DUBLIN (Reuters Life!) - An American-born artist’s nude portraits of elderly Irish people has fueled a debate over age, modesty and changing values in a society recovering from the rise and sudden fall of the “Celtic Tiger.”
Daniel Mark Duffy, born in the United States into an Irish family, said his paintings of men and women over 40 celebrated life and sexuality over the fear of aging.
“As we age our viability and visibility wanes,” the 48-year-old artist told Reuters in a phone interview.
“These are really intimate portraits. Once we put fear aside, there were just two human beings (painter and model) talking about their breasts, their stomach, their body changing.”
“It is the patina and texture of a 99-year-old man’s hands and feet or the definitive swollen belly of a 93-year-old woman that demands my consideration,” he said.
Duffy drew both praise and criticism last year when his portrait of 65-year-old Irish writer Nell McCafferty went on display in Dublin.
Some critics argued the feminist campaigner, posing in her bathroom, contradicted everything she stood for. Irish art fans logged on to websites to urge her to put her clothes back on.
McCafferty said she was delighted with the portrait.
“I thought it was lovely. We’re naked as nature intended,” she told the Evening Herald newspaper.
The Herald retorted in an editorial: “She may be a national treasure, but we really don’t need to see her in the buff.”
The painting was bought for 10,000 euros ($14,960) by a professor at a university in the west of Ireland and is now hanging at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Museum, in Washington.
Duffy said he started to work on this particular project in 2007, during one of his frequent trips to Ireland.
He posted letters to politicians, journalists, activists, artists and businessmen, as well as victims of abuse and devastating illnesses, inviting them to be models.
“It is about all these wonderful stories that have been told in every inch of their flesh,” said the painter, whose previous jobs ranged from illustrations of paleontology at a New York natural history museum to children’s books.
Asked why he picked the traditionally Catholic country for the project, Duffy said he was interested in the development of Irish society and believed Irish people had a respect for art.
“They liked the idea of being the subject of a painting.”
A series of Duffy’s drawings made more than one head turn at a gallery near Dublin this month, with a multimedia exhibition of paintings and videos expected next year in a bid to extend the project to the United States and other European countries.
“Bulges-and-all portraits of naked, fleshy people are actually rather in vogue at the moment,” Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole said.
Earlier this year, another artist’s two caricatures of a chubby, half-naked Prime Minister Brian Cowen holding a toilet roll in one picture and a pair of Y-front underpants in the other sparked an outcry after they were displayed as a prank without the permission of the Dublin art galleries involved.
As Ireland comes to terms with the collapse of its decade-long boom, some say it is ironic that public shame is focused more on pieces of art than the corporate excesses which have precipitated an economic downturn that has hit hard.
“Let’s get this straight. It is not indecent to award yourself six-figure bonuses for destroying the banking system,” O’Toole said. “But it is indecent to hang up paintings of a man naked from the waist up.”
Reporting by Antonella Ciancio, Editing by Andras Gergely and Paul Casciato