Louis le Brocquy has long been one of Ireland's most important artists. As his 90th birthday approaches, Aidan Dunne looks at his life and career
Louis le Brocquy will be 90 on November 10th this year and the event has been marked by a series of exhibitions and events though not, just yet, a full-scale retrospective. Instead, Irish Museum of Modern Art is showing some carefully selected works, the Hunt Museum in Limerick has assembled a very good exhibition centring on what many consider to be his best paintings, based on the experiences of Irish Travellers. Meanwhile a small show at the National Gallery, concentrating on his head images, is yet to come, as are other shows in Paris and in London - where he will pay tribute to his artistic exemplars. As ever, the man himself cuts a dignified figure, an elder statesman of the arts with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, unfailingly courteous, patient, generous and charming, simultaneously worldly and unworldly.
Le Brocquy is best known for his paintings of heads, usually famous heads, including those of a triumvirate of literary heavyweights: W. B. Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. 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 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 García 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.
Le Brocquy was born in Dublin in 1916. His family owned the Greenmount oil refinery at Harold's Cross. The refinery had been established by his paternal grandfather, a dominant and autocratic figure, and was originally based in Ringsend. Throughout his childhood le Brocquy proved to be something of an individualist, vague about many of the practicalities of life but shrewd enough to figure out what had to be done to ensure survival. To this day he retains an air of dreamy abstraction, complemented by a knack for incisive observation. When he had finished school he went to work at Greenmount, attending lectures in chemistry at Kevin Street and then Trinity. His heart wasn't in the oil industry, however; he had become fascinated by painting.
The situation came to a head when he fell in love and his mother, remarkably, proposed that he and his girlfriend, Jean Stoney, should marry in London and he should thereafter devote himself to his art.
He followed her advice but came to regret not informing his admittedly difficult grandfather of his plans in person. As a painter he was self-taught or rather, as he puts it, he learned by the time-honoured tradition of copying from the works of the great painters in museums in London, Paris, Venice and Geneva.
His marriage to Stoney lasted only 2½ years. They had a daughter, Seyre. Back in Dublin, le Brocquy became an active figure in Irish cultural life. He was not overtly political, but his instinctive liberal humanism, his scepticism about institutional religion and his aesthetic views were more than enough to situate him politically in a conservative society.
His early paintings were conventional enough representations, very capably made. But he quickly moved beyond a naturalistic mode, stylizing and fragmenting his imagery in ways that displayed a good grasp of cubism and other modernist innovations, still haltingly and cautiously embraced in Ireland.
When the Municipal Gallery rejected the offer of a Georges Rouault in 1942, le Brocquy voiced his dismay in a letter to The Irish Times, publicly admonishing Sean Keating, then president of the Royal Hibernian Academy, for disparaging the French painter. To his great credit, le Brocquy was never afraid to speak his mind on points of principle, no matter the political cost.
Possibilities were extremely limited for a professional artist in Ireland, and more limited still for one who was progressively inclined. Luckily, his work caught the eye of Charles Gimpel who, with his brother Peter, was at the time establishing a gallery in London; it was the beginning of an enduring association.
Around this time le Brocquy also became interested in making paintings about the Travelling community. His accounts of Travellers, substantially gathered together for the Hunt Museum show (though unfortunately in some cases in the form of reproductions), are without doubt among his finest achievements. While the paintings are accurate in relation to details of custom and ritual, their subject also plays an important metaphorical role as the prototypical outsider in relation to the mainstream of Irish or indeed any society.
Le Brocquy moved to London in 1946, where he continued to produce outstanding paintings in a loosely cubist vein for the remainder of the decade. One wonders what would have happened had he gone to New York and not London at the time. Certainly he was more than up to London, featuring in significant exhibitions throughout his period there.
In London, too, he met Anne Madden, and they married in 1958. They have two sons, Alexis and Pierre, the latter an attentive guardian of his father's work. Le Brocquy and Madden have, of course, become the best-known artistic couple in Ireland.
An old back injury sustained by Madden in a riding accident necessitated drastic surgery, and the concomitant need for a dry climate prompted their finding a home in France. They settled at Les Combes, a villa located in the hills behind Nice. They never abandoned Ireland entirely, however, and have been based here for some time.
The central theme of much of le Brocquy's work is the isolated human presence, an essentially tragic subject. Examples are myriad. This concern arises in part from certain preoccupations of postwar European culture. The legacy of the second World War itself, and in particular the Holocaust; the advent of the Cold War and the prospect of nuclear annihilation; existentialist philosophy - not to mention other, more personal experience of loss and fragility. Le Brocquy's evocations of a corporeal, fragile being, haltingly articulated against a blank, usually white void, are recognisable artistic relations of the creations of Alberto Giacometti and Beckett.
Yet the unmistakably isolated presences must be seen in relation to a concern for community and connection. The head images, singular as each may be, are concerned with invisible but significant lineages, with the time line running through the individual blooming of consciousness. And other groups of works, including paintings of family and Traveller groups, address community in other ways.
Also intriguing are two substantial series of paintings that have as their sources two quite different images of children. One is a 17th-century painting once attributed to Nicholas Maes but now assigned to Cornelis Bisschop, Children Playing in a Wood, in which a boisterous group of naked boys are playing with a goat, and Riverrun, Procession with Lilies, inspired by a newspaper photograph of a procession of young girls, printed in the Evening Herald on Bloomsday, 1939.
The girls, in high spirits and clad in white dresses and veils, are pictured following the annual blessing of the lilies in Adam and Eve's Church on Merchant's Quay.
Le Brocquy developed a parallel fascination with these images, producing many paintings based on one or other of them. In his paintings, the movement implicit in both is foregrounded, the images are destabilised, fractured into surfaces of jittery mobility.
In both there is a giddy, bubbling energy, an energy harnessed by rituals and, in a wider sense, by conventional boundaries. There is a suggestion of cruelty in the boys' play, which is, as le Brocquy put it himself, relatively profane in contrast to the sacred rites in which the girls are engaged. But he implies an equivalence in the workings of an overarching order that functions on many levels. That is, both groups of paintings reflect a fascination with, and a wariness of, community that is entirely characteristic of le Brocquy himself.