Behan, His Bulls

The Irish sculptor John Behan, now at seventy-six, is a bit like an old bull himself, as if his many bulls were self-portraits: 'Small Bull', 'Long Bull', 'Bull Bellowing', 'Prancing Bull', 'Charging Bull', 'Small, square Bull', 'Spring Bull', 'Rough Bull', 'Roaring Bull', 'Alert Bull', 'Tense Bull.'

Mostly, those who know the man or his work would add, Kindly Bull, Sociable Bull, Sensible Bull. Playwright Brian Friel (who has one of his own) described John Behan's bulls as 'enormously solid artefacts, four-square on the earth, confident, assured, executed to a point of absolute completion.' Four-square: not to be budged off-course.

His work is often inspired by writers—by Miguel de Cervantes, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, James Joyce, Thomas Kinsella, and Tom Murphy, to name his main sources of imagery. The favour is returned; he has work in the homes of Friel, Heaney, Edna O'Brien, Tom Murphy, and lots of other writers. His is a silent literature.

John Behan was born in 1939 on Sheriff Street, one of the poorest Dublin tenements at a time when Dublin tenements were the poorest in Europe. It is near the docks where herds of cattle are penned up each week, mooing in sorrow for their pastures, before transport ships carry them to slaughter in Britain. On weekends, the boy was brought to his grandfather's farm in Ballybrittas, County Laois. Farm tools were the first tools he learned to handle, his introduction to a craft where the art was in the memory of hands, muscles, shoulders, and back. Like any boy, he was fascinated with the creatures on the farm—the pigs, cattle, and fowl. This farm did not have its own bull. Once when it was time to breed the cow, Black Jack Behan brought his grandson with him and their cow to a neighbor who kept a bull. He remembered that. But his sense of the bull was not limited to the symbolism of sacrifice or virility.

His first welded sculpture to be exhibited, and first to win a prize, was a bull. Brian Fallon remarked, Behan spoke 'the language of bronze by birthright.' 'His ramping, barrel-chested bulls' seemed self-embodiments. He could entrap in metal the tension, the sense of power, and the movement of these big males.

As much a blacksmith as a draughtsman, Behan was a fierce worker. Sketch first thing in the morning, model in wax before the midday meal, read in the afternoon, walk to town to the shops, spend an hour in the pub with friends, then home to the kitchen to prepare the evening supper (he is a serious cook). This lifelong ritual steadies him in several dimensions of his humanity. As an order of life, it seems wise, even holy and Jewish, like Ecclesiastes: 'To everything there is a season.' In this way, he has produced over six thousand works in bronze.

His themes include birds, fishes, boats, ships, scenes from Joyce's Ulysses and Quixote's Don Quixote, victims of the Famine suffering, digging, fleeing, sailing in coffin ships to death or America, and arriving in New York (his famine memorial 'The Arrival' is at the United Nations compound in the city). But he always comes back to the bull.

Because a man keeps doing bulls does not, obviously, mean that his invention is at a standstill. The return to a subject is a spur to invention: what haven't I done with this image before? The finish can be skin-like, spiky, rough, or planar. Strips of sheet metal can be bent and joined so that the flat area makes surfaces, and the edge forms lines ('Aggressive Bull'). Light metal rods can be welded together into a framework for the shape, then brazing rods melted with a torch until a brass texture is achieved ('Autumn Bull'). Modelling clay can be shaped and palpated by the fingers, then a solid piece cast in bronze ('Hereford Bull'). As opposed to a figure solid all the way through, the mass of the bull can be defined by its outline, and internal spaces left open ('The Táin Bull'). The patina can be colored or made dull or reflective by means of brazing and variously burnishing the surface (note the green of the 'Alert Bull' and copper of the 'Aggressive Bull').

Matters of balance are essential. The Renaissance virtuosos loved to do a hero on a horse, with the horse rearing--tons of bronze balanced on just two points, atop a plinth, in a crowded city square. On the one hand, there is risk; on the other, literally iron-clad security. The magical illusion of tons of metal floating in air inspires awe.

