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Eros and Thanatos. Louis le Brocquy’s ‘Procession’ paintings
Louis le Brocquy, Procession
Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, October 10 - November 15, 2003
A black and white photograph of children walking along the Dublin quays, having just made their Holy Communion, and a late seventeenth century Dutch painting of Bacchanalian revelries in a forest have become two significant source documents in the history of 20th century Irish art. The photograph, published in the Evening Herald on 16th June 1939, shows a procession of girls, some holding lilies, leaving the Franciscan Church of Adam and Eve on Merchant’s Quay. Immaculate in their white dresses, the girls seem oblivious to their drab surroundings of shops and trams bearing Bovril advertisements. Nor do their cheerful smiles convey any hint of the somber political atmosphere of June 1939. Perhaps it was these contrasts that prompted Robert Dobbyn, manager of a small oil company in Dublin, with an interest in art, to cut out the photograph out and send it to a former employee who had settled in Menton, a town on the French-Italian border. Louis le Brocquy, then in his early ‘twenties, had abandoned a career in his grandfather’s oil business in Ireland the previous year, opting instead for the more uncertain life of an artist. He was clearly touched by Dobbyn’s gesture and kept the photograph for many years before deciding to use it as the basis for a series of paintings depicting the movement of figures arrested in a single moment. These works, mostly painted between 1962 and 1995, are known as the ‘Procession with Lilies’ Paintings.
The second document, a seventeenth-century painting entitled Boys Playing with a Goat, also inspired a series of canvases by le Brocquy, albeit showing the world of children as seen through quite a different lens. Thought to be by Nicholas Maes, a student of Rembrandt, when shown at the Matthiesen Gallery in London in 1953 (but more recently re-attributed to Cornelis Bisschop) the painting depicts a group of naked children leading a goat through a forest. Although the ostensible subject is a scene from the education of Bacchus, as with most Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century, Boys Playing with a Goat was probably intended to illustrate a moral, such as the folly of youth. The iconography is also classical, harking back to frolicking cherubs on the monuments of ancient Rome. In the painting, one of the children blows into a ram’s horn, while another, mounted on the goat’s back, holds aloft a bunch of grapes. Two other boys play horse and rider, while a girl leads the goat by a rope. The scene in Boys Playing with a Goat, with its pagan overtones, is the antithesis of the Christian rite of passage depicted in the Dublin photograph: the boys’ procession through the forest as uninhibited as the procession of girls is decorous. Intrigued by the ‘interlinked gestures’ of the figures in the Bisschop painting, le Brocquy used it as the basis for a large canvas Children in a Wood, painted early in 1954. Writing in the New Statesman in February of the following year, John Berger described the formal qualities of the work: ‘This painting has a Poussin-like formality to it. Each figure has its appointed niche in the landscape. Each movement is received by another … The sharp angular drawing gives the whole picture a lean, nervous energy. It has the quality of a ritual dance, staged and yet intense.’ Thirty-five years later le Brocquy returned to the theme of children in a wood, completing a sequence of paintings on the same theme.
These two series of paintings in which classic themes of European art are exercised – the naked and primal versus the angelic and transcendental – have been brought together in the present exhibition, which unites for the first time virtually the entire sequence of ‘Procession’ paintings alongside the ‘Children in a Wood’ canvases. These works follow the artist’s conscious concern to deconstruct the visible world, his almost scientific attempts to penetrate the nature of what lies beneath outward appearance. Going back to his early training as a chemist, le Brocquy emphasizes the importance of experimentation in their making, of letting paint take its own course: ‘it seems to me that anything worthwhile which occurs in my work has come out of a series of supervised accidents, by the painting answering back.’1 While accident may play an important role, what is clear is that these are paintings of great seriousness of intention, and of execution.
