Cusack, Ralph Desmond Athanasius (1912–65), artist, was born 28 October 1912 at Drumnigh House, Portmarnock, Co. Dublin, the only child of Maj. James Robert Roland Cusack, banker (later stockbroker), and Eileen Cusack, daughter of Capt. Watson of the 7th Dragoon Guards and widow of Hugo van der Nahmur. The family was wealthy – Ralph's great-grandfather, Sir Ralph Smith Cusack (1822–1910), DL, was chairman of the Midland Great Western Railway. Another relative was Margaret Cusack (qv), the Nun of Kenmare, but she was unusual within the family for her conversion to catholicism and her nationalism. Ralph's parents were unionists but as a boy growing up during the ‘troubles’, Ralph had sympathy for the nationalist cause, though he subsequently felt that independent Ireland did not realise its potential.He was educated at Charterhouse, England. Evelyn Waugh was one of his teachers and dubbed him ‘zany’. He studied painting briefly in Germany before going to Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1931. His older cousin, Mainie Jellett (qv) encouraged his interest in art. After graduating with a third in economics (BA 1934), he married – in Vorderleited, Bavaria, Germany – Kira Heisler (d. 1979) of Leningrad. They moved to Menton in the south of France because his mother had left him a villa there, and the climate was beneficial to his health (he suffered from TB); he also thought the environment conducive to painting. Though he was self-taught, his style developed rapidly; he was influenced by cubism. On the outbreak of war in 1939, he returned to Dublin, and the following year joined the Society of Dublin Painters, possibly through the influence of Jellett. The Society, set up in opposition to the then conservative, inflexible Academy, counted among its members some of Ireland's most innovative artists, including Edward McGuire (qv) senior, Mary Swanzy (qv), and Gerard Dillon (qv); Cusack, with his non-academic, European style, fitted in well. The critic Stephen Rynne (qv) commented in the Leader (12 October 1940) on his first one-man show at the Dublin Painters’ gallery, 7 St Stephen's Green, in October 1940, that the ‘queer juxtapositions of imagery’ gave his pictures a gentle surrealist quality, while the Dublin Magazine described his pictures in the 1945 Dublin Painters’ exhibition as ultra-revolutionary. Throughout his short painting career, Cusack was generally grouped with the cubists and surrealists, and he was a member of the avant-garde White Stag Group, set up in 1940 by the émigré British artists Basil Rákóczi (qv) and Kenneth Hall (1913–46). Less controversially, he exhibited with the Water Colour Society of Ireland, showing ten works between 1941 and 1943. Until 1943 boats and sea were his principal subject matter; ‘The wreck’ (1943–4) is a surreal depiction of a hulk of a boat with its ribs exposed. He occasionally painted people, but he was a poor draughtsman and these were less successful.
In May 1943 he was a founder member of the committee of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, indicating his strong position within the Dublin art world. From this period he began to turn from seascapes to landscapes, and the English painter Paul Nash was a discernible influence. The symbolic architectural structure of Cusack's ‘Untitled’ (1944) recalls Nash. Both painters also had a theatrical quality to their work – Cusack had worked as a set-designer for the Menton Players in France (he also acted with them), and in Dublin he collaborated with Anne Yeats (qv) in set designs for ‘The strings are false’ and ‘The house of cards’ both at the Olympia, 1942, and for the première of ‘Red roses for me’ at the Olympia, 1943. That year he also designed scenery for ‘Saint Joan’ at the Gaiety. During the 1939–45 emergency he served as a stretcher-bearer in the LDF. By the mid 1940s his first marriage had ended in divorce and he had married Nancy Sinclair Beckett (d. 1969), a cousin of Samuel Beckett (qv). They lived at Roundwood, Co. Wicklow, with his two sons from his first marriage, and had a horticultural business, selling bulbs imported from Holland, which supplemented Cusack's independent means. Gregarious and hospitable, he craved the company of writers and artists and his home was a haunt for both the established and the unknown, including the young Brendan Behan (qv) and Anthony Cronin, who boarded for a time with the Cusacks, and left a memorable description of his host's contradictory character (Dead as doornails, 18): ‘A short but barrel-chested man with broad shoulders and long arms. . . . Though fanatically devoted to all the good, left-wing, liberal causes, hating censorship, obscurantism, prejudice, puritanism, occidental religions of all descriptions (oriental ones were of course another matter) . . . peaceful, humanitarian, sedulously progressive as he remained, he was extraordinarily prone to violence as an answer to what he believed or imagined to be defiance or contradiction of his principles.’ Cusack's temper led him to assault Behan with a bottle and to chase from his house Herbert Read – the most famous art critic of the day, who was over in Dublin to open a White Stag exhibition – because Read had called Chagall ‘schmaltz’. Cronin otherwise found Cusack intelligent, civilised, and affectionate.
Although Cusack's development as an artist was swift and even remarkable, it soon atrophied, possibly because of his lack of formal training. After the war he exhibited in Scandinavia, London, and Monte Carlo, and the Cultural Relations Committee of Ireland included his work in an exhibition of contemporary Irish painters that toured North America in 1950, but by this date, lacking purpose and self-esteem, Cusack had stopped painting. In his unorthodox memoir, Cadenza: an excursion (1958), he did not even mention painting. Cronin thought his work execrable and believed he only painted because in his ‘sort of intellectual-rentier bohemia you had to do something’ (Cronin, 14), and Patrick Kavanagh (qv), who was prejudiced against artists with independent means called him an ‘arch-phony’, but the art critic, Brian Kennedy, has disagreed: ‘with a little restraint and a sense of purpose Cusack could have been one of the most interesting and influential painters in his generation in Ireland’ (Kennedy, 63)
In 1954 Cusack moved back to the south of France, to Spéracèdes, Alpes Maritimes, where he wrote Cadenza, a vivid, impressionistic work, focused more on early sexual experiences than on career or family history. Cronin found it a pretentious schoolboy fantasy which failed to convey the author's character.
Cusack died 20 July 1965 in Grasse hospital, France, aged 52, and left an estate in Ireland valued £29,273. He was survived by both wives, the two sons from his first marriage, and three children from his second.