Portrait of an Irish Artist: Louis le Brocquy


Even though le Brocquy collaborated with a number of famous Irish writers, his close friendship with Beckett needs to be highlighted.  Not only did Beckett and le Brocquy collaborate during the last decade of Beckett’s life on the illustrations for Beckett’s Stirrings Still (1988) and his set and costume design for Walter Asmus’s highly acclaimed production of Waiting for Godot, but, according to Anne Madden, whose book Louis le Brocquy: Seeing His Way was published in 1993 by Gill & Macmillan, “Sam bore up nobly when confronted with the artist’s reconstructions of his handsome creviced face, his pale piercing eyes. He chuckled as Louis told him of Francis Bacon’s reservations when he viewed his own image in the gallery before the opening. Notwithstanding Bacon’s declared admiration of Louis’ images of Yeats, Joyce and Lorca and his initial enthusiasm in a letter to Louis: “‘I am very flattered you have included me amongst your portraits.’” 

Commenting on le Brocquy’s work in a letter to the artist, Jean-François Jaeger, director of the Galerie Jeanne-Bucher in Paris, wrote, “I myself feel happier in contemplating the intense image of Joyce or those rather sharper images of Beckett than I am before the Fellini-like portraits of Bacon, even when the latter are utterly true and of such power and refinement in their sensuality as to create an impression of positively sharing in the discovery of Bacon by himself, in the act of becoming Bacon.” 

Le Brocquy’s allusions to his Irish-born contemporary are not serendipitous. 

According to le Brocquy’s son Pierre, “My father met Francis Bacon in London in 1954 forming a lifelong friendship. When my father left London in 1958 to live in France they both always kept in touch, regularly corresponding or visiting each other’s shows in Paris or London. Their friendship was based on a mutual interest in each other’s work.”  As the art critic Dorothy Walker noted: “The period of the fifties, not only in London but all over the Western world, was a period of abstract painting, of saturation tachisme or abstract expressionism when figurative painting was totally out of fashion and for the first time le Brocquy as an artist began to experience something of the isolation of his subjects. But he pursued his own preoccupation, as Francis Bacon did his, and their continued isolation as figurative painters in an abstract world no doubt helped to strengthen their interest in each other’s work.”

In 1966, Bacon wrote of le Brocquy’s work: “Louis le Brocquy belongs to a category of artists who have always existed – obsessed by figuration outside and on the other side of illustration – who are aware of the vast and potent possibilities of inventing ways by which fact and appearance can be reconjugated.”

Ultimately, there is a deep, almost collective unconsciousness at work among le Brocquy, Bacon and Beckett. It is almost as if these artistic contemporaries arrived at the same place at the same time, and while their individual styles were uniquely their own, the expression of those styles was very similar.

But there is something uniquely poetic about le Brocquy’s work. As Seamus Heaney has written in “Louis le Brocquy’s Heads,” “Osip Mandelstam, in his extraordinary Conversation about Dante, says: ‘A quotation is not an excerpt. A quotation is a cicada. Its natural state is that of unceasing sound. Having once seized hold of the air, it will not let it go…’Louis le Brocquy’s heads are in this way quotations from bodies, from lives even. We have no sense of them orphaned from their supporting frames or times. They take hold of the air; they probe it with a deep pure stare. The lyric poem has been called ‘a way of putting it’ and ‘a momentary stay.’ There is an element of the accidental about it as well as a sense of inevitability. It is as much a result of the poet’s language generating itself as of the poet expressing himself. So it is altogether proper that Louis le Brocquy’s images of poets should stand in relation to their poems, because these images also take delight in caging the moment, staying the accident.”

What struck me then, as now, about le Brocquy’s work is a kind of vacant majesty in the Head Portraits and though I bought the Yeats’ poster, I think it was the Beckett poster that was most engaging for me, how  Beckett’s work tends to coincide with le Brocquy’s. As Deirdre Bair wrote in Samuel Beckett: A Biography, “Beckett, while still in his twenties, expressed…awareness of the new thing that has happened, namely the breakdown of the object,  [the] rupture of the lines of communication...and the space which intervenes between [the artist] and the world of objects.”
One can say the same thing about le Brocquy’s head images.