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1975-76. Portrait Heads: W.B. Yeats (1975-98)


The artist's motivation comes about through a commission by the Swedish gallery-owner Per-Olov Borjesson to assemble a portfolio of thirty three aquatints of Nobel prizewinners by international artists. Le Brocquy remarks: 'From among the several Irish Nobel prizewinners at that date I chose Yeats as my subject, having known him when I was a boy and because of his vast and mysterious personality. I made a number of studies for my final aquatint, and was struck by their diversity. It was then I realised that a portrait can no longer be the stable, pillared entity of Renaissance vision - that the portrait in our time can have no visual finality.'201 John Montague observes: 'So the le Brocquy who rejected an early career as a portrait painter finds himself, as all artists do, back where he started, but with an added richness.'202 According to Alistair Smith: 'Le Brocquy found himself painting study after study in watercolour, charchoal and oil, as a form of preparation for the final print. That aquatint, concluded in the suggestive, vestigial manner of some of the earlier Heads, showed the poet full-face, hovering within the white "matrix" of space and time ... The etching bears the title Study towards an Image of WB Yeats, as did many of the other pictures of Yeats which le Brocquy created in preparation for this image, and which he was to continue to create after its completion.'203 Embarks on the Portrait Heads series (1975-2006), the fifth distinctive period in the artist's work. The artist explains: 'In order to produce a human image which has some kind of contemporary relevance, you have to recognise that certain factors which have arisen in the last hundred years have revolutionised the way we look at things. Because of photography and the cinema on the one hand, and psychology on the other, we can no longer regard a human being as a static entity, subject to merely biological change ... Replacing the single definitive image by a series of inconclusive images has, therefore, perhaps something to do with contemporary vision, perceiving the image as a variable conception rather than a definitive manifestation in the Renaissance sense ... Repetition, on the other hand, implies not linear but circular thought, a merry-go-round interpretation of reality, another form of completion, another whole, which can be entered or left at any point. This latter counter-Renaissance tendency is, curiously enough, already evident here and there within our Irish tradition, from the Books of Kells and Lindisfarne to Finnegans Wake.'204 Dorothy walker notes: 'His heads of writers derive directly from his earlier heads of ancestors, as being spirits, like the great father-figures of Yeats and Joyce, who still influence our consciousness. He is not interested in the traditional portrait, the single static image, feeling that photography has superceded the documentary role of the painted likeness. He is primarily interested in creating an image of a human face which by its own autonomy as a work of art will convey the inner presence of a human personality with greater intensity than any depiction, however skilled, of external appearance. He seeks among multiple images of the same person an epiphanic flash of what lies hidden behind "the billowing curtain of the face", and to make palpable what is sensed in the image of an individual trapped within the canvas. His method is distinctly Proustian, in which the "quick" of the epiphany is caught by involuntary accident.'205 Elaborating on his working method le Brocquy says: 'In these studies I have therefore tried, as uncritically as I could, to allow different aspects of Yeat's appearance to emerge. These I have recalled principally from photographs made throughout his life and, for the most part, without referring to them directly. Where I have worked from them directly, I have consulted two or more at the same time and - since these photographs often bear little resemblance to each other - I have made no attempt to relate one to the other. On the contrary, I have encouraged differing and sometimes contradictory images to emerge spontaneously, in order - as it were - to exorcize the conventional or shared image I recall of W. B. Yeats, and in the hope of discovering a more immediate image, stilled and free of circumstance, underlying the ever-changing aspect of this phenomenal Irishman.'206 According to John Russell: 'Even the evocations of the massed heads in the Romanesque abbey of Clonfert, in Galway, did not quite prepare him for the ordeal of bringing W.B. Yeats back to life.'207 The Borjesson commission gives rise to one hundred studies in various media executed between 1975-76. John Montague observes: 'Yeats, the most varied mind of the Irish race, the last - and perhaps the only - Romantic poet in English to manage a full career. Le Brocquy, the most dedicated Irish painter since Yeat's brother died, with an intuitivesympathy for literature and mythology, an increasingly rare reverence before the human. Their meeting has an aspect of the inevitability. In the last decade le Brocquy has re-invented for himself the idea of portraiture, moving through family and friends to contemplate master spirits of his country, like Joyce and Beckett. As he says "simply because by their works I know them, and am drawn to peer through their familiar, ambiguous faces which mask - and at the same time embody - the great worlds of their vision". And now Yeats, whom le Brocquy knew as a boy. Fascinatingly, the ideals and techniques of the two artists have much in common. One of the foolishnesses of modern psychology is to believe that we have only a few, usually warring, selves. But a Prospero, like Yeats, may live many lives, inhabit many faces, while achieving a unity in variety. At an early stage, he began to play with his doctrine of the Mask, the anti-self, as a discipline for spiritual or physical plenitude. 