The final frontier, when Kernoff boldly went…


The final frontier, when Kernoff boldly went…

Ireland’s Fine Arts, antiques and collectables column

Spock the difference: The painting, A Bird Never Flew on One Wing, spent many years on the wall of O'Brien's pub on Leeson Street.
Spock the difference: The painting, A Bird Never Flew on One Wing, spent many years on the wall of O’Brien’s pub on Leeson Street.

In August 1930, the Irish artist Harry Kernoff sailed to Leningrad on board the Soviet ship Kooperatsiya (Cooperation) as part of a delegation of the Irish Friends of Soviet Russia. It was an interesting group. Kernoff’s travelling companions included the political activists Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Charlotte Despard, and Irish Republicans David Fitzgerald and George Gilmore (who travelled under a false name). Their educational tour took them from Leningrad to Moscow, Baku, Tiflis, and Vladikavkaz.

Harry Kernoff was Jewish. He came to Dublin as a teenager, worked in his father’s furniture business, and took night classes at the Metropolitan School of Art under Seán Keating. In 1923, he became the first night school student to win the Taylor Scholarship. As he travelled through the USSR, Kernoff’s Jewish heritage came in handy. Many locals he met along the way could talk to him in Yiddish.

Kernoff’s trip was reported in the journal, Art to the Masses, (October/November 1930). The article, by D Lyakovitz was entitled: “Revolutionary Artists of the West: Harry Kernoff.” It has been translated by the historian Maurice J Casey and published on his blog in 2018. The article includes an element of spin. It establishes Kernoff’s proletarian credentials by saying that he had worked in a furniture factory (but neglects to mention that the factory was owned by Harry’s father). It goes on to describe Kernoff’s painting, Spiral, as: “an attempt at a satire directed against the capitalist system by means of symbols.” The painting, Lyakovitz concluded was “too revolutionary for capitalist society”.

Kernoff was impressed by Soviet Russia. In 1930, independent artistic groups were still permitted in the USSR and Kernoff met with members of the Association of Revolutionary Artists. Two years later, all existing literary and artistic groups were disbanded and replaced by state-sanctioned unions. “I think that they are moving ahead with great strides… and are showing the workers of the world the way to self-expression and freedom,” he wrote on his return. The quote comes from a catalogue essay by Eamon Carr. It was written for a 2002 exhibition in the Gorry Gallery, that included 25 pieces of Kernoff’s mind-boggling abstract art.

His abstract paintings are relatively rare. The gloriously titled Extension in Time Space, or, Time Space is Curved (1941) sold for €12,500 at Whyte’s in 2006. It included an original poem by Kernoff inscribed on the back of the painting: “Though small we have a place in stellar space / Which meets in the womb of future time / Curved space that parabolic fits the rhyme.”

So far, so sci-fi. Then, a few years ago, an article by Liam Collins in the Sunday Independent introduced the theory that a painting by Kernoff was the inspiration behind Star Trek’s Spock. The painting, A Bird Never Flew on One Wing, spent many years on the wall of O’Brien’s pub on Leeson Street. It shows two of Kernoff’s archetypal Dublin characters having a drink. One of them, apparently modelled on The Toucher Doyle “so named for his skill at borrowing money” bears a remarkable resemblance to Spock. The story is that a Hollywood designer spotted the painting in O’Brien’s and was inspired to create the half-human, half-Vulcan character. It’s a hard one to prove or disprove.

The painting sold for €180,000 at Adam’s in 2009. It is now part of a private collection and will be on display as part of an exhibition – The Birth of Modernism in Irish Art – which runs in the State Apartment Galleries, Dublin Castle, until August 18.

Harry Kernoff (1900-1974) also painted landscapes, illustrated books, made woodcuts and worked in theatre design. The best of his paintings sell for big money. Bathers, Naylor’s Cove, Bray (1940), a view of the sea baths at the foot of Bray Head in Co Wicklow fetched €82,000 at Whyte’s in 2005.

A very large Modernist oil painting by Kernoff, Death (c.1934) sold at Sotheby’s, London, for €122,449 in 2008. Other prices are more modest. Dolan’s Easter Sunday auction, which takes place in Ballyconneely, Connemara, includes two: Village Street with Women in Shawls (Lot 160: est. €3,800 to €4,500) and Old Man with Bird (Lot 161: est. €2,500 to €3,000). Morgan O’Driscoll’s Irish & International Art Auction, which takes place at the RDS, Dublin, on April 29 has one: Study of James Joyce (Lot 6: est. €3,000 to €5,000).

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In the Salerooms

Morgan O’Driscoll

When Roderic O’Conor (1860-1940) lived in Brittany, the local women refused to sit for him in the nude. All that changed when he moved to Paris in 1904. There “he quickly took advantage of the abundance of professional models who could be hired to sit as required, both clothed and unclothed”, writes Jonathan Benington in the catalogue for Morgan O’Driscoll’s Irish & International Art Auction which takes place in the Minerva Suite of the RDS, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, on April 29 at 6pm.

The auction includes Seated Nude (Lot 61: est. €30,000 to €50,000). The painting (c.1923-26) is sensual, intimate and luminous; the model is the artist Henriette (Renée) Honta, who was O’Conor’s mistress and posed for him regularly, but usually wearing clothes.

The auction also includes Norah McGuinness’ Flight Over Mulroy (Lot 60: est. €20,000 to €30,000) and a sculpture: John Behan’s Inishbofin Boatman (Lot. 67: est. €10,000 to €15,000) is particularly fine, as is Anthony Scott’s Bull (Lot 70: est. €4,000 to €6,000). There are two paintings in the sale by Ken Hamilton: Girl with Pearl Earrings (Lot 121: est. €4,000 to €6,000) and Sleeping Beauty (Lot 137: est. €3,000 to €5,000). Viewing in Skibbereen, Co Cork, tomorrow and Sunday and in the RDS, Dublin, from April 26-29. See

Antiques & Vintage Fairs

An Easter Antiques Fair, organised by Hibernian Antiques & Vintage Fairs, runs at the Castle Oaks House Hotel, Castleconnell, Co Limerick, on Bank Holiday Monday. The fair runs from 11am to 6pm. Admission is €3.50 for adults. On April 28, the South Dublin Antiques & Vintage Fair will take place the Royal Marine Hotel, Dún Laoghaire. The fair runs from 11am to 6pm. See

Indo Property


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