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Born in Dublin in 1916, Louis le Brocquy is a towering figure in the history of Irish painting. According to a recent editorial in The Irish Times: 'This self-taught artist has come to be recognised both at home and internationally as the foremost Irish painter of the 20th century.'1 His work has received much international attention and many accolades in a career that spans seventy years of creative practice. According to John Russell, 'When Louis le Brocquy first came to be known as a painter, some (fifty) years ago, it was not as the civilised head-hunter that he has lately become. It was as a story-teller, a symbolist, and a thoughtful enquirer into the conditions of life.'2 Widely acclaimed for his evocative heads of literary figures and fellow artists, including W.B. Yeats, James Joyce and his friends Samuel Beckett, Francis Bacon, Seamus Heaney and Bono, in recent years le Brocquy's early Tinker subjects and Family paintings, have attracted headline attention in the international art arena marking him as the fourth painter in Ireland and Britain to be evaluated within a very select group of artists, alonside Lucian Freud, David Hockney and Francis Bacon. The recent realisation of over £1 million for one of his works at auction is not merely a record but an acknowledgment of his genius and international appeal. Acknowledged by museum retrospective exhibitions worldwide, including France, USA and Japan, the artist's work is represented in numerous public collections, from the Guggenheim, New York to the Tate, London. In Ireland he is honoured as the first and only living painter to be included in the Permanent Irish Collection of the National Gallery.
Le Brocquy left Ireland in 1938 to study the major European art collections in London, Paris, Venice and Geneva, then exhibiting the Prado collection during the Spanish Civil War. His return to Dublin signalled the advent of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, which established an effective forum for contemporary art in Dublin in 1943. Emerging as an innovative and influential artist, in 1946 le Brocquy moved to London and became prominent in the contemporary art scene. He began to exhibit internationally, winning a major prize at the Venice Biennale in 1956 where he represented Ireland. In 1958, he was included in the historic exhibition Fifty Years of Modern Art, Brussels World Fair. The same year he married the Irish painter Anne Madden and left London to work in the French Midi.
Le Brocquy's inquiry into the human condition is seminal to his motivation as a painter. This underlying concern has informed a number of significant developments. According to Francis Bacon: '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.'3 The Early Works (1939-45) including Southern Window (1939; Dublin City Museum The Hugh Lane) and A Picnic (1940; Irish Museum of Modern Art, Loan), establish the artist's ongoing preoccupation with the inward isolation of the individual. The Traveller paintings (1946-50) including Tinkers Resting (1946; Tate Collection), develop concerns relating to their marginal lives. Later paintings of the period, including Travelling Woman with Newspaper (1947-48), indicate a wider social concern. The Grey Period, (1951-56) including A Family (1951; National Gallery of Ireland), and Child in a Yard (1954; Dublin City Museum The Hugh Lane), contemplate a stark circumstance in the aftermath of World War II. Le Brocquy's painting undergo a further development in 1956 with the White Period, (1956-66) including Woman (1959; Tate Collection) and Isolated Being (1962; Dublin City Museum The Hugh Lane), that radicalise the human figure as isolated presences, and the ensuing Head Series, (1964-1996) including Head of an Irish Martyr (1967; Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.) and Stele: Hommage à Entremont (1968; Fondation Maeght, St Paul) that kindle his interest in the Celtic head culture. Initially anonymous these images later depict literary figures such as W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney and Federico Garcia Lorca, including Study Towards an Image of Shakespeare (1982; Guggenheim Museum, New York) and Image Ulterieure de Picasso (1983; Picasso Museum, Antibes), individuals whom the artist perceives as avatars of human consciousness. In recent years he has undertaken a major series of works entitled Processions in an impressive series of oil paintings, watercolours and lithographs (1984-92) including Children in a Wood I (1988; Irish Museum of Modern Art). Since 1996, he has embarked upon Human Images further developing his earlier preoccupation with the Presence series. Louis le Brocquy's latest commission by the National Gallery of Ireland was to paint an image of his friend Bono, publicly presented to the National Portrait Gallery in October 2003. In 2005, the artist has painted a mouving series of paintings entitled 'Homages to his Masters', including his 'heroes', Velazquez, Goya, Cézanne and Edouart Manet encountered for the first time some seventy years ago.
Among the many collaborations with Irish writers, notably his friends Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney, le Brocquy is perhaps best known for his lithographic brush drawings for Thomas Kinsella's renowned translation of The Táin in 1969, held to be the great Irish Livre d'Artiste of the twentieth century. Le Brocquy's friendship with Beckett during the last ten years of the writer's life led to two important collaborations: his illustrations for Stirrings Still, published in 1988, the year before Beckett's death, and his set and costume design for Walter Asmus's highly acclaimed production of Waiting for Godot, which opened at the Gate Theatre that same year, later produced throughout the world. Further important illustrated works include J.M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, 1970; Desmond O'Grady's The Gododdin, 1977; Andrew Carpenter's Eight Irish Writers, 1981 and James Joyce's Dubliners, 1986.
Few artists anywhere have had as much experience in tapestry design. Along with his well-known predecessor Jean Lurçat, the artist has proved to be a master of the medium and a landmark figure in the revitalisation of this art form. His experience began in 1948 when Edinburgh Tapestry Weavers invited a number of painters working in London to design a first tapestry. His association with the medium further developed in the Fifties, upon his collaboration with the great firm founded in the 17th century Tabard Frères & Soeurs in Aubusson France. Today the artist's tapestries are woven in the same historic region by the Atelier René Duché, Meilleur Ouvrier de France. The tapestry designs include Travellers 1948, Garlanded Goat (1949-50), Allegory (1950), the 'Eden series' (1951-52), the 'Inverted series' (1948-99), the 'Táin series' (1969-00), the 'Cúchulainn series' (1973-1999), the 'Garden series' (2000). Large-scale tapestry commissions include Brendan the Navigator (1963-64, UCD, Michael Smurfit School of Business, Dublin), The Hosting of the Táin (1969; Irish Museum of Modern Art), the Massing of the Armies (RTÉ, Dublin) and the monumental Triumph of Cúchulainn (National Gallery of Ireland, Millennium Wing).
Positions include: Visiting Instructor, Central School of Arts & Crafts, London (1947-54); co-founder Signa Design Consultants, 1954; Visiting Tutor, Royal College of Art, London (1955-58); Fellow, Society of Industrial Artists, London, 1960; Member, Irish Council of Design (1963-65); Inaugural Board Member, Kilkenny Design Workshops (1965-77); Commandeur du Bontemps de Médoc et des Graves, 1969; Fellow, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, London, 1974; Founder Board-Member, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 1989-94.
Awards include: Premio Acquisto Internationale, Venice Biennale, 1956; IMMA/Glen Dimplex award for a sustained contribution to the visual arts in Ireland, Dublin, 1998; Made Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur, 1975; Saoi, Aosdána, 1994; Officier des Arts et des Lettres, 1996; Officier de l'Ordre de la Couronne Belge, Belgium, 2001. Conferred Hon. Litt. D., University of Dublin, 1962; Hon. Ll. D., University College, Dublin, 1988; Hon. D. Phil., Dublin City University, 1999; Hon. D. Univ., Queen's University, Belfast 2002; Hon. D. Phil., Dublin Institute of Technology, 2004; Hon. Associate, NCAD, Dublin, 2006. Conferred The Freedom of the City of Dublin, the highest honour the City can bestow, 2007.
Lives and works in Dublin. 3 children: M/1, Seyre, b.1939 (m. to Jean Stoney, London, 1938/divorce 1948); M/2, Alexis b.1961 & Pierre b.1963 (m. to Anne Madden, London, 1958).1 Second Leader, The Irish Times (Dublin, November 4, 2006)
2 John Russell, 'Introduction', Dorothy Walker, Louis le Brocquy (Dublin: Ward River Press 1981; London: Hodder & Stroughton 1982) p. 9.
3 Francis Bacon, exhibition catalogue, Louis le Brocquy: A Retrospective Selection of Oil Paintings 1939-1966 (Dublin: The Municipal Gallery of Modern Art; Belfast: Ulster Museum, November 1966 - January 1967) p. 1
Louis le Brocquy, 2000. Photograph © Perry Ogden