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1969-70. The Tain


Publication of The Tain, The Dolmen Press, Dublin, September 1969. Widely acknowledged as the great Irish Livre d'Artiste of the twentieth century, Seamus Heaney writes in The Listener: 'The book is illustrated lavishly and magnificently by Louis le Brocquy: "marks in printer's ink", he calls his contribution, "shadows thrown by the text". Sometimes they are runs, sometimes a rush of brush strokes, sometimes a tall totem in the margin. The remote significance of the story, the bold vigour among the ranks of heroes and the wily, sexual presence of the women are continuously insinuated by the graphic commentary. Altogether the poetry, painting and printing make this an important book, the fulfilment of apublishing dream.'179 le Brocquy's illustrations receive critical acclaim for their level of interplay with Kinsella's writing. According to Aidan Dunne: 'The brush drawings merged seamlessly with the text; stark, fluent images, they expressed with great economy of means an epic breadth, evoking the movement of vast masses of people. Individual participants in the drama were also pulled into close focus. To achieve this, le Brocquy developed his brilliant idiom of calligraphic illustration ... Le Brocquy's achievement lies in having absorbed the general technical possibilities and harnessed them to his own specific ends, and, in the process, having managed to break new ground. The Táin drawings managed a well-nigh perfect marriage of text and image, and their impact was considerable.'180 Ailbhe Ní Bhriain further observes: 'The strong linear quality of le Brocquy's illustrations coheres with the upright, unfussy Pilgrim font, which is also suited to the direct tone of Kinsella's translation. The lettering, or initial letter, plays an important function in the livre d'artiste, and it can be seen here as a strong integrating element, as it is applied to the initial word of each tale. The bold font of the lettering echoes the dense black of le Brocquy's images, creating a fine balance between the literary and the visual symbol. These formal elements make it clear that The Tain is a production of carefully choreographed visual information, one comparable with the unity of Verlaine's language, Bonnard's arabesques, and the floral font in Parallèlement ... In his Tain illustrations, the ability of le Brocquy's drawings to emerge and dissolve gives fitting expression to the peculiar marriage of mysticism and raw physicality contained in Kinsella's text. Like gestures of primeval fear, strength, or passion, the "explosive" energy of the brushwork captures the physicalexuberance of the text, as can be seen in the images of "bodily matters" and of violence, as in the several drawings of Cúchulainn's "warp spasm".181 Exhibition at the Dawson Gallery, Dublin (October 1969): The Táin portfolios, thirty-six black & white lithographs, five individual sheets, and four chromolithographic 'Shields' (1969; ed. 70), including The boy Cúchulainn armed (1969), The bull of Cuailnge (1969), Leaping wolfhound (1969), Cúchulainn confronting Ferdia (1969), Medb relieving herself (1969), Army massing (1969). Brian Fallon writes in the Irish Times: 'The Kinsella-Le Brocquy Tåin was a stunner in terms of book production, a triumph for Liam Miller and the Dolmen, and a high-water mark in Irish publishing ... The result is very impressive, I should say one of the very best things Le Brocquy has done. It will be impossible from now on to think of the Irish Iliad in terms of the pseudo-medieval clutter of the old-style illustrations - helmeted warriors laden with "props" and looking rather like understudies for a Wagner opera. Le Brocquy's conception is epic, stark and primitive, at times even sinister (as in the superb "Morrigan"). In an idiom that can take in its stride hints from oriental art, cave painting, Picasso and other sources he has created powerfully and economically an entire mythico-legendary world.'183 Six years on the dramatic record of Ireland's proto-historic past will find further expression in the Táin Bowls bearing one of a set of three legendary shields adapted from the artist's illustrations: Cúchulainn's black Duban, Conchobor's Ocháin, and Conall Cernach's Lamthapad. Hand made by Michael Hillier in a numbered edition of 250 in sterling silver, engraved and inlaid with gold, and 50 in 20 carat gold, engraved and inlaid with gold (1975; Sleaters, Dublin). Exhibition at the Dawson Gallery, Dublin (December 1969), Recent Paintings, including Reconstructed Head of Thomas Kinsella (1968; A.R. 208). Bruce Arnold writes in the Irish Independent: 'The physical appearance of the poet is there, though dimly seen. The cold-eyed, bearded face peers out from a sea of dark grey, and the atmosphere is one of sour disenchantment. But this atmosphere is conveyed by the whole canvas, not just by the face, and has much more to do with Kinsella's work, his known public voice, dealing in suburban disappointments and private griefs, while the spirit craves for moments of blinding light and echoes of immortality.'184 In the autumn of 1969, Thomas Kinsella, Liam Miller, and le Brocquy follow the trail of the armies of Connacht to Munster, as identified in the Táin saga. The artist is struck anew by Cúchulainn's heroic fantasy envisioning an awesome display of his enemies severed heads. The walkabout gives rise to a new bout of creativity in the realm of tapestry. Designs The Hosting of the Táin (1969; Irish Museum of Modern Art), a large-scale tapestry commissioned by architects Scott Tallon Walker, for P.J. Carroll & Co., Dundalk. Commenting on the rainbow coloured multiple heads covering the 25 sq. metre surface, le Brocquy says: 'I have tried to produce a sort of group or mass emergence of human presence, features uncertain - merely shadowed blobs or patches - but vaguely analogous perhaps interms of woven colour to the weathered, enduring stone boss-heads of Clonfert or Entremont or of Dysert O'Dea ... Pictorially a mass of individuals, conscious of each other, implies incident - better left to photography perhaps. In Clonfert each individual head is conscious only of the viewer vertically facing it. This I think is the secret of their mass regard. Each head is self contained, finally a lump of presence.'185 The vivid colour combinations in the Hosting of the Táin, are adapted in his lithographic brush drawings for John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World (Barre, Massachusetts: Imprint Society, 1970). The six illustrations of Christy Mahon, Michael James, Pegeen Mike, the Widow Quinn, Shawn Keogh and Old Mahon, later also assembled in a black & white aquatint pillar print edition, Imprimerie Arte Adrien Maeght, Paris, 1971. Paints Life Studies (1970; A.R. 253), a multipanel fragmentary evocation of human presence. The old Celtic synecdoche of the whole in the part further inspires Head (1970; A.R. 262, Etat Français, Création Artistique), recording hands now thrust outward before the face. Anne Crookshank notes: 'One further influence of the French carvings manifested itself in his studies of a head touched by the hand or with a hand superimposed on it. These images were based on sculptures found at Entremont where the severed head is held up by a hand. The macabre reverence for severed heads felt by these ancient people was presumably more than a mere sign of victory. They believed that the spirit of the individual was trapped within the skull just as le Brocquy sought to trap it within his paintings ... In those pictures where hands are included, the fingers seem to be reaching out as if to a pane of glass against which they are spread and through which they can be seen, tragic and terrified images ... Chronologically, they coincide with the renewed horrors in the Northern Ireland.'186


