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Unfailing Eye
Barbara Dawson

Louis le Brocquy and his Masters. Early Heroes, Later Homage,
Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. 14 January - 30 March 2007

As certain as colour
Passes from the petal,
Irrevocable as flesh,
The gazing eye falls through the world

Ono No Komachi (833-880AD)

    The inalterable essence of human existence is the to the core of Louis le Brocquy’s paintings and his oeuvre is a unique and unswerving inquiry into what is but not seen. His lifetime’s work reveals a relentless pursuit of the human condition and the entrapment in paint of this singular imagery has brought him national and international critical acclaim from an early age, while he himself has become a revered and beloved figure in contemporary Irish art.

    From the very beginning le Brocquy eschewed any inclination towards documentation or narration and his early work is astonishing original while openly revealing the most impressionable influences on his evolving sensibility. His structured composition, a constant in his work was affirmed by his study and appreciation of the modern French painters in particular Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas. Their reinterpretation of classical format combined with a pitiless observation of their fellow man heralded a new departure in modern art and contact with the work of these inspiring artists during his time in Europe between 1938 and 1940 confirmed le Brocquy‘s commitment to his art.

    A re-occurrence of white throughout his oeuvre has been attributed to the influence of Spanish painting in particular Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya whose dialogue and communication of the concerns of mankind remain amongst the highest pinnacles of achievement in the history of Western art. However it is Manet’s original use of  white that comes more to mind as it contributes hugely to his innovative manifestation of the modern sculpted form which no doubt made a considerable impression on the young le Brocquy. Looking at his early work, one is reminded of the expressive expanses of white in Manet’s portraits of the artist ” Eva Gonzales,” ( 1870 Sir Hugh Lane bequest 1917, National Gallery London shared with Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane ) and Jeanne Duval (1862 Museo de BB.AA. Budapest). The billowing white gowns in varying degrees of elaboration, spectacularly pervade the picture planes but it is in the portrait of Jeanne Duval that the dress takes on social and political status recalling Valezquez‘s superb court portraits.

    One of his earliest extant works, Southern Window, (Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane) was painted in Cap Martin in 1939 before Le Brocquy was forced to end his tour of Europe and return home at the outbreak of the war. Exhibited in Royal Hibernian Academy in 1940, it immediately aroused interest and acclaim. Self taught Le Brocquy’s assured handling of paint and realised composition were singled out for praise. References to Manet’s painting Le Balcon as an influence have been frequently made and memories of seeing the green shutters in that work may have influenced this work. But the modern classical formality of composition, also recalls the work of William Orpen (also a great admirer of Spanish painting,) in particular his portrayal of the laundress in The Wash House (1905 National Gallery of Ireland). Both take on the whole body of the composition, and like le Brocquy, Orpen’s palette is muted although in a different colour range with the figures built up through a more classical treatment of chiaroscuro. Each has imbued the menial nature of their subject’s work with dignity borne out of the monumentality of composition. While Orpen introduces a companion albeit shadowy figure descending the stairs, le Brocquy’s figure is alone – revealing at this early stage the artist’s preoccupation with the fundamental solitary nature of existence.

    Viewed from behind, the corporality and earthiness of le Brocquy’s figure is sculpted out of a play of stark contrasts. Hot white Mediterranean light is relentless as it pours in through the window only to be repulsed by the cool interior and darkly clad figure of the laundress. The burnished patina of the interior walls resists the intrusion of the brilliant sunlight which casts a fiery glow on the surface of a small copper jug. But it is the woman’s solitariness which creates the tension. Although viewed from behind she is an imposing presence filling the picture plane in dramatic fashion her dark costume vividly relieved by the artist’s singular use of white; in her hair, the bow of her apron, the garment she is ironing, the pegs on the clothes line and the window sill which frames the foreground of the picture stopped short by a white flower pot whose delicate plant, a contrast to the robust female form, suggests innate femininity. Posies, single blooms and small bouquets are a recurring motif in le Brocquy’s work used metaphorically to relieve the starkness of expression.