'I call to my own opposite", he says, "all / That I have least looked upon". ... For behind the silver-haired Senator, the majestic black hatted Nobel Prize winner, with his carefully rehearsed gestures, is still the young poet, the spiritual fanatic search of truth. Crow, heron, eagle, scarecrow, le Brocquy dwells with wonder on the changing roles of Yeats; but my supreme favourite among these psychic portraits, these attempts to show how the spirit speaks and shines through the casket of the brain, the exposed or retreated eye, the chosen regalia, is one which combines the earlier and later selves. The eyes are lifted triumphantly above the glasses, the lips are widening to smile, the hair is in disarray; this man has lived a strenuous life of achievement, has glimpsed truth and is not afraid of death: his "ancient glittering eyes are gay".'208 Exhibition at the Dawson Gallery, Dublin (November 1975); Arts Council of Northern Ireland (January 1976); Crawford Municipal Gallery of Art, Cork (February 1976): Studies Towards an Image of W.B. Yeats, seventy-three works, Dorothy Walker writes in Hibernia: 'Of the various media included in the studies, charcoal drawing, water-colour (including a fascinating deep sea blue Yeats englouti), oil painting and etching, while the final etchings are perhaps the clearest images, I find the paintings the most engrossing in that, precisely because of their painterly use of different planes and colours emerging both simultaneously and one after the other, they convey the presence of a person whom one gets to know progressively as he gradually reveals different aspects, facets and depths of his personality. Thepaintings do also make clear the final skill of the artist in conveying in one single work what a lesser artist might take a roomful of statements to explain.'209 Anne Yeats recounts her impressions in The Irish Times: 'I found it a haunting and unforgettable experience to walk into a room and all around the walls to see the faces of my father, so many of them as I remember him, that is in the later faces. I was not born until my father was fifty-two years of age, and the faces that I remember best are those of the thirties, of the powerful head with a shock of white hair, the strong nose and forceful expression, captured so splendidly in some of le Brocquy's paintings... I have seen many other portraits, notably that by Augustus John, who gave him an oddly dissipated look, and the superb painting by Mancini (which my mother did not like: she said it was 'Yeats the public man') and many others leading up to Louis le Brocquy's room full of faces, each one apparently an impression, but adding, in total, to an astonishing feeling of vigour and intellectual liveliness.'210 Francis Bacon writes to the artist his admiration of the portrait heads (January 1976; Francis Bacon Studio Archive, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane). Recently made Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur the artist prepares for his first exhibitions in Paris, Galerie la Demeure, Les Gaulois, Suite de 6 tapisseries (September 1976); Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (October 1976), A la Recherche de W. B. Yeats, Cent portraits imaginaires.Geneviève Breerette writes in Le Monde (trans.): 'Le Brocquy does not lock the man into his outward appearance. He neither confines nor sets any limit. Each portrait opens onto yet another portrait of the same man lying behind his mask. With paintbrush, pencil or charcoal he assaults, caresses, destroys, insistently wears down the image, digging within the shadow forming the central vertical line from which the features spring. Between the lock of hair hanging to one side and his round spectacles the line of the mouth and the oval form of a determined chin, the image is never still, never definitive, it surfaces from the white page in successive planes, gradually becoming mistily visible with skilful sureness. Brilliant, spectacular in its ensemble of forty-eight charcoal drawings and forty-four watercolours of similar format.'211 In October 1976 the artist fractures his scaphoid bone while in Paris. According to Anne Madden: 'This produced a practical challenge to his conviction that such meaning as his work possessed depended on a series of provoked accidents and was not due to dexterity as had been widely assumed.'212 The artist explains: 'Ironically enough I myself have frequently been reproached with possessing too much dexterity, too much technical skill. Recently I was given a rather dramatic opportunity to disprove this charge when, after a bone-grafting operation to my right hand, my whole arm was immobilized in plaster for a number of months. During this period the images which emerged under my ignorant left hand were in fact in no way distinguishable from those induced by my practiced right hand. Neither better nor worse.'213 Francis Bacon writes to the artist after the accident concerned about his painting (Francis Bacon Studio Archive, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane). Le Brocquy replies by typewriter: 'The worst I can complain of is discomfort and, of course, the great bore that it is. But I am very much less depressed than otherwise as I am able to work with my ignorant left hand. There is no apparent difference, which pleases me as it appears to prove that no predictable skill is involved, and that the image emerges not by imposition but, as it were, autonomously - jerked into some kind of coherence by a series of vaguely directed accidents, with which you are supremely familiar.'214


