Le Brocquy is widely acclaimed for his evocative "Portrait ‘Heads" of literary figures and fellow artists, which include William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and his friends Samuel Beckett, Francis Bacon and Seamus Heaney, in recent years le Brocquy's early "Tinker" subjects and Grey period "Family" paintings, have attracted headline attention on the international marketplace marking him as the fourth painter in Ireland and Britain to be evaluated within a very select group of artists, alongside Lucian Freud, David Hockney and Francis Bacon.
In Ireland, he is honoured as the first and only living painter to be included in the Permanent Irish Collection of the National Gallery of Ireland. To mark le Brocquy's 90th birthday some eleven one-person exhibitions were organised at home and abroad including the National Gallery of Ireland; the Tate; the Irish Museum of Modern Art; Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane; the Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, Cork; and the Hunt Museum, Limerick.
Holidays spent in Glendalough and his grandfather's home in Co. Roscommon fire his imaginative life: ‘It was there that it dawned on me that life was not ordained, as we had been led to believe, but had mysteriously emerged and continued to emerge through some magic compulsion in which all nature secretly shared.’ Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, a nephew of Lewis Carroll, perceives his creative gifts and encourages him to become an artist. Le Brocquy, however, has no such plans at the time and shows little more than a casual interest in art: ‘I did try to make a number of landscape watercolours up to the age of thirteen. At which point I realised that these were nothing but imitative versions of works I was somehow led to emulate. I destroyed them. That put me off painting for a while.’ Studies chemistry at Kevin Street Technical School (1934), and, later, as an extra mural student attends Trinity College, Dublin (1934-36), while working at Greenmount Oil Refinery, the family business established in Harolds Cross by his paternal grandfather, Louis le Brocquy (1861-1950). Of his family background le Brocquy says: ‘My great-grandfather Ange van den Eynde, was said to have been involved as a boy in the Belgian War of Independence of 1830, capturing riderless Dutch horses for the rebels. Afterwards, on manoeuvres with a battery of field artillery, he was thrown from his horse under a gun-carriage, injuring his leg. Unable to ride thereafter, he maintained his love and exceptional judgement of that animal, which eventually led him via Chelsea, London, to his home at Newgrove, Raheny, Dublin, where he married a Kilkenny girl named Anne Walsh and passed a good-humoured and expansive life buying strings of Irish horses for the Belgian cavalry remount ... When I was a young man (with the derisory term West-British in mind) I occasionally referred to myself ironically as a "West-Belgian". No-one seemed to me less manifestly Irish than that small family whose name I bore.’
In the summer of 1938, however, le Brocquy envisaged for the first time becoming a painter, having previously regarded the matter as nothing more or less than a diversion. Unaccountably drawn to reproductions of old master paintings with which he had long been familiar, the young chemist immersed himself in the works of Titian (1485-1576), Velázquez (1599-1660), Goya (1746-1828) and Manet (1832-1883), later evoking his particular wonder at Rembrandt's A Woman Bathing in a Stream (1654; National Gallery, London), in which ‘the handling of white lead impasto could miraculously become the texture of her coarse white dress.’ In time the artist would record the following impression: ‘Perhaps of all painters, Rembrandt has given me the deepest insight. Just now, looking long at an overwhelming self-portrait, I had a disquieting experience. It was not that the hand which held the brushes in the painting became, so to speak, my hand. It was that I identified with the paint on the canvas so that my hand understood that painted hand, felt those painted brushes. For a moment I left the actual world. For an instant I entered through the looking-glass of this painted reality, as though into another room.’ Realising that painting is an essential process for him, he experiments with oils, pigments and wax-resins in the laboratory. He would recount the pregnant silence that followed his grandfather's discovery of these in his laboratory cabinet: ‘My grandfather had also been expected to inherit an oil refinery in Düsseldorf.
