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1956-57. 'White Period': Presences (c.1956-66)


The extensive tour of Spain in the summer of 1955, signals a turning point in the work: 'One day while passing through a village in La Mancha in shimmering heat, I stopped spellbound before a small group of women and children standing against a whitewashed wall. Here the intensity of the sunlight had interposed its own revelation, absorbing these human figures into its brilliance, giving substance only to shadow. From that moment I never perceived the human presence in quite the same way. I had witnessed light as a kind of matrix from which the human being emerges and into which it ambivalently recedes ­ with which it even identifies.'118 Le Brocquy's revelatory vision of whiteness is curiously echoed by an earlier experience while living at Albert Studios, recorded by Anne Madden: 'Snow had blanketed the city during the night. He woke to a white world with no relation to yesterday's actuality, silent, unmarked, as he walked out in the morning and crossed Albert Bridge Road into Battersea Park. As he moved through the stillness of the other world without footprint, the only sound the thump of snow from an overweighted bough, under the little bridge he was crossing a heron rose suddenly from the matrix of snow, hung in the air quite still for a moment, then flapped away in slow motion.'119 According to John Russell: 'There was from the very beginning a blanched look about many of his paintings: pure white light, pure white walls, pure white skin. Bone-white, chalk-white, almond-white were the adjectives that come to mind. Around themid-1950's that whiteness, which had been simply a prevailing tonality, became the very element and substance of the paintings.'120 Embarks on the 'White Period' Presence paintings (c.1956-66) the fourth distinctive period in the artist's work. The generic term is first attributed during the exhibition 50 Ans d'Art Moderne, World Fair, Brussels,1958,where it is remarked that in his latest work the human figure is no longer an abstraction drawn from living beings. Rather it has become a magic presence. Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith notes: 'Le Brocquy's choice of the individual human form, occluded and isolated within a mostly undifferentiated ground, as the pre-eminent motif in his paintings from 1956 to 1964 was partly a refinement of previous subject-matter and partly the result ofthe revelation to which we have already referred. The painting that relates most closely to the epiphanic encounter in La Mancha is 'Figures in Sunlight' (1956) in which an adult woman is accompanied by the figure of a young child. This is still a transitional work. The artist concedes that its composition suggests a relationship between these two figures, which is further accentuated by an arm form entering the picture frame from the right. This incidentally establishes a certain continuity with an earlier exploration of the family unit undertaken in a series of paintings of figures in darkened interiors produced between 1951 and 1954, sometimes referred to as 'The Family Paintings'. Yet one suspects that for le Brocquy this sense of continuity is to some extent fortuitous, and far outweighed by the sense of rupture and new beginnings heralded by 'Figures in Sunlight'. It seems likely that the arrangement of figures in this painting, which approximates to those the artist actually perceived in La Mancha, was principally dueto a desire for fidelity to the particular circumstances of an important and enabling vision.'121 The artist explains: 'An essential break occurred, where I began to concentrate on a single image emerging from a canvas, in which the composition, in the conventional sense of the word, had been destroyed or ignored. Quite a painful decision, in fact. I had always based myself on being a traditional painter in thatI maintained that composition was important; all that had to be thrown out.'122 ... Then, later, I had the idea of conjuring up images out of nothing, out of light, out of the depths of the blank canvas, as it were.'123 According to Brian Kennedy: 'The theme which in its first phase was to occupy him for almost a decade, gradually became a vehicle of exploration for the whole of his later career.'124 Paints Ging Heut' Morgen Ûbers Feld (1956),inspired by Gustav Mahler's Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen. John Montague observes: 'Something happened to le Brocquy in the mid-fifties, a new feeling for painting, a draining away of formal inessentials to present the central image more directly ... The whole cycle (usually knownas Songs of a Wayfarer) is about a heartbroken lover wandering through the summer fields. Le Brocquy uses the simplest means to suggest this counterpoint of sorrow and jubilance, dividing the canvas in two areas of light and shadow, with the central figure striding forward, despite the ridges of his coat or cloak. It is a minute but forceful image of survival, a Watteau-like tribute to nature, broken down to its contrasting elements.'125 Paints Caroline (1956), a tentative image of a child with Down's Syndrome. Acknowledged as a seminal work in the artist's oeuvre, Alistair Smith remarks: 'Le Brocquy's steps towards his position of analyst of the Irish imagination are fascinating to recount. It would be easy to underestimate in this story of brilliant and famous men the importance of a small painting of a child called Caroline. Painted in 1956, the year of le Brocquy's vita nuova, it measures no more than thirty centimeters across. First exhibited in 1957 with the original group of Presences, it was one of the paintings which seized the attention of Francis Bacon. Formed through only the minimum of descriptive brushwork, this is clearly a head which 'formed itself' ... The painting is Aristotelean in its premise that the eyes are the gateway to the soul, save that here the whole indistinct face provides that gateway.'126 John Montague further observes: 'Her eyes and nostrils are staring pinholes in a tossing sea of paint. Though very small, it is a portrait of real humanity and tenderness, which attempts to do justice to the spirit peering out of that shapeless face. It seems to me that here we have both the culmination of le Brocquy's earlier studies of children, immobile or isolated in rooms, and the unconscious ancestor of his later heads, with their awe before the human.'127
In June 1956, le Brocquy attracts international attention at the Venice Biennale, where his painting A Family (1951) is awarded the Premio Acquisito Internationale and included in Mostra dei Premiatialla XXVIII Biennale, Messina. Assessing this period of intense creativity, Alistair Smith writes: 'By the time he represented Ireland in the Venice Biennale of 1956, he had already abandoned the way of painting which had won him a major international prize there, and had embarked upon what was to become his most inventive series of works ... The triumphs of the periodwere considerable, with le Brocquy producing a body of work which was not only well-wrought and emotionally convincing, but also, for the first time, original, the sine qua non of modern art. This success was hard won, however.The establishment of a new subject-matter which dealt more directly with the spirit than with the body, and the recognition of a working method which admitted a force outside the artist's control.'128 The artist meets the young Irish painter Anne Madden in November 1956, to become his lifelong ever-present inspiration. Paints Young Woman, Anne (1957; A.R. 0020), belonging to a notable series of white-on-white compositions. Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith notes: 'The title refers to le Brocquy's wife, the painter Anne Madden, who was seriously injured in a riding accident in the mid-1950s and had to undergo a series of painful operations on her spine. Le Brocquy remembers "being filled with an irrational anger at the aggressive implications of this surgical carpentry" and goes on to note that, quite apart from his personal feelings of anger, the spine literally continued to form the backbone of the 'Presences.'129 According to Alistair Smith: 'The fact that the painting mimicked the visual circumstances of the artist's life is important, but more important, if less tangible, were the emotions of the situation - the natural anxieties, apprehensions of mortality ... The voluptuous aspect of the female torsos, and the fact that wounding (as in surgery) is part of their subject matter, is clearly the result of the powerful mechanism of sublimation. Despite the origin of the work in his personal life, le Brocquy was alive to the more universal aspect of what was forming on his canvas ... His paintings quickly came to form a far more generalised statement on humanity, both male and female, both palpable and ethereal.'130 The critic Michael Shepherd writes in Art News and Review: 'A typical example of le Brocquy's current work is a large canvas covered with pure white ground, or occasionally modulated to a smooth silvery oriental grey ... The general effect is of a painter who is less interested in superficial individuality than in catching some evocation of generalised spirit, who inhabits a world in motion, and who brings a scrupulous delicacy to making of this insubstantial material a calm and composed object for contemplation.'131 Exhibition at Gimpel Fils, London (February 1957): Paintings, twenty works, including Lovers (1957; A.R. 0018), Nude in Movement (1957; A.R. 0019), Presence (1957, A.R. 0026). John Russell writes in The Sunday Times: 'In his beginnings he showed himself a witty observer of his fellow men, a born short-story teller or manager of the outward look of things. Gradually this dropped away; his palette, too, lightened until little was left but white, silver, and a rare stain of red ... "presences," he calls them, and the remarkable thing is that they are so undeniably present, and that so much of their predicament can be deciphered from the fragmentary evidence before us. He is a painter who never outstays the initial thrust of his ideas; his talent, an authentic one, is pushed to its limit in each phase and then he at once moves to the next one. This can be said of few painters.'132


