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1964-66. Ancestral Heads (c.1964-1974)


Discovers a vital source of inspiration in Polynesian heads, Musée de l'Homme, Paris (winter 1964). The artist is profoundly impressed by these objects reconstituting the human presence. As he recalls: 'Skulls, partly remodelled with clay, and then painted in a decorative way, often with cowrie shells for eyes.'153 Anne Madden who accompanies the artist to the anthropological museum recounts: 'These head images suggested to him a new human significance. He felt the over-modelling and painting implied a ritualistic laying on of hands, a recognition of the ancestor's entity; palpablemarks from the outside which defined and celebrated the spirit within the reconstituted ancestral head.'154 The event kindles le Brocquy's interest in the Celtic head culture: 'Like the Celts I tend to regard the head as this magic box containing the spirit. Enter that box, enter behind the billowing curtain of the face, and you have the whole landscape of the spirit.'155 According to Dorothy Walker: 'The crystallisation of his interest in the remote past into a twentieth-century version of the old Celtic notion of the head as "the magic box that contains the spirit" is an intensification of a fundamental obsession: the desire to lay his finger on the pulse of the very earliest manifestation of art in Ireland, somehow to absorb the autonomy of that anonymous art into his creative energy and to re-show it forth in his own very different work.'156 Embarks on the Ancestral Heads series (c.1964-1975) the fourth distinctive period in the artist's work. Paints Quatre Cranes Surmodelés et peints (1964; A.R. 155), Study in Profile (1964; A.R. 141), Ancestral Head (1964; A.R. 138). Anne Crookshank remarks: 'The head had been emphasised occasionally in his earlier painting, usually with a portrait connection. But, only after 1964, did he utilise it as an entity in its own right. The head was a totem, a symbol of mankind which materialises from an anonymous background suggesting neither time nor a specific place. Sometimes he called them ancestral heads and seemed to be conveying the message of man's immemorial existence and importance.'157 According to John Russell: 'Common to all this activity was the idea of the head as something supremely important that could legitimately be built and re-built, patched amd re-patched. The heads thus constructed could also have an ancestral quality and serve, therefore, as models, exemplars, amd dictionaries of virtue. And the heads in those transitional paintings do indeed have the battered, fragmented, voiceless and sightless look that we recognize in so many of the human images that have come down to us in much mutilated marble.'158 Emerging from amorphous backgrounds Seamus Heaney writes of the heads: 'Osip Mandelstam, in his extraordinary Conversation about Dante, says: "A quotation is not an excerpt. A quotation is a cicada. Its natural state is that of unceasing sound. Having once seized hold of the air, it will not let go." Louis le Brocquy's heads are in this way quotations from bodies, from lives even. We have no sense of them orphaned from their supporting frames or times. They take hold of the air, they probe it with a deep pure stare.'159 The artist explains: 'A great deal of the technical difficulty in these paintings comes from the fact that they are heads in utter isolation - without any particular circumstances, such as a collar and a tie, or a recognisablebackground. Now the difficult thing in my view is to make this isolated head so that it doesn't look like a mere sketch, which it isn't, nor like some kind of decapitation. The image has to emerge from some plausible matrix, beyond habitual circumstance or environment, as if outside time.'160 Bruce Arnold writes in The Sunday Independent: 'His reconstructed heads are attempts to capture in paint the character, the aura, the inner self, and give it artistic life. They are complex works as a result of this, and they need to be, as it were, unravelled ... The paintings reveal themselves slowly and deliberately, and they reveal themselves as far more powerful objects as a result of this.'161 Reaching towards the realisation of an interiorised human image, le Brocquy says: 'Clearly, it is not possible to paint the spirit. You cannot paint consciousness. You start with the knowledge we all have that the most significant human reality lies beneath material appearance. So, in order to recognise this, to touch this as a painter, I try to paint the head image from the inside out, as it were, working in layers or planes, implying a certain flickering transparency. What one is left with in the end - if I am in any way excited by the image that emerges - is the suggestion of some turbulence going on beneath the picture surface, beneath the external appearance of the image.'162 Generally anonymous the heads occasionally portray evocations of individuals, including Evoked Head of an Irish Rebel Hero (a.k.a. Reconstructed Head of Wolfe Tone, 1964; A.R. 151), Reconstructed Head of Samuel Beckett (1965: A.R.171) and Evoked Head of James Joyce when young (1964; A.R. 142). Alistair Smith observes: 'Here he grappled with appearance rather in the manner of a portraitist, while still attempting to construct the head, as he had done in the Presences, from the interior outwards. The attempt is a courageous one - to compose a union of physical appearance with an evocation of the life of the spirit - perhaps an updating of what great portraitists have always chosen to aspire to. For this process, le Brocquy evolved his own terminology, as well as his individual technique. He used the word "reconstructed" not only in reference to the Polynesian practice, but also as if the process was close to that of the archaeologist who painstakingly creates an image of a society long buried, from a few splinters of bone and hair.'163 According to Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith: 'Reconstructed Head of Wolfe Tone began its life as an unidentified 'Head of a Martyr' a designation that owed something to the image of Blessed Oliver Plunkett's severed head. Soon le Brocquy would devote himself almost exclusively to the depiction of the heads of known individuals, celebrated writers and artists such as W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Francis Bacon. At this point, however, the heads were anonymous and the fact that this painting was completed before it was titled is a reminder of le Brocquy's preference for the image born of the painting process over the predetermined image.'164 In June 1964, following the tabula rasa of the previous year the artist returns to a short series of Presence paintings, inspired in particular by ancient Egyptian burial statuettes and prehistoric fertility figures discovered in Saint-Germain-en-Lay and Paris that year. Paints Laussel Venus (1964; A.R. 109, Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC), and Etude d'apres une concubine de mort (1964-66; A.R. 145, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC). Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léithwrites: 'The Laussel Venus, which was discovered in 1911 in the Dordogne, is a bas-relief carved into a limestone rock shelter that once served as a ceremonial centre. The Willendorf Venus is a late Aurignacian figure found in Austria in 1908. Le Brocquy has produced paintings inspired by both of these figures. The term 'Venus' does not here refer primarily to the goddess of love, but is used to identify collectively such emblematic feminine figures, all of which exaggerate the reproductive features of large breasts, hips, and abdomen. Head, legs and arms are of secondary importance. Though the Willendorf Venus, in particular, is decidedly phallic le Brocquy views these figures not as sexual objects per se, butas images, as he puts it, of 'woman as the future of the race'. His rendering of the compact and powerful Willendorf Venus, is wrenched, clotted and visceral, whereas his rendering of the Laussel Venus is more ethereal and has a shallower depth of field in keeping with the bas-relief contours of its original model. S. Giedion has noted the extraordinary richness of the historic culture that produced these figures: "The unprecedented expansion of the means of expression in the Magdelenian era (c.30,000-10,000 BC), combined as it was with the extremely harsh conditions of life, presents one of the most hopeful instances of the inner nature of mankind."165 The sheer physicality of the Laussel Venus rock carving prompts a number of small terracotta and bronze sculptures cast by the Fonderie d'art Clémenti, Meudon. These single modelled objects include Torso (1965; bronze cire perdue, Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC), and Head (1965; silver plateded bronze, cire perdue), in turn connected to the powerful shattered sculpture of Celto-Ligurian Entremont or the multiple heads within the "plummet-measured" face of Romanesque Clonfert, County Galway. Inspired by the cathedral's thirteenth century portico, paints Homage to Clonfert (1965; A.R. 176, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane). John Montague observes: 'So le Brocquy's ancestral heads draw on both Pagan and Christian tradition; they are at once commemorations and memento mori, evoking both the three-headed stone from Corleck and the frieze of heads at Clonfert, Entremont and early Romanesque doorways with their honeycombs of heads.'166 Exhibition at Gimpel Fils, London (March 1966): Paintings, eighty five works, including Head of Akenaton's daughter (1964; A.R. 127), Crane surmodelé etpeint (1965; A.R. 176), States of Being (1964; A.R. 178). Bruce Laughton writes in Art News & Review: 'The beautiful surface quality of the paint is still there, and it is yielding a more positive image. Le Brocquy's coined title Crane Surmodelé, exactly expresses the process by which this image is created. Out of an atmospheric "soup" of thinly brushed paint, a skull begins to emerge as a hard bony form, which is then clothed in flesh which at the last moment becomes living. Critics may find a superficial similarity to the paint of Francis Bacon, particularly in the nude torsos. This comes, I suspect, from a similarway of working, and a similar extreme skill in deciding on the right moment to stop. But their temperaments are different, and also the nature of their researches.'167 Anne Crookshank notes in this respect: 'Always difficult to classify, never amember of groups or movements, Louis le Brocquy is a lone painter. To stand alone is curiously unacceptable in our modern society, and the misunderstanding caused by le Brocquy's individualism is exemplified by recurrent efforts to couple his name with those of other painters. Naturally le Brocquy has affinities with other contemporary artists, but these are not related to his vision or purpose, which remain exceptionally personal.'168 Exhibition at the Dawson Gallery, Dublin (November 1966), Ulster Museum, Belfast (December 1966): Seven Tapestries 1948-1955, including Irish Tinkers (1948), Garlanded Goat (1949-50), Allegory (1950), Adam and Eve in the Garden (1951-52), Cherub (1952), Eden (1952). Brian Fallon writes in The Irish Times: 'Can it be, as some of us think, that Louis le Brocquy's tapestries will eventually rank higher than his paintings? The seven on display at the Dawson Gallery incline one to that view.'169 Reviewing the artist's concurrent retrospective at the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin (November 1966), Ulster Museum, Belfast (December 1966): Louis le Brocquy, A Retrospective Selection of Oil Paintings 1939 - 1965, John Montague writes in Hibernia: 'For me his last work, the series of ancestral heads, is his best: indeed, I think it is the most mysterious and beautiful painting by an Irishman since some of the later Yeats. From the background of the canvas, painted so perfectly that it shimmers like a veil, a head emerges. Sometimes there are lingering ressemblances, to Wolfe Tone or James Joyce or Samuel Beckett. But these are portraits of the emanation of a person, rather than their simple physical reality; they try to touch the spirit hovering behind the boss of the skull. I do not know how any Irishman can fail to be moved by them because they represent a kind of gallery of tribal spirits, a motive acknowledged in Homage to Clonfert. W. B. Yeats used this method in some of his greatest poetry: Before me floats an image, / man or shade, / Shade more than man, more / image than a shade ... (Byzantium), and while the medium is different, the psychic responsibilities of art remain the same; that le Brocquy has dared to enter the region of "death-in-life and life-in-death" proves that Irish painting is finally coming of age.'170 According to Brian Fallon in The Irish Times: 'Few Irish painters, if any, can have been publicly canonised at the age of 50, as Louis le Brocquy has been. Probably few enough artists anywhere can have been given a retrospective at this age in the equivalents of our Municipal. There can be no disputing at all that he has earned it, both by his standing at home and abroad; a highly distinguished figure, though time will have to decide whether or not he is a major one.'171 The american art patron Joseph H. Hirshhorn (1900-1981) reputed at the time to possess the greatest collection in private hands attends the opening. Interviewed by the London journalist Jeremy Campbell he declares in the Evening Standard: "Keep an eye on Louis le Brocquy. He's one of the great painters of England [sic], just as good as Francis Bacon. One day his work will be invaluable".'172 Joseph H. Hirshhorn will bequest an impressive collection of the artist's work to the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. (1966 & 1981).


