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  • Gerard Dillon: Nationalism, Homosexuality, and the Modern Irish Artist*
  • Riann Coulter (bio)

In Self-contained flat, ca. 1955 (cover image), the Northern Irish artist Gerard Dillon presents himself inhabiting a domestic space of his own creation. Depicting the basement flat of his sister's house in London, where he lived from 1945 to 1963, the painting is divided into three sections, each featuring a self-portrait. The images of Dillon entering the living room and in the garden represent the public narrative of daily life, while the third portrait is located in the private realm of the bedroom. Dressed in the knitted sweater and loose trousers adopted from the west of Ireland fishermen, the central figure provides a distinct contrast to the self-consciously modern image in the foreground, whose green face and bohemian dress mark him as other. 1 The central figure enters a room containing Dillon's decorator tools, canvases, and a statue of the Madonna, while the self-portrait in the foreground inhabits a space dominated by paintings and a sleeping nude (back cover). 2 This sleeping figure can be related to the female nude in Paul Gauguin's Manao Tupapau, [End Page 63]

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Figure 1.

Paul Gauguin, Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Watching), 1892, oil on burlap mounted on canvas, 72.4 x 97.5 cm, Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.

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1892 (fig. 1), yet the broad shoulders and narrow hips make its gender ambiguous. If the central figure represents Dillon's public persona as artist and tradesman—and perhaps also, through the Madonna and fisherman garb, suggests his Irish Catholic roots—the portrait in the foreground can be read as his self-identification as a modern artist and a gay man.

To date, Dillon's sexuality has been either ignored or underplayed and seldom related to his paintings. In the only monograph on the artist, James White tentatively suggests that Dillon's sexuality influenced his work, but he also attempts to minimize that influence by claiming that "such was his religious feeling that although he was drawn to people of that type, if he once had an encounter I believe that it never occurred again." 3 In contrast to White's speculations, the Belfast author Gerard Keenan, who knew Dillon in London, insists that he was "a very well-adjusted homosexual" unburdened by the censure that his Catholic upbringing imposed on homosexuality. 4 However, the artist's nephew, Martin Dillon, recalls that after his uncle's death he found a diary entry describing a homosexual encounter with a sense of guilt and concludes, "I think he had it there for people in the future to see that that was the sort of man he was; he couldn't tell people except in his paintings." 5

In his study of art and homosexuality in the twentieth century, Emmanuel Cooper argues that social, legal, and religious restraints on homosexuality, illegal in England until 1967, prevented gay artists from addressing their sexuality through their art. 6 Although these constraints did not eliminate homosexual expression, the fear of being found out and the guilt that resulted from societal disapproval and religious censure helped to drive homosexuals underground. 7 Despite the even greater restraints of Irish society, where homosexuality was illegal until 1993, several of Dillon's paintings can be interpreted through the lens of his sexuality. Existing readings of his work focus on his nationalist sympathies and his romantic [End Page 65] depictions of the west of Ireland but fail to recognize the significant influence that Dillon's sexuality had on his paintings. Reconsidering the oeuvre in terms of the artist's homosexuality and the tensions that it created with his Catholic and Irish nationalist background not only suggests new dimensions in his work but also reveals his ability to create multilayered personal images that could, nevertheless, be incorporated into the conservative canon of Irish art. Dillon's homosexuality is only one of many influences that informed his painting. However, the conflict between that identification and his romantic nationalist vision of a pure and uncorrupted Ireland makes his sexuality a disrupting presence within his oeuvre...