exhibition programme | paintings | tapestries | prints | chronology of a life | market | biography & bibliography | agents | news


1983. Portrait Heads: Seamus Heaney (1982-98), Picasso (1983-87)


Turns to heads of his friend Seamus Heaney (December 1982). The poet remarks in Eight Irish Writers: 'They are complete; they have come through. They assist with a displacing confidence, as if they have returned early from fulfilling commands we did not expect them to fulfil, and are attending now within the calm of their achievement. However, if these images house that impassive satisfaction, the image-maker knows no such repose. He is pestered by new commands that disturb the repose once it has been found,and he is under Geasa until he has found it again, like some Dantean shade doomed to hunger after form even as forms swim in and out of touch: / For last year's words belong to last year's language / And next year's words await another voice /. The lyric poem has been called "a way of putting it" and "a momentary stay". There is an element of the accidental about it as well as a sense of inevitability. It is as much a result of the poet's language generating itself as of the poet expressing himself. So it is altogether proper that Louis le Brocquy's images of poets should stand in relation to their poems, because these images also take delight in caging the moment, staying the accident. The rhythm of composition, in both cases, is the one suggested by Robert Frost's neat and jubilant triad: "Sight. Excite. Insight.".'245 Drawing on the affinities between the painter and his subject George Morgan observes: 'Your painting has been referred to as a form of discovery or recovery ... the recovery of something lost. You seem to have a fascination for things lost, or at least absent, rather like Heaney's obsession with the Bog People, the Tollund Man. In the poem 'Strange Fruit', he refers to a girl's head. These are the opening lines: Here is the girl's head like an exhumed gourd. / Oval-faced, prune-skinned, prune-stones for teeth. / They unswaddled the wet fern of her hair... / ...nameless, terrible, / Beheaded girl, outstaring axe / And beatification, outstaring / What had begun to look like reverence. In this view of the head, there is an element of terror, of 'terrible beauty'. It is also very present in your work as I see it.'246 The artist remarks: 'A good many years ago, in the mid-seventies, I think, I attended an exhibition in Belfast [McClelland Galleries, Belfast, 1973]. Coming back on the train, I went along the carriage to find myself a glass of beer and who should I stumble across but Seamus Heaney. I hardly knew him at the time, but we spent the rest of the journey together. Curiously enough, we had, both of us, just read PV Glob's Bog People. Each of us was haunted by the Tollund Man, the Winderby Girl, and others sacrificed in an Iron Age bog that had preserved them perfectly to the inclination of an eyelid. Yes, I'm afraid that "terrible" aspect may sometimes be reflected in my work.'247 Discussing his working method, the artist explains: 'With an oil, I usually make a very rough sketch in charcoal first. Then I take the brush, tip it with a little blue, say, on one side and a little indian red on the other and I make these free gestures round the area of the eyebrow or the chin or wherever. And sometimes the suggestion of an image - a kind of objet trouvé, if you like - begins to emerge. Sometimes not. But those gestures almost always turn out to be significant if one is attentive to their possibilities. They seem to have a queer logic of their own. In my case, all I can say is that there has to be an element of accident, or discovery, or surprise all the way along, so that the emergent image is not so much made by me as imposing itself on me, accident by accident, with its own autonomous life. Otherwise, I don't think it has any value. What occurs, I think, is this. Successive marks made by a brush dipped in this and that pigment, almost at random, build up a kind of scribbled structure of colour in and out of the features of the image which is gradually forming. Then this free structure usually suggests the areas where white pigment may be heavily brushed on to form the outer planes of the image, but each plane and each coloured mark, whether sharp in contour or melting, has to have its autonomy, its independence, if you like, of any merely descriptive role. And these marks have to coexist independently within the various depths of the landscape of thehead-image. They have to be allowed, as it were, to float within it.'248 Exhibition at Gimpel-Hanover Galerie, Zurich (January, 1983), Gimpel Fils, London (April 1983),Gimpel-Weitzenhoffer, New York (October 1983): Louis le Brocquy, studies towards an image of, études vers une image de William Shakespeare (sixty-one works). John Russell writes in The New York Times: 'Le Brocquy starts quietly, with a straightforward, uninterpreted account of the traditional Shakespeare image. From there on, he moves in and out of a wide range of possible Shakespeares. Keeping the huge brow, the fine Elizabethan nose and the generous oval of the head, he treats the image not as something to be netted and brought to dry land, but rather as something to be caught in the hand, turned over and put back in the water. As in the sonnets, we have not one Shakespeare but a related multitude. In a quiet, almost tentative-seeming way this show goes deep - and not least in the painting that greets us as we walk through the door and seems to present every possible Shakespeare in a single complicated head.'249 In the summer of1983, the artist is commissioned by the Musée Picasso, Antibes, to paint an image of Picasso for their collection Hommages a Pablo Picasso. Daniele Giraudy, Director of the Picasso Museum, recounts (trans): 'Between the several versions he offered, all of them of equal intensity, it was not possible for me to choose at first sight, so I asked him if I might spend a few days with them. Their first stay in the Musée Picasso was thus passed in the intimacy of daily life when by evening, I suddenly found it impossible to sleep, opposite these watchmen, such was the unbearable scrutiny of Picasso, fixed and still, seeming to challenge me from beyond ... Next morning I had to win over these related phantoms, when the gaze of one of them, bluer and more tender than the others, magisterially incorporated within a square format (compositionally the most difficult), seemed to me to be destined for the luminous galleries of the chateau d'Antibes [Image Ultérieure de Picasso (1983; A.R. 489, Musée Picasso, Antibes)] ... Pablo Picasso's face seems to approach us across time in a few lightly-charged white brushstrokes over diluted touches of ultramarine and madder, traces of an intensive combat. However, if you step back from the painting suddenly all falls quietly into place and the features appear in clearly recognisable form, organised around that fascinating penetrating eye which so impressed all the contemporaries of Picasso.'250 According to Sister Wendy Beckett: 'Louis le Brocquy, the greatest Irish painter of this half of our century, has said that for him, "painting is not a means of communication or even self-expression, but rather a process of discovering, or uncovering". The artist, he feels, only finds the truth in the process of seeking for it, in accepting the accidents and the travail of the labour of art. He has called the painter "a kind of archaeologist, an archaeologist of the spirit, patiently disturbing the surface of things until he makes a discovery which will enable him to take his search further" ... Image of Picasso is one of the many "disturbances of the surface" that make le Brocquy's portraits so unforgettable ... Each head is held, isolated, on a great expanse of glimmering whiteness, exposed to the raking yet loving light of the seeing eye. The features fissure and fade under this impact, yet because it is the head of a man both greatly achieving and greatly revered by the artist, the bones and flesh resist, and maintain their precarious hold on visibility. Le Brocquy says that he has made no attempt to paint "the appearence, the material fact of Picasso", although we can immediately recognize him. It was the ambiguity, the "explosive consciousness" both concealed and revealed by those features that obsessed him. He sought to create a palimpsest that might wisp into our imagination some "ulterior image of this extraordinary man". With all his creative skill le Brocquy has liberated Picasso from what "appears", so as to enter into what "is".'251