John Behan has a natural love for intricate matters of construction. In photographs of Behan at work, he is always smiling, and not for the camera, but because he likes his work. Aristotle's definition of pleasure—the unhindered exercise of one's natural force—explains that smile: doing what he was born to do gives him pleasure. He is like a little boy building a skyscraper out of blocks, and when he has one built, building another one. In 'Alert Bull', the huge head is far forward of the front legs; any more so, and the hind quarters would lift up into the air, and the figure would topple forward. In 'Autumn Bull', the game is just the opposite: he makes the creature appear to be moving in reverse, with all its mass thrown backward, so that the whole figure seems to be on the edge of tilting onto its own tail. Other bulls are, as Brian Friel noticed, 'four-square', not to be budged, like the quiet 'Hereford Bull' and the formidable 'Fighting Bull.'

John Ruskin thought this play element was essential to the origin of sculpture. People began making sculptures, Ruskin imagines, as an expression of an essential human instinct to create 'imitable living creatures', and 'in such permanent form that one may play with the images at leisure. Play with them--or love them, or fear them, or worship them. The [sculpture of a bull may become a god]...the great mimetic instinct underlies all such purpose; and is zooplastic,—life-shaping,—alike in the reverent and the impious' (Aratra Pentelici, Seven Lectures on the Elements of Sculpture, 43).

The bull may take on a range of meanings. For Picasso, it was identified with Spain, and with the manliness, honour, chivalry, and national suffering of Spain. In other hands, other meanings. On Wall Street there is 3,200 kilogram charging bull in bronze by Arturo Di Modica, a conventional symbol of aggressive capitalist growth, yet John Behan's 'Aggressive Bull' has nothing to do with Wall Street.

The bull is an ancient symbol in many cultures. Zeus assumes the shape of a bull to carry off Europa. Minos, son of Zeus and Europa, establishes a bull cult in Crete. His wife Pasiphae is cursed by Aphrodite with a sexual passion for a bull. She requires the sculptor Dedalus to invent a cow-like framework so that she can satisfy her desire. When she gives birth to the Minotaur, Dedalus has to build the labyrinth to contain him. Only by inventing wings can Dedalus hope to escape Crete with his son Icarus, but he flies too near the sun and is punished by Apollo, who burns up the wings of Icarus, sending him like a falling star down into the sea. Every turn in this Cretan tale is capable of being invested with symbolic action by an artist.

In Irish heroic literature, the cause of the whole battle in The Tain is a quarrel about bulls. Ailill has Finnbhennach, bigger and better than any bull owned by his wife Queen Medb. She sets out by fair means or foul to obtain the equally magnificent Donn Cualinge from Ulster, so she will not be one whit poorer than her husband. This marriage spat over a bull may seem a silly reason for an epic war, but Ireland then was as much a cow culture defined by a bull cult as ancient Crete had been. A bull was more than a symbol; he embodied the future of the herd, on which the whole tribe depended. A bull both defended cows and calves against harm, and begat the next generation.

These Greek and Irish ancient myths are relevant to Behan's bulls, and not just because he manufactured images of Finnbhennach and the Tain bull. One of the key books in Behan's self-education was the sculptor Michael Ayrton's novel, The Maze Maker (1967). The novel is the story of the Greek sculptor and inventor Dedalus, told in the first person. Ayrton's Dedalus is dedicated to technical mastery, especially in metalworking. He travels around Greece to meet other masters and to learn their secrets, and to find the ores crucial to his craft. Ayrton's Dedalus is haunted by the fear that he will offend the gods through the extension of his own human powers beyond permissible limits. His wish is for a good patron, so that he can exercise fully his talents through a long life. Minos seemed a good patron, but then forced Dedalus into unholy services. To keep the secret of the labyrinth safe, Minos imprisoned Icarus and Dedalus inside his own invention.

