James McKenna Sculptor







































































































James McKenna - a European Perspective

Giuseppe Serpillo, University of Sassari, attempts to evaluate artistic output of James McKenna from a european perspective. He looks at McKenna's poetry, plays and sculpture and dance seeing echoes of Keats, Donatello, Michaelangelo and others in the artistic output of Ireland's great sculptor.

James McKenna lived his art and for his art

Critical detachment would probably require me to forget the ties of friendship, the sound of an artist's living voice, his wit, his friendly human face before one even starts to discuss his work. But with James McKenna, in particular, that would be impossible. He lived his art and for his art, and was ready to pay a price for it, and he did often pay that price. His personality gives his works their distinctive character, makes them unique: you may like or dislike it, but you can't ignore it. He is one of those artists, whose work cannot be mistaken for anybody else's.

In his fine speech opening the McKenna Exhibition at the Hopkins Festival in July 2000, Patrick Murphy compared him to a renaissance man "with a multiplicity of talents in sculpture, drawing, poetry, drama, music and languages." Exactly! McKenna believed in Man and his almost infinite possibilities, and he believed in the commitment which is inseparable from any real artist's work.

He knew very well that an artist must have strong feelings, a complex mind, an awareness of the world around him, and the courage to face the gulf of void and horror which may occasionally open before one's eyes in a sudden vision. And he knew that he must possess the formal skills which only can catch and preserve an image, a feeling, an impulse, the complexity and clarity of vision itself in some tangible form - words, stone, music, a mark on canvas or cardboard - because, as Plato said: "All art controls and dominates its object" (Plato, Republic, Book I, 15c).

James McKenna's love of freedom in a democratic society

And, since I have brought up Plato, this makes me think that if his approach to the arts was that of a Renaissance man, he was much closer to the spirit of the Greek "polis" if we consider his moral impulse, his sense of a community, and his love of freedom in a democratic society.

His attack on the Law -"Laws", says one of the characters in his play for masks and dancers, At Bantry,

" . . . . . . .. are one huge crime
to neutralise all ancient crime:
by denying existence to his victim.
Laws are the product of a bitter womb,
where the seeds of life had failed to quicken,
and gave no growing response to the sap of men." (p. 22)

- is not an attack on Law as such, but on the law which is established and enforced upon the majority of the "politai" - the free citizens of the "polis" - by a tyrant, a "basileus" ( king), or by a restricted oligarchy against the rules of democracy.All of the play from which the lines just quoted have been taken is a passionate cry against tyranny, but also a strong declaration of the rights of man to obtain justice ("justice even in the stones", p. 22), and self-determination, because justice is "man's essence realized" (p.22), and as such is a synonym of beauty and harmony. At Bantry, typically the story of a defeat, is also the story of the final triumph of man's spirit, which will survive after one more "bleak season [...] in a wretched island" ready to resume its fight for dignity and freedom against all odds, and despite all gods: the very spirit of tragedy, the Attic tragedy of the 5th. c. B.C., which always shows us light after darkness and hope after despair.

McKenna, poet and paywright as well as Sculptor

McKenna, the sculptor is, better known, but he was also a playwright and a poet. I think his best poetry is to be found in his plays, because a play - or even a short dramatic piece like Agamemnon, Won't You Please Come Home? - is always a complex effort, involving different skills and codes of communication besides words: music, dance, costumes, masks.The mask carries any historical event, any individual response into what McKenna himself defined as "the intense condition of the mask world" ("Introduction", At Bantry, p. 9).

