exhibition programme | paintings | tapestries | prints | chronology of a life | market | biography & bibliography | agents | news | contact
The Human Image Paintings of Louis le Brocquy
Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, 2003
Critic, curator, and Lecturer in the Department of Modern Irish (Language and Literature) at University College Dublin
There are very few artists who have maintained as steadfast a commitment as Louis le Brocquy has over the past half a century to envisioning what it is to be an embodied human being adrift in an alienating world the true reality of which is likely to lie forever beyond our comprehension. This ongoing concern - implicit, as we shall see, but still dormant in his paintings of the 1940s and early 1950s - first came literally to light in the year 1955 with all the force of a powerful revelation, as the artist himself has recounted on several occasions. One day in La Mancha, while touring Spain on a textile-designing commission from a London magazine, le Brocquy was forcibly struck by the image of a number of figures standing in brilliant sunshine against a white-washed wall. As he recalls:
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.
This ambiguous double movement of emergence and recession, of presencing and absencing, has characterised his work ever since. This is especially pronounced in the numerous early paintings of the isolated and anonymous human figure that le Brocquy painted in the late 50s and early 60s.Transfixed in the glare of a brilliant, unworldly light, a centrally located, largely inchoate human torso seems to struggle over and over again in these paintings to achieve or maintain a worldly fleshiness that would allow its spirit to body forth, and thereby allow us, the viewers, to register fully its mundane and troubled particularity. This double movement of emergence from and recession into a bright, unfathomable ground is no less evident in the equally numerous paintings of individual heads - at first anonymous, but later of clearly identifiable, indeed world-famous writers and artists - for which le Brocquy has probably been best known since the mid-1960s. In fact, the artist himself tends to play down the distinction between these two bodies of work, preferring to see body and head as functioning synecdochically as 'alternative images of 'the whole in the part'', stressing that in both instances he is attempting 'to paint some sort of image of the mysterious state of conscious being'. A widespread popular and critical identification of le Brocquy's painting primarily with the depiction of the human head nevertheless persists. Richard Kearney, for example, has described le Brocquy's 'journey as a painter' as 'being marked by two overriding and interrelated obsessions - the phenomenon of whiteness and the image of the head'.
We may set aside for a moment the 'phenomenon of whiteness', with all the intimations of Utopian modernism it trails in its wake, given that this phenomenon is equally evident in the head and early body imagery. It is, however, at least arguable that le Brocquy's relentless and repeated exploration of the nexus between consciousness and corporeality is at its most potent, not in the celebrated heads, but in that body of work, initiated shortly after the afore-mentioned Pauline revelation of 1955, which the artist now refers to collectively as 'Paintings of the Human Image', and in particular in the series of torsos from the late 50s and early '60s known as the 'Presences'. For it is in these works that le Brocquy, undistracted as yet by the exigencies of capturing a likeness, allows himself to focus most resolutely on the depiction of some common core of physical embodiment, some essential aspect of human presence (or indeed self-presence) which transcends the myriad distinctions of age, race, gender, class, and so forth which combine to constitute the individual in society. In this le Brocquy is by no means at variance with those major artists of the immediate post-war period, such as Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon, with whom he shared, amongst other things, a fidelity to figuration at a time when the hegemony of abstraction seemed well-nigh absolute. It is worth noting, for instance, that David Sylvester makes a comparable argument en passant in his protracted commentary on the art of Giacometti, when he singles out for particular praise those works in which 'the magic in his vision' was undiminished by Giacometti's otherwise 'indefatigable effort to trap appearance.'
This first great period of concentration on the depiction of the isolated human body in le Brocquy's work came to an end in 1964. 1963 had been a bad year for him, a period during which a profound dissatisfaction with his work led him to destroy over forty paintings, virtually an entire year's work. In 1964, after a second life-altering, revelatory experience - in this case the chance discovery in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris of a display of ornamental Polynesian skulls - he turned to the depiction of the human head, a preoocupation which continued more or less unabated until the mid-1990s. His decision in 1996 to return to the particular concerns of the initial 'Presences', to the extent of revisiting and reconceiving quite specific compositions from the earlier period, is one which has dictated the course of his painting for much of the past seven years. This protracted revisitation of the 'Human Image' thus affords us an ideal opportunity to assess the enduring significance of this subject within the context of the le Brocquy oeuvre to date, as well as allowing us to chart any changes in his mode of addressing it, which the passing of time may have entailed. We might best begin, however, with the precursors and genesis of the original 'Presences'.
