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Cornelius McCarthy and the Figurative Representation of Men

by Sandro Kortekaas in Theatre, Art & Expo , 26 februari 2015

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

This spring, Gallery MooiMan organizes a series of exhibitions in which thematic visions on the male in art are displayed. The tripartite exhibition’s first part, “Masculin Masters: the New Figurative Men,” will not only show works by prominent artists such as Daniel Barkley (Canada), but will also see the launch of the eighth book published by the gallery - a biography of Cornelius McCarthy.

Four years were invested in this project, after this British painter suddenly died five years ago. At that time, the gallery had been working with him for about a year, and many plans were made to show his multifaceted work outside of the UK for the first time ever. The biography shows a passionate artist who leaves behind a wonderful oeuvre in which the male frequently returns as a theme.

Cornelius McCarthy was born in London’s East End on the 1st April 1935 and spent the first forty years of his life in the area. Educated at local Catholic schools he was encouraged while still a boy to study drawing and art history. This led in 1950 to a place at Goldsmiths’ College, London, where he underwent a thorough art training. After gaining his Diploma he was able to postpone National Service to make his first visit to Italy, where he saw Renaissance masterpieces, which had a lasting effect on his own painting.

Standing in the Sistine Chapel looking up at Michelangelo’s ceiling, he said later, was the fulfilment of a childhood ambition. With hindsight we can now see that it was also a formative experience. For the rest of his life he continued to travel at intervals to Europe (usually with his partner Alec Ayres) and as far as Russia, the United States, and even North Africa and Mexico in search of art, absorbing various influences and building up an encyclopedic knowledge of styles and cultural forms.

McCarthy’s early work drew on his local environment, with the riverside townscapes and wharves, lifting gear and muscular young dockworkers. He also sketched and painted his immediate family and friends, and was fascinated by certain East End landmarks. Foremost among these were Hawksmoor’s three great churches, especially the one nearest his home: St George-in-the-East.

Another long-term preoccupation, the male nude, soon made an appearance, its physical presence and sculptural qualities enhanced by the life-drawing skills he had at Goldsmiths’. Much later, in 2008-2009, these two interests coincided in a series of paintings in which the male nude and Hawksmoor’s building are juxtaposed in a way which suggests a mysterious connection between the musculature of the body and the latent energy of carved stone. During his time in Wood Green McCarthy’s figures were depicted in domestic interiors or sometimes the open spaces of Alexandra Park. In Norfolk they began to appear in Fenland settings, outdoors under huge skies or in full sunlight on North Sea beaches.

Two contrasting iconographies enriched McCarthy’s repertoire: the religious imagery of the Roman Catholic Church (notably the Madonna and Child and the Stations of the Cross) which he imbibed from an early age; and the transformational narratives of classical myth – Narcissus, Apollo and Hyacinth, Diana and Actaeon – which are recounted in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and feature memorably in the works of Renaissance painters he admired. Re-interpreting these Christian and pagan sources he addressed contemporary questions of sexuality and such overwhelming events as the ravages of the AIDS epidemic.

The results are intrinsically political and deeply compassionate. The visionary quality of these paintings – in which McCarthy updates traditional imagery to re-think problems of suffering and identity – offers the viewer a challenge: a way of seeing that is both a critique of received ideas and an attempt to imagine new social realities.

On a personal level this tendency towards creative transformation probably stemmed from McCarthy’s need to resolve his own inner conflicts: his life-long devotion to the Catholic Church, for example, co-existing uncomfortably with his homosexuality and his fierce sense of social justice. His treatment of the male nude often strove to harmonize contradictory perceptions, and sometimes gave rise to uncompromising outcomes (a naked Christ-figure, or frankly homoerotic accounts of the Narcissus myth). For respite from these demands he often turned to still-life painting. Primarily concerned with pure design, with shape, texture and color, and evoking sensations of sight, taste and touch, still-life seems largely free of complex meanings and ideological struggle.

The urge to unify disparate elements in his work led to endless stylistic innovation during McCarthy’s career, and recourse to a variety of media. As well as oil on canvas he used gouache with great sensitivity, produced hundreds of pencil drawings, experimented with collage, acrylic paint and pastels and was responsible for some fine etchings, several of which are shown in the exhibition at MooiMan. Subject matter ranged from the human figure (not always the male nude), landscape, architecture, still life and portraits, to religious and mythological themes and, occasionally, biting caricature.

His draughtsmanship often captures volume and modeling with the clarity of sculpture, while many of his paintings deploy lyrical color harmonies which structure the composition as well as establishing the mood. In his mature work this technical flair is put at the service of a very individual vision which reconciles what are usually conceived as binary opposites: flesh and spirit, the sacred and the profane, physical needs and spiritual aspirations. McCarthy’s best pictures achieve a radiant equilibrium: a sometimes hard-won synthesis of his compassionate and joyful view of the world.

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