Bandsman 1988 is a large landscape-oriented canvas dominated by a graphite drawing of the upper half of a male figure, who lies face-down with his head positioned in the left of the composition. The figure is depicted in a pixelated manner composed of a series of fine markings and dots, and the body appears to be floating in an undetermined white space. Although his facial features are not clearly defined, the man’s head is drawn in greater detail than his body, and with heavier markings. The rest of the man’s figure consists of a faint outline of his back and left arm, which hangs down almost to the bottom of the composition, and the left hand, like the head, is drawn with greater definition. Along the lower edge of the work is a thin horizontal band of airbrushed blue paint that gradually fades as it moves upwards, dissolving completely into white just before it comes level with the figure’s hand.
Bandsman is one in a series of eight works that the British artist Rita Donagh completed in 1987 and 1988 based on a newspaper photograph (reproduced in Maharaj 1994, p.14) of a British military bandsman who was killed by an IRA bomb in Regent’s Park, London, in July 1982. To make the work, Donagh projected an enlarged version of the photograph onto a wall in her studio in Oxfordshire, and initially completed pencil and watercolour studies of the prostrate male figure, focusing on small details in the image (see, for example, Head 1987 and Hand 1987, reproduced in Watkins 2005, pp.80–1). She then attempted a three-dimensional reconstruction of the photograph in her studio using a coat filled with pillows for the body, covered with a patchwork quilt made by her relatives that she found in her uncle’s house in Ireland. This arrangement led to the large oil painting Counterpane 1987–8 (Tate T05838) in which the male figure appears covered by a shroud within a dreamlike setting featuring diagrammatic lines. For Bandsman Donagh isolated the body as it appears in the original photograph and emphasised the grainy texture of the enlarged image.
The bomb attack captured in the newspaper image that inspired Bandsman can be seen in the wider historical context of the Troubles – a period of conflict concerning the geopolitical status of Northern Ireland that began in the late 1960s and is widely considered to have concluded in the late 1990s. Donagh’s use of the photograph, and particularly her employment of a pixelated illustrative style in this work, suggests her interest in the ways in which the Troubles have been represented in the media. At the same time, in depicting the dead body without any additional context (beyond the title of the work), Donagh may be suggesting that this figure transcends the specific political circumstances of the bombing. With his limp body lightly traced for the most part, and pictured in a suspended state free from physical surroundings, the man holds an ethereal or ghostly quality – an impression heightened by the fading band of sky-blue paint at the bottom of the work.
Born in 1939 in Staffordshire to an Irish mother and an Anglo-Irish father, Donagh studied Fine Art at the University of Durham in 1956–62, where she trained under the artists Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton (the latter of whom she married in 1991). Her early paintings, drawings and prints demonstrated a particular fascination with the American pop artist Andy Warhol, but from the 1970s she began to use her work to explore the impact of the Troubles. A photograph published in the Sunday Times in 1974 showing a victim of a Dublin car bombing covered in newspapers led to a series of works by Donagh in the mid- to late 1970s, including Evening papers (Ulster 1972–4) 1973–4 (British Council, London), Bystander 1977 and Newsprint 1978. The combination of pencil, oil paint and collage elements seen in these works is characteristic of Donagh’s broader practice, which has also often involved an engagement with cartography (see, for instance, shadow of six counties (c) 1980, Tate T12291).
The art historian Michael Bracewell has suggested that in responding to emotive subjects connected with the Troubles, ‘Donagh heightens their tragedy – the immovable quotidian facts of their horror – by employing an almost forensic precision in her recording of them’ (Michael Bracewell, ‘Rita Donagh’, Frieze, no.97, March 2006, p.158). The manner in which Donagh’s work focuses on media representations of the conflict can be compared with Hamilton’s interest in a similar area, notably his three diptych paintings featuring individuals related to the Troubles, The citizen 1981–3 (Tate T03980), The subject 1988–90 (Tate T06774) and The state 1993 (Tate T06775). These paintings, along with Bandsman, were shown in an exhibition of Donagh and Hamilton’s work entitled Civil Rights etc., which opened at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane in 2011.
Sarat Maharaj, Rita Donagh: 197419841994: Paintings and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Cornerhouse, Manchester 1994.
Jonathan Watkins (ed.), Rita Donagh, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 2005, pp.16–17, reproduced p.85.
Rita Donagh and Richard Hamilton: Civil Rights etc., exhibition catalogue, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, Dublin 2011, reproduced p.55.
Supported by Christie’s.