201 Louis le Brocquy, 'An Interview with Louis le Brocquy by George Morgan', Louis le Brocquy, The Head Image (Kinsale: Gandon Editions, 1996). p. 15.
202 John Montague, 'Primal Scream, The Later le Brocquy', The Arts in Ireland, Vol. 2. No I (Dublin, 1973), p. 10.
203 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. 44.
204 Louis le Brocquy, 'An Interview with Louis le Brocquy by George Morgan', Louis le Brocquy, The Head Image (Kinsale: Gandon Editions, 1996). p. 7.
205 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. 35-36.
206 Louis le Brocquy, exhibition catalogue Studies Towards an Image of W. B. Yeats, 1975 (Dublin: The Dawson Gallery, November 26 - 13 December 1975).
207 John Russell, 'Introduction', Dorothy Walker, Louis le Brocquy (Dublin: Ward River Press 1981; London: Hodder & Stroughton 1982), p. 15.
208 John Montague, preface, exhibition catalogue, Louis le Brocquy, A la Recherche de W. B. Yeats (Paris: Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, October 15 - 28 November 1976). Etudes Irlandaises, C.E.R.I.U.L., Lille 1977. Exhibition catalogue, Louis le Brocquy, Images, 1975-1987 (Dublin: The Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon and the Cultural Relations Committee, September - October 1987).
209 Dorothy Walker, 'Art from Three Cities', Hibernia (Dublin, December 12, 1975).
210 Anne Yeats, Irish Times (Dublin: December 1, 1976), reprinted from 'Yeats au cent portraits', Quotidien de Paris (November 7, 1976), p. 11.
211 Geneviève Breerette (trans.), 'Le Brocquy a la recherche de Yeats', Le Monde (Paris, November 10, 1976),p. 21.
212 Anne Madden le Brocquy, Louis le Brocquy: A Painter Seeing his Way (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1994), p. 205.
213 Louis le Brocquy, 'The Human Head: Notes on Painting & Awareness', 18th Distinguished International Department Lecture, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (Dublin, 14 November 2005) Edited from Actes du Colloque 'Corps-Poésie-Peinture', Faculté des Lettres de Nice Métaphores, No. 5 (Nice, February 8, 1979). Reproduced in Louis le Brocquy, 'Notes on painting and awareness,' Dorothy Walker, Louis le Brocquy (Dublin: Ward River Press 1981; London: Hodder & Stoughton 1982).
214 Le Brocquy, letter to Francis Bacon dated December 1976 (Francis Bacon Studio Archive, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane).





Image of W. B. Yeats, 1975
oil on canvas, 70 x 70 cm. A.R.392.
Collection Irish Museum of Modern Art







Image of W. B. Yeats, 1975
oil on canvas, 70 x 70 cm, AR385










Image of W. B. Yeats, 1975
watercolour, 22 x 18 cm, A.R.W181