He also had shown an early interest in painting. He was taken to a poor quarter of the town frequented by down-at-heel artists and writers, where his godparents impressed him with the grim correspondence between maler and "malheur".’ Studies technique from Cennino Cennini's Il libro dell’arte (1437), and Hilaire Hiler's Notes on the Technique of Painting (1934). Makes frequent visits to Dublin's Municipal and National Galleries, where the ‘deep humanity’ of Goya's A Woman in a White Fichu (‘La Moue’; National Gallery of Ireland) impresses him, as does El Greco's St Francis Receiving the Stigmata (1590-95; National Gallery of Ireland), depicted ‘within a white ectoplasmic cloud in which spirit has become paint, paint spirit.’ The metamorphic power of art will remain an enduring source of wonder throughout the artist's life: ‘Since painting first interested me, I have been drawn to a constant tradition which I think of as central to this old European art. This implies a peculiar use of oil paint; not to symbolise, not to describe the object, nor to realise an abstract image but rather to allow the paint, while insisting upon its own palpable nature, to reconstitute (if it will) the object of one's experience. In certain works of old masters, the paint (with its qualities of colour, tone and texture) has been transformed into the experienced object. Obversely the image of the object has become paint. This dichotomy, this tension pulls taut the nerves of insight. Reality is stripped down to a deeper layer and the ordinary is seen to be marvellous.’ Encouraged by his mother and with no formal training, le Brocquy left Ireland in 1938 to study the major European art collections in London, Paris, Venice and Geneva, the latter then exhibiting the Prado collection during the [[Spanish Civil War. From this deep experience le Brocquy recalls his revelatory encounter with Velázquez's Las Meninas (1654; Museo del Prado): ‘There in front of this huge work stood a small group of fellow visitors, partially obscuring the figures in the painting. Suddenly I perceived that the ephemeral actuality of the viewers was less real than the painted image before them. I believe at that moment I became a painter.’ French nineteenth-century art impresses le Brocquy, in particular Degas (1834-1917), and Manet (1832-1883), in whose works he perceives the paint, rather than the subject matter, to be the prime reality. The great Spaniards El Greco (1541-1614), Velázquez (1599-1660), and Goya (1746-1828) are equally revered.
The art historian Anne Crookshank observes: ‘He was enthralled by Spanish painting and its influence has remained a feature of his work, where the precision of his tone values and his use of greys and whites, both very prominent factors in Spanish painting, are constantly important.' Le Brocquy's journeys abroad prove catalytic: ‘Alone among the great artists of the past, in these strange related cities, I became vividly aware for the first time of my Irish identity to which I have remained attached all my life ... From the very beginning their (the artist's) transcendent universality helped to protect this incipient painter from self-consciousness – from self-conscious nationalism, for instance, inducing picturesque images perhaps of Irish country folk dressed in the clothes of a preceding generation, or of thatched cottages arranged like dominoes under convenient hills; images no more respectable in themselves than the sterile Nazi Kultur, or indeed the ordained Marxist aesthetic of "social reality" with its own insistence on compulsively happy peasants ... For art is neither an instrument nor a convenience, but a secret logic of the imagination. It is another way of seeing, the whole sense and value of which lies in its autonomy, its distance from actuality, its otherness.' His return to Dublin coincided with the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, of which he is a founding-member, establishing an effective forum for contemporary art in Dublin in 1943. Emerging as an innovative and influential artist, in 1946 le Brocquy moved to London and became prominent in the contemporary art scene. Assessing the period, Maurice Collis writes in Penguin Parade: 'He experienced in reality the dream of every young painter - to show and to be immediately acclaimed with enthusiasm. The half-dozen pictures hung at the Leicester Galleries were sold along with some others hastily sent to reinforce them; among the purchasers was the Contemporary Art Society, an organisation that buys with a view to presentation to the Tate ... Later in 1946 he showed more pictures in the same gallery, on this occasion along with other Irish painters. Again the response of the public was instantaneous; the critics, too, for the first time took serious notice of him. His right course now was to have a one-man show as soon as possible. This was achieved in the spring of 1947, when some forty of his works were hung at the [[Gimpel Fils Gallery.'
Early works (1939–1945) incl. Southern Window (1939; coll. Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane), and A Picnic, (1940; coll. Irish Museum of Modern Art, Beecher Collection), establish the artist's ongoing preoccupation with the inward isolation of the individual. Depicting three sitters withdrawn from one another around a bare tablecloth A Picnic is inspired by Degas’ Bain de mer: petite fille peignée par sa bonne (c.1877; Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, Lane Bequest 1917), and ukiyo-e woodblock prints (in which the image is implied beyond the outer frame). The painting's almost surreal aspect heralds much of the artist's subsequent work. The critic Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith observes: ‘For, in hindsight, the investigation of interpersonal relationships appears to have been destined from the start to be subordinated in le Brocquy's work to the exploration of the individual in isolation. ... A pronounced tendency toward solipsism is evident almost from the very beginning, as can be seen as early as 1940 in the painting entitled "A Picnic" in which three figures, far from enjoying the communal meal indicated by the work's title, turn moodily away from each other in melancholic introspection.’ Le Brocquy explains: ‘I now see that, in this work, I was already groping towards that invisible reality that lies within us – our most profound reality I imagine – the spirit, the inner consciousness of the individual human being.
