The Guardian view on memory in art: fallible yet magical

The National Gallery of Ireland’s exhibition of the work of Jack B Yeats, soon to conclude, is most encouraging for those who feel that they have yet to fulfil their creative potential. The artist made many of his most avant garde works when he was in his 70s and 80s, a period in which he was also at his most prolific as an oil painter. As an artist, he ended up worlds away from the young man he’d been in 1905, producing sketches for the Manchester Guardian to illustrate JM Synge’s pioneering articles on the appalling poverty suffered by the inhabitants of rural Connemara and Mayo. Over time, his style loosened and dissolved into near abstraction – though he never abandoned elements of figuration. By the end, he was no longer working from observation, but from memory.

Memory is fallible. Family members will remember the same incidents differently, and describe them using different words. Eyewitness accounts often vary. Memory is slippery and dangerous, but that is also what makes it such a profoundly important creative tool. Where would Paula Rego be without her self-consciously faulty use of memory, one that verges on mythologisation, in an oeuvre that draws so deeply on her childhood? The point for her is not accurate, photographic recall, but memory used almost as a dreamscape, to be visited to harvest artistic material. James Joyce’s reconstruction of Dublin in Ulysses, published a century ago this year, relishes precisely recalled topographical details – but he used memory to alienate himself from his native city, so that he could re-render it as the epic canvas for his masterpiece of modernism.

The National Gallery exhibition shows Yeats returning to similar scenes throughout his career; often, the further he is, temporally, from the source material (childhood holidays in Sligo, the 1920s streetscapes of Dublin), the more powerful the work. The American author George Saunders has made a similar point about distance, memory and creativity in a different context: that of the work of Leo Tolstoy. The Snowstorm, a story published in 1856, has an almost documentary quality, he argues, based as it was on an actual event two years previously in which the author had been lost all night in the snow. By the time he came to write Master and Man four decades later, based on the same experience, memory had been transfigured into a masterpiece of the short story form.

Yeats’s very last paintings, made in the 1940s and 50s, can seem almost numinous, filled with a significance beyond their apparent subject matter. His Leaving the Far Point (1946) seems on one level to conjure up a memory from his youth, as three figures in holiday finery amble along a Sligo shore. But the figures almost deliquesce into the landscape behind them; there is a great sense of loss in this work. The neuroscientist Prof Ruth Byrne has pointed out that these late works sometimes not only depict remembered scenes, but in a sense, render how scenes are remembered – “faintly and tenuously”. The painting speaks of nostalgia, mortality and loss, but also, through the very fragility of the figures, the elusive nature of memory itself.

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