephew; his own influences trace a more fascinating line. He claimed to have been inspired by Cezanne and Picasso, but it is more interesting to explore connections with some of the German and other Eastern European artists of the 1920s and postwar periods.
Born in Dublin in 1954, Knuttel’s own father was German, and had served in the RAF. Family histories describe a sadistic grandmother and the threat of being locked into dark wardrobes. “My father is a strange eccentric man, but he has nothing on his mother,” Knuttel is quoted as saying. “I met her only once when I was four or five but the memory will never leave me.” He described hollow cheeks “whitened with powder and highlighted with rouge,” and her being “tall and thin with a hook like nose”.
It is a description uncannily similar to Otto Dix’s The Dancer Anita Berber from 1925, and Dix’s influence is visible from other works such as his Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden from 1926. There are aesthetic connections too to Basil Rakoczi, who was born in London, of Hungarian descent. Rakoczi’s mother was from Co Cork, and her son moved to Mayo, where he set up The White Stag Group with fellow artist Kenneth Hall. The White Stags aimed to encourage the exploration of psychology in painting, and it is this vein that runs most strongly through Knuttel’s strongest works.
Perhaps a problem was volume, and a certain kind of success can encourage many artists to paint works that look like their art, and yet which aren’t inspired by the same intense urge to explore something under the skin, that then somehow gets under the paint to rest in the best of their output. That is the thread that runs through Knuttel’s most notable works. And it is those, and the memory of a certain mood in the cafes, restaurants and meeting rooms from a particular time and place, in an Ireland that hasn’t quite faded from memory yet.