Remarking on the precision, balance and resolution of his handling of paint, Anne Crookshank notes: ‘From the beginning le Brocquy had remarkable fluency and these early, academic paintings have a beauty and authority which is astonishing in view of his inexperience.’ Technical skill and dexterity, however, will be viewed with increasing suspicion by the artist who will come to value accidental discovery above all else: ‘Contrary to a generally held view, I think that painting is not in any direct sense a means of communication or a means of self-expression. For me at any rate, it is groping towards an image. When you are painting you are trying to discover, to uncover, to reveal. I sometimes think of the activity of painting as a kind of archaeology – an archaeology of the spirit. As in archaeology, accident continually plays an important part. The painter, like the archaeologist, is a watcher, a supervisor of accident; patiently disturbing the surface of things until significant accident becomes apparent, recognising it, conserving this as best he can while provoking further accident. In this way a whole image, a whatness, may with luck gradually emerge almost spontaneously. Thus, what counts in painting is, I believe, recognition of significant accident within a larger preoccupation and not dexterity and skill and calculated imposition.’ Assessing the artist's progress during this period, James White, later a Director of the National Gallery of Ireland (1964-80), writes in Envoy: ‘The born artist, as Mr. Salkeld has suggested, must have some instinctive understanding of his materials and how to use them. Louis le Brocquy did not go to art school or sit at the feet of any living master to learn his craft. He learnt to paint, quite simply, by painting ... It must be remarked again that he was still only twenty-two; he had been handling brushes less than a year. A man who could go so far in that time might be expected to go a great deal further before long.’ On the outbreak of World War II, le Brocquy's small rented headland studio in Cap Martin, France, is requisitioned to install artillery facing Italy (September 1939). Moves to Saint Raphael, cutting his stay short before the invasion of France by German forces (May 1940).
They are, he could see, outside of the closely organised life of the parish unit, looked on with mistrust and suspicion ... They become a symbol of the individual as opposed to organised, settled society ... For the creative worker they could represent the artist who deals in the unexpected and the unrecognised and who suffuses with meaning familiar things.' Armed with bicycle and sketchbook, the artist produces swiftly executed life-sketches depicting their unruly way of life. The art critic Dorothy Walker notes: 'He got on well with them because he was different from them and did not attempt to identify with them, because they were in fact extremely jealous of their own identity, of their own language shelta, a form of Irish, and of their own esoteric practices.' The artist explains: 'Faced with Cromwell's choice to Hell or Connaught, the forebears of the travelling people took a third way. They took to the road. In time they became the road - that which lies outside the security of settled society - their wild nature as defiantly distinct as that of a tiger.' According to Alistair Smith: 'Le Brocquy's interest in the travelling way of being, like Synge's before him, is to be seen in the context of the century's "discovery" of so-called "primitives", or, rather, of societies where there still exist languages and customs which have not been eroded by modern society. Le Brocquy appropriates John Millington Synge's notion of the spiritual bond between the traveller and artist, as Manet and Picasso had done beforehand with Baudelaire's. The elegant melancholy, however, of Picasso's Blue Period Saltimbanques, who have much in common with the travelling communities, is substituted in le Brocquy's tinker paintings with a sense of harsh endurance. In this, the tinker theme may be seen to express a more generalised predicament in the light of war-torn Europe, mirroring the dangers of an a way of life that, elsewhere, had ultimately lead to the horrific fate of the Jewish people and Eastern European Gypsies. According to Anne Crookshank: 'They convey the proud isolation and the uncertainties of the travelling life with an understanding and feeling for the subjects which are very moving. Le Brocquy has said that: "For me the Travelling People represented, dramatically perhaps, the human condition. During this entire period there is much symbolism in his work, though at no time does this become an overriding preoccupation. Always the actual picture, its painting and its composition triumph over the literary and anecdotal content.' Embarks on Tinker Woman with Newspaper (a.k.a. The Last Tinker, 1947-48), portraying the matriarch of a clan defiantly clutching the crumpled sheets of an alien world in newsprint: 'I still remember sketching her - as casually as I could - remote and uncompromising as she was, within the depths of her nature.' Le Brocquy strives to put Byzantine rigour into his work, in its two dimensional force of confrontation: 'Cézanne demonstrated in his late works what had been sensed by Manet, in his symphonic series of paintings from Lola de Valence to Le Balcon.
