John Behan RHABorn in Dublin in 1938, and now living and working near Galway city where he continues to vary his style of expression, John Behan is firmly established as a sculptor of international stature.
After an apprenticeship in metal work and welding, the foundations for Behan's success were laid in the sixties, when he trained in London and Oslo and began to exhibit widely. But he also had a wider artistic vision, which saw him challenge the elitism of the art establishment and seek to popularise art. He was a founder member of the New Artists' group in 1962 and Dublin's innovative Project Art Centre in Dublin in 1967.
He has been awarded many honours and became a Member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1990, having been an Associate of the Academy since 1973. He is also a member of Aosdána.
Celebrated for his early bull sculptures - described by playwright Brian Friel as 'enormously solid artefacts, 4-square on the earth, confident, assured, executed to a point of absolute completion' - Behan's style is still evolving and growing. In a general sense he can be credited with playing a major part in the development of sculpture in Ireland over the last forty years.
In June 2000 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland, Galway on the same day his large commissioned sculpture, Twin Spires, was unveiled at the college.
His major public commissions include Flight of Birds, Famine Ship, Tree of Liberty, Daedalus, Millennium Child, Arrival and Equality Emerging, unveiled in Galway city in November 2001.
A film documentary of John Behan's work entitled 'Famine Ship' was broadcast in Ireland and the U.K. in 1999 and is distributed in North America by The Cinema Guild Inc. and the rest of the world by Network Television.
The poet and Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney has said of the artist: "There is something psychologically salubrious about John Behan. It is as if you are encountering what the Upanishads call the ancient self, something previous to an underlying individual character, some kind of psychic bedrock."
"Say the name John Behan and you see the bulls of Cooley and the Children of Lir and the bittern of Cathal Bui, the birds of Aengus, the boats of Broighter and the Ostfold Boat and the Ghost Boat and even the Boar of Ben Bulben. John Behan has made a mark in our collective imagination, that his work for many of us represents different stages of our life to us, that by now its simply part of our mental furniture. It was probably a hard enough fate to begin as an artist in Ireland in the nineteen sixties with a name like Behan.
With John Behan, there is no game playing, no artsy role-playing, no temperamental swank or masquerade. You meet the man, not the mask, the inner soul rather than the social exterior. There is something psychologically salubrious about him; it is as if you are encountering what the Upanishads call 'the ancient self', something previous to and underlying individual character, some kind of psychic bedrock. And the theme and motifs of this exhibition are, of course, consonant with that impression which John makes as a person.
These sculptures please us by their materiality, by their substantial physical presence, their bronze in-placeness, their this-worldness….for they are not in the least otherworldly. They are produced by somebody who knows the behaviour of bronze as it was known in the workshops of Rodin and Michelangelo. And yet in spite of the down-to-earthiness and this-worldness of these images John has made, there is also present in them and behind them a sense that they are vessels of spirit, symbols of human knowledge, images, as Yeats said 'that yet/Fresh images beget'."
"There were two Blacksmiths' Forges in my village. I always found them dark and forbidding places, full of smoke and smut and steam. Seamus Heaney captured the forge perfectly in a poem that opened with a wonderful line 'All I know is a door into the dark' and he went on to describe the unpredictable fanfare of sparks, and the anvil where the blacksmith extends himself on the altar of shape and music. It creates a wonderful image of the blacksmith being the high priest. Every time I look at John Behan I get that sense there is something of a druid about him.
He has that look of a high priest. One of the formative influences in his life is a man called Paddy McElroy who was a blacksmith, and, who taught him how to structure metal into expressive pieces of artwork. Just to stay with the forge and the language of metal sculpture, to forge, to fuse, to cast, to temper, to weld and to mould, for me it has a lot of sexual connotations.
It suggests a kind of virility, fertility and union, and again when I look across at John Behan. He has that look of potency. You thought I was going to say bullish, well alright he has a bullish look but not the dot com bullish or, as they would say in Connemara the punc com bullish."
"I enjoy John Behan's work because it reminds me somehow of poetry. I went to poetry, not because I was in love with words, but because I yearned for the meaning behind the words. There lay true magic. In a somewhat similar way, John Behan frees something magical and profound from the raw materials of his trade - in sculpture, in painting and drawing too - and arguably, from the obvious form of his images, this is alchemy.
I am not the first poet to write about John Behan, but am surely the least of them. Poet Hayden Murphy wrote of John's work in a very decent booklet in 1970, entitled significantly 'John Behan Poet of Structure'. Seamus Heaney, opening a Behan exhibition for Kenny's Art Gallery, spoke of John's metaphors 'of the journey, the image of the boat and the tree, the image of the warrior and the Trojan horse' reminding us by implication that these are the great metaphors of our most primal poetry. I think it not in the least surprising that poets should be drawn to John's work or that they should recognise behind it the bone structures of their own.
