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Le Brocquy: To look, and then to look again, once more.
Louis le Brocquy and his Masters. Early Heroes, Later Homage,
Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. 14 January - 30 March 2007
In the strange choreography of the grand tradition in fine art painting, and modernism’s attempt to both overcome and renew that tradition, the themes of mastery and genius have been greatly troubled. The explanatory power of words such as “mastery” and “genius” has been questioned, in as much as such terms seem to unhelpfully install the inexplicable at the very centre of the process of explication. But there still persists a desire to calculate the relative significance of different works within the canonical traditions of the visual arts. There is an abiding impetus to establish what it is within our culture that should abide, endure and be preserved across the generations. This is typically construed explicitly in terms of the persistence of objects, but also occasionally understood as the preservation of practices and ways of doing. It is less often conceived of in terms of ways of looking and re-looking and looking once more anew.
Integral to this impetus to map the hierarchies of achievement, within the traditions of painting for example, is the attempt to understand the interrelationship of various artists and their works, and to specify the appropriate overarching contexts to frame their meaning and value. Thus Brian McAvera, reviewing two recent shows celebrating Louis le Brocquy’s ninetieth year, while being pointedly critical of the curatorial decision-making represented by both shows, asks:
Should we not be situating the artist of the brush drawings illustrating Kinsella’s Tain, in relation to European Tachiste painters such as Soulages, Manessier, Mathieu and Hartung? Should we not be pointing out the remarkable affinities between le Brocquy and Henri Michaux? Surely we should be treating the artist with respect – by placing him within the wider European heritage – and not delimiting him within a cosy, uncritical Irish context?1
McAvera lays down a series of powerful challenges for both commentators and curators, challenges which in significant measure exceed the powers of this essay to appropriately address, but which however do make a claim on our critical attention.2 McAvera is in part seeking the proper canonical inscription and relative placement of the artist within a reputational framework and against a system of apparently stable and vouched-safe values. In doing so McAvera is responding in part to a museological imperative to construct a taxonomy or meta-catalogue of European cultural heritage. However, in doing so he is also arguably responding directly to something that lives within the corpus of this artist’s work.
Le Brocquy’s work is saturated in the flows of European high culture; and not only the streams of post-Renaissance visual arts and the specific eddies and cascades of modernist painting. It is also pervaded by references to the high literary canons of European culture – most notably Francophone and Anglophone literary modernism. This work frames explicit commitments to the values and schemas of these high art traditions. It seeks to operate within this value frame, and to do so at the highest level of ambition and achievement within such traditions. This is a remarkable undertaking, all the more so given that the artist begins in some very concrete sense as an outsider, who begins by looking to the pinnacles of this tradition with an unschooled eye.3
In this current show of the artist’s work, there is a clear project to position the artist in a nexus of relationship with those artists with whom the painter first began to pursue his self-tutored career as an artist in the great museums and collections of Europe. Interestingly, the impulse to explore these relationships through an exhibition is predicated on a turn within le Brocquy’s most recent work to revisit both his own earliest successes as a painter and those sources in the tradition that informed these successes, including such master-names within the tradition as Velazquez, Goya, Manet, and Cezanne.
It is significant that this turn in the recent work is continuous with the artist’s ongoing preoccupation with specific moments of the tradition. Most clearly there is a recurrent pre-occupation with Manet’s Olympia (1863), a work which the artist first encountered in Paris in 1938, and which provided a key reference for his later major work, A Family, of 1951. Le Brocquy’s 1951 meditation on Manet’s Olympia was synthesised through a cubist idiom as distilled within Picasso’s work of the 1930s. In this painting le Brocquy had also gone far beyond his reference to Manet and Picasso to construct an ambitious “historical” work. A Family constructs an ambitious proposition about the existential turmoil of post World War displacement, dislocation and desolation. Drawing on the mythic and public languages of Guernica, it is a work also pitched at the level of the dysfunction of the domestic and the crisis of personal identity. Indeed, it is noteworthy that even now, more than half a century later, this work continues to be the subject of ongoing interpretative contests.4
Le Brocquy, in a manner similar to Picasso and Manet before him, has drawn upon the precedents of the tradition to construct a new work which simultaneously seeks to restate and innovate, to renew and in some degree renegotiate – even to overcome - the terms of the tradition. Manet’s Olympia had in its turn been derived from the tradition of the nude rooted in the prototypical works of Titian and Giorgione, but again transformed through Manet’s own exploration of Spanish painting, most especially the work of Goya. It is precisely this complex layered and multiple interaction between images, pictorial idioms and historical precedents that constitutes the persuasive grip and embedding of a tradition. Manet’s work is pivotal within this tradition as marking a critical transition to the modern – a transitional moment whereby this whole pattern of relationship with tradition became further complicated by the self-conscious desire to be of one’s own time; to break with those moribund aspects of the tradition as institutionally mediated; and to become the pictorial thinker of one’s own contingent historical moment. The inherent contradictions of wishing to proceed within a tradition, to extend it, and at the same time to renew, revitalise and redefine that tradition may be experienced as both productive and disorienting. In such a project the moments of doubt and the moments of confidence necessarily turn upon each other without warning.5
Le Brocquy demonstrates - within his own multiple working through of the Olympia and other key works by Manet,at various points in his career as a painter - that the to-ing and fro-ing between exemplars and variations, between precedent and new iteration, is an open process. The latest variation or meditation on a theme is not exhaustively determined by its forerunners, even as it draws part of its life from the matrix of relationship with those earlier works. The relationships in play here might be thought of in terms of the relationships between a musical score or a dramatic script and subsequent performances of a work. The process of variation, improvisation around a theme, may entail formal, conceptual and expressive innovation, but in each instance there is dynamic multiplicity in play, so that we see the earlier works anew. Each work must set us to see the already familiar and known works differently.