179 Seamus Heaney, 'King Conchobor and his Knights', The Listener (London, March 26, 1970).
180 Aidan Dunne, 'Le Brocquy's Joyce's Dubliners', ILS (Dublin, Spring 1988), p. 13.
181 Ailbhe Ní Bhriain, 'Le Livre d'Artiste: Louis le Brocquy and The Tåin (1969)' New Hibernia Review, 5.1 (2001).
182 Anthony Butler, 'Enormous range of le Brocquy', Dublin Evening Press (October 1969).
183 Brian Fallon, 'Le Brocquy's illustrations a triumph', Irish Times (November 17, 1969).
184 Bruce Arnold, 'Important heads of Irish writers', Irish Independent (Dublin, December 13, 1969)
185 Louis le Brocquy quoted by Dorothy Walker, 'The Tåin Tapestry', The Irish Times (Dublin, October 17, 1970).
186 Anne Crookshank, introduction, exhibition catalogue, Louis le Brocquy and the Celtic Head Image (New York: State Museum September 26 - 29 November 1981; Boston College; Massachusetts, 1981), p. 24-26.





Cúchulainn displayed, 1969
lithograph on Swiftbrook paper, 54 x 38 cm.
Limited edition of 70 proofs (1 artist's proof)






The Morrígan, 1969
lithograph on Swiftbrook paper, 54 x 38 cm.
Limited edition of 70 proofs (1 artist's proof)







Hosting of the Táin, 1969
Aubusson tapestry, 407 x 610 cm
Atelier Tabard Frères et Soeurs, edition 1.
Irish Museum of Modern Art