The earliest surviving work of either series, Children in a Wood (1954) brings together memories of the artist’s childhood, much of which was spent at his grandfather’s house in Co. Roscommon. In a recent letter, le Brocquy recalls ‘our games as children within the vast tent-like space within an enormous Thuya tree (Arbor Vitae, if you please)’ and posits that Children in a Wood has ‘something to do with the ‘‘game of life’’ and perhaps for this reason, various overtones have spontaneously emerged; for instance the arms of the central figure inevitably suggest the opposing tragedy of the crucifixion in the midst of a bacchanate playground!’2 This reading of Children in a Wood is a complex one, but what comes through clearly is the boundless energy of children, a pagan energy often channeled into the immediate satiation of appetites. The children joyously reach for the apple, make the woods ring with the sound of a horn blow, ride the goat, and indeed ride each other like goats. The painting also evokes the violence of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, in which English school children marooned on a remote island, cross the thin line between civilized behaviour and savagery. The wildness of nature is expressed in the forest setting and in the goat’s head jutting forward. Thirty years later, le Brocquy revisited the theme with Children in a Wood I (1988–89). In this work, the sense of flight, of anxiety, seems to have been dispelled. The boy with the horn still sounds a clarion call, awakening the senses and the woodland spirits in this pagan world. A girl rides on the back of a boy, who in turn clutches at the hindquarters of the goat. On the animal’s back sit two plump children, one holding up an apple in frank admiration. The goat’s eager face is close to the final figure, who indicates with her right hand a way forward. What started perhaps as an allegory of existence in 1954 has become a cheerful romp, frank and full of sexual energy. In Children in a Wood II, painted also in 1989, the romp advances a step further, perhaps presaging a loss of innocence. The horn still sounds, but now the naked girl riding on the boy’s back turns to directly engage the attention of the viewer, her Goya-esque looks, washed-out and haggard in spite of her youth, enlivened by a wan smile. A second horn sounds behind her, this time held in the hands of a satyr. On the goat’s back sits the boy, his mouth still agape, eternally awaiting the taste of the apple. Underlining the sense of sublime depravity, the goat nuzzles the leading figures. In the Children in a Wood III, painted the following year, the bacchanal seems to have moved closer to a denoument. The apple has been replaced by a bunch of grapes. The figures are more graceful, less awkward than in previous paintings in the series. This progression towards a greater sensuality continues in Children in a Wood IV, painted in 1992. In this work, the last of the series, the consummation of sexual desire seems imminent, the grapes closer than ever to being eaten. The goat nuzzles ever closer to the back of the leading figure. However, in the midst of the confusion of limbs and faces, a knife held aloft echoes that reading of le Brocquy’s art proposed by Herbert Read forty years before, in which the artist pays homage to Eros and Thanatos, to life and death.
Of the earliest ‘Procession with Lilies’ paintings and studies based on the 1939 Evening Herald photograph, just two works, dating from 1962, appear to have survived. Over two decades later, le Brocquy revisited the theme when he painted Procession with Lilies I in 1984. In contrast with the early versions, this work presents a relaxed and optimistic view of the world. Although the subject-matter and treatment can be related to the Children in a Wood paintings, the artist is at pains to emphasise that these paintings are ‘centrally concerned with what I might describe as the mystery of time, hence the T .S. Eliot quotation. In the case of the Procession with Lilies, to do with an instant in an event which occurred 64 years ago within a ‘‘succession of present moments’’.’3 A reading of the Procession paintings that contrasts their religious subject matter against the pagan ritual depicted in the Children in a Wood series is resisted by the artist, who points out that he had ‘no moral or religious considerations’ in mind when painting these works. The oil studies certainly show le Brocquy’s interest in the use of pure patches of colour, reds, yellows and blues, on a white or off-white background. The paint is dragged, pulled, thinned with turpentine and applied in washes, almost like watercolour. The figures of the girls are depicted in a state of immanence, emerging from and receding into the background, a sense of procession conveyed by complex dancing brushstrokes. Yet it is difficult to read these works solely as consummate examples of the artist’s abilities or as devoted to the mysteries of time. In spite of the shimmering translucent brushstrokes and the glowing areas of white paint, there are shadows of anxiety in these works. In Procession with Lilies II (1984–85) the frank gaze of the girl directed at the viewer is unsettling, and recalls Manet’s Olympia – a painting which caused outrage when first exhibited because it challenged bourgeois social conventions. In a superficial reading, le Brocquy’s Procession paintings might seem to confirm the idealised view of women as cherished by a conservative society. However, viewed through other frames of reference, the underlying anxiety might reflect on what the future held for these girls, growing up in a city famed for its urban poverty and unemployment. Certainly, the series does not present a static viewpoint: In Procession with Lilies III a shadow seems to have fallen across the free-flowing joyous procession. A rubicon between innocence and experience has been crossed. The communicants group uncertainly, the outline of a lily, or perhaps of a mitre, at the centre. In Procession with Lilies IV (1992) there is more individuality of expression. The mitre shape has becomes more like a lily, the darkness seems to have receded.
