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Louis le Brocquy, A Portrait of the Artist as an Alchemist
Colm Tóibín

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

    In Part Four of his book The Aran Islands John Millington Synge describes the funeral on the middle island of a young man who has been drowned, whose body has been lost at sea and then washed up headless. Once the mourners have arrived at the graveyard, Synge watches them as ‘the men began their work, clearing off stones and thin layers of earth, and breaking up an old coffin that was in the place into which the new one had to be lowered. When a number of blackened boards and pieces of bone had been thrown up with the clay, a skull was lifted out, and placed upon a gravestone. Immediately the old woman, the mother of the dead man, took it up in her hands, and carried it away by herself. Then she sat down and put it on her lap – it was the skull of her own mother – and began keening and shrieking over it with the wildest lamentation.’

    Then when the grave was ready, the old woman returned with the skull ‘and came back to the coffin,’ Synge wrote, ‘and began to beat on it, holding the skull in her left hand. This last moment of grief was the most terrible of all.’ Like Hamlet with Yorick, the old woman had to face the stark fact that the great miracle of consciousness, of living in the world, had come to this – empty eye sockets, whitened bone, a hollow space, all on its way to dust.

    Despite the utter starkness of this image, it is strange how the dead live in the world. It is not hard to imagine the woman on the island in those precious moments when she held her mother’s skull in her lap beginning in her grief-stricken imagination to put flesh on the face, light into the eyes, a tongue into the mouth, wrinkles on the skin. It is easy to imagine her beginning then to let her mother smile, allow her to use her voice, let her face shine in the full ambiguous light of day before turning away to know that it cannot be. So, too, in 1996, Louis le Brocquy could remember his emotion when, thirty years earlier, ‘I came across the skull of René Descartes in a glass case in the anthropological section of the Musée de l’Homme – an ivory-tinted dome, smooth as a woman’s breast. Merely a bit of bone perhaps, but by implication, a tabernacle to this great instance of human consciousness.’

    Such an implication as occurred to the painter was not lost on Hamlet either; Hamlet was not long in the company of Yorick’s skull before he began to remember the life, the infinite jest, that was once in that skull and ask him: ‘Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?’

    In Hamlet, Shakespeare not only gave the prince a skull on which to muse, but the ghost of his father coming in ‘a questionable shape’. For those moments on the stage the prince and the audience watch transfixed as the ghost with ‘courteous action’ waves his son ‘to a more removed ground’ where it asks him to ‘pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing/ To what I shall unfold.’ As Shakespeare wrote this scene between the dead father and the ‘noble youth’, he knew that each time he wrote the word ‘Hamlet’ – the name of both the ghost and the prince – he was conjuring up, as though he were an alchemist, one of his own dead. He was working to satisfy some deeply private need by naming the play and the prince and the prince’s father Hamlet. Hamnet was the name of Shakespeare’s own son, who died in 1596 at the age of eleven. Shakespeare began the play three years later, changing merely one of the consonants, allowing himself to bring ghosts into the world by the magic of a single word.

    In his thoughtful and rather beautiful comments on the origins and sources of his impulse to create, Louis le Brocquy has said: ‘For, contrary to a generally held view, I think that painting is not in any direct sense a means of communication or self-expression.’ For Shakespeare, as he wrote the word ‘Hamlet’ out each time and then listened to the actors say it, he was not, in any direct sense, communicating the loss of his son to an audience, neither was he involved in expressing his deepest feelings. Instead, in the scenes where the ghost of the father appears to the son, and in the rest of the work, he was doing something both more simple and more mysterious – he was playing with the dead, summoning one of them back with a single word. He was digging up the name as the gravediggers dig up the skull and allowing it a playful, almost ironic, time back in the world. He was turning the world around so that the father is the ghost and the son is alive and they both share the name of the dead son. He knows as he writes that this does not matter to anybody else. It is enough that it matters to him, and yet he does not wish it to be entirely private. He wishes to make something which has this special, hidden power and then to hand it to the world. He wishes, as Louis le Brocquy will say about his paintings of his wife Anne Madden, ‘to enact a magic process within the limitations of my art.’

    The dead return to us in dreams, but there is a difference between these dreams and, for example, poems in which the dead return in dreams. There is Milton’s poem from 1658, On His Deceased Wife:

‘Methought I saw my late-espoused saint
Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave,
Rescued from Death by force, though pale and faint.’

