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Interview with Louis le Brocquy: The Human Image Paintings
Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, 2002

Critic, curator, and Lecturer in the Department of Modern Irish (Language and Literature) at University College Dublin

The following interview was edited from a series of exchanges which took place by fax over a three-month period between February and May, 2002, which in turn arose from a number of conversations in the artist's studio during the same period.


CMGL The first, important period during which you produced what have come to be known as the 'Presences' is, in retrospect, clearly bracketed by the years 1956 and1963-4. You have in the past characteirised these transitions as being precipitated by a specific revelation, in the first instance, and a frustrating impasse in your painting, in the second, one which was ultimately alleviated by an external stimulus.

LleB Yes, those were two dramatic moments for me as a painter, subjectively at any rate. The first was the transition from those grey, angular paintings such as 'A Family', to the white, less structural 'Presences'. A profound painterly change occurred, but my preoccupation remained the same, unaltered belief in the irreducible reality of the human individual.

How did this change take place? Well, it so happened that in 1955 I was commissioned by a London magazine to tour Spain, making spontaneous designs for textiles. On one particular, memorable occasion in a village in La Mancha the intense sunlight interposed its own revelation, absorbing within its brilliance figures standing before a white-washed wall, giving substance only to shadow. From that moment I never perceived the human presence in quite the same way. I had witnessed light as a kind of matrix from which the human being emerges and into which it ambivalently recedes - with which it even identifies.

The latter episode some ten years later was extremely traumatic, when I finally destroyed virtually a year's work which I felt had little to do with me or my concerns. Then came discovery in Paris at the Musée de I'Homme. Polynesian heads, skulls of ancestors modelled over with clay, ritualistically decorated, often with cowry shells for eyes. Magic boxes, as I saw them, to contain the spirit, the whole in the part, not unlike the old synecdochism of the Iron Age Celt.

This chance discovery launched me into a further reach of the Presence' paintings - emerging from a similar white ground - the long series of head images, at first anonymous but later of such specific artists as Yeats, Joyee, Lorca, Beckett - avatars of our contemporary consciousness.

CMGL Does this difference of emphasis between 'Presence' and 'Consciousness' reflect a change in attitude toward the relative importance of the opposing terms in the classic mind/body dichotomy?

LleB No, that's not exactly how I regard it. As a painter, I'm inclined to see the body and head as alternative images of 'the whole in the part'. In both I attempt to paint some sort of image of the mysterious state of conscious being.

CMGL How readily did [i. e. in 1955], or does a response to the world of observable phenomena translate into an ongoing existential, or even metaphysical concern in your work.

LleB I suppose you learn as you go along. Looking back on my earliest paintings such as 'A Picnic' (1941), I can now see what I ignored at the time, that an element of aloneness pervades them. Why, I do not know, but it is evident that the state of aloneness must necessarily imply an unshared perception of reality, questioning all assumptions, even that of your own existence. I certainly felt this way as a child, believing that I might just as well have been born a goat or a hedgehog, when the world would have appeared to be a very different place! Consequently, it seemed to me that our interior perception of things, as we happened to have evolved, must necessarily be partial, if not distorted.

CMGL Do you mean our evolution as a species or as individuas?

LleB As a species - and as individuals within the species. Certainly the human race has survived the Darwinian test so far, but surely that doesn't mean we can correctly perceive what we call 'the real world'. I imagine that what we perceive is a world corresponding to our own necessarily distorted perception of its actuality. Perhaps we know how it works rather than what it is.

In the early '50s I remember being impressed when reading The Gates of Perception, in which Aldous Huxley attempted to discover an alternative view of actuality through controlled experiments with hallucinatory drugs. Well, I am inclined to regard painting as an alternative perception; not only an alternative way of looking, but another way of thinking, within which we may occasionally discover something of our own inward reality.

Since I was a boy I suppose I've always been curious about otherness, imagining for instance how our family cocker spaniel might perceive things - or Cro-Magnon man, for that matter, gazing at the night sky from the comparative safety of his cave dwelling, reaching out towards the limits of his environment with no knowledge whatever - just pure wonder. That is to say, as we ourselves wondered some forty thousand years ago, for we are told that no evolutionary change has intervened. We even suffer still from his same impacted wisdom teeth! Well, from that human capacity to wonder sprang the unprecedented flowering of Magdalenian art, and I believe that to this day it is that same wonder which produces all great art.

Of course wonder is experienced primarily by the individual but, you will agree, the individual is multiple in so far as each one of us is the sum of our ancestral genes. My own awareness is, in that sense, not entirely singular. Even my limbs I tend to regard as Paleolithic arms and legs on loan for a lifetime.

CMGL To what extent were the 'Presences' or indeed your paintings in general, driven by factors largely internal to what the German artist Gerhard Richter would call 'The Daily Practice of Panting.

