Tom Rosenthal, ‘Playing with the Past, review of Louis le Brocquy: Homage to His Masters [Exhibition] (Gimpel Fils, Davies St., London W1 – 22 Dec. – 7 th Jan.), in The Spectator (2 Dec. 2006), pp.64-65
‘Louis le Brocquy is 90 this year and his new show at Gimpels is merely one of four current celebratory exhibitions. (The others are at Tate Britain, The National Gallery of Ireland and Galerie Jeanne-Bucher in Paris.) He once wryly observed: “Im aware that my age and vulnerability could be mistaken for some kind of authority.”
While the Gimpel show of his latest work does not in any way claim authority it also fails to exhibit any vulnerability. The whole subject of homage versus imitation could spark a book and here he gives us four homages to Manets “Olympia” - which after all is not only an independent masterpiece but also a homage to Titians “Venus of Urbino”and has echoes of both Giorgione and Ingres. Of course its a universal subject, and le Brocquy brings to it a vigour and a freshness of approach which enable this timeless temptress to seduce our contemporary eyes. Theres no question of imitation; no trace of the studious copyist sitting on a collapsible chair in a museum. Here the nonagenarian is still playing games with the past; Manets female attendant has turned into a small boy (Cupid?), the flowers change shape in form and size in each of ur variations and the large cat is a mischievous and self-satisfied onlooker who has strayed not only from Manet but also from le Brocquys own great 1951 painting “A Family”. also a tribute to Manet, now in the Dublin National Gallery. The nude, while possessing all of Manets models cool, unabashed eroticism, is wholly of today, more careless, more relaxed and far less perfect of physique.
His homage to Cézanne, a tiny “Four Apples and a Knife”, is only a compliment to the subject matter. The technique is wholly le Brocquys, in the soft pastel colours and the careful use of white and the texture of the canvas. But its when you compare his Spanish-inspired pictures with, say, Picassos variations on Velaquezs “Las Meninas” that you see that Picassos dazzling jiggery-pokery with shapes and forms is ultimately less satisfying than le Brocquys analytical transpostion in which, while the sophistication and of the paint is as subtle as ever, it is the human element which predominate. His version of Velaquezs “The Dwarf Don Sebastián de Mora” gives him a grace and dignity which are wholly compelling and the setting, in the multi-layered fabrics of his clothes, arranged around him like an angels wings, lingers in the memory.
Le Brocquy is, in the very best, purest, and even literal sense, a literary artist. While he has an an obsession with heads, worked out over decades and in literally hundreds of paintings, drawings, and graphic works, this is neither physiological nor anthropological. The heads which obsess him are not the conventional portrait studies done by virtually every artist who tackles mankind, but, because of his choice of subject, studies in literary analysis. Nearly all the best pictures are the heads of writers he loves, mostly are his fellow Irishmen: W. B. Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Heaney plus one or two painters including Picasso and and, inevitably perhaps, Bacon. One of the few non-Irish writrers is Lorca and, because we are so familiar with the features of, say, Yeats or Beckett, the Lorcas are the most surprising and, doubtless, because of his appalling death, the most haunted and haunting.
Le Brocquy is also a dazzlingly inventive book illustrator. Of the many illustrated editions of Joyces The Dubliners [sic] his is, by a long way, the best; the most faithful to the stories and because of this the most evocative of Joyces prose and, particularly, of the city that gave the collection its title. His brush drawings for Synges Playboy of the Western World are, as befits the play, much wilder than his other. more controlled illustrations, yet equally, convincing. But his undoubted masterpiece is the 1969 Dolmen Press edition of Thomas Kinsellas superb translation of that great Ulster epic tale The Táin . This inspired Seamus Heaney to write the poem entitled “Le Brocquys Táin”, which encapsulates le Brocquys genius as illustrator just as the painter has caught the essence of the poets striking head:
Add to these his superb Aubusson tapestries as seen at Agnews in 2001 and you have an artist of extraordinary versatility. That 20th-century Ireland has produced a plethora of great writers out of all proportion to its size is a cliché but it is also remarkable that it should have given us three great painters. Jack B. Yeats is long gone, Francis Bacon died only recently but the seemingly inexhaustible le Brocquy could easily reach his centenary in 2016.