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The Human Head: Notes on Painting and Awareness
Louis le Brocquy

The eighteenth International Health Lecture
Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dublin, November 14, 2005

When I jotted down these thoughts in 1979 I was preoccupied by the Celtic image of the human head as a magic box containing consciousness. Today I find myself still groping beyond human appearance towards that impalpable reality that lies within us.

As a painter, I have always been concerned with some aspect of the body as an image of the human being. In recent years I have turned more specifically to the poet’s head as an image of human consciousness.

The human body is a constantly recurring theme of both poet and painter, but their two arts – each a whole continent of consciousness – do not touch directly, I think, at any point. They have no common frontier, no bridge other than their shared state of aesthetic awareness. Turning, then, in the direction of that bridge, I shall try – as a painter – to speak of painting and awareness.

William Blake believed that “man’s perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception”. Evidently painting lies within these bounds. Yet I think of the art of painting as another way of seeing, another approach to reality, another porthole, as it were, in the confined bathysphere of our consciousness.

In the context of our everyday lives, painting must be regarded as an entirely different form of awareness, for an essential quality of art is its alienation, its otherness. In art at most profound level, actuality – exterior reality – is seen to be relevant, parallel, but remote or curiously dislocated.

Where actuality plays an immediate role as in photographic images, in kite flying, in Christo’s “Running Fence” or other forms of recording, descriptive or environmental arts, aesthetic perception and elation may be experienced but scarcely, I think, deep recurrent insight. Such insight, when it occurs in painting, is due, I suggest, to an essential ambivalence in the role of the paint itself, which is characteristic of significant painting. It may be relevant here to quote from something I wrote in London in 1956:

Since painting first interested me, I have been drawn to a constant tradition which I think of as central to this old European art. This implies a peculiar use of oil paint; not to symbolize, not to describe the object, nor to realize an abstract image but rather to allow the paint, while insisting upon its own palpable nature, to reconstitute the object of one’s experience: to metamorphose into the image of an apple, a sky, a human back.

This is an indefinable, a mysterious process and is accordingly rare. Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto used paint in this way. Caravaggio sent it on its way to Spain, to Velázquez. Rembrant epitomized it. Turner pushed it to its metaphysical limits. Watteau, Chardin, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Monet and Cézanne were among its great French exponents.

In certain works of all these artists, the paint (with its qualities of color, tone and texture) has been transformed into the experienced object. Obversely the image of the object has become paint. This dichotomy, this tension pulls taut the nerves of insight. Reality is stripped down to a deeper layer and the ordinary is seen to be marvellous.

Indeed you may say that such a paint-image is itself a manifestation of the mind-beyond-reason, grasping at the natural fact which it mirrors. I think of Ahab’s cry in Moby Dick:

O Nature and O Soul of Man! How far beyond all utterances are your linked analogies! Not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.

And then again I ask myself whether this “cunning duplicate in mind” may not be another way of naming the ‘claritas’ of Thomas Aquinas’s definition of beauty, which – as Mark Patrick Hederman has pointed out – James Joyce translates as radiance. Joyce writes in Portrait of a Young Man:

The aesthetic image is first luminously apprehended as self-bounded and self-contained upon the immeasurable background of space and time which it is not… The connotation of the word “claritas” is rather vague. Aquinas uses a term which seems to be inexact. It baffled me for a long time. It would lead you to believe that he had in mind symbolism or idealism, the supreme quality of human beauty being a light from some other world… But when you have apprehended that basket as one thing and have then analyzed it as a thing, you make the only synthesis which is logically and esthetically permissible. You see that it is that thing and no other. The radiance of which he speaks is the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing.

Here Joyce is presumably thinking specifically in terms of writing, of poetry. But it is evident that this “whatness” of the image is equally the essence of the art of painting. 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 me at any rate, it is groping towards an image, a "whatness".

When you are painting you are trying to discover, to uncover, to reveal. I sometimes think of the activity of painting as a kind of archaeology – an archaeology of the spirit. As in archaeology, accident continually plays an important part. The painter, like the archaeologist, is a watcher, a supervisor of accident; patiently disturbing the surface of things until a significant accident becomes apparent, recognizing it, conserving this as best he can while provoking the possibility of further accident. In this way a whole image, a whatness, may with luck gradually emerge almost spontaneously.