153 Louis le Brocquy quoted by John Russell, 'Introduction', Dorothy Walker, Louis le Brocquy (Dublin: Ward River Press 1981; London: Hodder & Stoughton 1982) p. 15.
154 Anne Madden le Brocquy, Louis le Brocquy: A Painter Seeing his Way (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1994), p. 145.
155 Louis 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. 23.
156 Dorothy Walker, 'Louis le Brocquy', exhibition catalogue Six Artists From Ireland, (Dublin: Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon, Cultural Relations Committee Deptartment Foreign Affaires, European tour, 1983), p. 35.
157 Anne Crookshank, exhibition catalogue, Louis le Brocquy and the Celtic Head Image (New York: State Museum September 26 - 29 November 1981; Boston College; Massachusetts, 1981), p. 23.
158 John Russell, 'Introduction', Dorothy Walker, Louis le Brocquy (Dublin: Ward River Press 1981; London: Hodder & Stoughton 1982) p. 15.
159 Seamus Heaney, 'Louis le Brocquy's Heads', Dorothy Walker, Louis le Brocquy (Dublin: Ward River Press 1981; London: Hodder & Stoughton 1982) p. 131.
160 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.
161 Bruce Arnold, 'The style of Louis le Brocquy', Sunday Independent (Dublin, October 6, 1968).
162 Louis le Brocquy, 'An Interview with Louis le Brocquy by George Morgan', Louis le Brocquy, The Head Image (Kinsale: Gandon Editions, 1996), p. 13.
163 Alistair Smith, 'Louis le Brocquy: On the Spiritual in Art', Louis le Brocquy, Paintings 1939 - 1996, (Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art, October 1996 - February 1997), p. 41.
164 Caoimhín Mac Giolla Líth, 'The Human Image Paintings of Louis le Brocquy', notes, 2003.
165 Caoimhín Mac Giolla Líth, 'The Human Image Paintings of Louis le Brocquy', notes, 2003.
166 John Montague, 'Primal Scream, The Later le Brocquy', The Arts in Ireland, Vol. 2. No I (Dublin, 1973), p. 10.
167 Bruce Laughton, 'Louis le Brocquy', Art News and Review (London, March 1966).
168 Anne Crookshank, Introduction, exhibition catalogue, Louis le Brocquy: A Retrospective Selection of Oil Paintings 1939-1966 (Dublin: The Municipal Gallery of Modern Art; Belfast: Ulster Museum, November 1966 - January 1967), p. 8-9.
169 Brian Fallon, 'Le Brocquy's elegant tapestries', The Irish Times (Dublin, November 18, 1966).
170 John Montague, 'Louis le Brocquy: a painter's interior world', Hibernia (Dublin, December 1966), p. 29.
171 B.P.F., 'le Brocquy retrospective at the Municipal', The Irish Times (Dublin: November 11, 1966).
172 Jeremy Campbell, 'A man setting out to civilise Washington', Evening Standard (London, May 10, 1967).





Ancestral Head, 1964
oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm, AR153











Evoked Head of an Irish Rebel Her
(a.k.a. Reconstructed Head of Wolfe Tone), 1964
oil on canvas, 65 x 53 cm. A.R.151











Laussel Venus, 1964
oil on canvas, 112 x 86 cm, AR109.
Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966











Willendorf Venus, 1964
oil on canvas, 64,8 x 50 cm, AR107
Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966