Matter, the painter's reference and subject, ceased to be expressed objectively as a self-evident solidity, and was now interpreted as the manifestation of a mysterious inner movement. The amorphous became crystalline, the opaque transparent, the static kinetic ... At the end of the long avenue of perspective we have reached conviction in surface: surface again may be exploited to state the conceptual, the metaphysical reality of matter; matter seen as it were from inside out. Today we peer forward in a fundamentally altered landscape. Glancing backwards from our new position, Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic forms gain new reality for us. The tinker theme reaches its ultimate development with the so-called 'Apocalyptic' paintings. Dr. Brian Kennedy notes: 'In the late 1940s, as the politics of the cold war settled into place, le Brocquy, like many others, grew uneasy. "In those post-war, cold-war days", he has written, "we all of us walked in the fear of eventual nuclear disaster obliterating civilised life".' Paints In Fear of Cain (1948), an image of secreted violence, Fearful World (1948), a throwback to the terrors of primaeval times, and The Human Child (1948), alluding to W. B. Yeat's poem 'The Stolen Child': Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand in hand, / For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. According to Alistair Smith 'Le Brocquy's Man Creating Bird of 1948 is the culmination of the Tinker series. It refers to Picasso's Harlequins or Pierrots, while also invoking a chilhood memory of a Kingfisher. The painting, an exuberant and decorative response to Picasso's work of the late 1930s, makes it clear that by this time le Brocquy, now resident in London, was working in an international style which bore only little resemblance to that of his Irish contemporaries.' The artist himself evokes the painting in stark terms: 'I remember having in mind the puppet, Petrouchka, who becomes human in Stravinsky's great ballet. But here it is the puppet, man, who is creating life. An unconscious forecast of the ominous genetic achievement half a century later
The Grey Period (1950–1956) incl. A Family (coll. National Gallery of Ireland) contemplated a stark human circumstance in the aftermath of the war. Embarks on the Grey Period "Family" paintings (c.1951-54), the third distinctive period in the artist's work. According to John Russell: 'In the early 1950s, above all, he came before us as a man who was looking for the image that would compound all other images. Anyone who was around at the time and concerned with what was called "post-war British art" will remember the painting called "A Family" (1951; National Gallery of Ireland).'
Widely acknowledged as the artist's Magnum opus from the period, the painting marks a shift in palette from the comparatively colourful work of the late forties to predominant whites and greys. John Berger writes in Art News and Review: 'His style has developed and changed; his colours are pale and severe - the Family is mostly grey; his forms, in their movement both across and into the picture, are precise. This finesse implies - because le Brocquy's motive is always human - a tenderness which is not sentimental, and a sense of wonder which is exact; one thinks twice about the quite ordinary but in fact miraculous construction of any man's back, having looked at the father in the Family. Le Brocquy is completely free of contemporary tendency to cosmic megalomania. It has become pretentious to talk of an artist's humility, yet that is what distinguishes his work; his studies testify to his patience, and his final, large picture to his refusal to evade simple but difficult problems by relying on the grandiose cliché.' Conceived in the wake of World War II, the artist explains: 'I have always been fascinated by the horizontal monumentality of traditional Odalisque painting, the reclining woman depicted voluptuously by one Master after another throughout the history of European art - Titian's Venus of Urbino, Velázquez' Rokeby Venus turning her back on the Spanish Court, Goya's Maja clothed and unclothed, Ingres' Reclining Odalisque in her seraglio and finally the great Olympia of Edouard Manet celebrating his favourite model, Victorine Meurent.
My own painting A Family was conceived in 1950 in very different circumstances in face of the atomic threat, social upheaval and refugees of World War II and its aftermath. The elements in its composition correspond in some ways to those of Olympia, if not to Manet's cool sensuality. The female figure in "A Family" may be seen to take on a very different significance. The man, replacing Manet's black servant with bouquet, sits alone. The bouquet is reduced to a mere wisp held by a child. The Olympian black cat in turn becomes white, ominously emerging from the sheets. This is how "A Family" appears to me today. Fifty years ago it was painted while contemplating a human condition stripped back to Palaeolithic circumstance under electric light bulbs. The painting will prompt John Berger to declare in the New Statesman: 'The right-hand half of the very large Family group is, by itself, the finest bit of contemporary painting I have seen for a long time, and I am now convinced that le Brocquy is one of the really promising (in this case that infuriating word is not an excuse but an achievement) British [sic] painters of his generation.' According to Alistair Smith: 'The key painting of the group is entitled A Sickness (1951) which may owe something to the composition of early works by Munch, where, very often, a figure broods in the foreground over what is happening behind. Here we are witness to two women, one seated and caring, the other near death, floating within sheets. In the other pictures of the grey series, the mood is of pervading melancholy. Despite the persistent quotation of elements from Picasso's Pink Period - the bouquets of flowers, the sparse interiors and the similar "intervals" between the figures - there is nothing of the sweetness of that part of Picasso's oeuvre. Le Brocquy has moved from a perception of his Irish travellers as outcasts, who thereby possessed a preternatural vitality, to an understanding of dismal entrapped, post-war urban society, refugees included.' Eric Newton writes in The Listener: 'Louis le Brocquy is a haunted artist. It would be easy to praise the pale delicacy of his colour and the angular simplicity of his line. But plenty of contemporary painters have precisely those gifts - they threaten to become rather tiresome cliché - yet cannot use them for any expressive purpose. Le Brocquy breaths life into the modish idiom. The familiar tricks become vehicles of a powerful vision. The recumbent woman, the back view of a man, the small child holding a nosegay of flowers who recur as a leitmotif in more than half the exhibits at Gimpel Fils, are the raw material for a kind of sonnet in paint, polished and rearranged and played with until it appears in at least eight different disguises ... Le Brocquy's exhibition establishes him as a lyrical artist with an exceptional evocative gift.' le Brocquy prepares for his first gallery exhibion in Ireland at the Victor Waddington Galleries, Dublin (December 1951): Paintings and Tapestries, including Negro Woman in White (1951), Child with Doll (1951). John Ryan writes in the Dublin Evening Mail: 'Louis le Brocquy discovered his peculiarly individual mode of expression early in his career and courageously employed it even when doing so meant that he had to discard a style which promised a fashionable and lucrative future as a portrait painter in the traditional manner. That pedestrian opinion has not forgiven him for this revolt against its standards was amply proved by the deplorable attack on the painter in the Evening Herald recently. Le Brocquy's stand and his subsequent development as an artist, however, won him the admiration and respect of intelligent opinion wherever his work has been shown. In great Britain he is accepted as one of the handful of really brilliant painters of this generation, while America in so far as she has had the opportunity to judge has reacted similarly. Despite the strictures of the Evening Herald it is satisfactory to note that the exhibition itself has been an outstanding success in every respect.'