    While white is apocalyptic spiritual, hopeful and light it also has sinister associations, conjuring up images  of fear and death;  “white as a ghost” , “deathly pale”   or as Ahab puts it in Moby Dick "….yet for all accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet and honourable, and sublime, there yet lurks an exclusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of a panic to the soul than that redness that affrights the blood”(note 1). It is this intensity and otherness of white that le Brocquy uses to such significant effect in his work.

    In 1939, le Brocquy also painted Girl in Grey and Negro. His palette is more muted in these two works with whites and greys predominating. In Negro, a portrait of his friend Ferdinand Levy whom he knew in Dublin, the dark background pushed up against the sitter’s profile is relieved solely by a play of form and void realised in visual drama of contrasts. The colour composition is reversed in Girl in Grey. His subject, his first wife Jean Storey, emerges out of a pale background. Clad in creams and whites her seated figure contrasts sharply with the dark floor on which she sits lost in contemplation. The enigmatic mood is heightened by the undefined setting, Moroccan slippers on her feet and the suggestions made by the steps disappearing in the background. Tension is created by polarisation of matter and void and the structured composition is supported in solid albeit flattened forms while the sentiment remains elusive. It is remarkable in its expression. Although the subject is very present, the painting speaks of absence; the substance suggests vacancy and the figuration abstraction. Like le Brocquy, Ahab also wondered
“Or is it that as an essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of colour, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?” (note 2)

    A combination of being autodidactic, aware but unselfconscious, with direct experience of a panorama of European painting including modernism informed le Brocquy’s evolving sensibility which was both unconventional and original. His innovative works which emerged during the years of isolation in neutral Ireland, where “We were thrown back on ourselves” drew on local encounters and observations for their subject matter, yet were parallel in sentiment and expression with his European counterparts. (note 3)

    Returning to Ireland in 1940 Louis le Brocquy set up his studio in Dublin and the work produced in the next five years showed no abatement of the innovation manifest in his earlier work. The Mediterranean palette was laid aside. His concentration on the single figure or small group of peoples continues the work continues to be realised through spare, concentrated compositions which see a bleaching out of the surface area. A remarkable suggestion of blank canvas evolves out of le Brocquy’s unique process of excavation as he pares his subjects back to the essence of existence.

  Le Brocquy continued his advances into new pictorial form with superb suite of  work created between 1940 to 1945. One of the most intriguing, A Picnic was painted in 1940.  Compositionally it recalls Degas’ Bain de Mer : Petite fille peignee par sa bonne, however le Brocquy’s subjects are bleached out, the solid forms cast no shadows despite the sun beating down on them. Emptied of the surface armour of social intercourse their introspection is palpable. Deliberations on the solitary makeup of mankind permeate this and le Brocquy’s other paintings from this period revealing his relentless enquiry into the self contained unity of being and the mystery of existence fuelled no doubt by reports of the war atrocities and his own experiences as a voluntary red cross ambulance driver. Local and universal such concerns infused contemporary thought across all art forms. T.S. Eliot in “The Cocktail Party” asks
“What is hell?
Hell is oneself,
Hell is alone, the other figures in it
Merely projections. There is nothing to escape from
And nothing to escape to. One is always alone. (note 4)

    Le Brocquy’s denunciation of the Nazi regime and its treatment of art and artists sees in The Condemned Man (1945 private collection)a singular expression of a universal sentiment. Compositionally it declares his solidarity with the so called “degenerate artists” and particularly Picasso being rendered in a synthetic cubist style denounced by the Nazi regime.(note 5) Condemned Man also sees le Brocquy’s  enlightened stance on capital punishment, coupled with his abhorrence of man’s brutality to his fellow man. But as well as that, le Brocquy is insightful in his observations on the complexity of human nature; the overriding desire for love and life, co-habiting with an ability for ferocious destruction. Here the focus is on the prisoner’s humanity. Vulnerable and alone, incarcerated in small stone cell awaiting his ultimate fate, the prisoner’s preoccupations are suggested by the flowers at his feet and the pussy cat peering through the bar in the background. “ The floral arrangement at the bottom right, I remember suggests the head of an absent woman”.(note 6)