I wrote in a brief Sunday Times review a couple of years ago that John Behan was 'arguably Ireland's foremost sculptor'. I would stand over that; his reputation has grown steadily in this country and abroad, as has his art and the sureness of his technique as a sculptor and painter. Some of his most striking images have become part of the imaginative machinery by which we perceive Irish sculpture. Inevitable then that the earliest commentators on his work, having recognised his gift taking root and shape, should begin to make comparisons with the great sculptors and painters too of our era. Moore, Picasso, Giacommeti; perhaps Brancusi may have been mentioned, that sculptor of such tenderness that he can strip, gently, the shape of a bird down to a shining sliver of, though metallic, movement. There is a great tenderness in some of John Behan's work, which is almost a component of the sculpture itself. Tenderness is not to imply any sort of creative weakness in the artist, but rather an expansive and understanding sense of human feeling; a piece such as Immigrants - The New Dawn is full of hope, the human figures full of sweet breath-taking pain. In works such as this, a very primal note is sounded in the Irish soul; this history-made-legend is part of the clay of our communal making. More, poverty, famine, oppression, followed by emigration to a New - though not always more hospitable World is The Great Theme speaking through, say, the last three centuries of European-American history.
This womb-boat often threw out its fledgling citizens sick or stillborn; at best it gave birth to a new and multicultured nation. John Behan's boats are rich, fertile symbols upon which the historic consciousness of most Europeans can thrive. Significantly, John, (whose very personally interpreted, even fearsome, Famine Ship sculpture is sited at the base of Croagh Patrick in Mayo), has just completed a sculpture commission for the UN Plaza in New York, thirty feet long and thirty high, of a more hopeful famine ship complete with human figures disembarking, and called Arrival – The New Dawn.
In this new exhibition, Back to Basics, John Behan has returned to new themes. He has imbued them with new life, new vivaciousness and energy. The title implies the notion of an artist revisiting and re-exploring themes which gifted fire to earlier periods of work; now they are re-examined, re-kindled. John has told me he feels this process to be a 'loosening out', a return to original ideas and expanding on them: 'subject-driven' is how he describes this exhibition, to consciously distinguish it from previous exhibitions in which, he says, definite themes prevailed. Here, then, are the 'bull' figures, and here too are playful, humorous, almost cartoonesque mountain goats; a 'columbarium', the metal treated in a way which almost alchemises it visually into wood; here a 'ghost boat', a flying vessel not of the world, but sailing out of it towards an opposing consciousness; here, the vessels of death and the vessels of hope, very Irish symbols of an age of famine and want; here too the drawings, full of their own fragile magic.
I am drawn to Behan's 'bull' figures, which one might argue have evolved into icons. Myth, and the re-telling and re-interpretation of myth the business, let me say again, of Irish poets, of storytellers, singers, of playwrights is central to much of John's work in this exhibition.he seems to emphasise the point. The bull-figure, in Ireland we are familiar with its significance in the Tain Bo Cuailgne, where it is most likely an astrological symbol is more than a mere artistic image; it is a central interpretative image in tribal consciousness, as a motif in our primal engagement with astronomy, with reading the heavens, with directing and timing man's first working in the earth. Picasso fought with the bull- figure; the bronze man - bulls of the sculptor Micheal Ayrton depict a classic struggle between the human and animal nature in man. There is the Minotaur, named Asterius at birth. John Behan's bulls appeal to the poet, to the maker of plays. They summon up very basic imaginative formulations, they hoof the earth until the shaman rises and gives them voice. The playwright Brian Friel, perhaps in an unconscious but now recognisable symbolic gesture of recognition of one great artist by another, purchased, in 1969, Behan's Bull,' displayed in his one man show that year at The Now Project Centre, in Dublin.
But every viewer of John Behan's work will be drawn to images and recognise icons of his own. He is big-hearted as a man and as an artist, and perhaps that, some residue of his generosity of spirit and vision residing forever in his work, infects us. The classical, the primitive world sustain much of the work on show here; in returning to basics as an artist for most artists, a refreshing journey this work returns to us, the viewers, the spectators of the art, to basics within ourselves.
We muddle through a daily world where no icons like; no primitive (in the best sense) images remain or speak to us. We have lost, therefore, part of language and our voice as participants in the world has dropped tone by tone until it is almost inaudible above the clack of keyboards and the hysterical sing-song of mobile phones.
John Behan restores us through magic and music there is music here too if one looks, listens carefully to an infinitely more precious place, where basic things were true and we were grateful in the world and full of wonder. I feel very privileged to have been asked to write these few and inadequate words on this show of work by John Behan. I feel too that the work speaks best when it speaks for itself.
Modern Irish art as we understand and appreciate it simply would not be without the spirit and enthusiasm of John Behan. He is a maker as a poet is a maker. And one of the nicest people one would wish to meet."
"My art is related to ancient culture as well as to modern technique. I feel that every artist, be they poet or writer or sculptor or painter, must have roots, roots that will tap into the ground. It's not to say that you don't live in the modern world - I use all the technology that I possibly can to express myself, I am very aware of what's going on in terms of technical innovation - but in terms of Irish art, we have had a gap between the Middle Ages and the 20th Century when no visual art was produced. So I had to go back: the future was in the past, if you like.
The Renaissance wasn't experienced in Ireland. So I felt I had to rediscover things and deal with them and bring them forward. I've also had a good look at the Classical civilisations - Greek and Roman, particularly the Greek - and that has had a huge impact on my recent work.
You have to deal with that, I think anybody with an Irish background does. Art must have a basis - if it takes it from other cultures, that's fine, if it takes from its own culture that is also fine. What I have done is I have tried to combine all these different elements to find a solution for my own problems."