245 Seamus Heaney, Eight Irish Writers, portfolio of collotype lithographs, published by Andrew Carpenter (Dublin 1981).
246 George Morgan, Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Nice, 'An Interview with Louis le Brocquy by George Morgan', Louis le Brocquy, The Head Image (Kinsale: Gandon Editions, 1996) p. 17.
247 Louis le Brocquy, 'An Interview with Louis le Brocquy by George Morgan', Louis le Brocquy, The Head Image (Kinsale: Gandon Editions, 1996) p. 17.
248 Michael Peppiatt, 'Interview with Louis le Brocquy', Art International, Lugano, Vol. XXIII/7, October 1979. Reproduced in Louis le Brocquy, The Head Image (Kinsale: Gandon Editions, 1996), p. 24.
249 John Russell, 'Louis le Brocquy', The New York Times (October 14, 1983).
250 Danièle Giraudy, 'La traversé des Apparences', exhibition catalogue Louis le Brocquy, Images, 1975-1988 (Antibes: Musée Picasso, July 1 - 15 September 1989).
251 Sister Wendy Beckett, 'Art and the Sacred' (London: Rider Books, 1992), p. 38.





Image of Seamus Heaney, 1992
watercolour, 51 x 36 cm, A.R.W1221







Image of Picasso, 1983
oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm, A.R.489
Musée Picasso, Antibes