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‘Louis le Brocquy’s ‘Presence’ Series, 1956-1966: Irish, British or International?‘
Dr Riann Coulter, 2006
BA, MA, Ph.D.
Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences Post-doctoral Fellow, 2008-2010, Trinity Colege Dublin.
In November 2006 Louis le Brocquy celebrated his ninetieth birthday. In Ireland the occasion was marked with exhibitions at the National Gallery of Ireland, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the Hunt Museum, Limerick and Dublin City Gallery: The Hugh Lane. Elsewhere, there were shows at Gimpel Fils – his London dealer for over sixty years – Galerie Jeanne-Bucher in Paris and at TATE Britain where his painting Tinkers Resting, 1946, was on display.
Longevity alone is not cause for national celebration and it is le Brocquy’s reputation as Ireland’s greatest, and most commercially successful, living artist that merits such festivities. Yet, in many ways le Brocquy’s art seems an unlikely focus for national pride, not least because his move to London in 1946 marked the beginning of fifty years of self-imposed exile.
In London, le Brocquy was absorbed into the post-war British art world where John Berger heralded him as ‘one of the most interesting British painters of his generation’ and, welcoming his emancipation from Ireland’s ‘provincial myth’, Herbert Read declared him ‘both independent and universal’. By the time of Read’s assessment in 1961, le Brocquy was living in France where he would remain until his return to Ireland in 2000. Despite this move, he continued to exhibit in Dublin and London and to be claimed as both Irish and British. Thus in 1956 he represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale and in 1963 he was included in the Contemporary Art Society’s exhibition British Painting in the Sixties. This ability to be classified as alternatively Irish, British and universal raises questions over the nature of le Brocquy’s cultural identity and the extent to which his art can be claimed as Irish.
This paper investigates the internationalism of le Brocquy’s work, in particular the Presence seriesbegun in London in 1956 and completed in the mid 1960s in the south of France. The reception of le Brocquy as the ‘greatest living Irish artist’ has resulted in the neglect of the international dimensions of the Presences. Arguably, they can only be fully appreciated within the context of the British and international art worlds in which they were created.
In an increasingly culturally heterogeneous Ireland, definitions of national identity are subject to much debate. Within this context it is worth investigating the extent to which, throughout the 1950s, this celebrated Irish artist was producing work that can only be fully understood within an international frame. My aim is not to deny the connections between le Brocquy’s art and Ireland, but rather to acknowledge the British and international influences that have contributed to his oeuvre. As Róisín Kennedy has observed in relation to le Brocquy’s art, ‘the framing of a work of art within national boundaries imposes considerable limitations on the ways in which it is read both critically and art historically’. Situating the Presences within an international context, contributes to both a broader understanding of le Brocquy’s work, and a less introspective vision of mid-twentieth-century Irish culture.
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Born in 1916, into Catholic family of Belgian ancestry, le Brocquy was raised in an artistic milieu dominated by Dublin’s Anglo-Irish intelligentsia. Steeped in an environment influenced by British and Continental culture, le Brocquy rejected the narrow versions of Irishness promoted by nationalism. In fact it was not until he left Ireland that le Brocquy began to identify with the country of his birth. As he has recalled:
Although I was born in Dublin . . . and brought up entirely in Ireland, I do not remember feeling particularly Irish . . . Then, one day in my twenty-first year, I . . . sailed from Dublin into a new life as a painter studying in the museums of London, Paris, Venice and Geneva . . . Alone among the great artists of the past, in these strange related cities, I became vividly aware for the first time of my
Irish identity to which I have remained attached all my life.
This was the moment when le Brocquy discovered his ‘Irish voice’. However, he has stressed that the idea of ‘Irishness’ that he embraced was not, ‘a self-conscious nationalism . . . inducing picturesque images . . . of Irish country folk dressed in the clothes of a preceding generation, or of thatched cottages’ – imagery typical of popular Irish painters including Paul Henry and Séan Keating. Instead, he followed the example of Rembrandt, Manet and ‘the great Spaniards – each simultaneously himself, his race and universal’. It was their ‘transcendent universality’ that helped him to avoid ‘self-conscious nationalism’.
Medb Ruane has suggested that le Brocquy’s ‘need to offer alternative visions to the narrow template of preferred Irishness’, provoked him to investigate ‘what being Irish might mean, or what it might exclude’. Identifying his images of Irish Travelersas the results of such investigations, Ruane suggests that these works led directly to le Brocquy’s series of Celtic heads and to his illustrations for Thomas Kinsella’s translation of the Gaelic epic, The Táin,in 1969.
