Born in London on the 9 January 1900, Harry Aaron Kernoff was a prolific figure in twentieth century Irish art. Well regarded for his portraiture and landscape painting, Kernoff often focused on the depiction of Dublin, a city with which he became intimately familiar after the Kernoff family moved here in 1914.
As a teenager, Kernoff served as an apprentice cabinet maker with his father but later began attending art classes in the evening at the Kevin Street School of Technology and later at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (DMSA). In 1923 he was successful in winning the Taylor Art Scholarship, allowing him to attend the school full-time. At the DMSA he was taught by Sean Keating and Patrick Touhy, and Kernoff often spoke of his admiration for William Orpen. Orpen’s lasting influence on twentieth century Irish art has been discussed at length elsewhere, but Kernoff’s admiration is perhaps most strongly evidenced in an early self-portrait of the artist (above). In stylistic terms, the artist often toyed with aspects of non-representational modernism, but his strongest work uses a type of non-academic realism, more reminiscent of the Ashcan School and later social realist painters in New York. This representational technique was well suited to Kernoff’s subject matter, allowing him to capture the everyday life of the city around him, as well as all the hustle and bustle it contained.
As well as general city views, such as the view of Fusiliers Arch above, Kernoff also depicted the industrial areas of Dublin, such as the docks and the different factories. Often these works also touch on the political life of the city, and at times reflect the artist’s own left-wing politics. These references take on a variety of forms such as the inclusion of posters with slogans such as ‘Vote 1 Labour’; through the depiction of buildings associated with the labour movement; or through the depiction of rallies and political meetings. In 1931 Kernoff travelled to the USSR with the Irish Branch of the Friends of Soviet Russia, and on his return wrote and lectured about the artistic life he had witnessed there, including the activities of the AkHRR. He noted on his return that a version of the composition below ‘Public Meeting’ or ‘Labour Meeting’ was reproduced in the group’s journal along with a number of his other works. Often, the artist would create multiple versions of a composition, in a number of different media, including watercolour,oil and woodcut. He published three books of woodcuts during his career, and they cover a range of different subjects.
Perhaps though, the works that Kernoff has become best known for are his depictions of Dublin’s literary pubs. Davy Bryne’s, the Bailey, McDaids, the Palace, the Oval – these haunts featured on the artist’s daily social rounds, recorded in diaries now in the Harry Kernoff Papers in the National Library of Ireland. He immortalised the pubs of Dublin in a composition titled ‘A Bird Never Flew on One Wing’, famously stating that he knew every single pub in the city after completing it, and had supplemented his own knowledge of the different public houses by using a Dublin phone book.
Davy Byrne’s Pub, Dublin, from the Bailey dates to 1941, and shows the artist sitting at the bar (you can spot him in the mirror running across the bar on the right hand side) of the Bailey, looking across to the facade of Davy Byrne’s. Although famed for its inclusion in Ulysses as the place where Leopold Bloom stops for his Gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of red wine, Samuel Beckett was less than enthused about it’s clientele. As Nicolas Allen notes “With Liam O’Flaherty, Harry Kernoff and Austin Clarke crowding the haunts of the literati, ‘Pubcrawling is impossible in this town now'”. Kernoff however used the public house as a vital extension on his social life, and physically locates himself in this social sphere through his painting.
Elected to the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1935, Kernoff’s strongest work dates to the late 1920s, 1930s and early 1940s. He lived and worked at his attic studio at 13 Stamer Street, Dublin 8 until his death in the 25 December 1974. In an obituary in The Irish Times, John Nolan called Kernoff ‘The Artist of the Workers’, saying that his art showed his “sympathies with the struggles of the unemployed; his drawings of men without work, the poverty that was around him and of places of work showed both his understanding and sympathy for working people.” In the last ten to fifteen years, Kernoff’s work has been extremely popular in Irish art auction rooms, at times fetching commanding prices. Perhaps some of the appeal of his work is its human and empathetic qualities, as well as its colourful depiction of the Dublin through the twentieth century.
Sources: Nicolas Allen. ‘Beckett’s Dublin’, in Samuel Beckett: A Passion for Painting, Dublin: National Gallery of Ireland, 2006, 44-51; John Nolan, ”Artist of the Workers’, The Irish Times, 30 December 1974, 10.
Further Reading: Kathryn Milligan, ‘Dear Dirty Dublin: Representations of the city in the art of Harry Kernoff RHA (1900-1974), in Artefact: Journal of the Irish Association of Art Historians, Dublin: 2011, 6-15; Kevin O’Connor, Harry Kernoff:The Little Genius, Dublin: The Liffey Press, 2012.