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1984-85. Life & Still-life: Procession series (c.1984-92)
Turns to nature and thenceforth to the Procession paintings. The artist notes: 'Recently I've been painting some images of Picasso - Picasso, as we know, a being in whom the power and joy of life were uniquely personified. Yet for me this is not what altogether emerges in the paintings I've made of this promethean man. I imagine most of these heads are - when they emerge at all - essentially tragic; pertaining as they do to the past, to memory, to reflection ... Nature is by definition ever present. It has no past other than its soil. I've tended to refer back to nature recently. I don't think, however, a painter consciously chooses his way. He hasn't much say in the matter, not much decision. He simply does his best to catch some kind of inner tide, to avoid being stranded. Often I am stranded, but just now I seem to have caught a sort of ebb tide, to have returned to an older preoccupation in a shift back to natural things around me - to growing plants and fruit and goldfish and fantail pigeons. Perhaps this is simply a temporary release from the heads and their rather intense reflective consciousness, their tragic aspect. A return to a simple state of being, emerging in its own nature, filling out its little volume of reality with the various natural possibilities of its form.'252 Paints Manet's Peonies (1984; A.R. 494), an accolade to one of his most revered Masters. Dorothy Walker writes: 'Le Brocquy's peonies are the epitome of his intention to transmute the reality of an object into the reality of an image by the medium of oil paint. The medium is rich, palpable, almost luscious, recreating in terms of paint the reality of a peony, and indicating its floral identity by the merest deft reference. Similarly in his paintings of doves or fantailed white pigeons their fluttery featheriness is transmuted into fluttery white paint not by attempting any realistic reproduction of a dove but by means of an image having its own inherent reality. Even in his paintings of goldfish, le Brocquy has created a more intense reality than one could imagine emanating from that somewhat cool customer.'253 Le Brocquy's still-life paintings originate in the early 1940's with Still life with Book and Penny (1941), and, later, in the 1950's with Still life with Apples (1951), Study for Flowers (1953), Still life with Grapes (1955). The paintings of single fruit on darkly stained grounds of the 1960's lead to a notable body of work in the 1970's, including Fruit Now and Then (1970; A.R. 353), Fruit in the Hand (1974; A.R. 355), Lemon, Newsprint (1974; A.R. 357). The early paintings of fantail pigeons Dove at Casa Pezzoli, Ischia (1956), and Male Dove (1957), are prompted by a memorable visit to Italy. Anne Madden recounts: 'The casa Pezzoli was a charming, whitewashed peasant house. In its courtyard a flock of white doves was fed by Louis. He was drawn to the intense life of these birds and made sketches from which a series of small oil paintings emerged. He was to return to this subject many years later in France, where our own fantail pigeons flew, turning and tumbling above their native valley, returning at nightfall to their home-made dovecote.'254 Inspired by the cornucopia of life at Les Combes the artist embarks on an ongoing series of life and still-life paintings. The ensuing studies of lilies revive an earlier preoccupation with children in procession. Dorothy Walker notes: 'The image of these jeunes filles en fleur (et aux fleurs) has been simmering in the artist's mindsince 1939 when a friend in Dublin sent him, to France where he was then living, a newspaper cutting from the Evening Herald showing a group of young girls in white First Communion dresses, coming around a corner, laughing and carrying white lilies. The caption to the photograph was "Schoolgirls returning from Church after the blessing of the Lilies on the Feast of St Anthony." The date on the newspaper was 16 June 1939, the date of the publication of Finnegan's Wake ... He was also struck by the complementary paradoxes in the image, the togetherness and the scattered individuality: all the faces facing forward, all caught up not merely in a communal event but also in a common physical movement, the movement of a flock, in their rush around the corner of the street. Later on, he was also struck by the haphazard conjunction of dates, that this epiphanic Dublin photograph should have been published on the same day as Finnegan's Wake. The image of happy, excited children was sharpened by the poignancy of the date, Bloomsday 1939, so soon before the doomsday of war, almost the last Bloomsday of Joyce's life ... Le Brocquy has spent so much of his working life inside Joyce's head, as itwere, that this simple, accidental newspaper cutting thus assumed further significance for him. It seemed to him to be an illumination of Joyce's own words, a "fluid succession of presents", a chain of present moments, a river of life.'255 The artist explains: 'I made a few watercolours and drawings on the theme in the mid-forties which were followedsome twenty years later by further studies and twosurviving canvases. It was not until 1984 that this procession with lilies returned to haunt me, interposed within my work for nine consecutive years, giving rise to anongoingseries of oils and watercolours and lithographs.'256 Embarks on the Procession paintings (1984-1992), the sixth distinctive phase in the work. The artist re-addresses the seminal Riverrun. Procession with Lilies (1962; A.R. 75), alongside a second composition originating in very different circumstances: 'That was in 1953, Iremember I was living in London. One day I visited the Matthiesen Gallery in Bond Street. It was exhibiting works from the school of Rembrandt, one of which was by Nicholas Maes [since reattributed to Cornelis Bischopp (1630-1674)] ... Its stilled, interlinked gestures intrigued me, and something indefinable beyond them. Early the following year, I completed the first version of Children in a Wood.'257 The Procession theme will lead to eight large-scale definitive works and numerous preparatory studies. Discussing the contrasting connection between the two themes, le Brocquy says: 'It was not until quite recently that I consciously recognised