Le Brocquy's choice of the individual human form, occluded and isolated within a mostly undifferentiated ground, as the pre-eminent motif in his paintings from 1956 to 1964 was partly a refinement of previous subject-matter and partly the result of the revelation to which we have already referred. The painting that relates most closely to the epiphanic encounter in La Mancha is 'Figures in Sunlight' (1956) in which an adult woman is accompanied by the figure of a young child. This is still a transitional work. The artist concedes that its composition suggests a relationship between these two figures, which is further accentuated by an arm form entering the picture frame from the right. This incidentally establishes a certain continuity with an earlier exploration of the family unit undertaken in a series of paintings of figures in darkened interiors produced between 1951 and 1954, sometimes referred to as 'The Family Paintings'. Yet one suspects that for le Brocquy this sense of continuity is to some extent fortuitous, and far outweighed by the sense of rupture and new beginnings heralded by 'Figures in Sunlight'. It seems likely that the arrangement of figures in this painting, which approximates to those the artist actually perceived in La Mancha, was principally due to a desire for fidelity to the particular circumstances of an important and enabling vision. For, in hindsight, the investigation of interpersonal relationships appears to have been destined from the start to be subordinated in le Brocquy's work to the exploration of the individual in isolation. While le Brocquy's art has never been primarily an art of overt social commentary or engagement, social concerns are indeed evident in some of the early work. A notable early series of paintings from the mid-1940s depicting aspects of the life of the Irish travelling community culminated in 'Travelling Woman with Newspaper' and what the artist refers to as 'the post-war apocalyptic series, including 'In Fear of Cain', 'Man Creating Bird' etc. (all 1947-48) (IV). Prior to this 'Condemned Man' (1945) showed something of his concern for the abolition of the death penalty and anticipated his later involvement with the Howard League for Penal Reform in London. Yet a pronounced tendency toward solipsism is evident almost from the very beginning, as can be seen as early as 1940 in the painting entitled 'A Picnic' in which three figures, far from enjoying the communal meal indicated by the work's title, turn moodily away from each other in melancholic introspection. Le Brocquy has publicly noted that the major painting of 1950 'A Family', just recently acquired for the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland, was informed by its particular historical circumstances i.e. the atomic threat, massive social upheaval, and the plight of refugees produced by World War II and its aftermath. Yet one of the most salient characteristics of this and the other 'Family Paintings' is the palpable tensions that serve to isolate these figures from each other, despite their physical proximity, rather than the evidently all too tenuous bonds that might serve to draw them together. So it is fair to say that any explicit social engagement in le Brocquy's work up to 1956 tends to be concentrated on the individual. Viewed in the light of these predilections, the eventual removal of the lone figure to the solitary confinement of the individual canvas seems almost pre-ordained. This move, as we have noted, was to mark le Brocquy's painting from 1956 onward, after which any overt social commentary disappears from the work.
Le Brocquy has, it should be acknowledged, occasionally painted assembled figures in the intervening years, most notably in two intermittent series of paintings, based on pre-existing images, which bear the titles 'Procession With Lilies' and 'Children in the Wood' respectively. (V) Yet these remain the exceptions that prove the rule. As the artist puts it 'there is no profound differentiation between my paintings involving groups and those portraying a single individual', and he goes on to confirm that even in the Family paintings the main preoccupation was 'the need to pare back the human image...to his or her essential aloneness.' In this we may note an intriguing parallel with a significant evelopment in the writing of le Brocquy's friend Samuel Beckett in the immediate post-war period. If we compare, for example, the novel Murphy, from 1938, with Beckett's great trilogy, which was completed in the late 1940s, we may note that Murphy's world has precise and recognizable co-ordinates. The peregrinations of its unruly cast of characters can be closely charted as they trail each other through the dull streets, grubby hostelries and tired bed-sits of Cork, Dublin and London. By the end of the trilogy, however, these particulars have been pared back and eventually discarded. The cramped city spaces of the earlier novel, that is to say the world of saturated urban detail which Beckett inherited from Joyce, has given way to the blasted wastes with which we will become ever more familiar in Beckett's later plays and prose works. While le Brocquy's vision is neither as bleak, on the one hand, nor as humorous, on the other, as Beckett's, this deliberate discarding of extrinsic, superfluous detail in order to concentrate on that which is intrinsic and essential to the human predicament is something they had very much in common. What unites all of le Brocquy's paintings from the very beginning is that they are all preoccupied with, in the artist's own words, 'the same, unaltered belief in the irreducible reality of the human individual.'
