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‘Ireland’s Prospero of Painting: Celebrating the Sixty Year Partnership between Louis le Brocquy and Gimpel Fils’
Louis le Brocquy. Homage to his Masters,
Gimpel Fils, London, November 24 -January 13, 2007.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
T. S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’, from Four Quartets.
Louis le Brocquy and Gimpel Fils have been together for sixty years. Such an extended arch of time and brotherhood is celebrated at Gimpel Fils by this exhibition of a group of new paintings by le Brocquy, now aged ninety, which pay homage to those among whom the artist calls his Masters – Rembrandt, Velazquez, Goya, Manet and Cézanne.
The primary impact of the exhibition comes in a series of Odalisques, four large paintings, each 114 x 162 cm, made in a sequence from around the summer of 2005 until summer 2006. They are inspired by Manet’s painting Olympia (1863), a masterpiece which le Brocquy has ruminated upon since he first encountered it in Paris in 1938 at the Jeu de Paume. Olympia worked her complicated magic on le Brocquy at intervals throughout his career, while also leaving her enduring mark on art history and on the work of many other great artists including Picasso, Modigliani and Moore. In 1951 le Brocquy perceived Olympia very differently in his large painting A Family (National Gallery of Ireland), envisaging a group of refugees in post-war Europe. Here Manet’s cool sensuality has been completely ignored; as the artist puts it, ‘reduced to Palaeolithic circumstance under electric light bulbs.’ In the recent Odalisques, however, le Brocquy has wholly returned to his original delight in Olympia, a naked figure at once aloof and alluring.
The figure in le Brocquy’s Odalisques conjures a sequence of moods, conveyed through colour variations and amendments of pose and staffage – woman, cat, boy, flowers. Odalisque 1 is alert, lying naked on her bed against a modulated rich green background. Her fingers are in sensitive tactile motion, suggested by filmy, equivocal paintwork, and the flower bunch by her left leg makes a painterly burst of red, blue, white and yellow. She has a wide-awake erotic charge, the ripples playing across the picture surface suggesting that she may be lying not on a bed, but in the shallow end of a warm, inviting swimming-pool. Odalisque 2, the most overtly sexual of the group, is fast asleep and, with her elongated neck and thrown back head, evidently dreams with flowers that are now not a bunch, but a river flowing luxuriously around her. In Odalisque 3 we see an explosion of summer flowers. The woman is sitting upright, awake and aware, with intense green eyes looking slightly to the left of the viewer; the cat sleeps. The last of the quartet, Odalisque 4, is asleep, and visited by a small naked boy who gives her flowers. The cat beside her is quietly watchful. There is a voluptuous pink tonality here, the body and bedclothes interpenetrating, and the whole articulated by gauzy red and pink flowing crayon marks. Fluid lines circle round and round to create, gently and lovingly, the form of legs, arms and breasts.
Although he began with Manet’s Olympia as the source, le Brocquy moves outwards in the Odalisques through his own experience as a painter, drawing on a reservoir of insight accumulated over a lifetime. The ripples which unify the Odalisque canvases, and mingle image and background, are continuations of the meandering lines which the young le Brocquy made in pencil and pastel drawings of lovers in 1943 and 1944. There is a clear thread joining le Brocquy’s early work to these late statements, whose line can be traced more or less clearly as it dips and rises, sharpens and softens, across the intervening sixty or seventy years.
The power in the Odalisques, when shown or reproduced as a group, comes from the rehearsal and restatement of their theme, just as a theme in music may be repeated with variations across the breadth of the orchestra. Although we expect to have another decade at least of le Brocquy’s work to celebrate, this exhibition could be read as a triumphal reworking at the symphony’s close of a phrase introduced in the first movement. When painting another of his persistent themes, the head image of W. B. Yeats, le Brocquy came to understand the potency of the continued sequence:
‘it was then I realised that a portrait can no longer be the stable, pillared entity of Renaissance vision – that the portrait in our time can have no visual finality.’1
Restatement, whether in art or music, is renewal.
