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Introduction: The Human Image Paintings
Thomas M. Messer, 2003

Director Emeritus
Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Louis le Brocquy matured as a painter among a generation of artist’s for whom the issue of “abstraction” and its relationship to “reality” were of central importance. In America and Europe, painters struggled with the legacies of Kandinsky and Mondrian to define for themselves what forms would best convey the artist’s contents. By the middle of the century, non-objective abstraction seemed to be the only permissible way of painting, and many of those for whom the elimination of recognizable images was not acceptable remained somewhat outside the mainstream. Among these, some are highly regarded today, and their rejection on a basis now widely seen as irrelevant, has, in some instances, strengthened their reputation. Jean Dubuffet in Paris, Willem de Kooning in New York, and Francis Bacon in London may be counted among such dissenters.

Like these, louis le Brocquy was impervious to trends and fashions. His motivation, however is quite different; and the detailed description of his working method is most revealing with respect to the artist’s otherness.

When I am working I do not think, other than in a narrow technical sort of way. Painting is a form of thought within which a wider intelligence plays no important part. It has its own logic. For me, at any rate, there is no question of invention. In painting you can only hope for discovery. Invention for me is Recognition. When you are painting, marks combine to form objects trouvés which may be recognized. You try to preserve these and to induce something further. If that works, an entire image may emerge. If not, it will fail.

A painting process in which “marks combine to form objects trouvés which may be recognised” is a far cry from either programmatic surrealist exploration of a Freudian dream world or from speculations about expressive images and their closeness or distance from nature. Yet, le Brocquy’s thinking “in a narrow technical sort of way” and the spontaneity of an approach in which so much is delegated to a knowing painter’s hand, do not thereby preclude an emergence of contents that matter. In le Brocquy’s case, such contents are variously defined (and very convincingly so by Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith’s text The Human Image Paintings of Louis le Brocquy) as a steadfast commitment to “what 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.” Stated more broadly, it is le Brocquy’s essentially subject-less, ever present inner universe that enters without the artist’s conscious will into what his hand performs. It thus becomes inseparable from the elusive human image, its interior as well as exterior dimension. that has begged for identification in the artist’s mind. And it does so without thereby impairing the plausibility, evocativeness and even the verisimilitude of his subject matter.

Such an inner universe - a cosmic vision without religious overtones - must nevertheless assume an imaginable dimension, even a colour (or non-color) to be perceptible. It is subject to change in keeping with the artist’s enhancing grasp of its being. The unmitigated whiteness of earlier works has thus given way to greyish environments, while at the same time a pulsating flatness has been modified into structured surfaces, partly, as has been suggested, in response to our deepening knowledge of the actual appearance of formerly invisible substances. Throughout such revisions, le Brocquy’s spaces, clearly, are not readable as backgrounds upon which discernible images are placed, but rather as a generating force from which images issue and into which they may recede.

Thoughts that have bearing upon inner and outer dimensions and about the origin of the imagery itself are difficult to dismiss in this context. To what extent are we viewing something that has emerged from a nebulous distance, imbued with the power to generate autonomously, and how does such remoteness relate to the artist’s perceptions which, spontaneously and somewhat miraculously, assume precise and clearly recognizable forms. These are questions that are easier posed than responded to. As Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith points out: “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 beggining.” The issue, of course, as an old one. It was addressed by Goethe, among others, who, musing about what is inside and what is outside, concludes in the following untranslatable but telling lines:

Nichts ist drinnen, nichts ist draussen:
Denn was innen, das ist aussen.

Those of us who approach le Brocquy’s visions, in the end, remain alone with them; and each of us may come to terms with what is offered, in our own way. Divining le Brocquy’s contents without recourse to verbal approximations may not be the worst way to approach them; nor do we thereby lessen the self-evident intensity of the artist’s forms and images or the depth of his insights.