Le Brocquy's painting underwent a profound development in 1956 with the "White Period Presences" (1956–1966) incl. Woman (coll. Tate Modern) that radicalised the human figure as an isolated presence. An extensive tour of Spain in the summer of 1955 signals a turning point in the work. The artist explains: ‘One day while passing through a village in La Mancha in shimmering heat, I stopped spellbound before a small group of women and children standing against a whitewashed wall. Here the intensity of the sunlight had interposed its own revelation, absorbing these human figures into its brilliance, giving substance only to shadow. From that moment I never perceived the human presence in quite the same way. I had witnessed light as a kind of matrix from which the human being emerges and into which it ambivalently recedes – with which it even identifies.’ According to John Russell: ‘There was from the very beginning a blanched look about many of his paintings: pure white light, pure white walls, pure white skin. Bone-white, chalk-white, almond-white were the adjectives that come to mind. Around the mid-1950s that whiteness, which had been simply a prevailing tonality, became the very element and substance of the paintings.’
Embarks on the ‘White Period’ Presence paintings (c.1956-66), the fourth distinctive period in the artist's work. The generic term is first attributed during the exhibition 50 Ans d’Art Moderne, Brussels, where it is remarked that in his latest work the human figure is no longer an abstraction drawn from living beings. Rather it has become a magic presence. The artist explains: ‘An essential break occurred, where I began to concentrate on a single image emerging from a canvas, in which the composition, in the conventional sense of the word, had been destroyed or ignored. Quite a painful decision, in fact. I had always based myself on being a traditional painter in that I maintained that composition was important; all that had to be thrown out.’ The artist adds: ‘Then, later, I had the idea of conjuring up images out of nothing, out of light, out of the depths of the blank canvas, as it were.’ According to Dr Brian Kennedy: ‘The theme which in its first phase was to occupy him for almost a decade, gradually became a vehicle of exploration for the whole of his later career.’ Alistair Smith writes: 'By the time he represented Ireland in the Venice Biennale of 1956, he had already abandoned the way of painting which had won him a major international prize there, and had embarked upon what was to become his most inventive series of works ... The triumphs of the period were considerable, with le Brocquy producing a body of work which was not only well-wrought and emotionally convincing, but also, for the first time, original, the sine qua non of modern art. This success was hard won, however. The establishment of a new subject-matter which dealt more directly with the spirit than with the body, and the recognition of a working method which admitted a force outside the artist's control. The artist meets the young Irish painter Anne Madden in November 1956, to become his lifelong ever-present inspiration. Paints Young Woman, Anne (1957) belonging to a notable series of white-on-white compositions. [[Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith notes: 'The title refers to le Brocquy's wife, the painter Anne Madden, who was seriously injured in a riding accident in the mid-1950s and had to undergo a series of painful operations on her spine. Le Brocquy remembers "being filled with an irrational anger at the aggressive implications of this surgical carpentry" and goes on to note that, quite apart from his personal feelings of anger, the spine literally continued to form the backbone of the ‘Presences.’ According to Alistair Smith: 'The fact that the painting mimicked the visual circumstances of the artist's life is important, but more important, if less tangible, were the emotions of the situation - the natural anxieties, apprehensions of mortality ... The voluptuous aspect of the female torsos, and the fact that wounding (as in surgery) is part of their subject matter, is clearly the result of the powerful mechanism of sublimation. Despite the origin of the work in his personal life, le Brocquy was alive to the more universal aspect of what was forming on his canvas ... His paintings quickly came to form a far more generalised statement on humanity, both male and female, both palpable and ethereal.'
