After seven decades of painting, Louis le Brocquy has clearly established himself as one of the 20th century’s masters. In an interview with George Morgan in 1995, Morgan asked le Brocquy to comment on whether he had achieved what he set out to achieve as a painter. Le Brocquy replied: “I once said to myself – a very long time ago when I was starting to paint, when I was trying to develop the ability to paint – that I would be very happy if I could reach the status of or be considered to be a good painter. Well, now and again along the way, I have been moved while painting and by painting to believe that I may have been granted something more, making it possible for me to reach a little into the meaning of life.”
My own introduction to the paintings of Louis le Brocquy goes back to 1978, when I was awarded an IIE scholarship to attend Exeter College, Oxford. At some point during my stay, and I can't remember exactly where, I saw a poster advertising an exhibition of works by Louis le Brocquy À la recherche de W. B. Yeats: Cent Portraits Imaginaires (In Search of W.B. Yeats: Imaginary Head Portraits) October-November 1976, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville, Paris. The exhibition was over, but I was reading Yeats' A Vision at the time and fortunately was not too late to buy the poster of Yeats, which I still possess.
But even though I was taken by le Brocquy's work and his “Head Images” in particular, I had no idea who this Irish master with the French name was. As I found out, Louis le Brocquy was born in Dublin on November 10, 1916. The son of Albert le Brocquy, the honorary secretary of the Irish League of Nations Society, and Sybil (née Staunton), co-founder of Amnesty International Ireland and a noted figure within Dublin's literary circles. His family was friendly with W.B. Yeats and family, which may account for his perfervid interest in Yeats.
Le Brocquy was educated at St. Gerard's School, Co. Wicklow, and in 1934 went on to study chemistry at Kevin Street Technical School, and then Trinity College Dublin. At the same time, his childhood interest in art, particularly painting, re-emerged, and he produced two early experimental paintings, both of which were accepted for exhibition by the Royal Hibernian Academy – an impressive accomplishment for a young, self-taught amateur.
According to le Brocquy's wife and biographer, Anne Madden, the summer of 1938 marked the time when le Brocquy the chemistry student first considered becoming le Brocquy the painter. That November, subsequent to graduation from Trinity, le Brocquy left Ireland to immerse himself in studying the great European art collections of London's National Gallery, the Louvre in Paris and the Prado Collection on loan to Geneva. By 1940 he had returned to Ireland, where his work began to get attention. Throughout a career spanning over seven decades and many ground-breaking stylistic manifestations, le Brocquy has become internationally recognized as one of the foremost Irish painters of the 20th century. In 2002, his seminal 1951 work, A Family, was added to the Permanent Irish Collection of the National Gallery of Ireland, making him the first and only living artist to be included in the collection.
The “Head Images” of literary figures for which he is so famous began in 1964, with portraits of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, and in 1975 he began the aforementioned series on W.B. Yeats.
In 1964, le Brocquy had begun the fouth distinctive phase of his artistic career, with a series of images called Ancestral Heads. Inspired by decorated Polynesian skulls on display at Musée de l’homme in Paris, he began to consider the ancient Celtic preoccupation with the head. As the artist himself said, “Like the Celts I tend to regard the dead as this magic box containing the spirit. Enter that box, enter behind that billowing curtain of the face, and you have the whole landscape of the spirit.” For the next ten years, he then produced his first series of Head Images, each stemning from an aspect of Celtic mythology, history and art; each equally intent on accessing a twentieth-century idea of the portrait – one vastly different from the fixed renderings of the Renaissance.
Following a commission by Per-Olov Borjesson, a Swedish gallery owner, to contribute to an exhibition of aqua tints of Nobel Prize winners, le Brocquy commenced his Portrait Heads of important artistic figures such as Joyce, Picasso, Beckett, Shakespeare and Yeats. These were not exacting portraits drawn from life or photographs, but something more.
In his 2000 publication “Notes on Painting and Awareness,” the painter wrote of his process in creating the Yeats Images displayed in that 1976 exhibition: “I therefore tried as uncritically as I could to allow different aspects of Yeats’s head to emerge. These I recalled largely from photographs taken throughout his lifetime, and, for the most part, without referring to them directly. Where I have worked from them directly, I have consulted two or more at the same time and – since these photographs bear little consistent resemblance to each other – I have encouraged differing and sometimes contradictory images to emerge spontaneously in order, as it were, to exorcize my own rather conventional memory of Yeats and in the hope of discovering a more immediate image – stilled and free of circumstance – underlying the ever-changing aspect of this phenomenal Irishman.”
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.