This was perhaps a self-justification for his lifestyle, but it made sense. He loved art, so why not be an artist? This was a European outlook, not an English one. He felt his own painting developed slowly at first in Dublin, eventually writing; “my paintings started expressing themselves. It was abstract and it was subjective.” It was in this phase that bold colour featured more strongly in Kenneth’s art. He began painting his brightly coloured drawings of trains, fishes and boats, a cultivated naïve art. And his painting moved from expressing itself to expressing himself.
Benny and Kenneth’s artistic development during this time was a product both of the enthusiasm they encountered for their work in Dublin, which continued to bring out new ideas in their art, as well as of the experimentation with different techniques and styles that they had tried over the years. It was also a product of their shared love for art and for each other, which continued, at this time at least, to provide mutual inspiration.
The struggle to accept modern art and its meaning within a changing world, particularly in a predominantly conservative Irish art scene, was an issue that all of the White Stag artists had to face. Reviewing the work of the group, one writer acknowledged that, “the workings of the subconscious mind and of the imagination provide a field of greater scope than reality” but went on to write: “it is surprisingly easy to tire of the unending stream of Euclidean diagrams, grinning grotesquely distorted faces, here-a-daub, there-a-daub colour splashes and the rest, of every modern art show.” Surely these modern artists, the journalist wrote, could “do something a little more ordinary for a change?”
While the White Stag Group’s early shows had been warmly praised in the press, the boundary-pushing in their art received more mixed reviews in the shows to follow. In October 1941 Kenneth held a one-man show. It was his first such show in Dublin and was a bold move. To continue the continental theme of their previous exhibition, Kenneth decided to present the catalogue for the show in French, perhaps wanting to emphasize again the importance of European influences in modern art. His paintings at this show were certainly challenging and featured his new, more expressionist, free-flow style of painting that he had developed over the previous year. Many of the paintings had no titles at all, but a few were named in French, which confounded reviewers. There were no written notes from Kenneth about each piece, a deliberate move by him.
While Kenneth’s close friends, and many other artists, saw in him a huge talent, the press coverage of his one-man show was, this time, not kind. The Evening Mail described “monotonous and constant fidelity to certain basic forms”; the Irish Times saw the paintings as showing a “harmonic disposition of colours with a determined avoidance of artistic achievement.” The Irish Press was less critical, but stated “these works do not represent forms in the ordinary sense, if they give satisfaction it is as ideas that must be worked out, and not to the eye.” In a curious way, this criticism would have been expected and even welcomed by Kenneth and Benny. Breaking new boundaries would inevitably upset traditionalists. Underneath, though, these comments would have hurt the sensitive Kenneth.
These were exciting times for Benny and Kenneth. They turned their attention to a key aim of the White Stag Group; to develop an artists’ centre, a place where like-minded, struggling artists could meet, paint and exchange ideas and views. It was called The White Stag Gallery and would be open to all, including the general public. Its home, they decided, would be 6, Lower Baggot Street. This was markedly different from Fitzrovia in London from before the War where the group, as has been seen, were far more inward-looking. The first exhibition at this venue was a small show in February 1941, featuring just five artists (Benny, Kenneth, Patrick Scott, Stephen Gilbert and the sculptor Jocelyn Chewett) with 21 pieces on display. This was an unusual show in that it was only open for one day.
Benny painted what was to become one of his most important paintings. Entitled The Prisoner, it expresses many ideas that were conflicts for him at this time: the confines of working in Dublin, which he loved for sure, but also was restrictive in many ways; the repercussions of a world war dictating everyone’s life; the restrictions that being bisexual or homosexual placed on the individual; his personal conflict between the deep love for one person against the fear of commitment that this entails; feeling caught by Kenneth’s growing neediness and illnesses. The Prisoner was about all these things, all this trappedness. It is currently on show at Towner, as part of the concurrent exhibitions Lucy Wertheim: A Life in Art & Reuniting the Twenties Group. Lucy Wertheim, who had known both Benny and Kenneth from London in the 1930’s, had kept in regular contact with them both throughout the War years.
Benny had been prolific in his work over the summer of 1944, and a number of pieces would be showcased in a solo exhibition later in the autumn. Pat Mullen, author of Man of Aran (1934), kindly penned a foreword to the exhibition in the catalogue. The show was a success, selling 10 out of the 16 works Benny hung. Kenneth put on a solo show too; his second. This received far more positive feedback than his first! The reviewers described his work as "flowing agreeably," "tasteful" and having a "remarkable impact on the imagination."
Benny and Kenneth remained with each other and continued painting until, so sadly, Kenneth took his own life in London in July 1946. The two men had been discussing plans for a future together in the weeks and months before his death. They had a big ambition to set up home together in Paris and open a studio and expand the ethos of the White Stag Group. It was now not to be.
Benny took many years to recover from Kenneth’s death but he did eventually make Paris his home and he did eventually acquire his own studio in the early 1950’s. The influences the two men had on each other’s work had been immense and, whilst Benny continued to experiment with new styles and methods, the influence of Kenneth remained within him. I am sure that would have been reciprocal had Kenneth survived.