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Interview with the artist by Perry Ogden
L'Uomo, No. 309, March 2000
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PO. How did you begin as a painter? Who were your influences and what were you hoping for?
LleB. I suppose you could literally say I began painting at Kindergarten, when I was fortunate enough to have had as my teacher Elizabeth 'Lolly' Yeats, the sister of W.B. and Jack Yeats. She gave me a prize for a watercolour I made of a chamber pot. I remember being pleased but had no further interest in the matter. All through my youth, in point of fact, I regarded painting as nothing more or less than a diversion. Without protest I drifted through chemistry classes into my Grandfather's oil refinery in Dublin. But, while I was there, paintings I had known quite well in reproduction - paintings by Velasquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Goya and Manet among others - suddenly enthralled me. Indeed, overlaid by contemporary art forms, they have remained the deepest influence upon me to this day. During my spare time I developed an almost proprietary love of Dublins' Municipal and National Galleries. At work, guided by the fifteenth century artist, Cennino Cennini, I made illicit experiments with paints and media hidden in laboratory cupboards. One day these were discovered by my Grandfather with a silence I still remember. I believe he then knew that I had abandoned ship. At that time curiously enough, I never doubted that I could become an artist. My mother happened to hold the same wholly unfounded conviction even more strongly than I did. Anyway in 1938 she was responsible for helping me to leave Ireland to study painting directly in the museums of London, Paris, Venice and Geneva, where the great Prado Collection was then sheltered out of reach of Franco.
What was I then hoping to achieve? What am I still hoping for? A difficult question. I suppose initially I simply wanted to become a good painter, to join in the spiritual excitement of a great creative tradition. And now? Perhaps it is, through painting, to reach towards - to touch even - some glimmer of the meaning of life.
Tell me about the paintings you are working on now? They appear to be a series of canvases focusing on the body - the torso even. There is a sense of looking within, of something hidden being revealed; almost spiritual - if that is possible. "Chakra" is the word that comes to mind...
As a painter I'm never altogether clear as to what exactly I'm trying to get at. I am listening. To me painting is a dialogue between the artist and his painting, a dialogue in which the painting itself has a final say. The painting surprises, giving always unexpected form to the artist's initial idea. And the idea? Well, looking back I suppose I have always been concerned with the mysterious fact of being, with that interior being that lies beyond our external appearance, invisible but well known to us all... our consciousness, our feeling.
I am interested that you should think of the spiritual Chakra in relation to these paintings. I have no convictions at all about this, but I am drawn to the idea that conscious feeling may conceivably extend, beyond the brain, into the body itself. D.H. Lawrence referred to such imagined centres of conscious feeling as his thoracic and lumbar "ganglia". I greatly suspect such precision but it is perhaps significant that in our popular imagery the heart, the liver, the spleen and even the spine are so closely associated with our emotional lives and with our inner being. When I first knew Anne in 1957, she had to undergo a terribly serious spinal operation. I was in a state of irrational anger at the thought of this surgical violence when I painted Young Woman. In the painting, a torso, there inevitably appeared something indicative of a spine and a small vermilion wound...
Did you paint this while Anne was actually under the knife?
Yes, I painted Young Woman in my studio in Battersea at the time of Anne's operation.
Your meeting with Anne seems pivotal in that it coincided, or perhaps instigated, a break away from the Cubist inspired work of the forties and early fifties to the more minimal, more personal vision of the "Presence", and also a physical break in that you moved from London to France. Was Anne's operation the inspiration for the torso/Presence series?
Pivotal and inspirational as Anne's presence has been - and is - in my life, she was not the origin of the white Presence series of torsos. No, that's another story. It so happened that the Ambassador Magazine commissioned me to tour Spain in 1955 to create textile designs for British printed and woven fabrics. And once again I was impressed by what a deeply exciting, infinitely varied country Spain is, all the "Spains", from Andalucia to Catalonia, from la Mancha to Madrid and its fabulous Prado, the most dramatic collection of art in the world. But this particular visit gave me - what can I say - an entirely new perception of light, of objects in a sunlight so pervasive as to bleach solidity into evanescence, giving substance only to shadow. That year I painted Figures in Sunlight. Light had now become for me a matrix within which the human form might emerge from the depths of its own shadow. Emerge, become substance and disappear. Well, one way and another, this revelation has stayed with me, particularly in the head and torso images, from the mid-fifties up to the present day.
I should perhaps say that, after the operation, Anne spent some eight months immobile in a structured plaster cast. On her near-miraculous recovery, her surgeon suggested that we leave London for a warmer climate where she could happily continue painting. "In the south of France perhaps?" I well remember wishing to have a bronze made from the two -piece cast of her young body. Understandably, she wanted no part of it. I regret I did not insist.
You've been sharing a studio with Anne for thirty years or more. How does this work? Can you describe your "studio relationship" and the effect you have on each others work?
Yes, I've shared a studio with Anne almost since I've known her. It simply happened like that and very early we developed a working "modus vivendi" to our mutual benefit. Perhaps our difference in age, temperament and methods helped rather than hindered this. In the studio we never comment on one another's work until asked. Then it may be invaluable because of our understanding of each other's painting. Not that either of us necessarily accepts the view of the other. It is the critical insight at a critical moment that can be revelatory. Francis Bacon used to tell us he longed for someone near him who could do just that.