In A Letter to a Young Painter (1962), Herbert Read referred to le Brocquy’s ability to reconcile opposing principles which Read tentatively called ‘innocence and experience’. At the same time, he identified in the artist’s work symbols for ‘what is basic to the life of the spirit … Eros and Thanatos.’4
Le Brocquy in discussing these paintings refers to the sense of a dichotomy between the grimy pavements of Dublin and the extraordinary radiant innocence and hope portrayed in the procession. He talks about the slowness with which the meaning of the series was exposed to him, as he painted them, with gaps of some two decades between the studies he made in the sixties and the paintings from the mid ’80s.5 However he is reluctant to describe the paired series as representing sacred and profane themes, preferring instead to emphasise their inner qualities: ‘When I’m working, I learn from the painting itself.’ He contrasts the photograph of the girls in white, ‘a recorded instant of human fact’ with the Dutch picture ‘a timeless image formed in the mind.’ The Procession paintings he describes as a past event ‘arrested within a succession of present moments’, a Joycean concept that ties in well with the coincidence of date – the photograph was published on Bloomsday – June 16th – the date on which Ulysses is set.6 But there is more to these paintings than formal qualities: Dorothy Walker quotes le Brocquy as saying these images draw the viewer ‘behind the joy and beyond the experimental game of childhood into the shadow of presentiment, of human emergence and disappearance, of sound grown silent …’ However, the two series of paintings also reveal, perhaps unconsciously, much about le Brocquy’s response to the social and political changes that affected his native country as it struggled to come to terms with its changing position in post-war Europe. With his family background and education, the artist was well placed to observe and comment on these changes.
Born in 1916, the eldest child of Albert le Brocquy and Sybil Staunton, Louis le Brocquy grew up in a relatively affluent, cultured home. His paternal grandfather had come to Ireland from Brussels in the late nineteenth century, setting up the first oil refinery in Britain or Ireland. Initially located in Ringsend, the Greenmount Oil Company later moved to Harold’s Cross, where it survived until the 1960s. Although trained as a chemist and with employment assured in the family firm, le Brocquy’s real interest lay in art, and in 1938 he decided to become a full-time artist. Disregarding the conventional courses of study available in Dublin, he left Ireland to learn directly from paintings in major European museums. His travels took him through London, Paris and Venice to Switzerland and then down to the South of France, where he settled in Menton, a seaside town with a sizeable English-speaking population, popular with artists. In Geneva, le Brocquy had the good fortune to be able to study paintings by Goya, Velasquez and El Greco, works transferred from the Prado in Madrid to Switzerland for safe keeping during the Spanish Civil War. Las Meninas in particular made a strong impression on the artist ‘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.’7 In addition to Velazquez, the influence of Titian’s celebrations of pagan culture The Worship of Venus and Bacchanal of the Andrians (both in the Prado collection) can be seen in both the ‘Procession’ and ‘Children in a Wood’ series.
