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“Behind the Billowing Curtain of the Face”1: Louis le Brocquy’s Portrait Heads
Dr Síghle Bhreathnach-Lynch

Louis le Brocquy, Portrait Heads: ‘A celebration of the artist’s 90th birthday’
National Gallery of Ireland, November 4 - January 13, 2007

In 1956, Louis le Brocquy painted a small oil portrait head of a Down’s Syndrome child (Caroline, 13 x 15cm).  The little girl’s head seems to emerge on to the canvas out of ‘a tossing sea of paint’.2  With a few deft brushstrokes her distinctive features are perfectly evoked with the utmost tenderness. It is this seminal work which both builds on his earlier studies of children and anticipates the series of head images dating from 1964 onwards: the subject of this exhibition celebrating the artist’s ninetieth birthday. The exquisite petit portrait was exhibited in 1957 alongside his Presences; single, spectral human forms which seem to mysteriously  appear on the canvas as if from nowhere, bathed in  brilliant light.  But in 1963 there was a dramatic halt to the artist’s output. He believed that the well of inspiration had completely dried up. He felt powerless and depressed and destroyed over forty works. His wife, the painter Anne Madden, who witnessed this hopelessness decided that he needed to escape from his daily environment; they were then living in Carros, in Southern France. They visited Paris where there was the opportunity to meet up with old friends and artistic colleagues, as well the chance to visit the great museums of the city. It was in the anthropological Musée de l’Homme that ‘the flash of lightning struck’.3 Le Brocquy discovered the Polynesian decorated heads – skulls overmodelled in clay and decorated with paint. The slits representing the eyes seemed to him to produce a sense of inward consciousness, the decoration celebrating the spirit within these ancestral heads.

Later that same year they visited Aix-en-Provence to see the remains of the Celto-Ligurian town of Entremont which had been destroyed by the Romans in 123 bc. Coming across some stone sculptures in the local museum, the link with Celtic Ireland struck him. While Celtic culture had been obliterated in this area of France, it had survived in Ireland. As an Irishman who felt a connectedness with these ancient ancestors, looking at these heads confirmed for him the idea of the head as a container of the spirit of humankind, a kind of magic box. ‘Enter the box, enter behind the billowing curtain of the face, and you have the whole landscape of the spirit’.4 Aesthetically refreshed, le Brocquy returned to his studio to begin a series of head images that were to become the foundation of his art production. He started with an exploration of ancestral heads. These were totems of humankind, bound neither to time nor place and symbolised immemorial existence.

A decade later the artist started to concentrate on a series of named portraits. The first of these  are the images of W.B. Yeats (1866 – 1939). In his youth, Yeats had studied art at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (1883 – 86) before choosing to pursue a literary path, one destined to lead him to becoming a giant of letters. His magnificent contribution to Irish literature, in poetry and drama, was appropriately recognised during his own lifetime when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 – the first Irishman to achieve this distinction. In late 1974, le Brocquy was approached by the Swedish gallery owner Per-Olav Börjesson who wished to assemble a portfolio of thirty-three aquatints of Nobel prizewinners by international artists of the day. This set was later published in book form. It was le Brocquy’s own decision to choose Yeats as his subject. He had known him as a child, although not very intimately. Rather, he remembered him as an aloof grown-up who radiated an immense presence. As an adult he found himself captivated by the poet’s ‘vast and mysterious personality’.5

Before starting on the portrait le Brocquy steeped himself in Yeats’ work and then moved on to making a number of studies for the final aquatint, in the time-honoured way of creating a portrait. Traditionally, preliminary sketches are produced with the intention of working towards a final resolution. Thus he worked on study after study in watercolour, charcoal and oil, in preparation for the final print. Photographs provided an aide-mémoire in this process. But he noticed that they often bore little resemblance to each other. When his studies were completed it occurred to him that each image was somehow different. It was as if he had unconsciously captured individual facets of the complex personality and character of Yeats, rather than producing a conclusive ‘whole’. He now became  aware that a true representation of a sitter cannot be seized in one permanent, stable image no matter how great the skill of the artist. Those inward fleetings of emotions, the intangible thoughts, that sense of self, in other words, all those elements that are as vital as the outward physical characteristics, cannot be satisfactorily united in a static image; a  visual finality. It was a moment of artistic epiphany.6

This exhibition contains three of these portrait heads. They represent some of the earliest oil explorations by le Brocquy of this unique form of portraiture. The poet is shown full-face, hovering in a timeless spatial background.7 Through a painterly manipulation of different planes and colours, le Brocquy, at one and the same time, is able to convey different aspects of Yeats’ physical and psychological make-up. The hovering, flickering presences seem to effortlessly yield up the inner, outer and secret self, the psychic ingredients of an extraordinary intellectual vigour.