It is notable that in this most recent body of work, le Brocquy employs the term “looking at” repeatedly as a means of identifying and naming the works. It is this call to look again, and renew one’s understanding of the already given, and the already known, that seems to me most significant in this new work, and in this exhibition as a whole. This talk of “looking” seems to provide a better way with respect to both the new and the earlier work, rather than the language of “homage” and “mastery” which risks closing down, rather that opening up, the ambiguities and uncertainties that permeate the encounter with art works, and the question of the values and purposes that we may find there. This has been identified by James Hamilton who notes that:
The titles ‘Looking at’ – Looking at Manet, Velazquez, Goya, Cezanne. 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 Dona Antonia Zarate, we revist the Villa Medici …6
The multiplicity of these works is not simply the multiple layering of precedents and references, but also the aggregation of looking, and looking again, and looking yet once more, that accumulates over time. This is the act of looking undertaken not only by the artist, but also by any given viewer – myself perhaps or indeed others - returning once more to look again at the work.
Preparing this text I find myself realising that I have looked at aspects of le Brocquy’s work ever since I first formed, in my presumptuous teens, a notional and quite improbable ambition to become an artist myself. I remember vividly looking at his Children in a wood, after Nicolas Maes (1954) and obsessively trying to recreate in my own picture-making the effect of the figures, their strange co-located isolation, and their weird torsioned dynamic. I remember later coming upon a reproduction of A Picnic (1940) and not being able to look away from the image for hours, constantly drawn back to looking and re-looking at this haunting and disturbing image of sinewy dis-articulated bodies zig-zaging across the flattened shallow surface of the painting. Looking at A Picnic, I was at first struck by the way the work drew upon an older idiom of post-impressionist figuration – something that seemed to my impatient eyes as somewhat already “old-fashioned” rather than “modern.” At the same time, I became aware of the way in which this idiom was permeated by the strange unsaid of surrealism. The relationships with nineteenth century French painting seemed clear, but gradually I also came to perceive the relationship with those subsequent works by the artist which embraced dramatic stylistic departures and that had initially seemed so remote and foreign to this mode of figuration. Caoimhin Mac Giolla Leith has articulated this relationship clearly:
For, in hindsight, the investigation of interpersonal relationships appears to have been destined from the start to be subordinated in le Brocquy’s work to the exploration of the individual in isolation. […] A pronounced tendency towards solipsism is evident almost from the very beginning, as can be seen as early as 1940 in the painting entitled ‘A Picnic’ in which three figures, far from enjoying the communal meal indicated by the work’s title, turn moodily away from each other in melancholic introspection.7
This layering of references; of repetitions and variations; of the artist’s looking at an earlier artists’ work (or indeed his own); of a viewer re-viewing what they have looked at before; of viewers reframing each other’s views of what they come to look at: this is a rich and complex dynamic that cannot be frozen in an object or a single fixed judgement that abides for all time.
And yet there is a demand for judgements, for critical appraisals, for valuations, for some kind of confident fixity and overview in the values we may ascribe to things. McAvera again asserts: “We need to look closely at the artist’s entire career; and to re-evaluate it from a position which takes nothing for granted.” But the decision to look closely is already caught up in the judgement that this is something to be attended to; that this work is of some consequence: it agrees with the claims that this work warrants our careful consideration, that it has a prior claim upon us. This is what I understand to be le Brocquy’s pictorial proposition to us in these most recent works – most especially in the meditations on Velazquez’ Villa Medici Grotto-Loggia Façade, The Dwarf Don Sebastian de Mora and Goya’s Dona Antonia Zarate – here are images and ideas that have a prior claim upon our attention: they are occasions of looking, and looking again, which will not be exhausted in a single totalising moment of judgement or indeed of translation or interpretation.
When I look at an image such as le Brocquy’s Looking at Velazquez. Villa Medici, Grotto-Loggia Façade (2005) I feel myself to encounter an image that also has this prior claim on my attention, something that will be – that has already been - an occasion of looking, and looking again, and looking yet once more. This image, of all the images in this show, haunts me. In this image where the architecture vaporises into trees; where the artificial and the organic dissolve into one another; where all that is solid melts into air and on into nothing; where the dark opening repeats itself and seems to intimate that even as things repeat themselves they fall away: it is in such an image that I find the whole complex knot of the grand tradition attenuated and imposed upon my thinking. Imposed but not resolved. I am forced to look again. It is a welcome opportunity to do so in the context of this ambitious and thoughtfully considered exhibition of both new and familiar work. It remains but to go and look for oneself.
1 Seee Brian McAvera’s review in The Visual Artists’ News Sheet Review Supplement, Issue 1, December, 2006. p. 7.
2 F or a good introduction to some of the critical debate around the reception of le Brocquy’s work see Roisin Kennedy’s essay “Made in England: The Critical Reception of Louis le Brocquy’s A Family,” Third Text, Vol. 19, No. 5, September, 2005, pp. 475-486.
3 James Hamilton has noted that: “He did not go to 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.” See Hamilton’s essay in Louis le Brocquy: Homage to his Masters, Gimpel Fils, 2006, unpaginated.
4 Rosin Kennedy’s essay (n. 2 above) is excellent in this regard.
5 I am thinking here for example of the artist’s destruction of a large body of his work in 1963 “during a period of despair and uncertainty.”
6 Op. cit.
7 Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, “The Human Image Paintings of Louis le Brocquy,” 2003.