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Louis le Brocquy
Louis le Brocquy and his Masters. Early Heroes, Later Homage,
Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. 14 January - 30 March 2007
In 2005-06, I returned to look again at the original Masters who essentially drew me to become a painter in 1938: Velázquez, Goya, Manet and Cézanne.
Why this eventual return?
Well, in 1951, I completed A Family, a large oil structurally based on Manet's Olympia, but here Manet's sensual subject had changed utterly through the circumstance of war to depict a family of refugees, as I've said, “stripped back to palaeolithic circumstance under an electric light bulb”.
It was my son, Pierre, who asked me if I would consider going back over the years to that unforgettable experience when, in 1938, I first looked at Olympia in Paris at the Jeu de Paumes; looking beyond A Family to recall my original aesthetic joy when face-to-face for the first time with Olympia. This I have tried to achieve in my own way in four versions painted in 2006.
Negro, 1939, I regard as my first authentic painting. The model was my Jamaican friend Ferdinand Levy, who thus proudly identified himself in those days – as did his close friend, Paul Robeson. I was already influenced by Manet in painting this early work, dark as it is. For, as Wilhelm Uhde has so perceptively observed, Manet is essentially a blond painter.
Girl in Grey, 1939, a portrait of my first wife, Jean Stoney, was painted on a minute top floor terrace in Menton, adjoining an even smaller studio-dwelling. The two Masters I had in mind in painting it were Goya and Manet, in particular Goya’s luminous greys.
Perhaps I have been most consistently influenced over the years by Edouard Manet in his successive works from Lola de Valence to Le Balcon. Already the latter had prompted Southern Window, 1939, with its green shutters. But another early painting was Book and Penny, 1941, inspired by Cézanne's Black Clock, an ominously moving work by a Master whom I personally regard as the Cimabue of our modern post-Renaissance age, which eventually developed into the formalised cubism of Picasso, obliquely translated in Condemned Man, 1945, A Family, 1951, and in many of my head studies long afterwards.
On returning to Ireland in 1940, my first painting was A Picnic, loosely based on Degas' Sur la Plage, on the one hand and, on the other, the Japanese woodblock prints of ukiyo-e. Unconsciously discovered, however, was that invisible entity we all know to exist;; our conscious inner self.
I myself was then unconscious of the introspective self-absorption of each of the three people depicted, unconscious even of the bare tablecloth, normally covered with good things to eat. I suppose I simply regarded the painting as a formal composition, which indeed it is. I had, however, stumbled on a hidden truth; that each one of us is essentially and finally alone. Not lonely but alone. Even lovers are incapable of losing themselves, one in the other.
One of the magical aspects of the old European art of painting -- most evident in Rembrandt -- is an extraordinary ambivalence wherein the paint itself, while retaining its own palpable nature, miraculously becomes the image of the experienced object. Perhaps this was the instant appeal of St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata at our National Gallery, in which the ectoplasmic clouds above the saint become paint, paint spirit.
In these formative years, Girl in White, 1941, was influenced by two sources. Whistler's Young Girl in White was initially looked at, but the Japanese pillar print (hashira-e), where much of the visual image is implied outside its borders, was the dominating influence.
But let us return momentarily to those early heroes, the Masters who still preoccupy me. To my mind, apart from the uncanny facility of his painting, I see Velázquez's supreme insight as empathy, whether it be an image of Philip IV or of Don Sebastián de Morra, this stunted man peering out at us in isolation, whose tattered lace collar has been so carefully noted by the artist.
In 1984, Anne and I, invited by the Director of the Villa Medici, Jean Leymarie, to spend some days at this great French Academy in Rome, admired the walls, bare of paintings, carefully stippled under the supervision of its previous Director, Balthus. In 2005 memories of this visit spurred me to return to Velázquez's Grotto-Loggia Façade, Villa Medici and its dramatic central black which I had long admired.
Regarding Goya's Doña Antonia Zárate, my immediate concern was to preserve the dignity and deep humanity of Goya's chosen subject, by whom he himself was so clearly moved.
In my small painting Four Apples and a Knife, I emphasised that aspect which I think of as Cézanne’s transparent vision of the object, whether it be a mountain or a building in a landscape. In the Zeitgeist of his time Cézanne, with uncanny independence of vision, instinctively perceived what his contemporary physicists had scientifically realized: that the conception of the solidity of matter could no longer be regarded as valid.
In this belated return to my original Masters, it seems appropriate to end with some lines from T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding, ‘The Four Quartets’:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.