Funge, Paul (1944–2011), artist and cultural impresario, was born Matthew Paul Funge on 25 January 1944 in Earslfort Terrace, Dublin, the youngest of three sons of Thomas Funge, a draper, of Main Street, Gorey, Co. Wexford, and his wife Ellen (née Doyle). His brother Michael followed numerous members of the extended family into the catholic priesthood, while his father was a former IRA member turned successful businessman who dominated Gorey society for almost fifty years as town commissioner and the local Fianna Fáil stalwart.
Straining against his small-town catholic upbringing, Paul was banished to boarding school in Newbridge College, Co. Kildare. He enjoyed the art classes, but little else, and in 1961 entered the National College of Art (NCA), Dublin, where he was taught by Maurice MacGonigal (qv) and won an Italian government scholarship to study in Florence. Although he detested, and in many respects reacted against, the NCA's authoritarian inculcation of a rigidly academic style, art critics later detected its underlying impact on his work. He put his skills with the trumpet, piano and guitar to use by forming a jazz band and spending a summer playing in a Bundoran-based showband. During two summers teaching English in Santander, he fell in love with Spanish culture, becoming fluent in the language and regularly visiting thereafter. Upon receiving his diploma from the NCA in 1966, he got occasional commissions designing stage sets into the mid 1970s, and briefly worked as an art teacher in various secondary schools, demonstrating a capacity for interesting and motivating students.
He exhibited from 1966, his main themes being landscapes, portraits and the human form, specifically male nudes. Influenced by Francis Bacon (qv) and David Hockney (b. 1937), he was part of a loose grouping of artists that attempted to develop a distinctively Irish school of surreal figurative works in defiance of the local mainstream's adherence to the international craze for abstraction. In 1967 he was a founder of the Project Arts Centre, a cooperative gallery for young or unfashionable artists. He saw painting as a psychological release, and was described as attacking the canvas with the vigour and bravado of a bullfighter. Doing little justice to his painterly flair and conceptual ingenuity, this slapdash approach meant too much of his early output was anaemically rendered and pretentiously obscure: reviews ranged from the mildly patronising to the outright scathing.
Bespectacled, wildly bearded and clad in velvet attire with a cloth cap, he looked every inch the bohemian malcontent, and in 1967 consolidated various of his public lectures into a book, A perspective on art, wherein he argued that artistic technique was secondary to expressing the experience and understanding of the human condition. Somewhat surprisingly, he was in 1968 hired as a part-time teacher by the NCA, where students lauded him for introducing poetry readings, music recitals and philosophy lectures into the foundation studies course. Amid growing unrest at the college, he sympathised with the students' grievances and as secretary of the staff association led the campaign for improving the teachers' low pay and insecure employment.
After an extraordinary number of students failed the first-year course in summer 1971, Funge and another teacher, Anne Hanratty, affirmed their belief that the students had been failed for political reasons and refused to teach when the college reopened in October. Their ensuing dismissal sparked a student boycott of classes, and the college closed for six weeks before a compromise was reached and Funge and Hanratty were reinstated. The dispute caused lasting bitterness, and in March 1972 Funge resigned from the college over the new National College of Art and Design Act, 1971, which he condemned for perpetuating the bureaucratic strangling of the arts.
He believed that the spontaneity associated with community participation was more conducive to developing talent than an institutional schooling, and in 1970 opened Ireland's first provincial art centre in a storage shed normally used for his father's drapery in Gorey. Every summer it mounted painting, sculpture and photography exhibitions. That year he also created space for the inaugural Gorey Arts Festival by covering the adjacent yard, first with a polythene sheet and then in 1971 with a corrugated roof. Perennially suffering from straitened finances and primitive facilities, this pioneering initiative occupied his summers and flourished from the mid 1970s thanks to his manic energy, his forbearing father, an enthusiastic corps of volunteers, and funding from the Arts Council and the corporate sector.
