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1990-93. Portrait Heads: Oscar Wilde (1990-92), Bono (1990-2003)


Long moved by the Ballad of Reading Gaol, turns to watercolour heads of Oscar Wilde (1990-92). Asked whether these paintings may be regarded as intimations of immortality, le Brocquy says: 'My aim was to lift the image out of the context of humour and ordinary social intercourse, to place it outside time and circumstance. They might be described as instances of the idea that the past is ever-present, a metaphysical attitude of mind. It is not unreasonable to say that, since reality takes place in time, we may take it that what has happened is not real, it was real. Yet are we to believe that all that is real now, at this moment, will become unreal? As I try to paint an image of a person - be he alive or dead - he remains part of a continuum, and that continuum is something that forms a whole, as I see it. It forms a kind of reality which I cannot believe is ever wholly wiped out. It's an area in which the sponge of time is no longer operative.'277 Paints the first of a series of watercolour and oil heads of Bono (1990), befriended some years earler. The National Gallery of Ireland will later celebrate the re-opening of the National Portrait Collection with the unveiling of a specially commissioned portrait of the musician (20 October 2003). Referring to this work, le Brocquy says: 'In the past I have painted an extensive series of interiorised head images of artists such as Samuel Beckett and Francis Bacon, WB Yeats and Seamus Heaney whom I see as extraordinary instances of human consciousness. In more recent years, I have made a number of similar studies of Bono, whose spirit and whose radiant enery I admire so much. But a painting destined for the National Portrait Gallery presents a different chalenge; to make a recognizable image of Bono's outward appearance, while attempting to portray what I conceive to be the wavelengths  of his inner dynamism.'277b Aidann Dunne remarks: 'In a way these portraits are a high cultural equivalent of Andy Warhol's silkscreen paintings of celebrity icons like Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Both bodies of work emerged initially in the same decade, the 1960's, and they might be seen  to converge in one of the most recent of le Brocquy's subjects, Bono. If Warhol were still around, Bono would surely be at the top of his to-do list. Yet there is clearly a tension between Warhol's infatuation with the vacuity of celebrity culture and le Brocquy's endorsement of the individual creative imagination. It comes down to a question of depth. For Warhol, everything is surface, whereas le Brocquy pledges allegiance to dense and complex layers of meaning, somehow bound up in the painted surface. Cultural Icons are, he implies, much more than depthless signs. But it's not as simple as that. His evocations of individual heads, living or dead, come with a rider. They are Studies towards an image of ..., and they occur in sequential multiples rather than single, definitive versions. Like Warhol, le Brocquy had realised that portraiture was a problematic genre by the mid-20th century. In attempting to embody a presence in paint while acknowledging that it was an unattainable goal, he signalled both his ambition and the current limits of that ambition. The subjects of his heads veer between virtual anonymity and iconic status. Ancestral Head, for example, is effectively anonymous but marks out the territory: not so much making a portrait per se as engaging in an "archaeology of the spirit". reconstructing not likeness but imaginative life. Throughout his long bouts of wrestling with his named subjects - a list that also includes Federico Garcia Lorca, Seamus Heaney, Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso - likeness is both a boon and an encumbrance. It grounds the image, but can also tie it to a formulaic restatement of familiar features. When the balance is right, le Brocquy manages to engender a feeling of tenuous, fugitive presence, providing a glimpse into the mysterious complexity of mental life and spirit. There is also a sense of cultural placement, not in the sense of merely iterating an Irish literary canon - though that is an obvious danger - but in terms of locating particular sensibilities and imaginations in terms of historically derived identity, a view of individual consciousness as extending forwards and backwards in time, in terms of genetic and other, more conscious influences.'277bb Publication of Eight Irish Portraits in Words and Watercolours, original limited edition portfolio of 1000 copies, commissioned by Marie Donnelly in aid of the Irish Hospice Foundation. Work included in Bonjour Monsieur Picasso, Collections du Musée Picasso, Musée Picasso, Antibes, 1990; Premiers Chef d'Oeuvre des Grands Maitres Européens, Mondial Events Organisation (Japanese tour, 1990); Le Visage dans L'Art Contemporain, Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, 1990, Couleurs de la Vie, Cent Artistes Témoignent pour L'homme, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, (European tour, 1990). Exhibition at the Kerlin Gallery in association with Hibernian Fine Art, Dublin (January 1991): Louis le Brocquy, Paintings 1940 - 1990, seventeen works, including Memory of a return toIreland: A view of the Mouth Head and the Bailey Lighthouse (1943), Hommage to John Montague (1968; A.R. 205), Riverrun. Procession with Lilies (1985-89; A.R. 560). Seamus Heaney writes in the exhibition catalogue: 'To be continuously explorative, the artist must retain an inner freedom, to be constantly definitive, he or she must develop a merciless self-critism. Only when the double bind of these disciplines is entered upon - either deliberately or instinctively - will the full creative power of a talent grow manifest. It is because Louis le Brocquy has from the beginning surrendered himself to these deeply laid laws of the art that his work stands before us now in all its radiant equilibrium. Whether the paintings were done in the Forties, the Sixties or the Eighties, each one belongs in the continuous present of sheer, self-forgetful effort. They arise from and pay into a condition where the tremor of premonition is always eliciting the triumph of comprehension, and where, as I once wrote myself, "seventh heaven may be/the whole truth of a sixth sense come to pass".'278 Retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura (January 1991), Itami City Museum of Art, Osaka (February 1991), City Museum of Contemporary Art Hiroshima (April 1991): Louis le Brocquy, Images Single and Multiple, 1957-1990, sixty-three works, including Woman (1959; A.R. 20, Tate), Hommage à Entremont (1968; A.R. 219, Fondation Maeght, St. Paul), Image of James Joyce (1977; A.R. 395, Tate). Extensively reviewed in the Japanese media (279) Peter McGill writes in the Irish Times: 'Le Brocquy spoke with deep respect of Japanese culture. In addition to the "old masters" he had encountered in the Louvre, the Prado and in Venice as a young man, he acknowledged having been greatly impressed by Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints in the great London museums, "from which emerged my own graphic heroes, Kiyonaga, Utamaro, and the phenomenal Sharaku." He had "never ceased to womder at the characteristically extraordinary Japanese sensibility within the visual world of line, form, colour, tone and texture" which, he added has profoundly influenced Western art and design. This sensibility and "aesthetic insight" of the Japanese, he stressed, is of "such depth, harmony and pure rightness as to enter, I believe, upon an ethical plane vital to the spiritual evolution of us all.'280 Meets the Empress Michiko. Publication of The Great Book of Ireland, Gene Lambert, Theo Dorgan, eds., Clashganna Mills Trust Ltd., in association with Poetry Ireland Ltd., 1991. Single volume containing work by 140 poets, 120 painters and 9 composers. Contributes Image of Samuel Beckett, watercolour on paper laid on vellum opposit the poem Da tagte es by Samuel Beckett (from Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates, 1935). Included in Word and Image, Beckett Festival, Douglas Hyde Gallery (October 1991). Limited edition texts illustrated by Louis le Brocquy, Jasper Johns, Robert Ryman, Avigdor Arikha and SW Hayter. Death of Francis Bacon (27 April 1992). Le Brocquy writes a tribute to his friend in the Irish Times.281 Conferred by President Mary Robinson with the title of Saoi, Ireland's highest cultural distinction bestowed by Aosdána, an Irish affiliation of artists, in recognition of creative work which has made an outstanding contribution to the arts in Ireland. Included in 11 en Francia, Casa de Velázquez, Madrid (February 1993), Collection de la Fondation Maeght, Fondation Maeght, St. Paul (1993). Le Portrait dans l'Art Contemporain, Musée d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain, Nice, 1993. Exhibition at Gimpel Fils, London (March 1993),The Bell Gallery (September 1993): Riverrun. Liffey Watercolours;: Louis le Brocquy, Watercolours of the Liffey from source to sea, thirty-three works. Ian Hill writes in the Irish Times: 'Le Brocquy, who gave us all the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, the magnificent minimalist neo-abstract nudes of the 1960's, the memorable floating heads of James Joyce, has always had the vigourous vision of the self-taught. Here he has painted not the liffey, but the experience of the Liffey, transformed through the mind and eyes of a master craftman.'282