LleB 'The daily practice of painting' was regarded as particularly important by an old friend of mine in the London of the late 1940s, the post-cubist artist Jankel Adler, a Polish Jew who came to London during the war and greatly influenced such contemporary painters as Colquhoun- McBride and Keith Vaughan. When Adler died in April '49 I wrote in The Irish Times. 'He put bones into the modern school of British painting.'

Jankel Adler believed, I remember, that inspiration seldom came to the painter in bed or while otherwise engaged. It tended to come, if at all, during those long, often frustrating hours at the easel. This would seem to bear out my own belief that painting is to a great extent autonomous, revealing itself within the process of painting. That is not quite as esoteric as it sounds. It implies, rather, that if the painter dares to open his or her mind and 'listen' to what the paint suggests, then unconscious, revelatory ideas can surface.

CMGL To what extent were these paintings nevertheless informed by 'external' concerns, e.g. particular ideas or writings which may have influenced you at the time, or the general intellectual climate of the day.

LleB I have of course been deeply affected by the ideas of others at various times in my life. Working in Dublin during the last war, I had the good fortune to know the great physicist and thinker Erwin Schroedinger, whose metaphysical convictions have caused me endless wonder. I still recall his insight in 1943 that 'consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown, and what seems to be plurality is merely a series of different aspects of this same one thing'.

Then, some ten years later, I remember reading and being intrigued by a theory conceived by D.H. Lawrence (or so I believe; ever since 1 have been unable to rediscover it.) To the best of my recollection, it suggested that, whereas the mind was equipped to discover and to act, underlying emotive feeling took place in two principal, chakra-like centres within the body, referred to respectively as the Thoracic and Lumbar Ganglia. The former was associated with the male, the day, the Sun; the latter with femininity, night and the moon. This was further evidenced, I remember, by the remarkable frontal thoracic development of the bull, the lion and man in contrast to the lumbar emphasis in the female of the species.

What intrigued me in this theory was its non-factual, metaphysical nature, implying that emotion and feeling lay somehow outside or to one side of the mental process. Here was a perception which ignored accuracy but nonetheless stressed the inner wholeness of the human organism.

CMGL In that it encompassed both male and female principles though in different states of development in each gender or individual?

LleB I would imagine so. Seemingly the male and female principles are at work in each of us.

I remember about this time designing a tapestry called Allegory (1950). In it the woman winds into a ball of wool a skein held by the man. The sun and moon radiate in their respective compartments. From the latter compartment a child emerges. A rather simplistic treatment of a complex subject, but then tapestry - like ballet - demands thematic simplicity.

CMGL What other writings have you found enabling or revelatory?

LleB Well, I would say that the implicit sense of aloneness in Samuel Beekett's writing and his insistence, as I see it, on the individual's interior experience have certainly revealed a lot to me during the last thirty years or so. Revelation, I imagine, usually means learning from another source something that has lain latent and unrecognised within yourself.

Along the years much has been revealed to me in this way, usually from unlikely, always unexpected sources. Recently, I came across Professor Ciaran Benson's A Cultural Psychology of the Self, in which I recognised, described in clear psychological terms, my own preoccupation as a painter - the limitless outreach of the human presence in its physical and social environment, our give-and-take relationship with others and with the objective world around us.

CMGL When you talk of 'the human presence' I assume you mean something fundamental and common to all humanity which transcends all those categorical distinctions which otherwise divide us, such as race, gender and so forth.

LleB Certainly. After all, our unique state of consciousness is shared by all humanity, irrespective of sex, race or mental ability. This was the conscious state, however veiled, that I tried to realise in the minute painting Caroline (1956) - a tentative image of a child with Downes syndrome.

CMGL But of course you have also devoted many years to the investigation of the features of unique individuals i.e. your portraits of Joyce, Beckett, Yeats etc.. All of these subjects are male, and you have in the past registered a reluctance to address a female 'head'. How is the question of gender reflected in the 'Presences'?

LleB Yes, as you say, in that series of head images there are only male subjects, individuals who have led us all into new areas of thought. I haven't chosen men as such, although I admit to difficulty when painting women in this interiorised way - fearful, perhaps of the inevitable distortion of their features, which in a man I can better accept.

CMGL Is this a form of deferential gallantry? One by which, for example, your friend Francis Bacon was untroubled.

LleB Is this a form of deference? I have to ask myself. I seem to have inherited from my father a particular sympathy and affection for women as such. So, maybe I am fearful of any distortion of their image. Francis Bacon also liked women but, in keeping with the process of his art, he was fully prepared to 'distort them into reality'.