Le Brocquy had long been fascinated by the novelist, poet and dramatist James Joyce (1882 – 1941). He had never known him personally but Joyce’s evocation of Dublin had a special nostalgia for the painter born in the same city in 1916. He also admired Joyce’s work and before embarking on this new portrait project, consciously immersed himself in his writings. By 1979, he had created in oil, watercolour, and charcoal no less than one hundred and twenty images.8 The resultant series conveys the personality of Joyce with the same depth as the images of Yeats. It is not only the towering intellectual presence that is revealed but the inner vulnerability of someone whose journey through life was an isolated one precisely because he was ‘different’ from others by virtue of his genius. The two studies of Joyce in the exhibition provide perfect examples of this dual revelation. Image of James Joyce (ref. 395) seems to suggest the self-contained Joyce, eyes closed as if in silent self-communing, the anarchic humour is indicated by the quirky painted line of the lips. The second image (ref. 406) exposes a less composed inner self. The mood is set in the clear but cold colours: the eyes seemingly startled and unguarded behind the spectacles, the line of the mouth is down-turned and an upward flick of paint reveals a furrowed forehead.

Frederico García Lorca (1898 – 1936), the Spanish poet and dramatist, also occupied le Brocquy’s attention during 1977 and 1978. His interest in Lorca stems originally from an appreciation of the plays of J.M. Synge.  Lorca himself had admired Synge’s work, both sharing a passionate interest in the customs of those on the margins of society. Equally, they were united by a genuine love of country. Of the numerous studies from this series, two are included in the exhibition. In keeping with all the portraits on display they ‘conspire to promise an image’ in their fragmentation.9 And because of the nature of le Brocquy’s unique style of non-didactic representation, a meditative kind of examination is encouraged in the viewer in order to truly understand the shifting, ever-fluctuating nature of Being.

Four images of Samuel Beckett (1906 – 1989) in the exhibition are testimony to the  enduring friendship between the two men.10 Le Brocquy had a huge reverence for Beckett’s writings and could quote him at length although the latter was always reluctant to discuss his own work. At the same time, Beckett was interested in the painter’s creative vision. An affinity between these two, the man of letters and the visual artist, is evident in the genuine concern for the human condition, but one stripped of any irrelevance. Equally, they were personally familiar with the burden of difficulty and failure that can be a seminal  part of the creative process.

Beckett’s distinctive creviced features and pale piercing eyes are easily distinguishable in all the images worked  between 1979 and 2005. But the painter was not simply aiming for a portrait likeness but rather to ‘discover, aspects of the Beckettness of Beckett’.11 Working in masses, building up planes and using the painted line in a breath-taking dynamic way, what emerges from the backgrounds are the sum of the intangible qualities of Beckett; his unflinching examination of humanity, the penetrating intellect, the bone-dry humour. But the portrait heads convey personal qualities too: his intense sense of isolation and his great kindness.12 Le Brocquy continued to paint images of his friend long after his death, one of which is in the current exhibition. Image of Samuel Beckett, Stirrings Still, painted in 1994, depicts a skeletal, multi-layered, half-length image of Beckett that seems to mysteriously vibrate.  This image directly relates to le Brocquy’s illustrations of the writer’s prose piece Stirrings Still, completed in 1989, which had a profound effect on le Brocquy .13 Of  all  the images on display, this is perhaps the most powerful and unsettling.

Le Brocquy’s exploration of the psyche of genius was not solely confined to literary figures. A series devoted to images of the painter Francis Bacon (1901 – 1992) was produced over a period of twenty years from 1979. Both knew and admired each other’s work. Interestingly, Bacon, while pleased to become a subject of le Brocquy’s portrait heads, had reservations when he actually viewed his own image. As recounted by Anne Madden, the artist fell silent in le Brocquy’s presence as he contemplated his distorted appearance on canvas.14 It was as if he felt publicly exposed and vulnerable under the painted scalpel of his fellow portraitist. Superficially their portraits are not unalike in their disregard for academic verisimilitude and their desire to transcend the immediate. However, Bacon saw no resemblance to his own paintings. He believed instead that le Brocquy’s work showed some influences of both Cézanne and Giacometti. Herbert Read (1893 – 1968), the English poet and critic of literature perceptively pointed out to le Brocquy, ‘your “faces” are faces of love, not hate’.15 His much younger brother-in-law, Jeremy Madden, also understood the integral differences in both painters’ approach to and interpretation of the sitter.16  He felt that Bacon saw and subsequently visualised in paint the agony of human kind, whereas le Brocquy’s portraits seemed conceived in stillness, in an inner space, unfamiliar with feelings of violence. His portraits appeared to inhabit a continuous present and celebrate the enduring spirit of man. Therein lay the fundamental differences between these two artists.

In 1983, the Musée Picasso, Antibes, commissioned le Brocquy to paint an image of Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) for their collection, Hommages à Pablo Picasso. Several versions were offered to Danièle Giraudy, Director of the Museum. Giraudy later recalled being totally mesmerised by the images, all of which displayed the ‘unbearable scrutiny of Picasso, fixed and still’…17  Having to choose just one portrait head from these powerful images was almost impossible. So the solution arrived at was to hang all of them in the museum in order to make a final choice. Image Ultérieure was selected because it seemed ‘bluer and more tender than the others, magisterially incorporated within a square format…[it] seemed to me to be destined for the luminous galleries of the Château d’Antibes’. Le Brocquy’s response to the art of Picasso was not one simply of admiration, as in the case of the great literary artists. He believed him to be ‘a Prometheon figure’ and was influenced by his innovative approach to art.18 Here was an artist who was phenomenal for having reinvented every conceivable art form. Le Brocquy’s  heads make use of Cubist faceting. Yet they remain fundamentally the Irish artist’s unique invention.