James McKenna Masks

The world of masks cannot be our everyday world: its reality is greater than any daily routine untouched by the yeast of vision, which they - the masks - are able to express. Any object perceived in its factual dimension (two people embracing, a young girl walking, a woman reading a book, the human body - naked or clothed) may be confined within itself, its own spatial and temporal limits, or it may be filled with an intense, visionary quality which changes it into something wholly different - even though apparently nothing has changed in its outward aspect, and gives it a sense of permanence well beyond time and space, even if the action takes place in time and space

James McKenna and Dance

And then, there is dance! Dance for him has the same function as the mask. Not the dance which is performed in a ballroom in a discotheque, but rather the tragic dance, which in its exact patterning cuts down all unnecessary movements to concentrate on the essential meaning of the action and the words going with it. The pleasure he gets from words - in his plays and poems - is like the pleasure he gets from the materials he uses for his sculptures. Words arouse his wonder for their almost infinite possibilities of combinations on all levels: sound, meaning, rhythm; materials like wood, metal or stone make him discover each time - as if it were the first time - the miracle of their pliability, which allows the artist to create life out of formerly indistinctive and dull matter. His sculptures, even the smaller ones, need space around them, ask for respect, and silence; yet they have nothing haughty or superhuman in them: they have the greatness, and vulnerability, of all human beings: they are not above or beyond us: we do not feel overwhelmed by their power or arrogance: they are as much our own conception as we are theirs. A good example of this is a group of detached figures in the group representing a chariot drawn by a pair of gigantic wooden horses with a charioteer, a warrior, and two big wheels standing for the chariot itself: Carbad, Corrach, Arae, Eich, that is: Chariot, Bog, Charioteers, Horses, which was exhibited in Sligo, Hazelwood in the late eighties. They merge with the wood so well that they seem to be cropping up from the ground like the trees themselves.

James McKenna's Horses

Brian Fallon has remarked that "he [McKenna] does not seem greatly interested in dynamism or movement, even potential movement". I would in general agree with this statement, and James McKenna himself could have easily acknowledged it, but Fallon wrote his introduction to James's catalogue in 1985, before he produced this group. These horses are in no way static: they suggest speed and power, instead: the horizontal planks of which their big bodies are made, and the squatting figure of the charioteer - who seems to be leaning forward to spur them on - further the heat of the race.During the interview he granted me just a few weeks before he died, I asked him if his special interest in horses (from his early bronze statuette, Men Entering a City (1965) and the huge elm and chestnut Red Horse for the People (1970), to his mask for Hotep in Hotep Comes from the River, a folk play, or Banbha's Warriors an imposing group of wooden statues which was exhibited at Dublin Castle in 1999 - might imply any symbolic value he attached to the horse. James didn't let me finish my question: "No - he said - not particularly. I consider the horse a lovely cultural image". And then, after a pause: "I can never do horses well enough, or good enough!" The irony! The horse, then, was for him mainly "a thing of beauty" well rooted in Irish cultural traditions, but certainly not a symbol.

Art is always Sympolic

Yet art is always symbolic: a poet, an artist may be "non-symbolist", and yet not refuse the symbol, because art does not just hold "a mirror up to nature"; rather, it gives us another level of reality, the quintessence of reality, which is well beyond the object it portrays: it reveals not just what is, or will be, but what might be or might have been. James refused symbolism "as a device", like his friend and mentor , but not the enormous possibilities of the symbol."A thing of beauty is a joy for ever": I think he would have endorsed this line of Keats's. What is beautiful is also true.The big problem when an artist speaks of Beauty is that people immediately think about something pleasant, smooth, regular. No! When an artist says: "beauty", "beautiful", he is thinking of something which is perfect as it is, of a whole in which all parts are easily distinguishable, and yet would become meaningless if detached from the whole to which they belong: in other words, something which is "true".

James McKenna's Drawings for Desmond Egan Famine Poems

This, of course, also includes what we would consider "ugly", unpleasant: his drawings for Egan's poem sequence, Famine, give us all the horror and sense of destitution and frustration connected with impotence, injustice and impending death for oneself and one's family. These hunger-stricken bodiesand faces are not "beautiful" in the sense we would normally give that adjective; but they are "beautiful" because all the details converge to confirm and reinforce the emotional and intellectual response provided by the whole picture.