a relationship between these two youthful processions ... two sides of the same phenomenal coin: one a Joycean charade, a fleeting actuality in a continuous progression of present moments, the other, as I see it, a constant condition of being, a return in the mind to the sensuous magic of childhood, when meaning lay within each hollow tree and time was a measure of eternity ... Having a slow-moving mind, however, I perceived only gradually those hidden elements which since 1954 tentatively drew me to the little Maes painting, drew me behind the joy and beyond the experimental game of childhood into theshadows of presentiment, of human emergence and disappearance, of sound grown silent.'258 The art historian Peter Murray observes: 'A black and white photograph of children walking along the Dublin quays, having just made their Holy Communion, and a late seventeenth century Dutch painting of Bacchanalian revelries in a forest have become two significant source documents in the history of 20th century Irish art ... These works follow the artist's conscious concern to deconstruct the visible world, his almost scientific attempts to penetrate the nature of what lies beneath outward appearance. Going back to his early training as a chemist, le Brocquy emphasises the nature of experimentation in their making, of letting paint take its own course: "it seems to me that anything worthwhile which occurs in my work has come out of a series of supervised accidents, by the painting answering back." While accident may play an important role, what is clear is that these are paintings of great seriousness of intention, and of execution.'324 He talks about the slowness with which the meaning of the series was exposed to him, as he painted them ... However he is reluctant to describe the paired series as representing sacred and profane themes,preferring to emphasise their inner qualities ... These works follow the artist's conscious concern to deconstruct the visible world, his almost scientific attempts to penetrate the nature of what lies beneath outward appearance. Going back to his early training as a chemist, le Brocquy emphasises the nature of experimentation in their making, of letting paint take its own course: "it seems to me that anything worthwhile which occurs in my work has come out of a series of supervised accidents, by the painting answering back." While accident may play an important role, what is clear is that these are paintings of great seriousness of intention, and of execution.'259 Asked whether these works are to be viewed as parables, the artist says: 'The mystical or religious connotations, you speak of, while clear enough, dissolve in my mind into undefined intimations and presentiment - wonder of a kind. If the grapes you speak of could be a chalice, they remain a bunch of grapes. In the last painting I made [Children in a Wood IV (1992; A.R. 597)], that background figure in the wood got his knife out on his own and I've no idea what he is going to do with it! The central figure may be acting as Nicholaes Maes intended, but, as I see it, his gesture is ambiguous. When painting, I have no preconceptions. When I'm working, I learn from painting itself.'260 Exhibition at the Taylor Galleries (March 1985): Procession with Lilies and other new work, forty-four works. The exhibition does not include the Children in a Wood paintings, begun only in 1987. Aidan Dunne writes in The Sunday Press: 'Louis le Brocquy is one of the few Irish artists of world class, so a substantial new exhibition of his work is a noteworthy event ... The quintessential le Brocquy image is of a head, as often as not the head of a major literary figure like Joyce or Beckett, emerging wraith-like out of a fog of white pigment. It has become le Brocquy's staple motif, his trademark, one that he has, arguably, overworked at times. But in his new work, there is not a single literary head to be seen: he has set the formula aside. The result is guaranteed to disconcert, but it does more than that. It's a refreshingly outward looking, vigorous exhibition ... Among the best things in the show, and clearly linked to the procession theme, are two small paintings of lilies. Brisk, rhythmic compositions, in which swathes of white pigments, light as petals, engage in a fast game of give and take. They are loose, complex pictures that display a typical delight in the richness of natural form.'261
252 Le Brocquy, Ann Cremin, 'Louis le Brocquy now', S & P (Dublin, December 1984). Reproduced, exhibition catalogue Louis le Brocquy, Procession with Lilies and other New Work (Dublin: Taylor Galleries, March - April 1984).
253 Dorothy Walker, 'Louis le Brocquy: The New Work', Irish Art Review, Vol. 2, Number 1 (Dublin, Spring 1985), p. 17.
254 Anne Madden le Brocquy, Louis le Brocquy: A Painter Seeing his Way (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1994), p. 101.
255 Dorothy Walker, 'Louis le Brocquy: The New Work', Irish Art Review, Vol. 2, Number 1 (Dublin, Spring 1985), p. 12-17.
256 Statement made to the editor, August 2005.
257 The exhibition referred to by the artist is Rembrandt's Influence in the 17th century (London: The Matthiessen Gallery, February 20 - 2 April 1953). Louis le Brocquy, 'An Interview with Louis le Brocquy by George Morgan', Procession (Kinsale: Gandon Editions, 1996, p. 7.
258 Louis le Brocquy quoted by Dorothy Walker in the exhibition catalogue Images Single and Multiple 1957 - 1990 (Kamakura: Museum of Modern Art, Kanagawa, January 5 - 3 February, 1991. Osaka: Itami City Museum of Art, Hyogo, February 9 - 31 March 1991. Hiroshima: City Museum of Contemporary Art, April 6 - 12 May 1991), p. 95.
259 Peter Murray, 'Eros and Thanatos, Louis le Brocquy's "Procession" paintings', exhibition catalogue Louis le Brocquy, Procession (Cork: Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, October 10 - 15 November 2003. Dublin: Taylor Galleries, November 20 - 13 December), p. 1, 4.
260 Le Brocquy, 'An Interview with Louis le Brocquy by George Morgan', Procession (Kinsale: Gandon Editions, 1994, p. 10.
261 Aidan Dunne, 'Ebb tide le Brocquy', The Sunday Press (Dublin, March 31, 1985).
oil on canvas, 46 x 38 cm, A.R.516
Procession with Lilies III, 1985
oil on canvas, 114 x 146 cm, A.R.538
Children in a Wood I1, 1988
oil on canvas, 114 x 146 cm, A.R.558.
Irish Museum of Modern Art