Artwork Description / Detail
Kavanagh was born at Birr, King’s Country, Ireland in 1903. The world in which he completed his apprenticeship as a sculptor has virtually disappeared. The sculptors under whom he trained and served at various prestigious art schools in England are hardly known to us in New Zealand; A. Ernest Cole, Gilbert Ledward and Charles Sargeant Lagger. His artistic mentors were of the opinion that he was one of the finest sculptors to have emerged from the turn of the century.
From Gilbert Ledward’s teaching and William Rothenstein’s ideas on mural painting, Kavanagh developed a philosophy that saw sculpture as an extension of architecture. This belief is well realised in his relief panels for the Walthamstow Town Hall of 1940, and in the exaggerated height of the almost Mannerist Madonna and Child for the Catholic Hospital, Lambeth Road, London. In the latter sculpture the Mannerist distortion provides visual compensation for the fact that, because of its position on the building, the sculpture is to be looked up at from below.
During the early 1930s when Kavanagh lived in Rome, the artist further strengthened his commitment to the tradition of sculpture embodied in the Classical and Renaissance works that he observed in Italy. This tradition fostered a concern with the human figure, in which the reality of the female nude represented a challenge, as well as an interest in the portrait bust as another expression of the human personality. In this pursuit his aims were akin to those of Jacob Epstein, or the approach of the New English Art Club painters.
Portrait Bust of Wanda Tiburzzi was sculpted during this period in Kavanagh’s career. The portrait is of Wanda Tiburzzi a famous model working in Paris during the 1920′s and 30′s. The bust was exhibited at the Royal Academy, London in 1933, and in 1935 was awarded a bronze medal at the Paris Salon. Along with earning Kavanagh success Portrait Bust of Wanda Tiburzzi exemplifies the influence classical Italian sculpture had on his art practise. Tiburzzi poses as if in a portrait from the Italian Renaissance, cast by Kavanagh as a classical beauty with her hands held elegantly to her bust and draped in fine cloth, sculpted so delicately it appears transparent.
It is a tradition at present out of favour. Contemporary interest resides in a fascination with the innate behaviour of materials, rather than in searching out the essence of natural appearance or of human psychology seen in terms of human physiology. The difference of emphasis makes Kavanagh’s work appear at odds with the spirit of our time. Yet it is not entirely ‘traditional’ in the narrow sense that people use the term, either to praise or to condemn a style bound by the dictates of the nineteenth century and its ideals of Classicism. Rather, subtle evidence of the attitudes associated with the ‘fin-de-siecle’ and vitality derived from early twentieth century attitudes resound in Kavanagh’s work. Coupled with his own craftsman-development of these stylistic factors, these attributes allow all of his works – paintings, sculptures and drawings alike – to escape the ‘traditional’ label with the narrow restrictions the contemporary mindset associates with it.
Kavanagh emigrated to New Zealand from Dublin in 1951. He did not fit into the Irish community, and had little sympathy for local ways and artistic principles being promulgated at the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland where he was a lecturer. Although he was not without his admirers, Kavanagh received only one private commission, a selection of University related works including a portrait bust of the Vice Chancellor of the University of Auckland which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1957. In 1960 he applied for the role of Director of Fine Art at both Elam and Canterbury University; unfortunately he was unsuccessful in both applications and he spent the rest of his lecturing years stubbornly defending his traditional principles until his retirement in 1970. He died on June 18, 1984.
New Zealanders certainly have not given Kavanagh’s standing as a sculptor the recognition it deserves. However the retrospective exhibitions of his sculpture at the Auckland City Art Gallery in October 1979 and of his paintings and drawings at the Auckland Society of Arts in September 1980 may be seen as belated gestures of respect. Such efforts are needed to rehabilitate Kavanagh’s reputation in both New Zealand and Ireland.