t: +353 1 222 5550
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This week we heard the sad news of the passing of Michael Cullen, one of Ireland most distinguished painters, whose work brims with vitality. Born in Kilcool, Co. Wicklow, Michael Cullen had become a painter before formal studies the Central School of Art and Design, London, Brighton School of Art and finally Dublin’s National College of Art and Design in the early 1970s. He then moved overseas after art school and spent extended periods in Spain, Germany, Morocco and France as a “voluntary exile”, as well as in Ireland.
He is represented in the Hugh Lane Gallery collection by I’m Popeye the Painterman, 1992, which the gallery purchased in 1993. It is one of a series depicting the artist at work, exemplifies Cullen's continuing investigation of the activity of painting itself. The monumental painting (223 x 228 cm) shows the artist in his studio, a theme that references “high art” but other elements wittily undermine such traditions.
The title refers to Popeye, the muscular cartoon character created by Elzie Crisler Segar that first appeared in 1929 and has remained popular in print, television and film. However, Cullen doesn’t actually paint the artist to resemble Popeye but rather he wears the yellow straw hat associated with Vincent van Gogh in his series of self-portraits. Cullen said in a 2018 interview that “My most beloved of mentors has been Vincent van Gogh, perhaps because he was my first. He was the reason I first travelled out of Ireland in the 60s. I was searching for the colours, the light, the deep shadows – products of the heat of southern Europe.”
The artist is joined in the studio by a nude female model, who appears in other paintings by Cullen, as do the mysterious feet suspended at the top of the painting and the hand and arm on the folding screen in the foreground. The elements appear to float in the space, free from the traditional rules of perspective.
Michael Cullen celebrates not only the process of painting but also the medium in this work. As is characteristic of his work, the surface of the canvas is covered in an expressive application of oil paint. The thick peaks of paint and pigment in his richly textured paintings, emphasise the physicality of the materials used to construct the image. Cullen is also known for his strong use of colour and in I’m Popeye the Painterman the primary colours, red, blue and yellow, are dominant on a white background.
Throughout his career spanning five decades, Cullen received numerous accolades. He won a series of Arts Council bursaries from 1977-1984 and exhibited internationally from this time. He was awarded the 1984 Independent Artists Major Painting Award, the 1987 National Portrait Award and the 1995 Alice Berger Hammerschlag Award. In 1984 he was elected a member of Aosdána, the Irish Academy of the Arts and in 2007 he was elected as a full member of the Royal Hibernian Academy.
The staff of the gallery extends its condolences to his friends and family.
I’m Popeye the Painterman, 1992
Oil on canvas, 223 x 228 cm
Hugh Lane Gallery
Reg. 1827, purchased, 1993