277 Statement made to the editor, March 2006.
277b Louis le Brocquy, unveiling of the portrait, National Gallery of Ireland,  October 2003. 
277bb Aidan Dunne. 'Archaeologist of the spirit', The Irish Times, weekend review (September 9, 2006)
278 Seamus Heaney, exhibition catalogue, Louis le Brocquy, paintings 1940-1990, Hibernian Fine Art in association with Kerlin Gallery, Dublin, January 1991, p. 5.
279 Abe, Shigeo, 'The Celt Story - Part IV', Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Tokyo, 23 February 1991).
Furomoto, Taketoshi, 'After Archetypes: Louis le Brocquy Exhibition', Yomiuri Shimbun (Tokyo, 6 February 1991).
Nakajima, Kyoko, 'Louis le Brocquy Paints Yeats, Joyce, Beckett', Yomiuri Shimbun (Tokyo, 10 January 1991).
Nikkei, Weekend, 'Portrait of Beckett by Louis le Brocquy' (Tokyo, 23 February 1991).
Okochi, M., 'Louis le Brocquy', Yomiuri Shimbun (Tokyo, 5-8 February 1991).
Sugawara, Norio, 'A leading Irish painter Louis le Brocquy now on visit in Japan', Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan, 20 January 1991).
280 Peter McGill, 'Le Brocquy exhibition in Japan', Irish Times (Dublin, 7 January 1991).
281 Louis le Brocquy, 'The Mystery of Fact', Irish Times (Dublin, 29 April, 1992).
282 Ian Hill, 'Louis le Brocquy. Bell Gallery, Belfast', Irish Times (Dublin 22 Septmber 1993).








Image of Oscar Wilde, 1990
watercolour, 61 x 46 cm, A.R.W978










Image of Bono, 2003
oil on canvas, 122 x 91 cm, A.R.749
National Gallery of Ireland, Portrait Collection