    The painting’s sentiment is echoed in a later painting The Family (1950) which won the artist great critical acclaim at the Venice Biennale that year. His reclining woman recalls Manet’s Olympia with the cat sashaying up to the female in both works but le Brocquy’s harsh post war setting lit by bare light bulbs, denotes frugality of means as well as expression. The dislocation of emotions and shattered social unit is hauntingly portrayed.  Each is alone but their solitariness is cloaked in desire. The pussy cat has moved from the background in The Condemned Man to emerge from between the reclining woman’s legs in The Family in a masterly expression of covert sexual longing. In Classic Theme 11, the Kiss, (1943) the lovers tender embrace appears chaste at first viewing. Seated with her back to her lover the woman turns her head to kiss him as he tenderly reaches over to stroke her breast. Her legs remain crossed keeping him a distance yet her desire is furtively suggested by the delicate erect rose she holds in her hand.

  Louis le Brocquy never relinquished his passion for the formal figurative structure and it is underlying constant all his work. His compositional innovation pays homage to the mannered pictorial compositions in Japanese woodcuts  which were imported in large numbers into Europe particularly to France at the end of the 19th century. In these prints, figure and movement is stopped short by an abrupt arrival at the edge of the picture frame, resulting in startlingly beautiful cropped images which find echoes in le Brocquy’s work particularly in A Picnic, Girl in White and Belfast Refugees. Girl in White sealed in and delineated by her picture frame recalls the hashira- e (an architectural term for a pillar or column) so called as the images are mounted up the picture plane, as too does the structure of A Picnic. Kitagawa Utamaro (ca 1753 – 1806) was a renowned Japanese printmaker and one whom le Brocquy particularly admires. Utamaro was famous for his hashira- e and ukiyo-e depictions of beautiful woman favouring the single figure over groups of women which were popular with other printmakers. His prints concentrated on female beauty depicted by the features as opposed to the clothes or surroundings. Hence his work is remarkable for its emphasis on the shape of the eye, the head and on the smooth whiteness of the skin particularly prized in Japanese culture. Parallels in construction and psyche can be found in le Brocquy’s oeuvre.

    Louis le Brocquy’s most recent paintings created in his 90th and 91st year are astonishing in their execution and content. He pays homage to his inspirations of earlier years Valazquez and Goya as well as Cezanne and Manet. Manet’s Olympia which made an enduring impression on le Brocquy from the first time he first saw it in the Jeu de Paume in Paris in 1938 is revisited as the four large paintings, Odalisque 1 – 1V (2006) testify. These works mark a new and significant departure in the artist’s work. The subject remains to the fore but is more corporal and present. Monumental in stature the curvaceous figures exude sensuality. While they pay homage, they are contemporary expressions of le Brocquy’s ideal. Aloof but at the same time immediate, their detachment is articulated in an atmosphere of reverie as they recline in expectant anticipation. In these late works le Brocquy subjects are fully present filling the picture plane with their solid mass, complete and self-contained reminding us of Michel Foucault’s observation that Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’Herbe and Olympia were …an acknowledgement of the new and substantial relationship of painting to itself” and that “ every painting now belongs to the squared and massive surface of painting”.(note 7)

    The consequences of Louis le Brocquy’s interrogation of the essential domain of mankind self contained and indivisible has resulted in an oeuvre that too belongs to that massive surface of painting in contemporary expression.


Note 1   Herman Melville  Moby- Dick or The Whale: Chapter 42
Note 2           ibid
Note 3   Louis le Brocquy, The Inner  Human Reality. Film Documentary directed by Joe Mulholland, RTE 1, Arts Lives, 21 February 2006
Note 4   T.S. Elliot The Cocktail Party, 1950, act 1 sc. 1
Note 5   Alistair Smith
Note 6   Louis le Brocquy, The Inner Human Reality as above 
Note 7   Michel Foucault Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Fantasia of the Liberty