In charting le Brocquy's progress toward the highly distilled imagery, at once ethereal and all too Human, of the 'Presences' we should consider one final key painting from 1954. 'Lazarus' preceded the 'Presences' by two years but also clearly paved their way. This painting depicts Lazarus emerging from the shadowy grayness of his rudimentarily stylised tomb into the cold light of day. A rough rectangle of green at the lower right foreground of the picture is perhaps a token of the natural world into which he has re-emerged after his brief sojourn in death's realm. His head is bowed and his arms outstretched. His left hand is open and upturned in an ambiguous gesture that might indicate incomprehension or supplication, whereas his left arm is cut off at the wrist by the edge of the picture plane. The ominously impinging edges of the picture, the sharply angled strokes which delineate both the figure and its surrounding architecture, and the gloomy browns and grays in which Lazarus is shrouded combine to turn what we might expect to be an image of miraculous release and rebirth into something more ambiguous and troubled. There is a sense of constraint, emburdenment and unease in the painting that is impossible to ignore. For le Brocquy what is of primary interest in this subject is Lazarus's 'return...to a heightened awareness of his own being', and he views Lazarus's bowed head 'as a black hole of absence, stooped to regard his renewed physical presence.' Yet this sense of renewal is both amplified and complicated by the undeniable similarity between the pose adopted by Lazarus and that of the crucified Christ. As it happens, the crucified figure has reappeared more recently in le Brocquy's work in a number of paintings that unmistakably echo the composition in 'Lazarus'. In two paintings in particular from the year 2000 (Nos. 729 and 739), which are simply and tellingly titled 'Human Image' (2000), the implications regarding the troubled and painful nature of our mortal lot are especially evident. While le Brocquy acknowledges the inescapable echoes of this central image of Judaeo-Christian culture he claims that his purpose in painting these images is not at all religious.
I have no religious purpose in these paintings of 'human images'. Certainly they are in the extended form of crucifixion, but they relate neither to the terrible Crucifixion of Grunewald nor to El Greco's sublime Christ on the Cross. My concern is rather with an ultimate state of being.
The unavoidable implication in these particular paintings that bodily torment is the ultimate state of being par excellence, i.e. that pain is at the heart of the human experience, is also borne out by a number of the early 'Presences'. In 'Young Woman', a painting from 1957 of a female torso viewed frontally, the body is rendered for the most part in caked white impasto and emerges from a matrix of shadow and light. A smear of red paint just under the breastbone hints at an animating energy at the heart of this figure, while at the same time suggesting that this ethereal presence is also a creature of flesh and blood. Just above and to the right of this spot an ascending column of flicks of black paint accentuates the upper vertebrae in a manner that simultaneously underlines their vital importance in the structure of the human torso and their susceptibility to injury. This is even more evident in 'Woman', painted two years later in 1959, in which the figure is more obviously contorted, the spinal column apparently enduring considerable stress, and the torso reduced to a mass of congealed pigment shrouded in gloomy shadows.
While small concentrations of bright pigment similar to that in 'Young Woman', suggesting the energy centres in the human torso, appear in many if not most of le Brocquy's paintings of the Human Image, in this particular painting there is the additional suggestion of the intrusive wound made by the surgeon's knife. For, both 'Young Woman' (1957) and 'Woman' (1959) were painted in response to a quite particular event, or series of events, in le Brocquy's personal life i.e. the three major operations on her spine which his wife, the painter Anne Madden, underwent in the mid-50s after a serious riding accident. As le Brocquy recalls 'I remember being filled with an irrational anger at the aggressive implications of this surgical carpentry.' Yet while these paintings have a specific focus and biographic background, this pronounced emphasis on the physical vulnerability of the human body is evident to some extent throughout the 'Presences'. As late as 1964, as this initial series of works was drawing to a close, a painting such as the intensely, almost ghoulishly visceral 'Merging Being' testifies to le Brocquy's enduring concern with the notion of bodily pain. This is hardly surprising in the work of an artist who has always been fascinated by the impossibility of fully knowing a human being other than oneself. Le Brocquy has observed that the sense of essential 'aloneness' that pervades many of his paintings 'must necessarily imply an unshared perception of reality.' In light of this comment it is worth citing Elaine Scarry's argument in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World that physical pain is probably the most unshareable phenomenon there is. While there is no denying one's own physical pain, no matter how hard one might try, there is conversely no way to confirm definitively, i.e. to really know or feel, someone else's pain. As Scarry argues 'physical pain - unlike any other state of consciousness - has no referential content. It is not of or for anything.' She also notes that 'it is precisely because it takes no object that it, more than any other phenomenon, resists objectification in language.'