Elsewhere Ruane has argued that le Brocquy’s rejection of ‘moody landscapes . . . celtic twilight and rural pastiche’ means that he ‘can’t be called an Irish painter in any of the stereotypical uses of the term’. Undoubtedly, his concentration on the isolated figure or head and tendency to eschew narrative, distances his work from the rural landscapes of Paul Henry or Jack B. Yeats. The emphasis on place, and the relationships between place and identity that are central to much nineteenth and twentieth-century Irish art are also largely absent from le Brocquy’s oeuvre. Although some early works such as Achill Mother and Child,c.1946, and the Traveller series, can be directly related to the Irish landscape, as he admitted in 2003, place is not central to his work. Instead, le Brocquy’s Irish voice has been most frequently recognised in his series of head images begun in the early 1960s. Although these images were initially inspired by Polynesian ancestral skulls, le Brocquy has stressed the connection between his interrogation of the human head and the Celts’ preoccupation with the head as the residence of the human spirit. Citing the Celtic ruins at Entremont near Aix-en-Provence as an inspiration, he has explained that he shares the Celtic idea of the human head as ‘the mysterious box which contains the spirit: the outer reality of the invisible interior world of consciousness’.
Beginning with a series of anonymous, ‘Ancestral Heads’, le Brocquy later took Irish and international writers and artists as his subjects and produced multiple partial portraits where the features of iconic figures emerge from white grounds. These paintings, in particular the familiar images of W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett, are the basis of le Brocquy’s fame in Ireland and have become so well known that, as Ruane has suggested, it is easy to underestimate their power.
While the heads have already had much critical attention, it is worth noting the degree to which this fusion of a modernist aesthetic with the portrait genre and recognisable subjects have been embraced by both the art world and the public in Ireland. Le Brocquy’s engagement with subjects that can be interpreted in national terms and the critical desire to stress the Irishness of his heads is significant, particularly since the Presences which preceded them, can only be fully understood within the international context in which they were created.
Although the National Gallery of Ireland’s recent acquisition of A Family has focused attention on the origins of the grey period works, also painted in London in the post-war years, the internationalism of the Presences has not been considered. These works resist attempts to interpret them as Irish pictures. Instead, they are the products of the mid-century art worlds of London and Paris – artistic milieus influenced by Kleinian psychology and existentialism.
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The poet John Montague has observed that ‘something happened to le Brocquy in the mid 50s, a new feeling for painting, a draining away of formal inessentials to present the central image more directly’. Seeing the resulting paintings as ‘celebrations of the human body, proud or wounded’, Montague described them as ‘hovering acts of homage to a presence’. Suggesting that le Brocquy’s main concern for a decade was to ‘woo the human presence through paint, the white lotus flower of the body, turning and glowing on its spinal axis’, Montague concluded, ‘From now on le Brocquy is concerned less with the physical reality of the object than with its essence, the radiance rather than the fact, the noumenon rather than the phenomenon.’ Montague’s description of the body, ‘turning and glowing on its spinal axis’, was informed by the knowledge that some of these images were reactions to the spinal injuries endured by le Brocquy’s wife, the painter Anne Madden. Le Brocquy recalls that during Madden’s operations, the image of ‘a hammer and chisel being applied to fragile bones’ was branded upon his imagination. Undoubtedly, Anne was the inspiration for images such as Young Woman (Anne), 1957 (Fig. 1) where the spinal column pierces the flesh of the female torso.
While Anne’s operations inspired some of the Presences,their formal evolution can be traced from the cruciform verticality of Lazarus, 1954, through Woman in Sunlight,1955–56, to Ging Heut’ Morgen Ubers Feld,1956 (Fig. 2). In 1956 le Brocquy visited Spain where he was struck by the way a shadow ‘looked more real than the substance it was cast by’. Realising that this was because ‘all dull colour’ was ‘irradiated into brilliance by a white sun’, le Brocquy embarked upon a series of experiments interrogating the relationship between figure and shadow. As he has recounted, ‘I came to see everything as existing in a matrix of pure white light. Then later I had the idea of conjuring up images out of nothing, out of light, out of the depths of the blank canvas . . .’. Although Ging Heut’ Morgen Ubers Feld represents an early stage of these experiments, the impastoed central figure emerging from an abstracted background is, as Alistair Smith has observed, ‘prophetic of the work of the next few years and beyond’.