Even before the death of Icarus, Ayrton's Dedalus feels himself to have been a failure as a father?he could not conceal his disappointment that his son turned out to be clumsy with his hands. He expected love as his due, and does not know why he does not receive it. He seems unaware of how the artist's self-absorption in his work can deprive his children of a sense of their own value, even a sense of being loved. His son thirsts for honor after death rather than any sensible achievement, a fame even greater than that of his father. To Dedalus, the best course is quiet toil to make things people need. He is bitterly bewildered by his son's unintended suicide. He cannot escape the fact that he himself created the wings that caused his son to aspire beyond permissible limits. Dedalus was the means to his son's end.

So interwoven is the life of Dedalus with techne, metalwork, bulls, labyrinths, kings and queens, fathers and sons, and winged flight, that Ayrton's book gives narrative resonance to these particular archetypes. The bull and Icarus are not for him two randomly variant symbols; they are interrelated through the story.

The brief titles Behan gives his various bulls are indicative. They may have to do with shape (angular, square), geographical or literary reference (Spanish, Finnbhennach), or action (fighting, waiting, roaring, bellowing, turning, challenging), but some titles suggest the sensibility of the creature. He is 'alert', 'aggressive', 'angry', 'tense', 'poised', or 'patient.' Behan's archetypal bull is proud and strong but also sensitive. Stubbornness is always a possible connotation of the bull, as spelled out in the cliché—stubborn as a.... The bull is by definition a male creature, and his moods are as many as those of a man. He is a father. He fought with others for the right to breed with the cow. He carries the security of the herd on his broad back and short legs. He is its king. He is progenitive.

One dimension of the bull image was to serve as a symbolic manifestation of the Irish male. When he was a boy, John Behan had seen Irish bulls crammed into holding pens awaiting shipment to Britain. As a young man, he then saw his friends forced by the poor Irish economy to emigrate to London, exported to the British labour market. On their return from London, as they began families, the young Independent Artists experienced a complex of emotions particular to their situation that Behan was able to express through many inflexions of the bull image. They too were worried, challenging, fighting, rampant, tense, testosterone-rich, wounded, and proud. They were also the first generation of Irish males to find that their wives were becoming feminists, and wanted a bit of equality for themselves, who suddenly saw as if for the first time the vicious obverse of traditional male virtues. Behind pride, vanity; in place of a champion, a bully; not a king, but a tyrant without battalions. Soon enough came a time of anxious bulls, wounded, fallen, and charging bulls.

Of course, a bull in bronze may not carry these connotations. It can also just be a token of a fine Irish pedigree. Over the years, Behan's bulls became popular with farmers. In 2013, a prominent cattle-man in the north of Ireland commissioned John Behan to do a life-sized portrait of himself with a specimen of his herd to stand out by his driveway. Another farmer, this one in a border county of the Republic, rang Kenny's Bookshop and Gallery to contact Behan about a making a bull for his property. When Conor Kenny and Behan arrived at the farm to discuss the matter, the cattle-man pointed out to a gigantic cromlech he had built on which the bull was to stand. Behan made him a beast to outdo in size the Táin bull, over twelve feet high. You could spot it from an airplane. What did Behan's bull mean to that farmer? Good business in the past, good business in the future.

But ultimately I think John Behan aimed for something more than good business. A socialist of the James Connolly stripe, he saw the artist as a member of the working class, and a particular fragment of that class that needed to make 'a clear-cut commitment to the propagation of art for the people, not just for the few.' He was in favor of the Bauhaus principle that people benefit when good art accompanies their lives, even when they pay it no mind at all. Housing estates and student dormitories were at present manifestations of 'arrogance' toward the less powerful, in assuming that a lack of beauty would never be a lack they'd feel. Such public projects should be conceived with a view to the civilising effects of beauty and comfort. When he made bulls, he told a journalist in the 1960s, he liked the fact that 'They give a sense of power, energy,' a power the people should feel in themselves. In particular, during a long era of the malaise of the male, he furnished emblems for contemplation of the qualities of the creature, muscled, half-conscious, instinctual, hurt, thirsty for triumph, anxious, of ancient lineage.