The titles of the eight paintings shown here have as their common prefix ‘Looking at’ – Looking at Manet, Velazquez, Goya, Cézanne. They began as ‘Homage to’ these Masters, but le Brocquy’s vision and translation of his models is so searching, that he invites us not so much to pay homage, but, as he has done all his life, to look at them again and again. Thus, through le Brocquy’s brush, we meet once again Velazquez’ Don Sebastian de Mora and Goya’s Doña Antonia Zárate, we revisit the Villa Medici in the footsteps of Velazquez, and we encounter, once again, four ordinary apples and a knife that were first presented to us by Cézanne.
Le Brocquy was trained during his teenage years as a chemist at Trinity College, Dublin, with the aim of entering his family’s oil-refining business. As Anne Madden puts it in her biography of her husband, Louis became aware after two years studying chemistry ‘of the mysterious quality of chemical reaction, the marriage of two substances producing a third entirely new substance.’2 At this same early stage – by now it was around 1935; Louis was nineteen – he was aware of the equivalence of chlorophyll in plants and haemoglobin in blood: the one green, the other red. Both are saps, and a further equivalence of these is their properties as colours – red is a primary; and green is made through the mixture of the two other primaries, blue and yellow. Red and green look so alluring together because they are each what the other longs for, the final ingredient required to make white light.
In his aspirations and interests Louis was also in the late 1930s becoming a quizzical young student of art, looking with an interrogative eye at Rembrandt, Velazquez, Goya, Manet, both in reproduction and by discovering them and other old masters in the National Gallery of Ireland. Early ambition to become ‘a good painter, to join in the spiritual excitement of a great creative tradition,’3 led Louis to discard his career in oil refining, and turn to oil painting. He did not go to an art college, and as a result has been dogged by the misleading phrase ‘self-taught’, which suggests a kind of naïve innocent determination prolonged into later life. This is not le Brocquy’s property at all: his scientific background gave him an alternative approach to art and a fresh perspective that few artists of his generation were lucky enough to share. Empathy for science and scientists has been a live current flowing through Louis’ life and work from the beginning. His understanding of chemistry is accompanied by an engagement with medicine that found lively expression when he was commissioned to illustrate a medical textbook in 1940:
‘The discovery of the Pituitary gland gave me an extraordinary insight into the individual human being. Its setting alone – central within the skull – is immensely impressive. As I remember, this small peasized gland sits on its boney plinth (known as the Turkish Saddle) while from behind outstretch two delicate wings of bone as if to emphasise the importance of its hidden existence.’4
Le Brocquy must be one of the very few painters to be excited by the skeletal landscape of the pituitary gland. Coming to know the great physicist Erwin Schrödinger in Dublin in the 1940s, the two men found themselves agreeing that art and science are both conceived by the faculty of the imagination. Nevertheless, Louis felt cautious of Schrödinger’s certainties, and admitted later,
‘I feel bound to ask myself whether Blake’s fearful distrust of rational science might not be justified in face of the danger of uncontrolled nuclear fission to our historic culture and our very lives.’5
Louis le Brocquy is a humane, gentle man. The quiet Irish lilt in his voice, the way he inclines his head to listen, and his soft greying inquisitive eyes – a colourist’s eyes – encourages anybody to come and talk with him. Walking round the Dublin galleries with Louis is an experience to treasure. This is not only for his observations of his own and other paintings, nor his picturesque unfolding of his lean articulated self from taxis, but his courteous and generous responses to the surprise of gallery-goers as he himself appears to materialise in front of one of his own paintings. He is tall, trim, carries a stick and wears the appropriate hat for the weather. Such thoughtful self-presentation to the world has always been characteristic.