While Madden’s injuries and the Spanish light contributed to the shift in le Brocquy’s work, some contemporary critics located the origins of the Presences in the unconscious. Introducing le Brocquy’s exhibition at Gimpel Fils in 1961 Herbert Read declared him ‘a painter of the inner world of feeling’, and claimed that his work ‘reconciles two opposed principles, which I will tentatively call innocence and experience. The wide areas of pure white seem to be symbols of a purity waiting to be defiled, an innocence to be outraged’. Developing this thought Read wrote, ‘An artist plays with opposites, reconciles them in an equilibrium that is aesthetic, not ethical.’ Suggesting that le Brocquy’s work could best be described in terms of modern psychology, Read referred to Melanie Klein’s concept of the, ‘good object, milk-white and beneficent’ and explained that, ‘often, in the psyche, this object is associated with erotic envy, aggression and sadism.’ Believing that Klein’s ideas held a clue to ‘the mysterious significance of le Brocquy’s painting’, Read concluded, ‘there can be no doubt that after many patient years of research this painter has found the irreducible symbols for what is basic to the life of the spirit, those principles we personify as Eros and Thanatos.’
In psychoanalytic terms Eros and Thanatos, represent the life and death instincts that Sigmund Freud believed are in a constant state of struggle within the psyche. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1919), Freud stressed that the ‘life drive’ included the urge for self-preservation and introduced the idea of a ‘death drive’ as a force that, as Juliet Mitchell has explained, ‘strove to return the human being back into a state of inertia, of the inorganic’. Read’s conviction that le Brocquy had found the ‘irreducible symbols’ for Eros and Thanatos, along with his reading of the Presences as works that reconcile ‘two opposed principles’, illustrated his belief that, ‘an artist plays with opposites, reconciles them in an equilibrium that is aesthetic, not ethical’. Yet, his suggestion that Klein’s ‘good object’ was a key to unlock the significance of these works, suggests a reading of the Presences as representative of opposed tendencies held in a state of tension rather than equilibrium.
Klein’s ‘good object’ is part of her theory of object relations within the infantile psychic apparatus. This theory suggests that from soon after birth the infant psychic apparatus is dominated by oral-sadistic impulses towards its mother’s breast – the first external object it perceives, and argues that this relationship becomes the prototype for all future relationships to objects. As a consequence of these aggressive instincts, the infant experiences anxiety that it will either destroy the breast, or that the breast has the ability to retaliate. The breast is then split into bad ‘frustrating’ breast and a good ‘gratifying’ breast. According to Klein, this mechanism of splitting invests all objects of the infantile world and will remain a tendency throughout adult life in the form of denial and idealisation. Objects will be split into external and internal objects – into bad and good ones – so that the object is never whole, but always partial.
As Read suggested, Klein’s concept of the ‘part object’, consisting of two opposed parts: good/bad, or as he extrapolated; ‘Eros and Thanatos’, resonates with the incomplete nature of the Presences,which appear to fluctuate between absence and presence. However, while Read wrote of the reconciliation of opposed principles and aesthetic synthesis, Klein argued that oppositions can never be entirely reconciled and that no synthesis was possible. If we consider a work such as Woman,1959 (Fig. 3), rather than an image of synthesis, we are confronted with a spectral figure that does appear as a part object, held in tension between emergence and submergence or, in Kleinian terms, destruction and reparation.
As Lyndsey Stonebridge has pointed out, during the 1940s and 1950s Melanie Klein was the dominant force in the British psychoanalytic movement. Focusing on the development of Kleinian psychoanalysis as a social and aesthetic discourse, Stonebridge traces the ‘destructive element’ through manifestations of modernism and psychoanalysis in Britain. She argues that central to both, is the ‘emergence of a mythology in which writers represent themselves as coming face to face with the potential violence – historical, epistemological and psychic, of modernity in order to transcend it’. Under the influence of Klein, British psychoanalysts embraced Freud’s death drive, which had largely been dismissed by psychoanalysts in France, and theorised the violence of the tie between the individual and culture that Freud had outlined in Civilization and its Discontents in 1930. Yet, as Stonebridge suggests, while Kleinian psychoanalysis adopted the destructive element, it also tried to sublimate it and redeem a fundamentally negative view of early psychic life through the theory of reparation. It was through reparation that Klein believed art was produced from a ‘loving attempt to repair and restore objects damaged through destruction anxiety’.