Thus, what counts in painting is, I believe, recognition of significant accident within a larger preoccupation and not dexterity and calculated imposition. Ironically enough I myself have frequently been reproached with possessing too much dexterity, too much technical skill. Recently I was given a rather dramatic opportunity to disprove this charge when, after a bone-grafting operation to my right hand, my whole arm was immobilized in plaster for a number of months. During this period the images which emerged under my ignorant left hand were in no way distinguishable from those induced by my practiced right hand before or afterwards. Neither better nor worse.


Some seventeen years ago I was still painting the torso as an image of the human presence, when I stumbled into what I call a blind year – a year in which I had no luck, in which no image emerged. At the end of that year I destroyed forty-three bad paintings. As you can imagine, I was by then in a bad way myself, when my wife Anne Madden – herself a painter – brought me to Paris as to a place of discovery. And there indeed I did discover at the Musée de l’Homme, the Polynesian image of the human head, which like the Celtic image which I discovered the following year, represented for me – as perhaps for these two widely different cultures – the mysterious box which contains the spirit: the outer reality of the invisible interior world of consciousness.

In Dublin, now some sixty years ago, the great physicist, Erwin Schroedinger, astonished me with the thought:

Consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown and what appears to be the plurality is merely a series of different aspects of this one thing.

Much later in Provence, faced with the Celto-Ligurian head cult of Entremont and Roquepertuse, I asked myself if it were not perhaps this “singular” which so preoccupied our barbarian ancestors in their oracular use of the severed head.

Such a concept of an autonomous, disseminated consciousness surpassing individual personality would, I imagine, tend to produce an ambiguity involving a dislocation of our individual conception of time (within which coming and going, beginning and end, are normally regarded) and confronting this “normal” view with an alternative, contrary sense of simultaneity or timelessness; switching the linear conception of time to which we are accustomed to a circular concept returning upon itself, as in Finnegans Wake.

Likewise, if indeed the aesthetic image in a painting by Rembrandt is illuminated by Joyce’s radiance or whatness, and if that revelation of whatness is achieved by an ambivalence in the role of the paint (involving a transmogrification of the paint itself into the image and vice versa), then these circumstances also may be said to produce that timeless or paratemporal quality, which we instinctively recognize in such a painting.

It would therefore seem that the realization of the aesthetic image or whatness of things, outside and to one side of the linear progress of time, is an essential characteristic of the art of painting and, I imagine, of art generally.

In the modern world, however, we appear to resist such significant integrating imagery, which was more evident perhaps in past cultures, wherein people seem to have regarded the passage of time rather more ambivalently, as being at once related to their personal predicament and to a larger cosmology.

It would appear that this ambivalent attitude to time was especially linked to the prehistoric Celtic or Gallic world, and there is further evidence that it persists to some extent in the Celtic mind today. It is consistent, I think, with Yeat’s tragic view of life – an essentially cosmologic and aristocratic attitude in opposition to the narrow expediency of the “greasy till”:

We Irish, born into the ancient sect
But thrown upon this filthy modern tide
And by its formless spawning fury wrecked
Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace
The lineaments of a plummet-measured face.

In my own small world of painting I myself have learned from the canvas that emergence and disappearance – twin phenomena of time – are ambivalent, that one implies the other and that the state or matrix within which they co-exist dissolves the normal sense of time, producing a characteristic stillness, characteristic of the art of painting.

After a number of years I recall Beckett’s Watt, regarding from a gate the distant figure of a man or a woman (or could it be a priest or a nun?) which appeared to be advancing by slow degrees from the horizon, only surprisingly “without any interruption of its motions” to disappear over it instead. Here going is confounded – if not identified – with coming, backwards with forwards. The film returns the diver to the divingboard. The procession of present moments is reversed, stilled.

Elsewhere in Finnegans Wake does not the fallen Finegan become “Finn Macool lying beside the Liffey, his head at Howth, his feet at Phoenix Park, his wife beside him, watching the microcosmic ‘fluid succession of presents’ go by like a river of life”?

