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1938-39. Europe: Early works (c.1938-45)
Encouraged by his mother and with no formal training, leaves Ireland to study major European art collections (November 1938). 'Though I was already passionately interested in art' says le Brocquy, 'I did not know whether I was an artist. I did not know whether I had the capacity to be an artist, but my mother had no such reservations. She was absolutely certain that I was an artist. And so she arranged for me, with considerable courage, to break with the family, and she borrowed £100 in 1938 - in those days that was quite a lot of money - to enable me to sail for Europe.'11bis First marriage, to Jean Stoney, Caxton Hall Registry Office, London (December 1938). Travels widely absorbing the old masters in London, Paris, Venice and Geneva, then housing the Prado Collection during the Spanish Civil War. Spends several weeks among the Spanish masters. From this deep experience le Brocquy recalls his revelatory encounter with Velázquez' Las Meninas (1654; Museo Nacíonal del Prado): ‘There before the Meninas stood a small group of people partially obscuring the figures in the foreground of the painting. Suddenly – as I remember – the kinetic actuality of the figures, of their shirts, their skirts, was annihilated before the luminous reality of the painted forms. The shifting, intervening people became less real than these formal individuals painted three centuries ago ... I believe at that moment I became a painter.'12 French nineteenth-century art impresses le Brocquy, in particular Degas (1834-1917), and Manet (1832-1883), in whose works he perceives the paint, rather than the subject matter, to be the prime reality. The great Spaniards El Greco (1541-1614), Velasquez (1599-1660), and Goya (1746-1828) are equally revered. The art historian Anne Crookshank observes: 'He was enthralled by Spanish painting and its influence has remained a feature of his work, where the precision of his tone values and his use of greys and whites, both very prominent factors in Spanish painting, are constantly important.'14 Le Brocquy's journeys abroad prove catalytic: 'Alone among the great artists of the past, in these strangerelated cities, I became vividly aware for the first time of my Irish identity to which I have remained attached all my life ... From the very beginning their transcendent universality helped to protect this incipient painter from self-consciousness - from self conscious nationalism, for instance, inducing picturesque images perhaps of Irish country folk dressed in the clothes of a preceding generation, or of thatched cottages arranged like dominoes under convenient hills; images no more respectable in themselves than the sterile Nazi Kultur, or indeed the ordained Marxist aesthetic of "social reality" with its own insistence on compulsively happy peasants ... For art is neither an instrument nor a convenience, but a secret logic of the imagination. It is another way of seeing, the whole sense and value of which lies in its autonomy, its distance from actuality, its otherness.'15 Settles in the French mediterranean frontier town of Menton (winter 1939). The sidewalk orange trees captivate the young northern man, recalling him to the 'exotic small suns emerging from dark leafage' in Paolo Uccello's Rout of San Romano (c.1456; National Gallery, London). This vision of delight will remain with the artist throughout his life, entering his work from time to time, to the present day Uccello Aubusson tapestry (1999). Embarks on the 'Early works' (c.1938-45), attesting to the wide range of sources to which the artist is exposed. Divided into an academic period, a white impressionist period, and a modernist linear period, the compositions establish le Brocquy's preoccupation with the inward isolation of the human individual. Paints Negro (1939), based on sketches made in Dublin of his friend the poet Ferdinand Levy. Exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy in April of that year, the work reveals the artist's efforts to reach towards his heroes in painting, Manet in particular, as well as his command of wax-resin medium. La Revue Moderne des Arts et de la Vie, writes (trans.): 'His Negro is markedly successful technically, but what appeals most in this artist is the spontaneity that he has brought to painting. By his daring and painterly skill, this young man of twenty years has discovered the essence of sensibility and incorporated it into paint: Hegelian in method, perhaps unknown to himself. This is the spiritual factor which raises his work above the common.'16 Remarking on the precision, balance and resolution of his handling of paint, Anne Crookshank notes: 'From the beginning le Brocquy had remarkable fluency and these early, academic paintings have a beauty and authority which is astonishing in view of his inexperience.'17 Technical skill and dexterity, however, will be viewed with increasing suspicion by an artist who will come to value accidental discovery above all else: 'Contrary to a generally held view, I think that painting is not in any direct sense a means of communication or a means of self-expression. For me at any rate, it is groping towards an image. 