By Alexandra Day
Nano Reid (born Anne Margaret Reid) was an Irish artist who worked throughout the twentieth century. Born in Drogheda, Co. Louth in 1900 or 1905 (depending on which sources you believe) Reid was best known for presenting typically ‘Irish’ subject matter in an idiosyncratic, abstracted style. A theme to which she consistently returned throughout her career was her birthplace and its surroundings, in particular, the ancient Boyne Valley. Despite this, Reid often, though sometimes unfairly, bemoaned the fact that being born in Drogheda did not afford her greater artistic recognition and that the local population had very little interest in painting and the arts. Furthermore, Reid criticised what she perceived as provincial indifference to the local historic sites of Knowth and Dowth. Her career did not follow a straight trajectory. After moving between Paris and London from the late 1920s to the early 1930s, she returned to Ireland for good.
Reid initially had ambitions of becoming a society portrait painter but her sharp, unapologetic temperament and style did not readily encourage clientele. Her earlier career was influenced by continental European trends, such as expressionism and ‘heroic’ cubism, as well as her training under Irish artists Seán Keating and Harry Clarke. However, by the 1940s Reid had developed a distinctive artistic voice. She utilised a totally subjective style of design, recognisable for its muted colour palette and bold linear treatment. Reid usually approached space in a non-naturalistic way, keeping the compositions of her works highly compartmentalised with little sense of depth. It has been suggested that this stems from study of the carvings at the Boyne Valley, though this seems like something of a hopeful reach, particularly when such practices were already so deeply associated with European movements. Over time her works became increasingly abstracted, featuring more symbolic subject matter.
Reid was best known for presenting typically ‘Irish’ subject matter in an idiosyncratic, abstracted style
Visibly influenced by the expressionist movement, ‘View of Drogheda’ (c.1920s) is one of Reid’s earliest works depicting her hometown. It captures a view from a window onto the town in a loose, painterly style. The light, tapering brush strokes, combined with Reid’s deft use of pale watercolours evokes a bright, breezy day. Additionally, the simple, linear treatment of the paintbrushes and cup in the foreground, as well as the birds and church tower in the background creates great immediacy, suggesting that the work was made on the spot. ‘View of Drogheda’ enables viewers to see the town through Reid’s eyes.
A work in which Reid explores the possibilities of a ‘traditional’ Irish subject through a distinctly ‘modern’ lens is ‘Seanchai’ (c.1944). The painting depicts a seanchaí (a storyteller-historian) in typical ‘Irish’ costume. However, Reid approaches the subject with her distinct linear style and shadowy colour palette. A small green cat peers out from beside the man’s feet, allowing the image a sense of wit. The sleeve of the figure’s jacket and hat are defined by broad black lines, interrupting the obscured background and giving the central seanchaí a strong presence. The lightest tones of the work are concentrated on this figure, which further draws viewers to him. We immediately feel engaged in the storytelling of the seanchaí, as though we were sitting on the ground opposite him.
‘The Struggle’ (c.1962) is one of Reid’s later works, exhibiting a much more abstracted style and vagueness of subject than her previous works. It has been suggested that this piece may be inspired by the Irish myth Táin Bó Cúailnege, a tale centred around a legendary cattle raid. This is the argument proposed by those who discern a figure wrestling a bull from the composition. The urgency of the brush strokes and flattened forms create dynamism in the work. The central ‘figures’ are treated with strong lines while the rest of the composition is dominated by swirling motifs, demarcating where the ‘action’ of the painting occurs. The limited colour palette and immediacy of technique enables Reid to illustrate the story in an authoritative and unmistakable voice.
When Nano Reid was selected to represent Ireland (along with Norah McGuinness) in the 1950 Venice Biennale, Italian critics expressed surprise at the fact she was a woman, such was the ‘power’ of her work. Her reticence to ‘explain’ her art meant that Reid was frequently misunderstood at home. Furthermore, she has posthumously come to be viewed almost exclusively as a foil to Belfast-born Gerard Dillon. This was exemplified in the 2009 Highlanes Gallery Nano Reid and Gerard Dillon exhibition, which narrated her work almost exclusively in terms of its ability to bolster Dillon’s work. Another narrative which has emerged discusses Reid’s work as little more than a billboard for Drogheda and the surrounding countryside. It is time we value this woman’s work for its individual merit and appreciate the determination with which Reid went about pursuing a career as an artist on her own terms.