The artist’s portrait heads also include members of his own family. Image of Anne, painted in 1974, is one of a series dating from 1979 through to 2005. For her husband these representations have created a problem: ‘I had a natural reluctance to distort the features of this beautiful woman’.19 He sees her as his third eye, his muse. For many years they actually worked in the same studio. Equally disciplined and single minded, they were able to focus on their own projects without intruding on each other’s space. The 1974 painting is evocative because there is no attempt to define Anne Madden’s facial features. Instead, an impression of personal tenderness is created by means of the choice of palette, the gentle touch of line and form.

Image of Anne (1974) is strikingly different from the artist’s Study of Self (1989). The eyes of the artist, set within a highly faceted structure, are steady and unflinching as he lays bare his own psyche. He had resisted self-portraiture for many years, being more interested in learning about the other. However, a couple of studies in watercolour made from Delacroix’s self-portrait Autoportrait dit au gilet vert (1840, Louvre) finally persuaded him that painting oneself could provide a challenge. So it is that from 1981 onward he included himself as a subject in the portrait head series. In an interview with Bernard Noël in 1977, he made a perceptive point about there being always an element of self-portraiture involved when painting other people.20 On the other hand, le Brocquy believed that it was Rembrandt who displayed the highest intelligence ‘in projecting conscious ideas of himself into his self-portraits…he painted  portraits of the man he saw in the mirror, whose sufferings he knew well’.

John Russell has written perceptively about the special qualities of le Brocquy’s portrait heads. ‘He has been meditating on the variability of the human head as it is found in the people of genius…while some painters resent or gloss over the hit-or-miss element in portraiture, le Brocquy welcomes it into the studio as an indispensable familiar. No one image can be definitive, in his view, and the act of portraiture should be a long and patient siege, as distinct from a headlong assault’.21 This exhibition serves to provide a deeper understanding of the nature of le Brocquy’s creative genius.

I would like to thank Pierre le Brocquy, who personally selected the portrait heads on display, for providing me with valuable material in the researching of this essay.

1 Michael Peppiatt, ‘Interview with Louis le Brocquy’, Art International, Lugano, Vol. XXIII/7, October 1979, p. 66. Reproduced in Louis le Brocquy, The Head Image (Kinsale: Gandon Editions, 1996), p. 23.
2 John Montague, ‘Primal Scream, The Later le Brocquy’, The Arts in Ireland, Vol.2. No. 1 (Dublin, 1973), p. 4.
3 Anne Madden le Brocquy, Louis le Brocquy: A Painter Seeing his Way (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1994), p. 145.
4 Michael Peppiatt., op. cit.
5 George Morgan, ‘An interview with Louis le Brocquy by George Morgan’, Louis le Brocquy, The Head Image (Kinsale: Gandon Editions, 1996),  p. 15.
6 What resulted was an aquatint which recalled the evocative painted traces of the earlier ancestral heads. It was entitled Study towards an Image of WB Yeats, as were numerous other studies of the poet in various media, made from 1975 until 1998.
7 Le Brocquy believes that it is this viewpoint which most tellingly reveals the kaleidoscopic nature of the person being depicted.
8 The artist would continue his studies of Joyce until 1995.
9 Brian O’Doherty, ‘Three Notes on Louis le Brocquy’s Paintings’, Louis le Brocquy, Human Images, Early and Recent Works on Paper, Taylor Galleries, Dublin, 1998, n.p.
10 This deep friendship is astutely observed in Anne Madden’s biography.
11 Louis le Brocquy, The Head Image (Kinsale: Gandon Editions, 1996), p. 6.
12 Yet le Brocquy never felt that he had fully revealed the hidden depths of the writer. See Madden, op. cit., p. 278.
13 This was written between 1986 and 1989 to give his American publisher, Barney Rosset, something to publish! It first came out in a signed limited edition and was later re-published in a posthumous edition, As The Story Was Told (1990). Its theme is of entrapment, the inability to carry on, temporary release but an inevitable return to the original state.
14 See Madden, op. cit., p. 215.
15 Quoted in Madden, op. cit., p. 165.
16 Letter to Le Brocquy, quoted in Madden, op. cit., p. 159.
17 Danièle Giraudy, ‘La traverse des apparences’, exhibition catalogue Louis le Brocquy, Images, 1975 – 1988 (Antibes: Musée Picasso, July 1 – September 15, 1989).
18 Madden, op. cit., p. 51.
19 Louis le Brocquy, interview, Anne Madden, Painter and Muse, television documentary directed by Bill Hughes, Mind the Gap Productions, 2005.
20 Bernard Noël, ‘Interviews Louis le Brocquy’, Introspect (Dublin, December 1977).
21 John Russell, ‘Louis le Brocquy  and the Celtic Head’, The New York Times, (November 6, 1981).