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. As in archaeology, accident continually plays an important part. The painter, like the archaeologist, is a watcher, a supervisor of accident; patiently disturbing the surface of things until significant accident becomes apparent, recognising it, conserving this as best he can while provoking further accident. In this way a whole image, a whatness, may with luck gradually emerge almost spontaneously. Thus, what counts in painting is, I believe, recognition of significant accident within a larger preoccupation and not dexterity and skill and calculated imposition.'18 Paints Girl in Grey (1939; Ferrens Art Gallery, Kingston upon Hull), a tribute to the constantly recurring luminous grey tones of Goya's portraits. Modelled by Jean Stoney on the rooftop terrace of his Menton studio, the work provides early evidence of the artist's restriction ofcolour and tone. Le Brocquy explains: 'From the start I've been fascinated by colour in all its aspects, yet somehow bright hues have rarely entered my painting. Maybe this could have something to do with my early love of the so-called "living" whites and greys in the paintings of Edouard Manet and the great Spaniards Goya and Velasquez.'19 Moves to Cap Martin (may 1939), birth of daughter Seyre (June 1939). Paints Southern Window (1939; Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane), based on a lone figure ironing in the dark window of a Provençal house. Inspired by Edouard Manet's Le Balcon (1868-69; Musée d'Orsay), from which he borrows the green shutters, the painting foreshadows the artist's ongoing concern with the inate aloneness of the human condition. Entered into the RHA exhibition of 1940, The Irish Press reports: 'I cannot close without referring to two remarkable paintings by Mr. Louis le Brocquy "Southern Window," a most unusual composition forming a very effective design and "Girl in Grey," with its unusual shades and splendid confident painting. It is safe to say that among the work of the juniors these will be the most talked-of pictures in the exhibition.'20 Assessing the artist's progression during this period, James White, a later Director of the National Gallery of Ireland (1964-80), writes in Envoy: 'The born artist, as Mr. Salkeld has suggested, must have some instinctive understanding of his materials and how to use them. Louis le brocquy did not go to art school or sit at the feet of any living master to learn his craft. He learnt to paint, quite simply, by painting ... It must be remarked again that he was still only twenty-two; he had been handling brushes less than a year. A man who could go so far in that time might be expected to go a great deal further before long.'21 On the outbreak of World War II Le Brocquy's small rented headland studio is requisitioned to install artillery facing Italy (September 1939). Moves to Saint Raphael, cutting his stay short before the invasion of France by German forces (May 1940).
11bis Louis le Brocquy quoted by Eimear McKeith, ‘The master stroke’, Interview, The Sunday Tribune (Dublin, 11 June 2006).
12 7 Letter to John Russell 24.9.1990, quoted in Madden, p. 37, and Louis le Brocquy, 'Reflections on Painting', le Brocquy archive, 2003.
14 Anne Crookshank, Introduction, 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. 9.
15 Louis le Brocquy, 'A Painter's Notes on his Irishness', The Recorder, Vol. 42, (New York: The American Irish Historical Society, 1981). Reproduced in Dorothy Walker, Louis le Brocquy (Dublin: Ward River Press 1981; London: Hodder & Stoughton 1982) p. 90-91.
16 La Revue Moderne des Arts et de la Vie, translated from French (Paris, May 1937).
17 Anne Crookshank, Introduction, 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. 8.
18 Louis le Brocquy, 'Notes on painting and awareness,' Address at the seminar 'Corps, Poésie, Peinture', Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines, Université de Nice, 8 February 1979. Reproduced in Dorothy Walker, Louis le Brocquy (Dublin: Ward River Press 1981; London: Hodder & Stoughton 1982) p. 138.
19 Statement made to the editor, February 2005.
20 The Irish Press, 'Outstanding Pictures at R.H.A. Exhibition', (Dublin, April 1, 1940).
21 James White, 'Contemporary Irish Artists (VI): Louis le Brocquy', Envoy, vol. 2, no. 6 (Dublin, May 6, 1950). p. 54. James White worked as an art critic in Ireland from the 1930s onwards and was the curator of the Dublin Municipal Gallery from 1960-1964. He joined the National Gallery of Ireland in 1964 and became Director in 1968.
Girl in Grey, 1939,
oil on canvas, 93 x 93 cm.
Ferrens Art Gallery: Hull Museums and Art Gallery
Southern Window, 1939
wax-resin medium on primed sailclot h
mounted on board, 58.5 x 49.6 cm.
Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane