This large ambitious painting was made in the early years of the Second World War when Jack B. Yeats, then aged 70, was about to achieve commercial and critical success as Ireland’s leading artist as well as receiving serious attention in the British art world. Now exemplifies the monumentality of his later work. John Rothenstein contemplated buying it for the Tate Gallery in 1945 (B. Arnold, Jack Yeats, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 328).
Now encapsulates the illusory world of theatre and performance that Yeats was so concerned with in his work. Apart from painting, he also wrote several plays. Three of them, The Silencer, Harlequin’s Positions and In Sand were produced in various Dublin theatres between 1939 and 1949. Yeats was an inveterate theatre-goer throughout his life. Now draws on Yeats’s memory of circus and variety performances of the past but its title suggests the immediacy of the performance and its direct and continuing relevance to the spectator. The title may have some relevance to the war itself, from which the Irish Free State remained neutral. It depicts a theatrical show in an enormous old fashioned theatre with what appears to be an open roof but which could be interpreted as an exaggerated depiction of an elaborately decorated ceiling. The painted landscapes along the interior wall to the left at the rear of the auditorium have a similar ambiguous effect that seem to permeate the fabric of the building and open it to nature and the outside world. In the left foreground the conductor strikes up the music. The heads of the orchestra players are just visible above the front of the stage below him. The master of ceremonies dressed in formal attire, with his top hat in hand, gets proceedings underway on stage. The act, constrained into the lower right of the composition, is like a circus entertainment with horses being driven at speed across the boards. A groom in a dark blue costume holds their reins. Balanced on the back of one of the steeds, is the statuesque form of a golden haired woman. She wears a long blue dress and holds aloft a staff. Although she is in the position of the Haute Ecole rider, whose great act was to stand on the racing horse, this figure appears ethereal and more like an apparition than a real woman or a circus performer.
Much of the composition is devoted to the tiered seating of the auditorium which extends across the space. Filled with the unfathomable faces of the audience, it evokes the anticipation and excitement of live theatre. The bowed figure of the conductor with his baton held aloft acts as a bridge between the darkened world of the spectator and that of the bizarre activities on stage. The light from the opened ceiling illuminates this central part of the composition, reflecting light on the red and yellows of the musicians’ heads and the edge of the orchestra pit behind them. The delicate construction of the scenery and the narrow setting for the performance is made of cold blues and purples differentiating it from the rest of the composition. The great curving forms of the architecture of the theatre encourage a sense of movement and change. One of Yeats’s most enigmatic paintings, Now evokes a world where anything may happen and where anything is possible. When exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1942 it provoked great interest and was praised by the artist, Mainie Jellett for its ‘brilliant colour and artistic feeling’ (B. Arnold, Jack Yeats, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 314).
Dr Róisín Kennedy