Funge used all his charm, trickery and persistence to lure national and international artists to Gorey for the festival, which spread across the town and offered lectures, workshops, poetry, plays, ballet, films, street theatre, one-man shows by popular entertainers, children's puppet shows and music sessions, including folk, jazz, rock, choirs and classical. He also published poetry broadsheets and latterly an annual literary journal. The many famous or subsequently famous participants included John Banville, Liam Clancy (qv), Chris De Burgh, Colm Tóibín, John Ashbury and U2. Funge's free-spirited conviviality drew in young local talent and ensured that natives of the Gorey region went on to make a significant contribution to Irish art and literature.
Inviting and assiduously courting politicians and wealthy businessmen, Funge found a significant early supporter in Charles Haughey (qv), who opened proceedings in 1971 and 1979 and bought his paintings. Playing out against a boozy, decadent backdrop, the festival scorned Ireland's cultural establishment and derived a certain cachet from mixing the respectable with the scandalous. The poet James Liddy (qv) oversaw its literary programme and devoted a barely fictionalised section of his memoirs to the demented happenings of the 'Ramstown Arts Festival' and its quixotic guiding spirit, the wheedling, carousing, moneygrubbing, homosexual and verbally grandiose 'Seamus McFaustus'.
Following spells as a guest lecturer in the University of California at Santa Barbara (1974) and in the University of Amsterdam (1975), Funge ended a period of financial struggle by becoming head of the Waterford School of Art in December 1975. He was appointed Ireland's first regional art development officer in 1977 when the Mid-West Arts Association gave him responsibility for Clare, Limerick and north Tipperary. As such, he oversaw the creation of local arts committees and instigated the establishment of an arts centre in Limerick. He also assisted the inauguration of the Galway Arts Festival in 1978.
During this period, he had the ear of the minister for education, John Wilson (qv), but was frustrated by the petty politicking of local administration and increasingly at loggerheads with the Arts Council, which he accused of discouraging devolution, hiring mediocre British art administrators, and being in thrall to foreign trends when Irish art needed to cultivate a self-confident parochialism. He resigned as regional arts officer in early 1980 and took up a position in Dublin as art inspector with the Department of Education, continuing therein for many years.
Holding exhibitions in Spain, Brazil and California during the mid 1970s, he matured as a painter, revelling in half-realised interpretations of form and in offsetting dense blocks of colour with light brushstrokes. Manifesting the belief that essences are perceivable only through flux, his intensely autobiographical compositions evoked the dysfunctions and disassociations of modern society while abounding in artifice, cynical humour and phallic-obsessed sexuality. He was an uneven artist, albeit an intriguing one with a genius for self-promotion.
In the early 1980s his association with the critically ascendant neo-expressionist school of Irish artists finally lent him a credibility commensurate with his profile before he was undone by bad luck and his habit of making enemies. Amid malicious rumours of cliquishness and eccentricity within Funge's circle, the Arts Council curtailed grants to the Gorey Arts Festival, which declined and then lapsed permanently in summer 1984 after he lost a considerable sum on a touring production of Édith Piaf's life story and was stricken by stress-induced tuberculosis. He had hardly recovered from this near-fatal illness when he was almost beaten to death in November 1985 by a mugger in Dublin. His physical and psychological recovery was slow, and he did not resume painting until around 1990.
He returned with a 1991 exhibition that confirmed his reputation as one of Ireland's finest contemporary portrait artists. His impetuous methods worked best with portraits, and he was renowned for capturing likeness and character, numbering musicians, politicians, businessmen and literary figures among his overwhelmingly male subjects. Carving out a modest niche within the Irish art scene, he painted and exhibited in relative obscurity thereafter, though controversy arose from his notably successful one-man show at the United Arts Club in 2007, when the purchaser of nine paintings threatened legal action over the amount paid. As a result, the club committee suspended Funge's membership for six months.
Having fractured both legs in a fall in December 2010, he developed heart problems in mid February and was admitted to Loughlinstown hospital, Co. Dublin, where he died on 21 February 2011. He was buried in St. Michael's cemetery, Gorey. His will disposed of €251,707.