In the faceless 'Presences' I have no such inhibition. True, in the male presence I feel a certain identity, irrespective of my years, but its female equivalent is fundamental to us all, I imagine, even beyond its sexual aspect. In certain paintings, such as those based on the Aurignacian theme of the Laussel Venus (e.g. ‘nos. 109 (1964), 700, 702, 708 (all 1997), and 724 (1999)') there are no sexual implications other than womanhood in the deep sense of 'mother' and in the old image of race survival.

CMGL Wasn't the focus in the 'Presences' on the intricate inner workings of the human torso, especially as related to the central spinal column which anchors these works compositionally, influenced by the serious medical problems resulting from an accident that happened to your wife, the painter Anne Madden?

LleB Yes, Anne was a champion horse rider. She was fearless and eventually had a fall which resulted in her having to undergo three operations on her spine. The last of these operations took place after we had met, when I was already painting images emerging from a white ground. I remember being filled with an irrational anger at the aggressive implications of this surgical carpentry.

Thus, in a number of these 'Presence' paintings, indications of the spinal column can be seen, particularly in 'Young Woman' (1957) in which a small red mark also appears. But, apart from such very personal feelings, the spine literally continued to form the backbone of such 'Presence' images as 'Woman' (1959).

CMGL You referred earlier to your interest in 'the limitless outreach of the human presence in its physical and social enidronment.' In what way does the question of social environment, i.e. of human interaction rather than human presence, impinge on your painting?

LleB I imagine that social concerns are fairly evident in my early paintings - in the grey 'Family' series and in the preceding 'Traveller' paintings. As for the 'Human Presence' series, the image being isolated, no direct human interaction is implied. What concerns me here, I think, is on one hand the human environment within the phenomenal world - literally reaching to the stars - and, on the other, its social and cultural outreach, which includes the enlarging experience of art: of music, for example, or the reading of a poem.

CMGL So, for the past half-century 'the social' has been implicit rather than explicit in your work, taking the oblique form, for example, of an iconic encapsulation of shared cultural experience in the heads of celebrated artists and writers such as Yeats, Beckett, Bacon etc.?

LleB Exactly.

CMGL Of course, you have occasionally painted assembled figures in the years since that very early period from 'The Picnic' to 'A Family' and its subsequent 'Grey' series. I am thinking of the group paintings in the two 'Procession' series, 'Procession with Lilies' and 'Children in a Wood' which surfaced initially in the early 1960s and which you later revisited in the 1980s.

LleB Yes. From my point of view there is no profound differentiation between my paintings involving groups and those portraying a single individual. Even in those early works you mention I was already preoccupied by the need to pare back the human image beyond what could be regarded as superfluous or incidental, back to his or her essential aloneness.

Since then, both in the 'Presence' series and in the images of heads, there has been an attempt to probe further inwards towards that intangible reality within us. Yet in the mid 1980s, while continuing to paint heads, I became involved in these two series of group paintings, 'Procession with Lilies' and 'Children in a Wood'.

Why? Well, in the former series - which was originally derived from an Evening Herald photograph of Dublin schoolgirls returning from the Church of Adam and Eve on 16 June 1939 - I was intrigued by this surviving trace of a past reality which had been photographically arrested within what I believe James Joyce once referred to as a ‘succession of present moments’.

Here was a particular moment, stilled, absent yet ever-present, like the ‘luminous emptiness’ that Seamus Heaney sensed where a felled chestnut tree of his childhood continued to find its existence.

The 'Children in a Wood' series, on the other hand, is only related to 'Procession with Lilies' in that it, too, implies gestural movement instantaneously stilled in time. But it also evokes in me childhood memories of play within an immense tent formed by a giant Thuya tree - Arbor Vitae - in the County Roscommon. Perhaps that old memory was the inner meaning, the 'deeper reality' I sought!

And then again, in these two series of group paintings, I see the implication of the word 'procession' not as a crowd, but as the individual repeated.

CMGL If I may take it that 'Figures in Sunlight' (1956) relates to that revelatory moment in La Mancha to which you referred earlier, does the fact that this figure is accompanied by a young child suggest that at this point you are still dealing with the notion of a family unit rather than an isolated human being?

LleB You are quite right; the figure on the left does appear to suggest a direct relationship with the child figure - as does the arm form entering from the right. These figures approximated to those I actually perceived against a whitewashed wall in the obliterating sunlight if La Mancha. But what interested me intensely was their emergence within the whiteness of a light leaving nothing more substantial than shadow.

CMGL The isolated human being is, however, the focus of all of the 'Presences', as explicitly registered by such titles as 'Isolated Being' (1 962), a painting now in the collection of the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art.

LleB Yes. As the title suggests, the central figure stands inwardly alone. I remember painting this canvas on the floor in 1962, shortly after we'd come to our home in the arriere-pays north of Nice, before we had built our studio there.

In that particular work I really did allow the painting process itself gradually to suggest the emerging image - to such an extent that, at one midway point, I literally turned the painting the other way round, so that the final image was eventually formed upside down!