While physical pain as a crucial marker of the boundary between one individual and another has been a subject some interest to le Brocquy it would nevertheless be wrong to suggest that the notion of physical distress is characteristic of the 'Human Images' as a whole. For Le Brocquy has also been concerned with the porousness of the boundary between the isolated human individual and the rest of creation. As he has stated 'the individual is multiple insofar 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.' This mode of thinking has become especially pronounced in the Human Image paintings of the past few years. The principal similarity between the early 'Presences' and the torsos produced since 1996, according to the artist, is one of content in that the attempt is still to discover some kind of image of 'our inner human reality - that impalpable thing we call in turn the spirit, the psyche, consciousness.' The most obvious difference, on the other hand, between these two bodies of work is one of form, in that the 'phenomenon of whiteness', to use Richard Kearney's phrase, no longer exerts the same fascination. In the recent paintings the intense white grounds have been replaced by what le Brocquy characterises as 'grayish backgrounds or 'environments', initially composed of minute particles and later by a fractured texture from which the central figure is derived and into which it in turn diffuses in 'a substantial identity of surface and image''.
There are notable differences as well as similarities between, for example, 'Ecce Homo' (1957), 'Woman in Movement' (1957) and 'Fallen Man' (1960), and the three recent paintings that bear the same titles. 'Ecce Homo' (1958) is an important work that reflects both le Brocquy's particular personal concerns during the late '50s and the more general cultural context in which it was produced, a context within which, for example, French existentialism exerted a powerful influence. This distended, wraith-like figure, at once graceful and constrained, owes something to Giacometti. The shadowy head, shoulders and upper arms of this archetypal man, whom we are invited to behold, appear to exist on a different plane (above? beyond? behind?) to that of the craggy encrustations of pigment in which the torso is partly encased. The alternate use of thinned-out strokes of gray paint alongside thick, almost concrete-like lumps of white, with the occasional smear of yellow and crimson, suggests a distinction between an elusive and ethereal spirit and a decidedly earth-bound body. Yet the criss-crossing swathes of paint that extend the lower torso toward the bottom of the picture, which vaguely resemble intertwined cords of thick rope, suggest that these two aspects of an individual's being are nevertheless inextricably bound one to the other in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. The comparison between this painting and its recent equivalent, or indeed any one of le Brocquy's frontal depictions of a centrally positioned, stationary male figure from the past few years, is instructive. In 'Painting No. 725' (1999) individual consciousness is not so much depicted as encased within its physical container; rather, it appears to be virtually suspended within a body that is at once stationary and an integral part of the limitless flux of the universe. The individual human spirit is portrayed as simultaneously a source of and a focus for an apparently endless flow of energy particles that constitute both the physical body itself and the surrounding environment, within which it is thoroughly enmeshed. It is worth quoting the artist at some length here on his perception of the significance of the formal innovations of the recent 'Presences':
In returning to the corporeal 'Presences' seven years ago my aim was to reach into their inner being, something merely suggested in the earlier works. From the start these later works appear to have developed a certain granular surface structure covering the entire canvas. This surface suggested particles, which I tended to see as another kind of matrix from which the image might materialise, both in the depths of its shadow and in its emergence to the light. Then, gradually it seems, this granular structure becomes more structured and pervasive, at once composing and disseminating the image within it.