The critic Michael Shepherd writes in Art News and Review: 'A typical example of le Brocquy's current work is a large canvas covered with pure white ground, or occasionally modulated to a smooth silvery oriental grey ... The general effect is of a painter who is less interested in superficial individuality than in catching some evocation of generalised spirit, who inhabits a world in motion, and who brings a scrupulous delicacy to making of this insubstantial material a calm and composed object for contemplation.' John Russell observes in The Sunday Times: 'In his beginnings he showed himself a witty observer of his fellow men, a born short-story teller or manager of the outward look of things. Gradually this dropped away; his palette, too, lightened until little was left but white, silver, and a rare stain of red ... "presences", he calls them, and the remarkable thing is that they are so undeniably present, and that so much of their predicament can be deciphered from the fragmentary evidence before us. He is a painter who never outstays the initial thrust of his ideas; his talent, an authentic one, is pushed to its limit in each phase and then he at once moves to the next one. This can be said of few painters
Since 1996 le Brocquy has embarked on a body of work entitled "Human Images", in an attempt to delve further into the earlier Presence series (c.1956-66). Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith observes: 'There are very few artists who have maintained as steadfast a commitment as Louis le Brocquy has over the past half a century to envisioning what it is to be an embodied human being adrift in an alienating world the true reality of which is likely to lie forever beyond our comprehension ... The principal similarity between the early 'Presences' and the torsos produced since 1996, according to the artist, is one of content in that the attempt is still to discover some kind of image of "our inner human reality - that impalpable thing we call in turn the spirit, the psyche, consciousness." The most obvious difference, on the other hand, between these two bodies of work is one of form, in that the 'phenomenon of whiteness', to use [[Richard Kearney's phrase, no longer exerts the same fascination. In the recent paintings the intense white grounds have been replaced by what le Brocquy characterises as 'grayish backgrounds or 'environments', initially composed of minute particles and later by a fractured texture from which the central figure is derived and into which it in turn diffuses in 'a substantial identity of surface and image'. According to Alistair Smith: 'The artist recognises the origins of these paintings in a work of 1971, Head with Open Mouth, but they also resemble, in their taut blend of abstraction and palpability, in their tender and fragile sense of being, the pictures of fruit which he made about the same time. One might think of them as still-life paintings of body parts; and as the still-life artist invests his flowers and fruit with a symbolism of growth and decay, we might expect le Brocquy's Human Images to carry the same meaning. What they seek to express, however, is something quite different ... Now he is attempting to convey the sensitivity of the mouth as a site where - like the other body parts - experience, life, enters the body, and he also shows us life emerging from the body.' The artist explains: '[The] first so-called ‘orifice’ paintings took place in the ancestral head series from 1970 to ’72. In those earlier images the head image itself was reduced almost to the isolated image of an open mouth – and this I saw not as a sort of silent scream, but rather as an opening into the dark space of the interior being. At the same time I saw it ambivalently as an illusory black hole in the canvas with spatial implications not altogether unlike those of a physically slashed or punctured work by Lucio Fontana in his Concetto Spatiale series ... About six years ago [in 1996] I felt that I might further develop the idea of the ‘holed’ canvas, forming the image of an open mouth, to include other points of ‘entrance’ such as the eye, the ear and the navel. And, finally, the navel in particular – being literally central to the ‘Presence’ torsos – may well have been a factor in returning me to the earlier ‘Presence’ paintings.'