Donatello's statue, Abacus, represents an ugly man with a lean body and gaunt face, but Donatello himself - before anyone dared to consider it a masterpiece - saw the statue as beautiful, because he knew he couldn't have touched one detail of it without spoiling the whole effect (and, incidentally, Donatello was one of McKenna's favourite sculptors).Oisin Caught in the Time Warp, a huge wooden sculpture representing a rider on a horse, which was exhibited at Monasterevin during the Hopkins Summer School in 2000, is another example of the metaphysical force emanating from a very tangible object. I was not at Monasterevin when it was exhibited, and did not even have a chance to see it afterwards. But an almost accidental event gave me an epiphany which was stronger than anything the official opening of an exhibition could have offered. I had just met James at Desmond Egan's house, for the interview and conversation.

After this meeting, James was very tired and asked to be driven back home. We saw him to the gate and said good bye. On our way back, Desmond asked me to shut my eyes for a few seconds, and then, after a few steps, to open them again: and there it was, Oisin with his horse! But the big sculpture had been disassembled: the horseman's head in a corner, the horse's body in the middle of the field, and its huge, majestic head lying on the ground just before me. It was like contemplating the ruins of an ancient monument. Before that "colossal wreck", Shelley's lines in Ozymandias sprang to my mind: "The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed." That masterpiece torn apart was telling me as much of itself as of its author: both great, both fragile.

I had the same reaction before Banbha's Warriors, a cluster of ten figures representing a troupe of foot soldiers and a female figure on horseback - Banbha, herself: huge creatures, all of rough wood, their faces barely emerging from the wood. Clearly Michelangelo's late Pietàs loom in the background. But Michelangelo is there only to suggest energy, pathos rather than technique. The wood is alive and those shapes are alive in the wood. McKenna, like all great artists, felt the inner life, the personality of every natural object: he could hear the voice of a tree, and say the difference between that tree and all other trees: in this, he was very close to those ancient men who populated the earth at the dawn of civilization, who had to come to terms with natural forces every single day of their lives, the men who created myth to tell the horror, the beauty, the mystery of those hidden presences they felt surrounded by; but who were also able to enlarge the human form - a tiny thing before the huge universe - so as to make it appear as big as the mountains or like the sky itself.

Before these wooden warriors stalking stiffly around, so close to us, and yet so remote; before those faces which seem to be keeping a secret that we will never be told, we feel as amazed, as full of respect and awe before the great mystery of life as did old-time ancestors.That is exactly what a great artist is expected to give us: a renewal of the awareness that life is not enclosed within the small boundaries of our mortality, the sense that necessity justifies chance and that there is some permanence in impermanence. James McKenna gives us this enlarged vision of life, and that is why we must celebrate him. Our friend James has gone for ever, but he lives on in the immense purity of his art


McKenna, J. At Bantry: a Play, Dublin, Scepter Books, 1968

McKenna, J. Agamemnon Won't You Please Come Home: a Dramatic Chorus n. d., n. p.

McKenna, J. The Scatterin', Martinstown Road, The Curragh, Co. Kildare, Ireland, The Goldsmith Press, 1977.

Fallon, B. "James McKenna: An Introduction",

James McKenna: A Catalogue, Newbridge, The Goldsmith Press, 1985, pp. 7 — 9.Egan, D.

"'A Lack of Beauty in Our Lives': James McKenna's Achievement", James McKenna: A Catalogue, Newbridge, The Goldsmith Press, 1985, pp. 10 — 12.

Egan, D. Famine, with drawings by James McKenna, Newbridge, Goldsmith, 1997.
© The Gerard Manley Hopkins Archive, 2001

Achievement of James McKenna sculptor

James McKenna dramatist

James McKenna -European Perspective

Oisin Caught in a Timewarp

James McKenna playwright and poet

James McKenna Achievement