It is tempting to suggest that le Brocquy's decision to investigate this 'other kind of matrix', which he simultaneously equates with and differentiates from the matrix of light from which the foundational 'Figures in Sunlight' emerged, is partly informed, however unconsciously, by a notable development in contemporary painting internationally over the past few decades. Major technical advances in electron-microscopic and telescopic photography have in recent times led to the proliferation of images previously unavailable to the human eye. This image bank has subsequently proved to be a valuable resource for many contemporary painters, especially those seeking a way out of the endgames of modernist abstraction; a quandary, needless to say, which le Brocquy has never had toface. In much the same way, even more recently, computer graphics have also augmented the resources of contemporary painting, though here again it is difficult to imagine this having any specific effect on le Brocquy's work. For what is at stake in the first instance, and has a bearing on le Brocquy's particular painterly concerns, is a notion of access to aspects of the physical world, to an interiority or a significantly extended exteriority, which was hitherto impossible. Le Brocquy himself concedes that 'in trying to realise some sort of image of interiority, I've been drawn to X-ray photography and even, in a vague way, to certain theories involving 'particles' in the composition and inner movement of nature.' A comparison between another early 'Human Image' painting and its more recent counterpart may help to illustrate this further.
Le Brocquy acknowledges that the title 'Fallen Man' suggests both a physical fall and a fall from moral or spiritual grace, though he insists that his initial interest in the subject was primarily as an image of the 'interiorised experience of catastrophe'. We may note the contrast between the thickly painted viscera of the rigidly kneeling figure in the 1957 'Fallen Man', whose body seems impossibly shorn off at the knees, and what the artist cogently describes as 'the more kinetic image' of the 2002 version of this same composition. In the later image, the figure is similarly abased, but any suggestion of being brutally sheared off from the world beyond the consciousness of the body's physical predicament is absent. By contrast the boundaries between the later kneeling figure and its surrounding environment have become significantly blurred. The neo-pointillist or divisionist technique which, as we have noted, in 'Painting no. 725' (1999) suggested particles of energy, has been replaced here by a more solidly patterned ground that seems almost cellular. This technique, with its faint formal echoes of analytical cubism, further highlights and extends this more recent tendency in le Brocquy's painting to view embodied human consciousness as being inextricable from the rest of the physical world. Furthermore, a comparable refinement of an early Presence, 'Women in Movement' (1957), a composition initially based on a painting by Degas, which we can see in the more recent painting bearing the same title (Painting No. 726 (1999)), suggests that this perception holds true in the case of a body captured in a casual act as well as in those works in which the body is depicted in extremis.
Human consciousness - or its acceptable functional equivalents in le Brocquy's terminology, i.e. spirit, psyche - is thus newly perceived in the recent paintings as more inextricably bound up than it hitherto appeared to be with a physical universe about which much has been discovered since he painted the early Presences. Yet, despite this intriguing development in his work, it is the absolute consistency of le Brocquy's core concerns over half a century - as reflected, among other things, in his perception of the enduring relevance to his art of specific pictorial compositions - that is most remarkable. It reminds us that the more we know the more aware we become of the limits of our knowledge, and of the need constantly to refine and revise what knowledge we have. Despite many major developments in philosophy and the physical sciences over the course of the twentieth century the so-called 'mind-body problem' appeared no nearer an absolute resolution at the end of that century than it did at its beginning. That alone is enough to ensure the continuing value of Louis le Brocquy's exemplary long-term commitment to the painterly investigation of 'the mysterious state of conscious being'.
Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith is a critic, curator, and Lecturer in the Department of Modern Irish (Language and Literature) at University College Dublin. He has published on various aspects of Irish literature, both medieval and modern, as well as on contemporary art. He is the author of Oidheadh Chloinne hUisneach/ The Tragic Death of the Children of Uisneach (Irish Texts Society 1992) and the editor of Cime Mar Chách: Aistí ar Mháirtín Ó Direáin (Coiscéim 1993). His art criticism has appeared in Artforum, Circa, Flash Art, Modern Painters and Parachute. The artists for whom he has written include Richard Billingham, Willie Doherty, Douglas Gordon, Antony Gormley, Callum Innes, Karen Kilimnik, and Niele Toroni. He has also written catalogue essays for exhibitions at The Irish Museum of Modern Art, The Tate Britain, The Drawing Center, New York, and Berkeley Art Museum, California. In 2000 he co-curated Shifting Ground, a survey of fifty years of Irish art, at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. In 2005 he co-judged the Turner Prize, Tate London.