The American physician Kevin Cahill observed in 1981 that le Brocquy is ‘genuinely interested in the tale of almost anyone he meets, as respectful of the traditions of the barman in his tiny village in France as he is of the needs of his fellow artists.’6 The people who were among the first to experience this quality in action were tinkers – tinsmiths, now known as Travellers – who with their families roamed the Irish countryside, where le Brocquy travelled in the summer of 1946. He came to observe them and their life-patterns, but did so not objectively as a scientist or an anthropologist, but as a fellow man who recognised the similarities between their way of life and his own as an artist:
‘Most of all I was impressed by their insistence on freedom – freedom from every external regulation – observing only their own tribal rules, their tradition. Not, perhaps, altogether unlike the independence of the artist within society.’7
The Connemara tinkers were the subject of the first exhibition Louis le Brocquy held in May and June 1947 at Gimpel Fils, then in Duke Street, London. His work had been spotted by Charles Gimpel and his wife Kay in Dublin two years earlier in the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, and in November 1946 Louis moved to London. In his short introduction to le Brocquy’s first Gimpel exhibition, Denys Sutton suggested that the artist identified the tinker as a symbol, who ‘expresses in his mercurial personality something of the position of the artist himself in society, of the dreamer struggling to evade the claims of a world inimical to his own freedom.’ This was a year in which London put out green shoots in the work of new young artists who would create the backbone for painting and sculpture across the coming five decades: Eduardo Paolozzi made his debut in London in 1947, at the Mayor Gallery; Prunella Clough at the Leger Gallery; Patrick Heron at the Redfern Gallery; and at the London Gallery in 1947 Lucian Freud was having his second show in London. Two years after the second world war had ended, young artists were asserting themselves, and Louis le Brocquy was among them.
Denys Sutton once described Louis as ‘one of the most personal of the younger school’. What he meant by this has become clearer with the passing years: le Brocquy has never joined any set or group of artists, and he was certainly not trying to do so in 1947. Instead he found silent assurance and companionship in the art communities freely available to all, the museums and galleries of Dublin, London, Paris and Madrid where he studied those artists whom he continues to identify as his Masters - Rembrandt, Goya, Velazquez, Delacroix, Manet, Cézanne. Nevertheless, friendships with fellow artists run ineradicably through his life. In the same year that he joined Gimpels, Louis became a visiting instructor in painting and mural design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where, he reflected, ‘you can’t teach art, you can only strike matches’. At the Central School he met and became friends with Mervyn Peake, Eduardo Paolozzi and Patrick Heron, but in the small compass of this essay an escaping flash of light from one friendship must illuminate them all:
‘Last night Francis Bacon took us both [Louis and Anne] out to the super Paris fish restaurant le Duc and the 3 of us guzzled marvellous lobsters and talked into the night.’8
The 1947 show practically sold out, and two years later, Louis and Gimpel Fils came together again, this time in October in the gallery’s new premises in South Molton Street. Showing Louis in the more lucrative autumn, rather than an early summer period, suggests that Charles Gimpel had recognised that here was an artist with a breadth of vision that, with encouragement, might blossom further, and fully justify the attention he received in 1947. Gimpel Fils was, with the Hanover Gallery run by Erica Brausen, one of the two most venturesome private galleries in London. The Hanover was the early supporter of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, while at Gimpels the artists shown across the late 1940s and early 1950s included Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth from the generation born around the turn of the twentieth century, and younger artists such as Robert Adams, Lynn Chadwick, Alan Davie, William Gear and Richard Hamilton. Significantly, as an accompaniment to Louis’ 1949 exhibition Gimpels displayed at the Anglo-French Institute in St John’s Wood a group of Aubusson tapestries, woven after the work of artists including Marcel Gromaire and Jean Lurçat. Louis had been deeply moved by the exhibition of French tapestries at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1947, where he saw some of the great mediaeval tapestries from the Musée Cluny, Paris, and the Château d’Angers. This exhibition, and Charles Gimpel’s own interest in contemporary tapestry, encouraged Louis to experiment with the medium. With a commission from the Arts Council, this led to his designing Irish Tinkers for the Edinburgh Tapestry Company. Irish Tinkers and two other tapestries, including Garlanded Goat, were shown at Louis’ third exhibition with Gimpel Fils in 1951. It was the two-dimensional simplicity of the mediaeval tapestries exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum that spoke so clearly to Louis. He wrote later of the Apocalypse tapestries of Angers:
‘the work of relatively humble French designers and weavers, working within the essential reality of their woollen surface. … Since the close of the last century it has become increasingly clear that a renewed preoccupation with the nature of two-dimensional surface is one of the central characteristics of visual thought in our age.’9
Louis le Brocquy is a ruminative artist. He thinks as he paints. ‘Dexterity is not, as you can imagine, what I’m looking for,’ he told Michael Peppiatt.10 ‘Art is a transformer,’ Louis said at the conference ‘Corps, Poésie, Peinture’ at the University of Nice in 1979:
‘The hand can act as an independent being to bring about the emergence of the image. The painter must wait for this without imposing his ideas, watching intently and critically for what may happen. I am convinced that Palaeolithic man acted in this way. He was an artist, but above all a seer. There is a brain in the hand. The hand in the cave of Pech-Merle is a personality. A handprint is a personality. A footprint is only a trace, an imprint. Why?’11
Over the course of the past fifty years, le Brocquy’s painting divides itself roughly into groups of some six periods, overlapping but distinct, all of which were marked by at least one exhibition at Gimpels. The first is the Tinkers of the late 1940s, already discussed, which evolved through a natural extension of the subject into a series of paintings of Families. In this group there is an insistence on white within the compositions which became characteristic of le Brocquy, and key among them are A Family, Man Writing (Merrion Hotel, Dublin) and Indoors Outdoors (Private Collection). The Family series, with its angular figures, surgical lines and curves, and bleak colouration, is by no means comfortable. They were shown at Gimpel Fils in South Molton Street in June 1951, at just the same time as Britain had got itself self-consciously into party mode in the Festival of Britain on the South Bank of the Thames. In the mood that they present, they run against the official orchestration of the spirit of the times, but despite, or perhaps because of this, le Brocquy had nevertheless intended to send A Family to the Arts Council’s exhibition ‘60 Paintings for ‘51’, a show celebrating large scale painting in Britain. The work was not sufficiently dry to send in at the appointed time,12 and so instead he contributed his large Woman and Bird (Private Collection) to the exhibition which toured widely in the United Kingdom.13 Nevertheless, while Woman and Bird gained some national reputation, it was A Family that set le Brocquy on his way. Included by the curator Bryan Robertson in his seminal exhibition British Painting and Sculpture at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, in 1954, the painting went on to win a major international prize at the 1956 Venice Biennale, and was selected for 50 Ans d’Art Moderne; de Cézanne à Nos Jours at the World’s Fair, Brussels, in 1958.
It is in A Family that the form of Manet’s Olympia made its first considered appearance in le Brocquy’s art. The dominant mother, the strongest individual in the family, is reclining in the foreground with a sheet over the lower half of her body, a cat beside her, and a small child offering a bunch of flowers. In the background is the naked father. This is a composition which transcends its source. Le Brocquy’s A Family is not about nakedness, the ephemerality of beauty, luxury or the dominant/subordinate roles which concerned Manet. In contrast it considers hardship and resurgence, all confined within an unforgiving background of what might be read as concrete. A single light bulb, the suggestion of meagre tin lampshades, and a hard linearity locate the subject in the mid-twentieth century, much as the rich shawl, draped curtain, gorgeous nakedness and a black servant place Manet’s Olympia within the mid-nineteenth. A Family is a noble but uncompromising painting, its relief being the dignity of the mother, the hopeful expression of the child, and the pulse of red, yellow and blue in the star-burst flower bunch.
