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1945. Turning point
The early paintings culminate in Finale (1945), and Condemned Man (1945). Alistair Smith notes: 'le Brocquy's interest in expressing a more general predicament had emerged. To do so, he developed a manner based on Synthetic Cubism. Its adoption by le Brocquy at this moment was more than simply an updating of his source material beyond the French nineteenth century. It was a coded act of faith in Picasso. While the Catalan artist had developed Synthetic Cubism as early as 1913, le Brocquy had in mind his more recent opposition to the forces of Nazism and his work treating the destruction of Guernica in 1938 ... The Cubist style itself had among others, been outlawed in Hitler's denunciation and censorship of "Entartete Kunst", by which he meant everything forward-looking, avant garde, and as it turned out, jewish in art. To employ the Cubist style in the war era was, quite simply, a declaration of belief in freedom itself.'52 Thesecompositions foreshadow the artist's 'Grey Period' that will contemplate a starkhuman circumstance in the aftermath of the World War II. John Russell notes: 'As to that, le Brocquy had got the temper of the times just right as early as 1945, when he painted his "Condemned Man", walled up in what looked like granite, with again a bare bulb overhead.'53 The artist acquiesces: 'Condemned Man is a rather grey painting and does seem to anticipate A Family some six years later ... As I remember, the prisoner in the painting is seen through a darkened window. The cat on the move between the bars was, I suppose, an image of freedom - as is the minute figure on the horizon. The floral arrangement at the bottom right, I remember, suggests the head of an absent woman.'54 Le Brocquy's reflection on prison conditions in general and Capital Punishment in particular - views he shared with his parents who were personally informed in unpleasant detail by the medical doctor who had to supervise Pierpoint's duties as executioner, following his arrival on the Dun Laoghaire mailboat - will lead him to become a member of the Howard League for Penal Reform, campaigning in London in the fifties, and, later, a lifelong supporter of Amnesty International. First hand knowledge of prison conditions is gained through his friend Earnán O'Malley of whom he observes: 'As an idealistic Republican, he commanded the rebel forces in the southern area. Eventually he was captured, tortured by the Black and Tans and went on hunger strike (during which he told me his favorite reading was Mrs. Beaton's Cookery Book!). Ernie emerged from all this as totally free of all bitterness and resentment as those other heroes Mahatma Gandi and Nelson Mandela.'55 According to Alistair Smith: 'It was his feelings about the injustice meted out to certain sections of Irish society which engaged him, and which received expression in the majority of his paintings of the time.'56 As Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith notes: 'While le Brocquy's art has never been primarily an art of overt social commentary or engagement, social concerns are indeed evident in some of the early work.'57 In face of the poverty and slum conditions reaching into the heart of his home city, the artist produces numerous sketches, including Starved Children: Dublin Poor, In Death, Dublin Newsboy, Keening a Dead Baby, Woman in Grief, Dublin Slum Children. Anticipating the tinker paintings inspired in Co. Offaly a few months later, le Brocquy recalls: 'The deadly poverty, child mortality statistically worse than Calcutta. The long fingers of the slums, reaching from the north side into Stephen's Green where boys in bare feet sold newspapers in all weathers for as long as they managed to stay alive.'58 Second studio exhibition at 13 Merrion Row, Dublin (April 1945): Sketches and Studies, ninety-six works, including A Child Anticipates a Woman's Shawl, Deserted Cottage, Galway Children, Connemara Scene, Figures in Moonlight, Connemara Fisherman, Emblaghmore, Ballyconneely, Púcán. Arthur Power writes in The Irish Times: 'He has the delicacy of the orientals and, in his figures, the realism of the modern painters, yet underneath lies a firm structure. His constant search is for beauty, whether it be in the abstraction of "Nightfall" or "Bog Stones," or in the more realistic "Gathering Kelp". Sensitive and, at times, fugitive - too much so, perhaps - he has been attracted to many themes, some of which are dealt with more fully than others. But in everything he does he is a master of his technique, and this exhibition is one of the most interesting we have seen.'59 In the summer of 1945, the artist travels to the Midlands, where he is to discover his most powerful source of inspiration to date. The war over, a number of journalists, photographers and art dealers arrive in Ireland. Le Brocquy is spotted by Ernest Brown & Pat Phillips of the Leicester Galleries, Maurice Collis of The Observer, Lee Miller of American Vogue. Enters Head of Niall Scott (1945), Madonna and Child (1945), Witch and Familiar (1945), Finale (1945), Condemned Man (1945), into the 'Living Art' of 1945. Edward Sheehy writes in The Dublin Magazine: 'If the Irish Exhibition is to become a regular annual feature, it will certainly outdo the Academy in significance if not in popularity ... The oils Finale and Condemned Man, by Louis le Brocquy, amply fulfil the promise of his recent exhibition of sketches and water-colours. Both pictures use practically identical colour harmonies, little more than subtle modifications of white, to produce quite different moods. Both show an extraordinary sensibility of line, used, however, with an eye to the final architecture of the picture. His Master Niall Scott shows how effective a portrait can be where the painter is not trying to rival either the photographer or the beauty-specialist.'59bis Meets Charles Gimpel, the London art dealer destined to become an important advocate of the artist and his work.
52 Alistair Smith, 'Louis le Brocquy: On the Spiritual in Art', exhibition catalogue Louis le Brocquy, Paintings 1939 - 1996, (Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art, October 1996 - February 1997), p. 24.
53 John Russell, 'Introduction', Dorothy Walker, Louis le Brocquy (Dublin: Ward River Press 1981; London: Hodder & Stoughton 1982), p. 9.
54 Louis le Brocquy, notes, Louis le Brocquy, The Inner Human Reality, Film documentary directed by Joe Mulholland, RTE 1, Arts Lives, 21 February 2006, 22.15pm.
55 Anne Crookshank, Introduction, exhibition catalogue, Louis le Brocquy: A Retrospective Selection of Oil Paintings 1939-1966 (Dublin: The Municipal Gallery of Modern Art; Belfast: Ulster Museum, November 1966 - January 1967), p. 8.
56 Alistair Smith, 'Louis le Brocquy: On the Spiritual in Art', exhibition catalogue Louis le Brocquy, Paintings 1939 - 1996, (Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art, October 1996 - February 1997), p. 24.
57 Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, 'The Human Image Paintings of Louis le Brocquy', 2003.
58 Louis le Brocquy, notes, Louis le Brocquy, The Inner Human Reality, Film documentary directed by Joe Mulholland, RTE 1, Arts Lives, 21 February 2006, 22.15pm.
59 Arthur Power, friend of Joyce and Beckett, The Irish Times (Dublin, April 23, 1945).
59bis Edward Sheehy, 'Art Notes', The Dublin Magazine (Dublin, Oct-Dec 1945).
Condemned Man, 1945
oil on gesso-primed hardboard, 91 x 69 cm