Hughie O'Donoghue The Prodigal Son



The Prodigal Son
oil on linen canvas incorporating transparent photographic component
206 x 305 cm.
Painted in 2004.

Price on Request

Fenton Gallery, Cork, where purchased by the present owner in 2005

Paris, Centre Culturel Irlandais, 30 May - 12 July 2008;
The Hague, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, Hughie O’Donoghue - Lost Histories, Imagined Realities, 19 July - 19 October 2008;
Dublin, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 3 March - 17 May 2009


O 'Donoghue's paintings, with their insistence on every mark and brushstroke, are not just about excavating the past but also about the artist's engagement with it. These are entwined narratives, in which the artist re-imagines the life-stories of others - especially his own family - and combines this with a variety of other multi-layered references. - James Hyman, Hughie O’Donoghue - Lost Histories, Imagined Realities, 2008, exh. cat., p.11

The photographic source of the present work is a wounded German soldier awaiting a stretcher at Arras in the First World War in 1918. The painting is not however a single reference to this solitary figure; the powerful image is a starting point, open to numerous levels of interpretation, which the title of the work also plays to. O’Donoghue used the photograph in the painting on a far smaller scale in a twelve-part work also titled Prodigal Son (2004), which told the story of his grandfather leaving Ireland in 1911 as a young man. In this context, the man in the painting is no longer a wounded soldier but a weary traveller, drawing upon themes of exile and emigration, particularly resonant in Irish history.

An earlier stimulation for the image was O'Donoghue's encounter with P.V. Glob's book The Bog People (1969), about the discovery of bodies from the Iron Age in Danish peat bogs which were remarkably preserved. This was to inspire much of O'Donoghue's work of the 1980s and surfaced again in later works such as the present. Here too a link is made with Ireland and the toil of Irish men and women among the land.

In keeping with a multi-layered subject, O’Donoghue’s painting technique incorporates numerous elements. By incorporating a photograph, it links the work to a specific time and place but O’Donoghue blurs the specifics by extensive layers of paint and glazing. The layers of paint echo the layers of time, enhanced further by the aged, yellow-ochre. It also imbues the work with a sense of mystery – a precise definition cannot be easily reached.

The starting point of O’Donoghue’s imagery is invariably personal and draws upon his family history and Irish roots – yet the result is an image that is to be interpreted far more broadly. As he points out: ‘I strive for something universal. But you cannot arrive at the universal from the general. It must be the particular. You must know your subject intimately.’ (Hughie O'Donoghue, quoted in Hughie O’Donoghue - Lost Histories, Imagined Realities, 2008, exh. cat., p.11).

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