In August 1930, the Irish Friends of Soviet Russia departed London for Leningrad on board the Soviet ship Kooperatsiya (Cooperation). The delegation included veteran suffragettes Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Charlotte Despard and two Irish Republican stalwarts, David Fitzgerald and George Gilmore (traveling under a false name).
Also amongst the travelers was Harry Kernoff, a young artist from Dublin’s ‘little Jerusalem’. In a recent article in Éire-Ireland, Elaine Sisson traces the influence of this Soviet sojourn on Kernoff’s artistic development. I was interested to learn that a profile of Kernoff was printed in the journal Art to the Masses and has been made available through the Internet Archive. I translated it and have included the original illustrations roughly where they landed in the article.
The piece casts a Soviet eye over Kernoff’s works, beginning with a straightforward biographical sketch emphasizing his working-class credentials and then critiquing the revolutionary character of his oeuvre. Before arrival in the USSR, the Irish Friends of Soviet Russia forwarded a brief biography of Kernoff to their parent body describing him as an artist and proletarian. An Irish secret police memo noted of this exchange that ‘the Russians were deceived as regards Kernoff’s real status.’* Perhaps, as we read this translated profile, we might also wonder if further deception had occurred…
Revolutionary Artists of the West: Harry Kernoff
by D. Lyakovitz
Kernoff – Furniture maker. At the age of 14, he began working in a furniture factory in Dublin (the capital of Ireland). There were 50 other workers in the factory. When Harry was 18, he began making art. He drew by night and during the day had to earn his living and livelihood. He worked in the factory from 8 in the morning to 8 in the evening, almost 11 hours per day. He entered a night school for art, adding an additional 2 hours to his day, and had to pay a tuition fee.
However, he received a lucky break. Somehow, the millionaire Taylor – no relation to that Taylor after whom ‘Taylorism’ is named, although he exploits workers along the same lines by placing himself before them as a benefactor – gave the evening school a stipend in his name, which made a once-off payment 500 rubles and also gave free supplies. This stipend organised every year an all-Ireland exhibition, open to all the citizens of Ireland. It so happened that this stipend was given to the young furniture-maker Harry Kernoff. This allowed him to continue his studies. But it did not save him from exploitation or improve his working conditions. Even more, his father was not able to help, as Harry was his eldest and his father had further three sons and a daughter.
It must have taken a lot of patience in such circumstances to not leave his studies, abandon his enthusiasm for painting or search out “a better piece of bread”. Harry Kernoff overcame all of this.
He finished school (after 5 years of study) and when his enthusiasm for painting became “intolerable” to his factory manager he left work, went to his father, and told him he wanted to become an artist. His father was against this. He was dissatisfied with his son and held up to him the examples of his younger brothers, who were more “sensible” and did not “play around with trifles”. He had to get out of there, to find some kind of loft where he could live exclusively from painting. Harry Kernoff had to endure much.
Kernoff also works with watercolours and oil paints, he loves decorative features and fresco, but none of these were deployed in his work “The Affair of John-Bully”. One can get the most out of portraits, but with the portraits of Kernoff, this is not in the sense of wage earnings, but of blazing a new trail in portraiture painting. He is making portraits that are not family possessions but social objects.
Moreover, Harry Kernoff does not work with models. He creates portraits from memory and claims that this is the only real correct method, giving an important sense of the “individual” and creating the portrait tied to the social moment.
Harry Kernoff has occasionally placed his art in general exhibitions and, also, has put on four personal exhibitions. The first was in 1925 and the last in 1929. He arranges them himself. And they barely put off his expenses.
His first large painting was his “Dance of Death”, painted in 1924. The second, the particularly sensational “Spiral”, was an attempt at a satire directed against the capitalist system by means of symbols (Art, labour, law, gender relations, philanthropy and others) and shows that all of the soul of culture under capitalism is based on lies and hypocrisy. Kernoff worked on this painting for six months. It is an oil painting with a size of 6 by 5 feet.
The academy of art, the authority which controls every exhibition, without any motivation refused to allow the painting to be shown. They simply wrote: This painting needs to be removed! The painting “spiral” was too revolutionary for capitalist society.
Harry Kernoff has many other revolutionary works. Recently he painted “At an underground rally”, a portrait of the revolutionary writer Liam O’Flaherty (soon to visit the USSR)** and others.
Kernoff has not realised the fact that currently there are two forms of art – bourgeois art, which serves the forces of exploitation, and proletarian art, which aids in the liberation of labouring people. His muddled belief is that art “must bring out” how there is “much light and shine”. He naively believes in his own “individual tendency” in painting (painting from memory), he believes that artists see all “with their own eyes”, forgetting about the “eyes” of class with which each artist sees. Yet even so, his revolutionary paintings operate in contradiction even to himself, for example, against his own upbringing and the education which he received in his evening school. The ultimate objective of his work is against the capitalist system and for proletarian art.
Recently Kernoff traveled to the USSR with the workers’ delegations of the Friends of Soviet Russia, guided by Tom Bell. He came with them to the USSR on the Soviet ship Kooperatziya and is very proud. He traveled through Leningrad, Moscow, Rostov on Don, Baku, Tiflis, Vladikavkaz and other cities of the Soviet Union. He has made many drawings of life in the USSR and is very pleased with his trip.
Above all he is interested in our architecture, people and the building of socialism. When he traveled to the USSR, he thought he would make some sketches of “Russian nature” while here, but leaving, he said: Revolution and the people, the workers’ revolution, is more beautiful than any natural landscape!
Source: Iskusstvo v Massi, No. 10-11 (October/November, 1930), pp. 44-45.
* ‘Friends of Soviet Russia’, Department of Justice Report, 7 November 1930, National Archives of Ireland, Department of the Taoiseach, TAOIS S6074AB.
** For more on O’Flaherty’s connections to the USSR, see my previous post: The Forgotten Women who Brought Liam O’Flaherty to Soviet Russia