Born: 7 November 1944
Died: 30 June 2022
Maurice Desmond was an artist with a profound vision, realised through his dark, expressive paintings. He was a passionate and well-read man with a particular fondness for Dante. In a letter written a few weeks before his sudden but not unexpected death, he railed against Irish neutrality in the context of Putin’s blitzkrieg in Ukraine. He included a quote from Dante: “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality.”
Desmond was never neutral. He had strong opinions, well articulated, on art, politics, history and even Irish whiskey. There was no fence he ever found comfortable enough to sit on. In the upper echelons of the Irish art world, where networking and diplomacy play a key role, his unbridled frankness did his career no favours. Despite local success and admiration (the Crawford Gallery in Cork has four of his works in its permanent collection), he was always an outsider on the wider scene. However, it can be inferred confidently from Dante’s dictum that he has avoided the Inferno and sits in Paradise in disputation with good friends such as Sean McSweeney.
In his early days on Sherkin Island he maintained that he survived on a diet of brown rice and mussels picked from the rocks around him
Although born in Co Louth, Maurice Desmond was Cork to the core. Both his parents were from Cork city (his father worked for the ESB and so moved around). After studying at Limerick College of Art, Desmond moved to Cork (a rebel in the Rebel County), where he was to spend the rest of his life. He lived for a while on Sherkin Island, Tower outside Blarney, Monard Glen, and west Cork near Bantry, before he finally settled in the St. Luke’s area of Cork city. Desmond was a full-time artist for his entire life, apart from a very brief spell teaching. He served as a precedent for Cork artists such as Ellis O’Connell and Dorothy Cross, who learned from his example that a career in art was feasible.
In his early days on Sherkin Island he maintained that he survived on a diet of brown rice and mussels picked from the rocks around him. He stuck to his vocation through many lean years before his unique, expressive style, and the professionalism of his approach to art, began to attract a larger audience. His move back to Cork city brought his market closer and at the peak of his career he enjoyed regular sell-out shows at the Triskel Arts Centre and later at John P. Quinlan’s Vangard Gallery. In his prime, he generated the kind of feeding frenzy for his work that his old friend John Shinnors did in Dublin.
After an early flirtation with glowing nudes, waterfalls, and Byronic figures, his mature and distinctive style emerged in the 1970′s. These were sombre landscapes, often with blood-flecked earth and doom-laden skies, and always with that well-defined horizon line. They had a depth and substance to them often enhanced by his employment of impasto. Maurice was much possessed by death (a human skull was a fixture in his studio) and especially by the needless carnage of the first World War and the horrors of the Holocaust.
His paintings were about mood not place, they were condensed tragedies. Their aim was to evoke pity and catharsis as Aeschylus did in The Oresteia or Mahler did with his 6th symphony. He liked to quote Nietzsche on the “metaphysical solace” of tragedy. His last successful exhibition was Flanders Fields in the Vangard Gallery, Macroom in 2012. In a work from that show, Flanders Field, you see light crushed between the bloodied earth and a black sky. There are intimations of chaos and destruction, black streaks against the blood-soaked earth. A pink mist rises over the gory field, a band of watery light is topped by the doom-laden sky.
There was a dark thread running through Maurice’s career. It was being denied entry. In latter years he was frequently barred from his local pub, Henchey’s in St. Luke’s, for a variety of infractions – his transgressions grew more florid over the years. Maurice could be found outside, while his friends sat inside surrounded by his art, which adorned every available portion of wall space in the hostelry. More damaging to his career however was his lack of acceptance in the art world outside Cork – which rankled all the more as his peers and friends gained the laurels denied him. He was overlooked for the initial tranche of 200 Aosdána appointees and once this occurred the die was cast. Desmond was never a self-promoter or a diplomat, always declaring that his work alone spoke for him. He was also eschewed by the RHA – he never submitted again after his solitary entry was rejected.
Despite these institutional rejections, his work was always popular and it made its way into a number of important collections including the Crawford Gallery, University College Cork, the University of Limerick, AIB, and the Arts Council. One of his most dedicated collectors was the Cork barrister Jim O’Driscoll, who had one of the most comprehensive contemporary art collections in the country.
Daily Via Dolorosa
Desmond’s last 15 years or so were sad ones. He was always a big drinker – Beamish was his drink. However, his partner and soulmate Deirdre Meaney died in 1999 on a visit to France where they were planning to buy a property. It affected him deeply and over the following years his drinking gradually got worse as he followed daily his Via Dolorosa between the Welcome Inn, an early house in Parnell Place, the Mutton lane Inn near the English Market, and finally, in the late afternoon, the ironically named Three Horseshoes in Dillon’s Cross. His salon in Henchey’s, where once he was at the centre of the sport and badinage, was no longer a welcoming port of call.
After too many fallow years, remarkably, there was a late burst of creativity. This was inspired by the lockdown and by a serious cancer diagnosis
After too many fallow years, remarkably, there was a late burst of creativity. This was inspired by the lockdown and by a serious cancer diagnosis. During an 18-month period he painted over 80 pictures – a late flowering. These were still overtly landscapes, with his distinctive horizon line, but his palette had noticeably brightened. The predominant colour was orange, a colour that represented knowledge and peace, according to the Buddha. It is worn by Buddhist monks to encourage us towards enlightenment. Desmond was never a follower but he developed an interest in Zen Buddhism in his latter years. This late sunburst suggested that he had found some solace at last.
Maurice Desmond is survived by his daughter Aoife and son Shane and by his siblings Judith, Martina, Ronnie and Paul.