In 2005 the artist embarked on his "Homage Paintings". James Hamilton observes: 'They are inspired by Manet's painting Olympia (1863), a masterpiece which le Brocquy has ruminated upon since he first encountered it in Paris in 1938 at the Jeu de Paume. Olympia worked her complicated magic on le Brocquy at intervals throughout his career, while also leaving her enduring mark on art history and on the work of many other great artists including Picasso, Modigliani and Moore. In 1951 le Brocquy perceived Olympia very differently in his large painting A Family (National Gallery of Ireland), envisaging a group of refugees in post-war Europe. Here Manet's cool sensuality has been completely ignored; as the artist puts it, 'reduced to Palaeolithic circumstance under electric light bulbs.' In the recent Odalisques, however, le Brocquy has wholly returned to his original delight in Olympia a naked figure at once aloof and alluring. The figure in le Brocquy's Odalisques conjures a sequence of moods, conveyed through colour variations and amendments of pose and staffage woman, cat, boy, flowers. Odalisque I is alert, lying naked on her bed against a modulated rich green background. Her fingers are in sensitive tactile motion, suggested by filmy, equivocal paintwork, and the flower bunch by her left leg makes a painterly burst of red, blue, white and yellow. She has a wide-awake erotic charge, the ripples playing across the picture surface suggesting that she may be lying not on a bed, but in the shallow end of a warm, inviting swimming-pool. Odalisque II, the most overtly sexual of the group, is fast asleep and, with her elongated neck and thrown back head, evidently dreams with flowers that are now not a bunch, but a river flowing luxuriously around her. In Odalisque III we see an explosion of summer flowers. The woman is sitting upright, awake and aware, with intense green eyes looking slightly to the left of the viewer; the cat sleeps. The last of the quartet, Odalisque IV, is asleep, and visited by a small naked boy who gives her flowers. The cat beside her is quietly watchful. There is a voluptuous pink tonality here, the body and bedclothes interpenetrating, and the whole articulated by gauzy red and pink flowing crayon marks. Fluid lines circle round and round to create, gently and lovingly, the form of legs, arms and breasts. Although he began with Manet's Olympia as the source, le Brocquy moves outwards in the Odalisques through his own experience as a painter, drawing on a reservoir of insight accumulated over a lifetime. The ripples which unify the Odalisque canvases, and mingle image and background, are continuations of the meandering lines which the young le Brocquy made in pencil and pastel drawings of lovers in 1943 and 1944. There is a clear thread joining le Brocquy's early work to these late statements, whose line can be traced more or less clearly as it dips and rises, sharpens and softens, across the intervening sixty or seventy years. The power in the Odalisques, when shown or reproduced as a group, comes from the rehearsal and restatement of their theme, just as a theme in music may be repeated with variations across the breadth of the orchestra. Although we expect to have another decade at least of le Brocquy's work to celebrate, this exhibition could be read as a triumphal reworking at the symphony's close of a phrase introduced in the first movement. When painting another of his persistent themes, the head image of W. B. Yeats, le Brocquy came to understand the potency of the continued sequence: 'it was then I realised that a portrait can no longer be the stable, pillared entity of Renaissance vision that the portrait in our time can have no visual finality.' Restatement, whether in art or music, is renewal. The titles of the eight paintings shown here have as their common prefix 'Looking at' Looking at Manet, Velazquez, Goya, Cézanne. They began as 'Homage to' these Masters, but le Brocquy's vision and translation of his models is so searching, that he invites us not so much to pay homage, but, as he has done all his life, to look at them again and again. Thus, through le Brocquy's brush, we meet once again Velazquez' Don Sebastian de Mora and Goya's Doña Antonia Zárate, we revisit the Villa Medici in the footsteps of Velazquez, and we encounter, once again, four ordinary apples and a knife that were first presented to us by Cézanne.'
Aidann Dunne remarks in The Irish Times: 'In a way these portraits are a high cultural equivalent of Andy Warhol's silkscreen paintings of celebrity icons like Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Both bodies of work emerged initially in the same decade, the 1960s, and they might be seen to converge in one of the most recent of le Brocquy's subjects, Bono. If Warhol were still around, Bono would surely be at the top of his to-do list. Yet there is clearly a tension between Warhol's infatuation with the vacuity of celebrity culture and le Brocquy's endorsement of the individual creative imagination. It comes down to a question of depth. For Warhol, everything is surface, whereas le Brocquy pledges allegiance to dense and complex layers of meaning, somehow bound up in the painted surface. Cultural Icons are, he implies, much more than depthless signs. But it's not as simple as that. His evocations of individual heads, living or dead, come with a rider. They are Studies towards an image of ..., and they occur in sequential multiples rather than single, definitive versions. Like Warhol, le Brocquy had realised that portraiture was a problematic genre by the mid-20th century. In attempting to embody a presence in paint while acknowledging that it was an unattainable goal, he signalled both his ambition and the current limits of that ambition. The subjects of his heads veer between virtual anonymity and iconic status. Ancestral Head, for example, is effectively anonymous but marks out the territory: not so much making a portrait per se as engaging in an "archaeology of the spirit". reconstructing not likeness but imaginative life. Throughout his long bouts of wrestling with his named subjects - a list that also includes Federico Garcia Lorca, Seamus Heaney, Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso - likeness is both a boon and an encumbrance. It grounds the image, but can also tie it to a formulaic restatement of familiar features. When the balance is right, le Brocquy manages to engender a feeling of tenuous, fugitive presence, providing a glimpse into the mysterious complexity of mental life and spirit. There is also a sense of cultural placement, not in the sense of merely iterating an Irish literary canon - though that is an obvious danger - but in terms of locating particular sensibilities and imaginations in terms of historically derived identity, a view of individual consciousness as extending forwards and backwards in time, in terms of genetic and other, more conscious influences.'
