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Sotheby's, London, The Irish Sale, 7 May 2008
Dublin, Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, 1978;
New York, New York State Museum, Louis le Brocquy and the Celtic Head Image, 26 September - 29 November 1981, with tour to Boston and Westfield, no.78, illustrated in the exhibition catalogue;
Charleroi, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Louis le Brocquy, 23 October - 28 November 1982, probably no.44, illustrated in the exhibition catalogue;
Dublin, Guinness Hop Store, Louis le Brocquy, Images of W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Federico Garcia Lorca, Picasso, Samuel Beckett, Francis Bacon, 1975 - 1987, September - October 1987, with tour to Belfast, Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane, no.14, illustrated in the exhibition catalogue.
'...Ever since I rediscovered for myself the image of the head, I have painted studies of James Joyce. I have never known Joyce but I am bound to him as a Dubliner...' (le Brocquy, 1979, quoted in Louis le Brocquy Portrait Heads, exh.cat., National Gallery of Ireland, 4 November 2006 - 14 January 2007, p.62). James Joyce (1882 - 1941) was undoubtedly one of le Brocquy's most enigmatic and compelling subjects. Although they never met, le Brocquy was magnetically drawn to Joyce both as an intriguing artistic subject and to his writing in its own right. le Brocquy himself was born in the same year that Joyce published Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1916) and he therefore grew up in a city that was inextricably linked to Joyce's field of references and descriptions. le Brocquy's treatment of Joyce resulted in arguably the most intense creative experience of all his portrait head subjects. On the one hand, he was fasincated by Joyce's distincitve physical features; his 'unique boat-shaped head - the raised poop of the forehead, the jutting bone of the jaw' and yet on the other hand, he felt 'a fear perhaps of re-entering into certain painful aspects of his temperament, of his unending difficulties' (le Brocquy, ibid, p.62). It is precisedly this counterpoint between Joyce's bold physical traits and his entirely elusive emotional personality that make him such a challenging subject and the complex dialectic between the two have inspired some of the most powerful images of the artist's career.
Acquired directly from the artist
'...I'm simply trying to discover, to uncover, aspects of the Beckettness of Beckett...' (le Brocquy, October 1979, quoted in Louis le Brocquy Portrait Heads, op.cit., p.63). le Brocquy first met Beckett in Paris in 1978 however, he first used Beckett as a subject in 1965 when he painted Reconstructed Head of Samuel Beckett (Opus no.171). They became good friends during the last eleven years of Beckett's life and le Brocquy illustrated Stirrings Still which was published in 1988. He also designed the costumes and the set of Walter Asmus's production of Waiting for Godot in 1988, the year before Beckett's death. 2006 was a particularly significant year for both artists as it marked the centenary of the playwright's birth whilst also celebrating le Brocquy's 90th birthday. Beckett was notoriously elusive and publicity-shy and therefore the series of images of him by his friend le Brocquy where he stares unflinchingly out of the canvas have gained iconic status. le Brocquy first produced a series of heads after being inspired by what he saw at the Musée de l'homme in Paris in 1964. He was particularly taken by the examples of Polynesian heads on display which were constructed in clay with cowie shell eyes and used in ritual to connect with the spirit of the individual. The concept of encapsulating the spirit of humanity in one object ignited a creative force within the artist that spurred a period of activity to break his creative deadlock of 1963 when he destroyed around forty canvases. Although stimulated by the Polynesian heads, the focus specifically on the head was a natural development out of the artist's series of bodily Presences from the late 1950s. He had already experienced the power of portraying the head in isolation in earlier paintings such as Caroline (fig.1, 1956, Private Collection) in which he discovered more about the subconscious soul of a child in one painting than in any other figurative composition at the time. In what were to become typical features of his later head images, the confident brushstrokes of Caroline literally appear to be exploring both the physical nature of her face as well as reaching into the metaphysical state of her mind. In concentrating on the head as an object in its own right, the Head Series automatically fostered direct links to Celtic examples such as the Corlech Head, discovered in Co.Cavan which had fascinated the artist since the 1940s as well as the Celtic examples at Entremont and Roquepertuse in the South of France where le Brocquy went in 1965. In placing his own heads in relation to Celtic prototypes, the artist achieved a continuity of expression as he 'tried to evoke..the conception of earlier human lives' (le Brocquy in Alistair Smith, Louis Le Brocquy, Paintings 1939 - 1996, exh.cat, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin 1996, p.41). The direct result was a series specifically entitled Ancestral Heads. In contrast to these first heads which were unrelated to any specific time or place and presented the artist's more general exploration of the human soul through history and into the future, the present work belongs to a series of specific Portrait Heads. Although he had used James Joyce and Beckett as subjects in the 1960s, his focus on particular heads of iconic personalities stems from a commission in 1975 from the Swedish gallery owner, Per-Olov Börjeson who was producing a series of 33 aquatints of Nobel prize winners. le Brocquy chose to portray W.B.Yeats who he had known when he was a young boy. In turning to Samuel Beckett, although le Brocquy was focusing on a particular person, he was not seeking to produce a portrait as an example of verisimilitude as 'I don't really think of them as portraits, since no one, still, definitive image can possibly reflect a person of our time. What one gropes for I imagine, is rather an identity in motion, traversing the diverse elements composing it - elements reaching back into ancestral time and perhaps even forward...' (le Brocquy, quoted in Louis le Brocquy Portrait Heads, op.cit., p.102). As such, in tune with his earlier Ancestral Heads, what he was 'groping' for in his series of Portrait Heads, was in fact the very essence of man, the 'Beckettness of Beckett'. His probing investigations into his subject and their relationships within the greater context of time and place have resulted in the powerful imagery of the present work. Indeed, in order to truly understand his subject, the artist explained that '...I'm drawn to their work.. and in each case, before beginning to paint, I have tried to steep myself as deeply as possible in it...(le Brocquy, ibid., p.62). Both le Brocquy and Beckett demonstrated an un-nerving concern for the complexities of the human condition and as Colm Tóibín has pointed out, there are instances in Beckett's writing which could easily be mistaken as having been specifically composed in relation to le Brocquy's work, '...Traces blurs light grey almost white on white. Only the eyes only just light blue almost white. Given rose only just bare white body fixed one yard white on white invisible...' (Beckett, from Ping, quoted in C.Tóibín, 'Louis le Brocquy, A Portrait of the Artist as an Alchemist', ibid., p.13). Anne Madden remembers fondly that, 'Sam bore up nobly when confronted with the artist's reconstruction of his handsome creviced face, his pale piercing eyes' and it is a testament to le Brocquy's extraordinary ability as an artist that the present Image of Samuel Beckett has the same striking immediacy as the day it was executed almost 30 years ago.