Forced to leave France during the war, le Brocquy returned to Ireland for a number of years. He painted some key early works during this period, including A Picnic (1940) and Girl in White and The Spanish Shawl, both painted in 1941 – works in which the influence of Japanese woodblock prints, Manet and Whistler can be clearly discerned. However by 1947, when le Brocquy had settled in London, the influence of Picasso and Cubism was beginning to predominate, as is clear in Tinker Woman with Newspaper painted that year, and in A Family (1951), a painting which led directly to Children in a Wood (1954). In the contemporary art galleries of Post-war London, abstraction was rapidly becoming the dominant art form, with figurative artists such as Freud, Bacon or le Brocquy regarded as ‘out of step’. Nonetheless much critical attention still focused on the achievements of Cezanne, whose painting Les Baigneuses was in the National Gallery in London – perhaps the clearest antecedent of the Children in a Wood and Procession paintings. Roger Fry’s Cezanne, A Study of his Development published in 1927, contrasted the classical and romantic elements in the Bathers series. This was followed by Adrian Stokes’ Inside Out (1947) in which Stokes observed that the figures in Cezanne’s Les Baigneuses refused the character of silhouettes: ‘They absorb, and in absorbing rule, the environment.’ Similiarly, in the Procession paintings, the figures, fragmented and frozen in movement, appear to dematerialize and become interwoven with their background. Following the example of the Bathers series, le Brocquy disposed his figures in a Classical way, as if they were low-relief sculptures on an antique sarcophagus or frieze, although his fragmentation of forms also pays homage to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. Like Cezanne, le Brocquy also looked for ways to emphasise relief through using warm and cool colours, rather than by adding black. Cool blues and greens make objects appear to recede slightly, while hot orange, reds and yellows seem closer. Another characteristic of le Brocquy’s work is his use of white, deriving from his admiration for Manet. The artist’s images of human heads in particular, are often set in a field of white, implying transcendence, but not necessarily innocence or beneficence. The artist cites Herman Meville’s Moby Dick and the central role of its protagonist, the great white whale: ‘The whiteness of those girls holding their lilies, submerged in time, seemed to me to be equally mysterious.’8 But perhaps it is in his rawness, a viscerality tempered by tenderness, that le Brocquy most closely emulates Cezanne, who discovered that as beauty can lie in awkwardness, so also can meaning.
Although largely self-taught as an artist, le Brocquy is recognised as probably the most accomplished Irish artist working today. He has evolved a style that is sparing and delicate, his early training as a scientist still evident in the careful consideration that he brings to his work. Ultimately however there is not much comfort in his paintings. The world he depicts is not one of easy laughter, or carefree companionship. The years of his artistic development were amongst the most traumatic the world has seen, while in the post-war Europe the threat of nuclear extinction, combined with rationing and poverty, both real and imaginative, led to a sense of profound pessimism, a pessimism evoked in Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy and in the writings of Samuel Beckett. Le Brocquy’s images are of that world, rather than the comforting views of country folk and landscapes of the West of Ireland, so beloved of conservative Dublin art patrons in the ’50s. There is an anxious quality to le Brocquy’s art, particularly the earlier paintings. Dark clouds hover over his protagonists; their time on earth seems short and unsettled. But, as in Beckett’s work, the figures in the Procession and Children in a Wood paintings have an inner strength, they keep striding forward, making do with their lot. In both series, as the artist progressed from one canvas to the next, there is a sense of increasing liberation and joy. The pessimism of the 1940s has, forty years on, been replaced by a spirited optimism, albeit an optimism tinged with caution and not without its shadows. In many ways, while preserving an extraordinary formal and hermetic quality, these paintings also serve to mirror profound changes that took place in Irish society during those same years.
1 Interview with George Morgan, quoted in Louis le Brocquy – Procession, Gandon Editions 1994 p. 10
2 Le Brocquy in a letter to the author 11 Sept 2003
3 Le Brocquy in a letter to the author 11 September 2003
4 Quoted in Madden le Brocquy Louis le Brocquy: Seeing his Way, Gill & Macmillan 1993, p. 61
5 Interview with George Morgan, p. 8
6 Interview with George Morgan, p. 8
7 Letter to John Russell 24.9.1990, quoted in Madden, p. 37
8 Interview with George Morgan, p. 8