In the dream, his wife

‘Came vested all in white, pure as her mind.
Her face was veiled, yet to my fancied sight
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined
So clear, as in no face with more delight.’

Or, almost a quarter of a millennium later, there is Thom Gunn’s
The Reassurance:

‘About ten days or so
After we saw you dead
You came back in a dream.
I’m all right now you said.’

    The difference between the dream and the poem is almost the same as the difference between the imagined canvas and the finished painting. Something deeply private, amorphous, shapeless, liable to fading has been enacted and now exists in words or in an image. It has involved what Louis le Brocquy calls ‘recognition of significant accident within a larger preoccupation.’ It has involved leaving the mind alone so that images and rhythms can enter, it has involved trapping them gently, training them to be both tame and wild. The work has been both charged and relaxed, it has been handled with cunning and care, given a force in rhythm, or colour and line, so that, finally, it has its own nervous system, its own body. A poem, or a novel, like a painting, does not mean; it simply is. It came about.

    In this state, it can, if it works, both come from wonder and, in le Brocquy’s phrase, ‘induce wonder.’

    And a crucial part of that process of making a dream or the beginning of something into a poem or a novel, however uneasy its tone or form, or making an image on canvas, however tentatively finished, is that the force – the wonder – goes inwards as well as outwards. The poem is on the page, the novel is printed, the painting hangs or is reproduced in a book. They have nothing to do with their maker. (‘The death of the poet,’ as Auden wrote in his poem on the death of Yeats, ‘was kept from his poems.’) But the force of making these things – the hours and days spent conjuring them up, seeking, as Louis le Brocquy puts it, to ‘evoke a reality of the mind’, playing with images, the face scowling in concentration, the eyes fearful and lit-up – hits the nervous system of the maker. Thus the eyes, the lines around the mouth, the forehead, the entire head of the constant or inconstant producer either displays or conceals these days of alchemy.

    Who is to deny that God’s making of the world affected God as much or more than it affected the world?

    Work like this, however, can be sly in how it lines the face and puts light into the eyes. Although le Brocquy has made one charcoal study of Synge, Synge’s face has not been a constant obsession of his. It is as though at the time of his early death Synge had not grown into his own face, his spirit was elsewhere. Although Yeats would describe Synge’s face as ‘a grave deep face’, the images which come to mind when we hear Synge’s name are the images of his characters. So, too, the face of the poet Wallace Stevens seems a mask, a game he played to distract us towards the poems of soaring imagination.

    The face of Henry James, as we see it in photographs and portraits, has some of that same blandness, coupled with gravity and dignity, suggesting a well-fed self, unwilling to let loose anywhere except on the page the demons which haunted him. Some of James’s best work can be read as a way of conjuring up the dead. As a painter might seek to go over and over the same images in the knowledge that they will, in Yeats’ phrase, ‘fresh images beget’, so too James worked over and over on images of his adored cousin Minnie Temple, who died when James was twenty-six. Within ten years of her death he had re-created her a number of times, as the eponymous heroine of his story Daisy Miller, for example, who breaks all the rules and ends badly, and then, more tenderly and completely, as Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady. He allowed her to live in the two places Minnie longed most to see as she was dying – England and Italy. He gave her a passionate hunger for life, allowing her to confront her destiny with a strange and beautiful innocence and hunger.

    And then, more than thirty years after her death, in his novel The Wings of the Dove he drew his cousin again, letting her once more come to England and Italy, as the vulnerable and dying heiress, Milly Theale, a passionate soul who would give anything to live. Slowly, as we learn to read James’s work, it becomes a set of portraits made over many years from many angles of himself and his cousin and a number of his friends from his early life. He made his masterpieces by creating fresh perspectives from which to view them, fresh lines with which to draw them as glittering, shimmering presences in the world. If his own face bore few of the marks of this, it was because he remade himself in an infinite numbers of guises. The man who suffered and the mind which created were not separate beings – they made their marks, however, mainly on the page.

    Louis le Brocquy became interested in the image of the head when in 1964 he saw in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris ‘the Polynesian decorated heads – skulls over-modelled in clay and painted ritualistically to contain the spirit.’ He later became interested, like Seamus Heaney, in the heads of figures preserved in bogs. In his poem Strange Fruit, Heaney began: ‘Here is the girl’s head like an exhumed gourd./ Oval-faced, prune-skinned, prune-stones for teeth.’ And ended: ‘Beheaded girl, outstaring axe/ And beatification, outstaring/ What had begun to feel like reverence.’ Le Brocquy was interested in the head as the place where the world lived, the residence also of the spirit, fragile and easy to destroy, as Anthony Cronin described in his poem Reminder when he imagined the moment of death:

                      ‘all that you are has vanished
Your brain and the rest of you die.