In The Psycho-analysis of Children, Klein began to formulate her argument –consolidated in the mid 1940s – that in the first six to eight months of life infants pass through two main stages: the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position. The paranoid position is the stage when destructive impulses and persecutory anxieties are directed against the infant’s ‘primary object’ which as we have seen is the mother, in particular her breast. During the depressive position that follows, these impulses and anxieties decrease. The infant ‘introjects the object as a whole’ and begins to ‘synthesise the various aspects of the object as well as his emotions towards it. Love and hatred come closer together in his mind.’ This causes the anxiety that the object, both internal and external, might be harmed or destroyed. Depressive feelings and guilt follow which ‘give rise to the urge to preserve or revive the loved object and to make reparation for destructive impulses and phantasies.’ Thus, as Klein pointed out ‘the early ego largely lacks cohesion and a tendency towards integration alternates with a tendency towards disintegration, a falling to bits’.
Although le Brocquy was not consciously influenced by Klein, the Presences can be read in terms of the processes of destruction and reparation; integration and disintegration, that are central to Kleinian psychoanalysis. As Juliet Mitchell has pointed out, Klein came to see love as the manifestation of the life drive and hate, destructiveness and envy as emanations of the death drive. Thus, the death drive’s efforts ‘to return the human being back into a state of inertia’, combined with Klein’s view that art was the product of ‘loving’ attempts to restore objects damaged through ‘destruction anxiety’, suggests an inevitable cycle of destruction and reparation. Within this context, images such as Woman,1959 can be interpreted as the products of both reparation and the death drive’s attempts to return the human form to the inorganic. Seemingly wrestled from the void of white canvas, the figure hovering between presence and absence can be read as an illustration, or record, of the irresolvable struggle between the life and death drives that Klein believed dominated the human psyche.
As Stonebridge has argued both Kleinian psychoanalysis and modernism contain a tension between ‘an initial promise of aesthetic transcendence and a growing knowledge of the intractable complicity between the destructive element within and cultural and social violence without’. If, as Stonebridge suggests, both modernists and psychoanalysts represented themselves confronting and transcending the potential violence of modernity, the Presences can be read as attempts to ‘repair and restore’ objects, in this case the human form, damaged by the ‘destructive element’ that the horrors of the Second World War suggested was the dominant characteristic of human society.
As we have seen, on a personal level the Presences were le Brocquy’s response to the violence inflicted on Anne Madden’s body. In a broader context, theycan be interpreted as comments on the human psyche and his fears of atomic war. In artistic terms, the Presences play out the violent struggle between the artist and his materials. In an interview of 1957 le Brocquy wrote of,
the absolutely necessary commitment of the painter to his material in which he can be almost destroyed by his material, in which he can die into his material . . . There is something in the struggle with the artist’s material in which the personality is . . . reborn in the form of a new convention, a painterly restatement of the reality which preoccupied him.
This struggle between the artist and his material, echoes the Kleinian oscillation between destruction and reparation. Le Brocquy’s fear of being destroyed by or dying ‘into his material’, is evocative of the death drive’s striving ‘to return the human being back into a state of inertia’. His belief that art resulting from unsuccessful struggles should be rejected can be interpreted in Kleinian terms as the failure of the ‘loving attempt to repair . . . objects damaged through destruction anxiety’.
Le Brocquy’s attitude towards his materials supports Read’s conviction that the Presences should be viewed from a Kleinian perspective. While other scholars, including Alistair Smith and Brian Fallon, have suggested connections between the Presences and Jungian psychology, Jung’s emphasis on the collective unconscious jars with le Brocquy’s professed concentration on the ‘individual reality’ and conviction that ‘the final human reality is the individual’. Within the post-war context in which the Presences were created, this focus on the individual was the leif-motif of existentialism.
Reflecting on le Brocquy’s post-war Grey Period works, John Russell wrote;
those interiors generally had a sovereign bareness – half squash court, one might say, and half execution dock. A wish to do away with the unessential explained them partly, but I suspect that there was also an echo of the existential interior: the bare cell in which the patterns of the future of the world were decided during World War II and its aftermath.
