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WORK OF THE WEEK | 23 March 2020

CAG.3022 Regina Carbayo, Portrait of Kate O’Brien, 2015, charcoal on paper, 108.4 x 65.6 cm. Purchased, the Artist, 2015. © the artist

Limerick-born writer Kate O’Brien, the subject of this portrait by Regina Carbayo, once wrote that Irish people ‘have always had the knack – in our religious history as well as in our literary – of catching on to Europe – of by-passing our British conquerors in our thought and reaching out to Spain and France.’

In this time of great hardship, we look to the bonds of friendship that unite us across Europe and the world. Regina Carbayo​, who lives and works between Cork and her native Cádiz, was commissioned to create this portrait by our former Director, Peter Murray, in part because of the strong connection the Irish writer had with Spain. Indeed, Kate O’Brien had written her non-fiction elegy Farewell Spain (1937) under the shadow of the Spanish Civil War.

As Carbayo points out, ‘although it was inspired by the outrage of the Spanish Civil War, it is not really a political book … It is a book of reminiscence, of nostalgic pleasure, of regret for something perhaps never to be experienced again.’

In her Portrait of Kate O’Brien (2015), Carbayo approached her subject ‘as a brave, strong, secure and independent woman who looks straight into the beholder’s eyes.’ In order to avoid distractions, the artist chose to leave the background blank, while she was also economical with the details of hair and O’Brien’s characteristic clothing.

The artist says she ‘was astonished and fascinated by O’Brien’s experience, stories and courage.’ Kate O’Brien (1897-1974) was the author of several novels, including Mary Lavelle (1936) and The Land of Spices (1941), both of which were banned in Ireland. In 1938, O’Brien published Pray for the Wanderer in response to the ‘new Calvinism’ of the Irish Free State.

Regina Carbayo was shortlisted for the Hennessy Portrait Prize in 2016. Her portrait of Terence MacSwiney (1879-1920), former Lord Mayor of Cork, is in the collection of the Independence Museum Kilmurry​.

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