I t is an easy cliché to suggest that an artist is fascinated by the human condition. Yet few can be said to deserve this tribute more than the self-taught doyen and pioneering godfather of 20th-century Irish art, Louis le Brocquy.
"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."
Here was an artist who sought to unravel the mysteries of the mind and body, whose belief that the ‘most significant human reality lies beneath material appearance’ was manifest beyond his art in his perceptive charm, his keen support for initiatives like Amnesty International, and his generosity towards friends and fellow artists. His career, spanning seven decades, encompassed a remarkably wide range of styles and media, from painting and printmaking to tapestry and murals, always working with consummate technical understanding and inspired by an uncommon empathetic curiosity.
His reputation – accordingly – is monumental. To critics like John Russell, he was ‘a story-teller, a symbolist, and a thoughtful enquirer into the conditions of life’. Popularly in Ireland, he has ‘come to be recognised both at home and internationally as the foremost Irish painter of the 20th century’. To his friends like Kevin Cahill, he was ‘a modest man genuinely interested in the tale of almost anyone he meets … of obvious integrity and rare humility’, and Francis Bacon observed: ‘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.’
In 2000 he became the fourth of a select group of British and Irish painters – alongside Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and David Hockney – to witness one of his works sell for over £1 million in his lifetime.
In an effort to appraise le Brocquy’s venerable and varied career, critics divide his work into distinct stages, a range of which can be found in the upcoming sale. Le Brocquy’s celebrated ‘Grey Period’, for instance, represented a significant shift in style and colour towards pale and severe versions of the human form. In these paintings, as demonstrated by Study (Man with Towel), le Brocquy presents a vision of individual isolation in a faltering post-war society, exploring what John Berger describes as ‘the ambiguity of the body as a cage containing an animal and the body as an expendable servant of the heart’ .
His masterpiece of this period, A Family (rejected amid great controversy by the Dublin Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in 1952) was acquired in 2002 by National Gallery of Ireland in a move that made le Broquy the first and only living artist to be included in the Gallery’s Permanent Irish Collection.
Another important development came in the 1960s when le Brocquy turned his attention to the challenge of the portrait head: ‘at once a mask which hides the spirit and a revelation of this spirit’. What began as a series of anonymous ‘Ancestral Heads’ – inspired by Polynesian painted skulls from the Musée de l’Homme in Paris and the ritual-symbolism of Celtic head culture – would develop into a meditation on a series of exceptional creative figures whom he considered isolated by their genius, including Yeats, Lorca, Picasso, Bacon, and Shakespeare. In the present sale examples can be found in Image of James Joyce, Image of Samuel Beckett and Study Towards an Image of Delacroix.
Le Brocquy held a deep admiration for each of his subjects (some of whom like Beckett were close friends) and would immerse himself in their works before painting them. Firmly believing that individual images were inadequate to capture the shifting complexities of human character and consciousness, le Brocquy created multiple versions of his subjects. Portraiture had to be an unending task, a kinetic form, to hope to capture the ever-changing landscape of the human face.
An altogether different mediation of the human form can be found in another well-known project: the series of designs illustrating Thomas Kinsella’s landmark modernist translation of the early Irish epic, the Táin Bó Cúailnge. For these le Brocquy drew on calligraphic brush techniques to create lithograph prints that capture the poem’s raw physicality; images that are at once intense and convulsing, stark and fluent, economic while maintaining an epic breadth. Later he would go on to reproduce several designs as large-scale tapestry commissions, as can be seen with Táin and The Massing of the Armies, lots 73 and 79 of the forthcoming sale. As near to the purely abstract as anything in his oeuvre, le Brocquy described the designs with typically eloquent modesty as ‘shadows thrown by the text’.
An individual’s identity, le Brocquy recognised, is inevitably heterogeneous. He writes that the great artist is ‘simultaneously himself, his race and universal’, that great art embodies this transcendent universality, untrammelled by ‘self-conscious nationalism’. At the same time, however, he claimed that imagination is ‘nourished by roots hidden in our native soil’. As can be seen from the works surveyed here, Irish culture has an indelible presence in his art. Such a balance was borne out in his life and career. Born in Dublin in 1916 to a family of Walloon origin long-settled in Ireland, when he first became an artist aged twenty-one he left the city to travel Europe and lived outside Ireland for much of his adult life. Whereas during childhood he claims only to remember feeling ‘human’, it was when he went abroad that he could say: ‘I became vividly aware for the first time of my Irish identity to which I have remained attached to all my life.’.
Returning to live and work permanently in Dublin in 2000 in his final years, at a time when he was being acknowledged with international retrospectives and represented worldwide in public collections from the Guggenheim to the Tate, le Brocquy became a familiar figure once more in the streets and galleries of the city where he had spent his youth: a fitting conclusion to the life of an artist who sought ‘a universal basis for his own unique Irish expression'. His remarkable oeuvre survives him, multifaceted and often demanding, always searchingly humane.