Two Travellers by Jack B. Yeats

Jack B. Yeats

Two Travellers, 1942, Oil on wood, 92.1 x 122.6 cm, Tate; Purchased 1946, N05660, © Estate of Jack B Yeats. All rights reserved, DACS / ARS 2019; Photo: © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY

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Transformative Encounters

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The painter shows two figures facing one another on a track in a coastal landscape in the West of Ireland. This enigmatic scene prompts questions. Are we witnessing a meeting between strangers? Is one a ghost, or a hallucination? And—whether earthly or unearthly—is he a guide?

These possibilities might stand for the complex identities of Tobias’s own guide who is presented as Azariah—simultaneously an Israelite, the Archangel Raphael, and a vision (‘Take note that I ate no food; what appeared to you was a vision’; 12:20).

Regardless of identity, the apparently meaningful encounter between the two figures in Jack B. Yeats’s painting, and their intimate relationship with the landscape, resonate with Tobit 6 and 7. Tobias is altered both by his meeting with Raphael and by the journey itself, highlighting the potent nature of encounters ‘on the road’ and of pilgrimage more widely.

Samuel Beckett (1906–89) in his 1954 ‘Hommage à Jack B. Yeats’ concluded that ‘[his painting] incorporates into a single witness dead and living spirits, nature and void, everything that will cease and everything that will never be’ (Rosenthal 1993: x). This description reminds the viewer that Yeats is not depicting an actual scene but conjuring a vision based on ballad, folk tradition, and observation, terms which chime with commentaries that interpret the book of Tobit as folklore. The painter made sketches of the landscapes of the West of Ireland and its characters when travelling with the playwright and collector of folklore, John Millington Synge (1871–1909) for the Manchester Guardian in 1905. The sketches and reproductions of the oil paintings with which they were associated were published as Life in the West of Ireland in 1912 and the present painting is a revisting of this theme.

Beckett’s compelling description of Yeats’s paintings does not acknowledge the unpretentious qualities of his subjects, an observation that draws attention to the fact that God is found in both the ordinary and extraordinary and reemphasizes just how human the narrative of Tobias and the Angel is.

 

References

Fuchs, Rudi et al. 1991. Jack B. Yeats: The Late Paintings (Bristol: Arnofini)

Pyle, Hilary. 1994. The Different Worlds of Jack B. Yeats: His Cartoons and Illustrations (Dublin: Irish Academic Press)

Rosenthal, T.G with Hilary Pyle. 1993. The Art of Jack B. Yeats (London: Andre Deutsch)


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