Louis le Brocquy: Portrait of the artist


Louis le Brocquy revitalised the tired genre of portraiture and turned it into an ‘archaeology of the spirit’, and it is this, along with his personal charm and open intelligence, that secured his reputation in the arts world, writes AIDAN DUNNE

LOUIS LE BROCQUY is one of a handful of modern Irish artists who have become household names. As with Robert Ballagh or Sean Scully, even people with little or no interest in art know immediately who he is. That’s quite an achievement in itself, especially given that he was not naturally at home in the limelight.

A thoughtful, courteous, genuinely charming person, he was quiet and understated in manner, although he had a mischievous twinkle in his eye and a wryly observant sense of humour.

On the face of it, the core of his artistic achievement lies in two substantial bodies of work: his prolific series of Head images, begun in 1964, and the brush drawings and related works made in response to The Táin for the Dolmen Press in 1969. In the long term, more attention may be paid to an earlier phase of his output, especially his Traveller paintings and comparable works from the late 1940s and early 1950s (these were highlighted in an exhibition at the Hunt Museum in Limerick in 2006).

Resisting early assumptions that he would go into the family’s oil-refinery business, and with his mother Sybil’s encouragement, he set off to satisfy his curiosity about art. He was self-taught and well travelled, and was one of the few Irish artists at the time to have a firm grasp of Cubism and the European avant-garde. Rather than treating Cubism solely as a formal style, however, he managed to create a body of work that tied some of its methods to a specifically Irish context.

While his earlier work demonstrated that he could have pursued a career as a very capable representational painter in the academic manner, he was intellectually and artistically restless. His socially and psychologically astute explorations of the family and the outsider in Irish society are exceptional for their time and are likely to stand as being historically significant in the context of modern Irish art.

They surely reflect his own ambivalence about conservative social structures in relation to the individual, an enduring preoccupation. He didn’t shrink from becoming involved in cultural controversies. He protested in a letter to The Irish Times when Dublin’s Municipal Gallery turned down the offer of a Georges Rouault in 1942, for example. In the same year, the RHA’s rejection of one of his own paintings substantially influenced the establishment of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, a major public showcase for modernist art for several succeeding decades. When he was taken up by Charles Gimpel, then opening a gallery in London with his brother Peter, it made sense for le Brocquy to move there.

In the latter half of the 1950s he made notable paintings, concentrating on the individual, isolated human presence. They see him move towards the dazzling white ground that became something of a trademark for him and was reputedly inspired by Spanish sunlight. Many of them featured a central, spinal form. He had met Anne Madden at the time, and she was dealing with an old spinal injury sustained when she was a teenager.

In mood, the 1950s paintings reflect not just this personal sense of fragility but also the brooding unease of the time: the enduring legacy of the second World War; Cold War anxieties; existentialist philosophy. The next major artistic development in his work was the advent of the Heads.

By his own account, he’d reached an impasse and destroyed almost a year’s work. One day, in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, he chanced on a display of decorated Polynesian heads. Shortly after, he linked them in his mind to the Celtic head cult. They shared the idea that, as he put it: “The head was a magic box that held the spirit prisoner.”

Immediately he figured out a way to revitalise and destabilise the tired genre of portraiture as being neither a straight representational likeness nor a Pop Art icon in the mode of Andy Warhol. He began to make a series of densely worked, multi-layered, spectral, ancestral heads emerging from a white ground. Each image is shifting and indeterminate, something expressed in his decision to title many of the works Study towards an image of . . .

To his great credit, he succeeded in his self-imposed task of making portraiture an “archaeology of the spirit”. He was, he said, aiming towards the subject he was painting, not trying to capture a likeness. Rather than presuming anything, he was feeling his way towards a sense of the person as a complex imaginative being. In time, the subjects came to include many major literary and artistic figures, including the great Irish literary triumvirate of Yeats, Joyce and Beckett – the latter was a personal friend.

The Táin brush-drawings look as bold and new today as they did in 1969. They led to various other Táin endeavours, including printworks and, especially, tapestries. Le Brocquy had a long involvement with tapestry, by no means the most obvious contemporary medium, and completed an impressive body of tapestry works, often with the Tabard workshop at Aubusson, France.

Another recurrent, linked series of paintings is based on two disparate sources: one, a 17th-century painting, Children in a Wood, by Cornelis Bisschop; and the other, an Evening Herald photograph of a religious procession of young girls on Merchant’s Quay, Dublin, on Bloomsday 1939. Le Brocquy produced several versions of both these subjects. As he saw it, they are studies of the sacred and the profane, but he finds common ground between them, and implies that there is no easy contrast to be drawn.

Although it might run counter to popular perceptions, le Brocquy is not an artist with a significant international profile. While he and Anne Madden were substantially based in France for many years, and although at various times he exhibited in London, France, Japan and elsewhere, he showed mainly and consistently in Ireland, where he was associated with the Taylor Gallery and its predecessor the Dawson Gallery, as far back as 1962. He pursued the Head theme well into the 1990s.

It can be argued that since the 1980s he struggled to find a subject or a mode of working that came anywhere close to his achievements to that point, but his reputation remains justifiably high and is likely to continue to do so.

'Louis used white as other painters do shadow'

Poet John Montague on Louis le Brocquy

I GOT TO know Louis best during the 1960s, when I was Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times.

Louis and Anne would come up from their home in the south of France, and plunge into whatever was happening in Paris, which could include a new exhibition of Louis at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher in the rue de Seine, or indeed Le Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville’s display of his Yeats portraits. And in the evening we would gather with much hilarity at some watering hole, along with sundry fellow artists, writers and the like.

With his fair, delicate looks, Louis could seem vague (Anne and I used to teasingly call him “Your Royal Vagueness”), yet he was anything but, being in his own way immensely practical.

To go to the Jeu de Paume museum with him, for example, was quite an experience, with his intimate sense of how a painting should be presented.

He was great on the dialogue between wall and frame, and frame and canvas. While other visitors gazed appreciatively at each picture in turn, Louis filled me with a sense of wonder at the harmony of a room, and the importance of things like the hue of wooden frames, or how to avoid hanging a painting too high or too low (most are mounted too high, he said).

He was working on the drawings for Thomas Kinsella’s Táin, and while every little detail seemed to matter, they could also look as nearly mystical as the drug-induced visions of Henri Michaux.

There was also something uncanny about his portrait gallery of Irish writers. It was as if the painting was a Veil of Veronica, on which he summoned a ghostly head. His portraits of the later Joyce are heartbreaking, while his Yeats are challenging, with that now-legendary face sometimes stern, other times passionate or full of wild imaginings – or, like the face of an Irish Prospero, conjuring spirits.

Louis used white as other painters do shadow, and as he grew older and more frail, he began to look like a Louis le Brocquy, all fine blanched lines, with a light seeming to shine from within. His career as a painter has been exemplary, and we are all grateful.