The clearest manifestation of this ‘existential interior’ is Condemned Man, 1945 (Fig. 4) which depicts the ‘bare cell’ that Russell writes of. Painted at the end of World War II, Condemned Man was a protest at both the continuing practice of capital punishment in Ireland, and a work informed by the horrific accounts of the Holocaust that le Brocquy heard first hand from his London dealer Charles Gimpel. The impact of living through the Second World War, even in the relative safety of neutral Ireland, was an experience that an artist who professed a concern with the human condition could not fail to register. Moving to London at the end of 1946, le Brocquy found a city and a population ravaged by conflict. As he has explained, ‘In those post-war, cold war days we, all of us, walked in the fear of eventual nuclear disaster obliterating civilised life and returning those who were unfortunate enough to survive to Palaeolithic circumstances.’
In such circumstances, it was not surprising that the art world of post-war London was imbued with the influence of existentialism.
An ethical body of thought that centres on the uniqueness and isolation of individual experience in a universe indifferent, or even hostile to man, existentialism treats human existence as unexplainable and emphasises man’s freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of his acts. In its twentieth century incarnation, existentialism was centred on Paris, and in particular the writings Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. As Sarah Wilson has written in her study of art and existentialism, ‘Paris post war was a city which embraced existentialism as a philosophy and as a way of life. But ‘existentialism’ was a portmanteau word which teemed with ambiguities.’ Despite the nuances of the various ‘existentialisms’ promoted by Parisian intellectuals, as Wilson has explained, a shared emphasis on the ‘crises of being, personal action and commitment’ meant that they all ‘offered co-ordinates for decision which could be brought to bear upon individual choices at a moment whose unbearable intensity seemed to announce the end of history itself’.
For the British artists and critics exposed to the milieu of post-war Paris, existentialism offered liberation from what William Turnball described as the ‘conventionalised hierarchies of merit that structured what passed for British art’. Young artists including Turnbull, Eduardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson, along with the critic David Sylvester, found in Parisian existentialism the means to challenge the rules and restrictions of the British art world. By the early 1950s they had generated a climate of existentialist related art in London.
In their relocation to London, British existential artists carried with them a particular respect for the sculptor Alberto Giacometti, whom they considered as the ultimate existentialist artist. Championed as an existentialist hero by Sartre, who believed that he had created sculpture that conveyed the real nature of man’s fragile existence, Giacometti was an artist preoccupied with what Francis Morris has described as the ‘struggle to find adequate means of representing perceived reality’. His ultimate aim was to achieve a likeness or resemblance, which he conceived of as a ‘dual notion of the artist’s vision and his encounter with the model’. Despite these formal concerns, for post war audiences it was difficult not to interpret Giacometti’s skeletal sculptures as symbols of human despair.
Considering the Presences, Alistair Smith has recognised that when le Brocquy ‘embarked upon his White Paintings, and employed the Sartrean title of Being, he was treating nothing less than the subject of humanity and the universe, of being and non-being, as were the major artists of the period’. Speculating on le Brocquy’s influences, Smith writes ‘if the work of any one artist lurks behind them, it is that of Giacometti’. Recalling that the two artists met briefly at the Venice Biennale in 1956, where Giacometti exhibited ten plaster casts from his Venice Woman series, Smith concludes that while there is ‘only a general physical resemblance’ between le Brocquy’s Presences and Giacometti’s sculptures, there is ‘a close community of concern, a cast of mind which unites their work – the human being isolated, vulnerable and frontally disposed within the emptiness of time itself’.
Although le Brocquy was not a self-declared existentialist, in London, as a friend of Francis Bacon and an admirer of Giacometti, he worked within an artistic milieu dominated by existentialist ideas. While his move to France in 1958 was to the south rather than to Paris, Anne Madden has pointed out that she and Louis were familiar with Parisian existentialism and that they favoured Camus over Sartre. While several critical references to existentialism have been made in relation to le Brocquy’s work, in order to further situate the Presences within the international context within which they were produced, it is necessary to reconsider them in relation to existentialism.
Robert O’Byrne, ‘The travelling life that created Ireland’s greatest living artist’, Irish Times,20 May 2000. In 2000 le Brocquy’s painting Travelling Woman with Newspaper, 1947, sold at auction for £1.15 million.
Although the le Brocquys lived near Nice, they kept abreast of events in London and Paris and were familiar with Parisian existentialism. Anne Madden le Brocquy, Louis le Brocquy: A Painter Seeing his Way, (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1994), p.181.
Mellor, ‘Existentialism and Post war British Art’, p. 53. David Sylvester claimed that the catalogue of Giacometti’s 1948 New York exhibition, which include Satre’s essay on Giacometti, was ‘like a talisman’ for the British artists living in Paris at the end of the 1940s. Sylvester quoted in Mellor p. 53.