Nothing then left where once was all in all,
Those delicate cells and fibrils now gone dead,
The lovely leaps of currents and connection over
By which we hold a universe in the head.’

    Of all the writers and artists whose heads have been painted again and again by Louis le Brocquy, Federico García Lorca comes across as the most protean personality, the one who held several different universes in his head, a figure in need of many different perspectives and interpretations. We can see him in the light of Granada, ‘his Granada’, as Antonio Machado called it after his death, where, as a poet, he will recognize that the Alhambra is more important than the city’s cathedral; we can see him also as a poet of great simplicity, allowing his work to take its bearing from folk song; we can see him as a provocative playwright in a dark time deeply concerned with the drama between restriction and freedom; we can see him as well in his long poem Poet in New York as a surrealist poet, urban and sophisticated. We can also see, because the best photographs of him were taken in his last years,  the doom in his eyes, like the girl in Strange Fruit. ‘When I painted Federico García Lorca,’ le Brocquy has said, ‘I feared his fate, just as he did.’

    Fulke Greville, the Elizabethan poet, in writing about the sense of change in his loved one’s eyes, wrote that the expression in her eyes ‘the doom of all change carried.’ As le Brocquy set to work on making images of Yeats and Joyce, the two figures haunted by Ireland, and who haunt certain streets in Dublin in turn, he allowed not only the sense of strength and energy within the skull to inhabit the paintings but also the idea of imaginative force as a Faustian bargain, all doomed to fade. He painted in full awareness that the consciousness, in all its flickering beauty, will dissolve in death, that time will not relent, that substance comes armed with shadow. ‘I am fascinated,’ le Brocquy has said, ‘by the mutability of faces, of heads.’ In some of his paintings of Yeats and Joyce, they gaze at us from the dead. ‘I try to paint the head image from the inside out,’ he has said. Le Brocquy has sought to bring their spirits back from the place into which they have faded not exactly as an archaeologist searching for traces of them but more as an alchemist rebuilding ‘those ancient glittering eyes’ or the fixed pitiless stare, the Yeats who wrote: ‘Uplift those eyes and throw/ Those glances unafraid.’ With Yeats, le Brocquy said, ‘occasionally I even played a game of conjuring him up, as one might do in a séance of spiritualism.’ From these paintings of Yeats, le Brocquy masked and unmasked him, with the poet’s sense of something close to gaiety at the idea that things would not last:

‘Everything that man esteems
Endures a moment or a day:
Love’s pleasures drives his love away,
The painter’s brush consumes his dreams.’

    With Picasso and Bacon, le Brocquy is aware of the mirada fuerte of the painter, the hard gaze with the sensuous face around it, predatory, sexual, examining the canvas and the world with a ferocious and exacting and relentless hunger. They both played, risked much, with a very old magic. ‘Painting,’ le Brocquy has said, ‘has [a] magic ambivalence, a transformation within itself in which the paint, while maintaining its material identity, becomes the image, while the image – be it a rectilinear surface or a bunch of asparagus – is transformed into paint.’ This magic ambivalence is something which le Brocquy has been highly conscious of, the magic of what he also calls ‘old European art’. This involves, he once wrote, ‘a particular use of oil paint; not to symbolize, not to describe the object, not to realize an abstract image, but to allow the paint itself to reconstitute the object of one’s experience; to metamorphose into the image of an apple, a sky, a human back.’

    Or a human face. Thus when George Eliot stared at the painting Young Man with a Glove by Titian, she could see enough in that astonishing mystery of what paint does – something ambiguous, open, and also complete – to make her own figure of Daniel Deronda. Thus, when John McGahern stared at Velázquez’s painting of the old woman frying eggs in the National Gallery of Scotland, it would suggest to him something that could also be managed with the plasticity of prose – the human presence reconstituted, with infinite suggestion and tact and detail, so that it might exist here on the canvas or on the page more substantially than it would ever exist in the world.

