Friday 25 November 2011


© 2011 Brian Whelan

‘Looking at a Whelan painting is like looking at a medieval stained glass window through the eyes of Bart Simpson’, says the writer and critic Steven Martin.

He’s right. Most group paintings hint at narrative, but they either tell a story already known to the viewer (from the classics or history or the bible), or something too obscure to interrogate. But Whelan’s work is like a poetic ballad, ‘bold, concentrated, detailed and focused’. And leaving a great deal to the imagination. That duck squawking its way across the picture maybe in a vicious mood and out to protect the good St Martin - but it may be running for its life. The image doesn’t convey how plump and luscious it is: highly likely to be chased round the yard by the farmer’s wife, knife in hand.

There are lots of riddles. The man on the left (the sinister side in any picture) , wrapped in nothing but his loin cloth and a starry cloak, looks like a holy prophet. And on the right is his counterpart, a resplendent rider. Any morality tale would have this perky knight as the villain, knife in hand, oppressing the poor.  Not so. It’s no less than St Martin himself, a 4th century saint, at times soldier, monk and hermit.
Even the horse is ambiguous. It has an all knowing eye and a muscular presence – but couldn’t you also see it as a lovable nursery toy with shaggy fetlocks and a spotty coat? 

I saw Whelan’s work is in the Crypt Gallery of St Martins in the Fields, Trafalgar Square.  According to legend, St Martin once came upon a poor man on the road shivering in the cold, and cut in half his military cloak to share  with him. That night Christ appeared to St Martin in a dream wearing the piece of cloak he had given away. The story is a straight lift from St Matthew’s Gospel chapter 25, where Jesus says that when anyone feeds  the hungry, clothes the naked and visits the sick and those in prison etc , ‘you do it unto me’.

It’s a story which has been depicted in many centuries by many hands. Sometimes the beggar looks up gratefully as a towering saint bends over him (Lorenzo Lotto); sometimes he’s a huge strapping (and naked) fellow sitting on straw but preparing to make way as a VIP on horseback comes by with a magnificent cavalcade.   

© 2011 Brian Whelan
Here's Champion of the World, the fight between good and evil: Jesus, still wearing his crown of thorns, keeps his eye on the matter in hand. Beelzebub on the right looks a bit flaky, even pitiful, and his devils are clearly deserting him in droves. Above it all God the Father hovers with that air of concentration all good judges should have, plus a pointed beard and a hand mike shaped like a golden ice cream cone.

Below ships and islands are calmly doing what ships and islands usually do. 

 Joe Horgan, winner of the Kavanagh Poetry Award puts it this way: ‘He goes to dark, grim places, places that in the modern world we like to pretend don’t exist and when he gets there he cracks jokes. This work is the work of the medieval jester’.

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