And is not Yeats’s circular lunar system of re-incarnation - the winding stair of Thoor Ballylee, climbed and descended repeatedly – itself a cosmic arrangement of this fluid succession of presents, of time-consciousness in this profoundly Celtic sense? Is this indeed the underlying ambivalence which we in Ireland tend to stress; the continual presence of the historic past, the indivisibility of birth and funeral, spanning the apparent chasm between past and present, between consciousness and fact?


Not so long ago I had the good fortune to decorate with ink paintings – shadows thrown by the text – Thomas Kinsella’s marvellous translation, from 8th and 12th century Irish MSS, of the central Irish legendary epic, Táin Bó Cualigne. On its cover is a simple brush drawing, an image of the virtual shield of the fabulous hero, Cúchulainn, and indeed of this archetypal Celtic warrior himself who, Christ-like, chose an early explosive death that we might receive the unending fallout of his substance. But paradoxically this explosive, emergent image can equally be interpreted as implosive, accretive. Thus conversely it can become the mythical Crane Bag of the Irish sea-god Mannanán Mac Lir, a magic sack made from the skin of a woman who had previously been transformed into a heron or crane: a legendary receptacle sunk in the sea, gathering or expelling its treasures with the tides, breathing and exhaling like a lung “a fluid succession of presents”, day-conscious/night-conscious, like Ulysses and Finnegan, or like a living human head, image of the whole in the part, the old synecdochism of the Celt.

But turn to the heads themselves in the powerful, shattered sculpture of Celto-Ligurian Entremont, or to the later multiple heads within the “plummet-measured” face of Romanesque Confert cathedral in County Galway. Its multiple heads at once persons and stone bosses, both durable and timeless, forever emerging and receding, they signify a profound paradox, a balanced ambivalence, a succession of present moments dredged up from time, spread out before us without beginning or end.


For over fifteen years I have tried to draw from the depths of paper, or from the white canvas, a human face. As I have remarked, this quiet activity has little to do with communication, or with self-expression for that matter. It aims rather to make visible a lurking image, to identify, to name some trace or aspect of a personal reality. Which means to me the giving of a possible form to that which is impalpable or interiorized. For I imagine that reality is that which is possible, conceivable and not merely what is actual, phenomenal.

So, when painting, I try not to impose myself. Discoveries are made – such as they are – while painting. The painting itself dictates and, although the resultant image may seem rhetorical to some it appears to me to be almost autonomous, having emerged under one’s hands and not because of them. A subjectively conceived image, deliberately imposed by the painter, may be represented easily enough. A conventional, popular image of W.B. Yeats is immediately recognizable to those who share it. Such a conceived image may be sought and repeatedly rediscovered in the flux and movement of life, but what of a photograph where factual appearance is momentarily and permanently stilled and which sometimes defies identification with the known conceptual image? If two contemporary photographs of Yeats provide acceptable images of him, a third does not. For the successive factual appearances of each one of us are necessarily dissimilar, since each one of us has many layers, many aspects, and none more than Yeats. In the 100 studies towards an image of W.B. Yeats, which were exhibited in 1976 at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, I therefore tried as uncritically as I could to allow different aspects of Yeats’s head to emerge. These I recalled largely from photographs taken throughout his lifetime and, for the most part, without referring to them directly. Where I have worked from them directly, I have consulted two or more at the same time and – since these photographs bear little consistent resemblance to each other – I have encouraged differing and sometimes contradictory images to emerge spontaneously in order, as it were, to exorcise my own rather conventional memory of Yeats and in the hope of discovering a more innate image – stilled and free of circumstance – underlying the ever-changing aspect of this phenomenal Irishman.


My mother was a friend of the Yeats family in Dublin and so, as a child, I was fairly familiar with “W.B.’s” appearance and with his extremely impressive manner.

In 1938 I left Ireland and my grandfather’s business abruptly to become a painter. Having no training, I studied at museums in London, Paris and Geneva where the great Prado collection was then exhibited, having been sent from Madrid by the elected government, in face of Franco’s artillery..

The following year, when Yeats died in Roquebrune, I was painting a few kilometers away in a minute house on the Cap Martin. To my lasting regret I knew neither of his presence nor of his death. I am conscious that the long series of studies towards an image of Yeats, which I made thirty-five years later, was in some sense a personal adventure to try to rediscover, to touch the fringes of his enormous personality; to enter perhaps into the interior landscape which lay behind his“ancient glittering eyes”.