    Le Brocquy himself, if you watch him as he stands in a room, has a stable, wide, almost placid, gaze; he is someone, in Henry James’s phrase, ‘on whom nothing is lost’. His gaze is never fierce nor ever puzzled; rather, it comes from what he has called ‘the walled garden of consciousness’. It is easy to imagine things dissolving into their elements as he watches them. Seeing for him is discovering rather than capturing.

    He has made self-portraits, fully alert to what he calls ‘the billowing curtain’ of the face, the face of ‘the enlisted sufferer whose suffering he well knew’, as he has said of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. He has painted his wife Anne Madden, he says, more than any human being. He is fascinated by the idea that: ‘If I were able to get into your head when you were looking at Anne, for instance, I’m certain I’d think “No, no, that’s not Anne, Anne’s not like that.”’ He attempts ‘to realize her being in paint,’ as he has said. If you watch him watching her, you think of Phase 16 from Yeats’s A Vision which invokes Blake and Rabelais and ‘some beautiful women’. In these figures, Yeats says, there is always ‘an element of frenzy, and almost always a delight in certain glowing or shining images of concentrated force.’ Such images attract Louis le Brocquy; they are what he takes with him when he goes alone into the studio. They help him towards a sweet form of self-annihilation so that, as he says, ‘the emergent image is not so much made by me as imposing itself on me, accident by accident, with its own autonomous life.’

      Le Brocquy, in his series of heads, has sought to ‘replace the single definitive image by a series of inconclusive images,’ knowing that ‘because of photography and the cinema on the one hand, and psychology on the other, we can no longer regard a human being as a static entity.’ His concern in asking the very picture surface and the marks he makes there to enact this was reflected by certain French writers and theorists. Alain Robbe-Grillet, for example, wrote: ‘Everything must happen within the text so that severances, faults, ambiguities, mobilities, fragmentation, contradictions, holes must be enacted. It is the text which must display them.’ Or Merleau-Ponty on the body: ‘Our body is comparable to a work of art. It is a nexus of lived meanings.’ Or on the idea of space: ‘I live in it from the inside; I am immersed in it. After all, the world is all around me, not in front of me.’

    Samuel Beckett, in his novel Watt would muse on the stability or otherwise of a picture found hanging in a bedroom:

‘Prolonged and irksome meditation forced Watt to the conclusion that the picture was part and parcel of Mr Knott’s establishment.

The question to this answer was the following, of great importance in Watt’s opinion. Was the picture a fixed and stable member of the edifice, like Mr Knott’s bed, for example, or was it simply a manner of paradigm, here today and gone tomorrow, a term in a series, like the series of Mr Knott’s dogs, or the series of Mr Knott’s men, or like the centuries that fall, from the pod of eternity?

A moment’s reflection satisfied Watt that the picture had not been long in the house, and that it was one of a series.’

    There are times in Beckett’s work in which he seems to be almost reflecting on the precise dilemmas which faced le Brocquy: ‘One is enough. One staring eye. Gaping pupil thinly nimbed with washen blue. No trace of humour. None any more. Unseeing. As if dazed by what seen behind the lids.’ (From Ill Seen Ill Said) Or: ‘Traces blurs light grey almost white on white. Only the eyes only just light blue almost white. Given rose only just bare white body fixed one yard white on white invisible.’ (From Ping)

    Le Brocquy returned the compliment by working on Beckett’s extraordinary lined face, his great old bones, the clarity of his gaze, by re-making images of him in ways that Beckett’s friend Giacometti understood when he spoke about his models: ‘One starts by seeing the person who poses, but little by little all the possible sculptures of him intervene. The more a real vision of him disappears, the stranger his head becomes. One is no longer sure of his disappearance, or of his size, or of anything at all. There were too many sculptures between my model and me. And when there were no more sculptures, there was such a complete stranger that I no longer knew whom I saw or what I was looking at.’

    But in le Brocquy’s images of Beckett, despite all the efforts made to emphasise and then reduce the writer’s gaze, to allow it to fade and fix on us again, and fade again, something miraculous occurs in the space between the self as something merely waiting to be erased and the self as pure energy. It is the idea that our stay in the world will come to nothing, but, despite everything, it is not nothing, it simply is not nothing. Le Brocquy paints images of the head in the time when the face, in all its uneasy beauty and energy and singularity, outstares the skull and seems to contain within itself what le Brocquy calls ‘the everlasting night of the stars’ and what Yeats, in turn, called:

‘All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.’


Acknowledgement: Special thanks to Seamus Heaney and Anthony Cronin.