In 1955 le Brocquy visited Spain. Driving south down La Mancha in brilliant sunshine he came across a group of women and children in front of a whitewashed wall in a small village:
‘The sheer brilliance of the sun had absorbed these human beings into invisibility. Only their shadows remained, deep as night. I had witnessed the light as a matrix from which the human presence had emerged and into which it could, ambivalently, disappear. From this revelatory experience the Presence series of paintings were derived.’14
Woman in Sunlight (1955-56) was le Brocquy’s early response to the power of the Spanish light, and out of this and related works the Presence paintings began to evolve. These were single, central, partial figures, isolated vertically on the canvas, with highly textured paintwork. A spinal column, a navel, perhaps also part of a pelvis or a breast, rise up out of the picture planes, with white, and occasional tints of blue, pink or grey, characterising their colour range. The occasional shocking stab of red enters these paintings, many of which are heavily and physically worked, sometimes with an admixture of sand, horsehair or some other material which brings a disturbing physicality to the paint.
A number of the Presence paintings, including Nude in Movement (1957), Young Woman (Anne) (1957), Ecce Homo (1958) and Woman (1959, Tate) were shown at Gimpels in 1955, 1957 and 1959. Young Woman (Anne) was painted after a prolonged surgical operation that Anne Madden had to endure as a result of a riding accident in which she had badly damaged her spine. For months after the operation she lay on her back in a white plaster sarcophagus made from a cast of her body. The red slash spot on the spinal column of Young Woman (Anne) evokes the ‘terrible anatomical carpentry’15 that Anne suffered, and the X at her upper legs draws the idea that both sides of the body are being examined by the artist here. ‘I am an internalised painter,’ he said in July 2006; and then some hours later, ‘We feel in the breast.’16
There are suggestions within the Presence paintings as a whole of the influence of the School of Paris – a trace of Giacometti appears here, a hint of Dubuffet there. The associations with particular artists are at most tangential, and the work is all le Brocquy. But he and post-war European painters and sculptors were breathing the same air, and confronting similar post-war anxieties about the individual’s place in the world. It was also an easy jump for critics to describe le Brocquy as ‘the white Bacon’, and of this the artist remarked ‘Francis saw no resemblance at all. He said he sometimes saw Cézanne in my work.’17
1Pierre le Brocquy (ed.), Louis le Brocquy, The Head Image; conversations with George Morgan and Michael Peppiatt, Gandon Editions, Dublin, 1996, p. 15
2 Anne Madden le Brocquy, Louis le Brocquy, A Painter Seeing His Way, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin,1994, p. 32.
3 Louis le Brocquy Chronology; unpublished typescript prepared by Pierre le Brocquy, 2004., p. 1
4 Louis le Brocquy in conversation with Pierre le Brocquy, April 2004. Chronology, p. 3
5 Louis le Brocquy in conversation with Pierre le Brocquy, April 2004. Chronology, p. 13
6Louis le Brocquy and the Celtic Head Image, 1981, pp. 8-9.
7‘Portrait of Louis le Brocquy’, broadcast on RTE, Dublin, 2005
8 To Kay Gimpel, 27 Feb 1976, 18 Rue Thibaud, Paris. Gimpel Fils Archive.
9 Louis le Brocquy, ‘Thoughts on our time and Jean Lurçat’, Ark 17, Royal College of Art, 1956.
10The Head Image, p. 24.
11 Louis le Brocquy, ‘Painting and Awareness’, Actes du Colloque ‘Corps-Poésie-Peinture’, University of Nice, 1979. Quoted in Dorothy Walker, Louis le Brocquy, 1981, p. 149.
12 James Hamilton, 25 from 51 – Paintings from the Festival of Britain, exh.cat., Sheffield City Art Galleries, 1978, p. 22.
13Sixty Paintings for ’51, Arts Council and Festival of Britain, 1951, no. 30, ill. pl. 47.
14 Letter to the author, August 2006.
15 Conversation with the author, July 2006.
16 Conversation with the author, July 2006.
17 Conversation with the author, July 2006.