118 Statement made to the editor, January 2005.
119 Anne Madden le Brocquy, Louis le Brocquy: A Painter Seeing his Way (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1994), p. 6.
120 John Russell, 'Introduction', Dorothy Walker, Louis le Brocquy (Dublin: Ward River Press 1981; London: Hodder & Stoughton 1982), p. 12.
121 Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, 'The Human Image Paintings of Louis le Brocquy', notes, 2003.
122 Louis le Brocquy, 'Harriet Cooke Talks to Louis le Brocquy', The Irish Times (Dublin, 25 May 1973).
123 Le Brocquy, Michael Peppiatt, 'Interview with Louis le Brocquy', Art International, Lugano, Vol. XXIII/7, October 1979, p. 66. Reproduced in Louis le Brocquy, The Head Image (Kinsale: Gandon Editions, 1996), p. 24.
124 S. B. Kennedy, exhibition catalogue, Anne Madden, Louis le Brocquy (Mexico: Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca, August 11 - 8 October, 2000).
125 John Montague, 'Primal Scream, The Later le Brocquy', The Arts in Ireland, Vol. 2. No I (Dublin, 1973), p. 4.
126 Alistair Smith, 'Louis le Brocquy: On the Spiritual in Art', exhibition catalogue Louis le Brocquy, Paintings 1939 - 1996, (Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art, October 1996 - February 1997), p. 37.
127 John Montague, 'Primal Scream, The Later le Brocquy', The Arts in Ireland, Vol. 2. No I (Dublin, 1973), p. 4.
128 Alistair Smith, 'Louis le Brocquy: On the Spiritual in Art', exhibition catalogue Louis le Brocquy, Paintings 1939 - 1996, (Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art, October 1996 - February 1997), p. 36.
129 Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, 'The Human Image Paintings of Louis le Brocquy', notes, 2003.
130 Alistair Smith, 'Louis le Brocquy: On the Spiritual in Art', exhibition catalogue Louis le Brocquy, Paintings 1939 - 1996, (Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art, October 1996 - February 1997), p. 16.
131 Michael Shepherd, 'Louis le Brocquy', Art News and Review (London. September 23, 1961).
132 John Russell, 'Explorers', The Sunday Times (London, March 10, 1957).





Ging Heut' Morgen Ubers Feld, 1956
oil on canvas, 30 x 25 cm







Caroline, 1956
oil on canvas mounted on board, 12.7 x 15.2 cm











Young Woman, 1957
oil on canvas, 112 x 86 cm, AR0020