JACK B. YEATS, often described as Ireland's foremost 20th-century painter, and sometimes simply as its ``greatest artist,'' was something of a secret worker. He exhibited his work, certainly, but he painted in absolute privacy, never letting anyone see his paintings until he was completely satisfied they were ready to fly away. He was against his paintings being reproduced, disliking the idea that someone might mistake a small substitute bought at an exhibition for the real thing. Since he was a painter of moments and memories, he felt that the memory of a painting, allowed to work in the imagination, was likely to be more vivid and true than a postcard of it. He had a point.
Yeats also discouraged discussion of his pictures' meanings, happy to let viewers interpret them in their own way (with a little extra help from titles). He felt that the meaning of his paintings was intrinsic and not to be verbally explained. He was, however, far from inarticulate - as a wealth of very original writing bears witness. ``The Selected Writings of Jack B. Yeats'' has just been published by Andr'e Deutsch in London and provides a good tasting of his written products. Robin Skelton, in the i ntroduction to this selection, describes ``Sligo,'' a prose work first published in 1930, as ``a helter-skelter of freely associated memories, reflections, fantasies, and jokes. There is no shape to it; its form is that of the mind alone....'' Yeats's later oil paintings, which most critics consider his best work, could almost be described in similar terms.
YEATS really was the most extraordinary wielder of the brush and palette knife. Out of an apparent chaos, a kind of sweeping application of smeared and rushed color, emerge images that are not only profoundly romantic, but also marked with an uncanny accuracy of statement. He combines the substantial and the insubstantial in a magical way that is not at all easy to analyze. A horse and man, a street of buildings, a seascape are summoned up by the paint, unmistakable and weighty. Yet at the s ame time they have the vagueness, the suggested transparency of a vision only half realized.
It has been pointed out that the faces of people in a street painted by Yeats are not just ``crowd,'' but each, in spite of the apparently melee of paint depicting them, has definite character. Each, to a degree, is a recognizable portrait. Yet they are dreamed figures.
Behind his mature painting style lay years of observation and drawing. He made sketches and notes all his life. In his earlier days he was a black-and-white illustrator of books, a cartoonist; he even contributed to Punch. He was quick and facile, and facility is always dangerous: It can sometimes lead to nothing but surface antics. But Yeats was tougher than that.
GRADUALLY he could allow himself a freedom in his painting that in almost any other hands would have led to a disastrous triviality. Instead, with Yeats, it let his feelings express themselves. He commented once on the way painters are apt to value their paintings for the ``handling of the paint'' when the sub- ject is actually much more stimulating to them and important for a picture's success than they are prepared to admit to themselves. It seems he was no exception to this ru le when he told John Rothenstein: ``I believe that the painter always begins by expressing himself with line - that is, by the most obvious means; then he becomes aware that line, once so necessary, is in fact hemming him in, and as soon as he feels strong enough, he breaks out of its confines.''
Ireland and the Irish, of course, became Yeats's subject. As he developed, he was able to drop a rather folksy and anecdotal quality, and launch into an imaginative arena that was far more daring: recollection rather than observation, a strongly felt narrative fantasy rather than simply a record of life around him. He did, in a lecture in 1921, offer this somewhat idealistic answer to the question ``What would the finest picture in the world give?''
``Well,'' he said, ``as I asked it, I should answer it. The finest picture in the world will give the finest moment finest felt by the finest soul with the finest memory. Well, we have bad and we have great souls. And we have had, and we will have, great moments.''
Great moments, and the intensity and exhilaration of them, emerge in the welter and scrape, the flourish and squirm and dash of strong reds, chrome yellows, poisonous Prussian blues, and white of his later paintings.
SOME writers have been tempted, in the face of such freedom of paint and color, to call Yeats an ``expressionist'' - but expressionist Angst is not really his way. Even when he is a touch satirical, it is a warmly remembered tenderness that is at the heart of his vision, and sometimes, also, a melodrama, a glorious wild sunset or violent blue-yellow dawn. He was never frightened of romance, of reverie. But if his style is savage-seeming, his sentiment is not.
His friend, artist Walter Richard Sickert, once pointed out how closely Yeats combined figure and landscape in many of his pictures. When Yeats introduces one of his powerful and proud horses (as in ``Come''), this is even more true: His people and animals are part of their environment - it is never a mere theatrical backdrop. Sickert wrote in the early 1920s: ``Much of our modern landscape has an imported air, and the figures are tucked away in corners. They are seldom doing something in the landscape. Instead the two elements should be knit together both psychologically and pictorially.'' Then he cites a painting by Yeats in which this is achieved.
Yeats was an original. On the evidence of his paintings, he did learn from other artists, though he was dismissive about most of them. Goya he openly admired. Degas must have been known to him. Turner is certainly a forebear of some of his atmospheric landscape and house-interior painting of the later years. Samuel Beckett, a great admirer of Yeats, mentions Ensor and Munch in his written ``Homage to Jack B. Yeats.'' But he adds, of such influences, that ``the least that can be said is that they are not much help.''
Then Beckett puts in a single short paragraph an incisive statement that seems remarkably true of Jack Yeats:
``The artist that stakes his being comes from nowhere. And he has no brothers.''