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Turning heads into millions

Louis le Brocquy is still driven by self-doubt despite his bankable
status and venerable reputation, says MEDB RUANE

People are passionate about Louis le Brocquy. In May 2000, a collector paid £1.158m for Travelling Woman with Newspaper (1947/48). The price made le Brocquy only the fourth artist in these islands to break the £m barrier in their lifetimes. Le Brocquy was now ranked in the same market as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and David Hockney.
"In these days the £m barrier is increasingly seen as the surest test of an artist's international importance," Mark Adams of Sotheby's in London said at the time. Not everyone agreed. Le Brocquy had won commercial validation but critical response lagged behind the plaudits doled out to his million-pound peers. He wasn't yet quite a household name.
A year on, 84-year-old le Brocquy is set to take on London on his terms. New paintings made over the past four years open at Gimpel Fils on May 3, priced from £80,000. His Aubusson tapestries, seen at Dublin's Taylor galleries, will show at Agnew's. Seamus Heaney will perform the opening ceremony and has written a poem in honour of the work.
Le Brocquy could be sanguine about it all, but is as hard on himself as a first timer. His pursuit of painting has involved a lifetime of self-doubt and self-criticism. He speaks candidly of those moments when a painter knows he is "painted out", and of how tough it is to open new doors when old ones have closed. Most of all, he speaks about finding some sort of truth.
"A painter always has self questioning because he's only got his own viewpoint and we're all suspicious of our own viewpoint," le Brocquy says. "A painter is even more unnerved by this consciousness of the limitations of his own vision because he can actually think, am I mad? Do I see things straight at all? Am I imagining things? Am I imagining that giving your life to this pursuit is worthwhile - or not?"
The pursuit involves trying to reach deeper. Moving beyond appearances has occupied him since his early experiments in modernism during the 1940s. A founder of the then radical Irish Exhibition of Living Art in 1943, Le Brocquy was a minority voice at a time when Ireland's visual culture, both art and design, was "backward and neglected to a shameful and terrible extent, a useless wasteful extent".
He tells of how gallery owner Charles Gimpel, an Auschwitz survivor, spotted his work along with Jack B Yeat's at the exhibition. Fortunately for le Brocquy, his mother Sybill was manning the desk when Gimpel approached for information.
"I can tell you, sir, that Yeats is a very senior and respected Irish artist," Le Brocquy reports his reply. "And as for my son Louis..." The myth began.
Le Brocquy moved to London. "It was the age of abstract painting and Ben Nicholson was the prince of painters," he says. "There was no room for figurative painting, which they saw as storytelling. I bought a magnificent painting from my friend Francis Bacon and I realised there was a conspiracy to not observe it among the critics and collectors who visited. It was as though a man had come into the Ritz while the ladies were having tea, let down his pants and everybody pretended not to notice. I was so exasperated I asked one visitor: 'What do you think of my Bacon?' and I never forgot his reply: 'Who does he think he is? Velazquez?' That's how London was."
Le Brocquy made his now famous Travelling Woman series in those years, works that sang for the first time of an unidentified minority within Irish society. He had always been aware of under-currents in the place where he grew up. Sybill used to take him with her to the soup kitchen she ran, until it was closed, he believes, on the orders of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.
"I remember playing on the steps of a slum house in York Street," he says. "I was looking up at the dilapidated ceiling when I became aware of a figure in the darkness of the staircase, an old character watching me. 'Lord Muck lives here,' he announced. 'It had been a grand house once... Lord Muck.'
"What I witnessed as a child was something so horrible, so dreadful and so helpless." Le Brocquy still gets angry about it.
"It was literally deadly - newspaper boys going round the streets with no shoes, nothing to protect them from the rain, two ribbons of snot coming down their noses and dying like flies. There was no court of appeal."
His sensitivity to exclusion developed as he witnessed the refugee crisis following the second world war. An apocalyptic set of paintings around the theme of family built on the visions of Velazquez and Goya to interrogate the human reality lying behind so many homeless, stateless people. By this stage, critics such as Herbert Read and John Berger celebrated his work, but his reputation remained oppressed by the anti-figurative fashion that kept him and others at bay.
"Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and myself, and any other painters working figuratively, had a very tough time," he says. "We survived, but we had a very tough time."
Le Brocquy didn't get a penny from the Sotheby's sale last year because he didn't own the painting. Money is not his main concern, not that it ever was. During the lean years he worked on sets for the actor Jimmy O'Dea and on commissions to keep him and his family fed long enough to make the next series.
"Poor Princess Margaret who is not in good shape at the moment," he notes. "We have a photo of Princess Margaret ducking under a fence at a race meeting wearing a dress made of Horrock's printed fabric with my design on it. They bought the designs from the Ambassador magazine, which commissioned me."
Loyalty matters. Part of his reason for showing in London next month is to repay the debt of honour he feels he owes Gimpel, whose faith in le Brocquy is now proven. He died years ago, but his business is still family run.
The new paintings are lean, impressive works, drawn within the tight technical and tonal range le Brocquy identified as his concern some 40 years ago, when he began making the studies of human interiority now known as "presences". Some involved floating pigments on pale canvas; others led his series of literary "heads", where he grappled with the consciousness of artists such as Joyce, Beckett, Lorca and Yeats.
He will show three large triptychs and a number of single paintings, including a crucifixion emerging out of a deeper ground. All mine the theme of the body in subtle ways, exposing a gland, a bone, a hidden organ on which the body hangs. His quest seeks the one note, the moment around which personality, spirituality grows. They are studies not of figures but of individual feeling.
"What has changed in these last paintings is the background colour, which is now produced by a series of thin glazes emphasising the actual structure of the canvas by making little dots and points,3 he says. "I am inclined to augment them, so that at first sight each canvas has got a kind of greyish but nonetheless powerful colour and the whiteness of the early heads has disappeared There is a sense of the growth from a shadowy background to a thrust of human matter which could be the bellybutton, a bottom seen from back, various aspects of the whole human body in relation to and growing from a matrix and going back into that matrix. I've never changed in that."
Le Brocquy's path might have been different had he stayed in London, but once he fell in love with young Irish artist Anne Madden, his life changed. Madden, an estimable woman and painter, became seriously ill and doctors advised them to live elsewhere. So they moved to France and had two sons, Alexis and Pierre. Pierre now curates his father's work.
"It's difficult to say what makes a marriage work over such a long period, especially with two such individuals as us," Le Brocquy says.
"One reason may be that we're so opposite in so many ways temperamentally, but that can be a disadvantage too. I can be very irritating because of my temperament, which is rather slow, not very impulsive and quite the opposite of hers".
"Anne is wonderful: she's a rare person and artist. I'd be blind if I didn't admit she has to live in my shadow, which is not easy; I respect her work all the more.
Le Brocquy works every day from a studio in his home off Dublin's South Circular Road. He is fit, healthy, unusually charming and more optimistic than ever about the quality of art and design made by younger Irish artists. He's also wry about his senior status. I'm aware my age and venerability could be mistaken for some kind of authority."
Does he still doubt his vision? "Self-questioning is part of any honest painter's characteristic. I must doubt always, even at this stage."