Among the many collaborations with Irish writers, notably Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney, le Brocquy is perhaps best known for his lithographic brush drawings for Thomas Kinsella's renowned translation of the Táin in 1969, held to be the great Irish Livre d'Artiste of the twentieth century. Seamus Heaney writes in The Listener: 'The book is illustrated lavishly and magnificently by Louis le Brocquy: "marks in printer's ink", he calls his contribution, "shadows thrown by the text". Sometimes they are runs, sometimes a rush of brush strokes, sometimes a tall totem in the margin. The remote significance of the story, the bold vigour among the ranks of heroes and the wily, sexual presence of the women are continuously insinuated by the graphic commentary. Altogether the poetry, painting and printing make this an important book, the fulfilment of a publishing dream.' Le Brocquy's illustrations receive critical acclaim for their level of interplay with Kinsella's writing. According to Aidan Dunne: 'The brush drawings merged seamlessly with the text; stark, fluent images, they expressed with great economy of means an epic breadth, evoking the mouvement of vast masses of people. Individual participants in the drama were also pulled into close focus. To achieve this, le Brocquy developed his brilliant idiom of calligraphic illustration ... Le Brocquy's achievement lies in having absorbed the general technical possibilities and harnessed them to his own specific ends, and, in the process, having managed to break new ground. The Táin drawings managed a well-nigh perfect marriage of text and image, and their impact was considerable.' Ailbhe Ní Bhriain further observes: 'The strong linear quality of le Brocquy's illustrations coheres with the upright, unfussy Pilgrim font, which is also suited to the direct tone of Kinsella's translation. The lettering, or initial letter, plays an important function in the livre d'artiste, and it can be seen here as a strong integrating element, as it is applied to the initial word of each tale. The bold font of the lettering echoes the dense black of le Brocquy's images, creating a fine balance between the literary and the visual symbol. These formal elements make it clear that The Tain is a production of carefully choreographed visual information, one comparable with the unity of Verlaine's language, Bonnard's arabesques, and the floral font in Parallèlement ... In his Táin illustrations, the ability of le Brocquy's drawings to emerge and dissolve gives fitting expression to the peculiar marriage of mysticism and raw physicality contained in Kinsella's text. Like gestures of primeval fear, strength, or passion, the "explosive" energy of the brushwork captures the physical exuberance of the text, as can be seen in the images of "bodily matters" and of violence, as in the several drawings of Cúchulainn's "warp spasm".' In 1988 it was at Samuel Beckett's personal request that le Brocquy illustrated his valedictory book, Stirrings Still (1988);, and designed the set and costumes for Waiting for Godot, Dublin, 1988, produced by the Gate Theatre worldwide. Further important illustrated works include J.M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, 1970; Desmond O'Grady's The Gododdin, 1977; Andrew Carpenter's Eight Irish Writers, 1981 and James Joyce's Dubliners (1986)
Louis le Brocquy, the elder statesman of Irish art, is currently the subject of a number of celebratory exhibitions and events to mark his ninetieth birthday, not only in Ireland but also in Paris and London. The celebrations and accolades have been well-earned after more than seven decades during which this self-taught artist has come to be recognised both at home and internationally as the foremost Irish painter of the 20th century. It is half a century since he represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale, where he won a major prize for one of his most familiar works, A Family, a key painting in le Brocquy's earlier Cubist style which now hangs in our National Gallery. It was not always so popular or acknowledged as an important work of art. The painter was accused of producing a "diabolical caricature" when it was first put on show in Dublin in the early 1950s; critics of the day found it repugnant and the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art turned it down. It was not the only time that the city disgraced itself in the rejection of significant work of art. Some measure of the appeal and stature of le Brocquy's work is reflected in the rise and rise of the prices he achieves in the art market - the latest record being for a watercolour at the recent Sotheby's sale of Irish art in London, where three le Brocquy works featured in the top ten prices. He is one of a few Irish artists whose work is represented in the collections of the most prestigious international museums such as the Guggenheim in New York and the Tate in London ... In recent years it has been as the creator of the "heads series" that le Brocquy has received most attention. The pared-down spectral renderings of the human head have become a central motif for the artist. Le Brocquy himself has eloquently referred to them as depictions of the isolation of the individual - an exploration that he shares with Beckett. For many of these paintings he has been drawn to subjects for whom the creative impulse has been at the centre of their lives, fellow artists and writers. His own creative impulses have added uniquely and richly to Irish art. '
Visiting Instructor, Central School of Arts & Crafts, London (1947-54); co-founder Signa Design Consultants, 1954; Visiting Tutor, Royal College of Art, London (1955-58); Fellow, Society of Industrial Artists, London, 1960; Member, Irish Council of Design (1963-65); Inaugural Board Member, Kilkenny Design Workshops (1965-77); Fellow, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, London, 1974; Founder Board-Member, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 1989-94.
Head Study for St John the Evangelist (C1579) 42.2cm X 31.9cm by Federico Barocci National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
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