Did the head images simply develop from the torso series or was there some specific inspiration?
The torso or Presence series of paintings actually went on until the end of '62. At that point I was overtaken by the worst thing an artist can suffer. I completely lost my way. I lost my vision. I continued painting of course, but my efforts had no meaning. I was in despair and eventually destroyed some forty works, large and small. Naturally Anne was greatly concerned and suggested a visit to Paris, feeling somehow it might provide new meaning for me. Well, her instincts were correct, as indeed they usually are and there, in the Musée de L'Homme in 1964, I discovered the extraordinary "ancestral heads" of Polynesia. Essentially they were skulls over modelled with clay and ritually painted with formal patterns - magic boxes to contain the spirit. And then, almost immediately after our return to the French Midi, I came across yet another cult of the head in the broken remains of the Celto-Ligurian sculpture. This was an image much nearer home and, that same year, I was already launched on my own series of ancestral heads.
In the series of head paintings you concentrated on the heads of certain people and, in many cases including W.B. Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, painted them again and again. Why them and why so many?
From the beginning the early anonymous head images included, now and again, specific heads of Samuel Beckett and of James Joyce. But it was not until 1975 - eleven years later - that I made the first series devoted to one artist, a collection of 100 images in charcoal, watercolour and oils for my exhibition, A la Recherche de W.B. Yeats, at the Musés d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Why a hundred images? Well, it seemed to me that the single monolithic portrait image of a person by, say, Ingres no longer corresponded to our present day understanding of things. Photography, the cinema, not to speak of psychology perceive us rather as faceted, kinetic, changeable beings...
And why Yeats? Difficult to say. Was it because of his immense powers of perception? Or because of his ever-growing place in the history of Irish culture? Or because as a boy, I happened to know him? Or because I needed to play with the idea of decorating the memory of his head by a laying on of hands, seeking out his presence like the Polynesians or the Celts before me? I don't know. Samuel Beckett was a dear friend, of whom I was but one in a myriad of admirers. James Joyce I never knew other than through his writing and through others. Certainly I have been drawn to their images, as I was to Seamus Heaney's image, because they are Irish, because they are familiar. But I have also painted an extensive series of images of Federico Garcia Lorca and of others who have dared to push their boat out into uncharted seas from which Samuel Beckett, for one, could not see the return, could not "hear the frail keel grating on the shore..."
I'm interested in the relationship between your work and Beckett's. There seem to be certain similarities beyond both being Irish and working in exile. The minimalism, the solitude, the obsessive furrowing of the plot... When did you first become aware of Beckett's work? What influence has it had on you? When you started painting your Beckett "heads" did you already know him and what was his reaction to them?
Yes I believe you are right. I do feel in my own work certain affinity towards the "minimalism, the solitude, the obsessive furrowing" characteristic of Beckett - that unflinching scrutiny of the inner self. Unlike Anne, I am not a great reader, but I was already sufficiently drawn to Beckett's writing to paint a small number of "studies towards an image of Samuel Beckett" in the mid-sixties when Anne and I first met him casually in Montmartre. Some thirteen years later, when we had become close friends, I embarked on a long series of his remarkable head: "I would be happy to see you both again at that time and show you my old face again." Beckett was the first in the morning to visit my exhibitions in Paris, but would not comment on my images of himself. Neither would Francis Bacon, although he wrote to me on the Yeats and Joyce heads.
More recently, in the late 80s, you designed the sets and costumes for the acclaimed Gate Theatre production of "Waiting for Godot" which has just been revived as part of the Beckett festival at the Barbican Centre in London. How did this come about? Had you designed for the theatre before?
Well yes, long age in the early forties I designed sets and costumes for a Giraudoux pay, Amphitryon 38 - translated by my mother Sybil le Brocquy - as well as one or two other plays, and even reviews and pantomimes to earn my living in those days. So I knew the theatre quite well and loved its unique sense of comradeship. Curiously enough, it was Anne who spontaneously suggested to Samuel Beckett at one of our meetings in 1987 that "Godot" could be wonderful at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. At that time Sam had been quite distressed by a number of international productions of which he strongly disapproved. In any case he reacted to Anne's suggestion with what looked remarkably like enthusiasm, recommending the German, Walter Asmus, as the only director of whom he fully approved "who was not dead." "Godot", my "tree" being based on a careful scribble by Beckett himself, drawn on the back of a bill at the bar of the PLM on Boulevard St. Jacques, where we always met. I remember also his further comment: "The Irish voice is important."
One of your earliest series depicts Travellers - a group much maligned by Irish Society. Were you interested in them because they were "outsiders"? Was Jack Yeats an influence at the time?
Fifty years ago the Travellers Fascinated me. Here was a group of Irish people the same as the rest of us, but separate, for centuries living on the move and on their wits as tinsmiths and horse jobbers - a people with their own culture, their own morality and even the remains of their own scealta Irish language. Inevitably they were suspected and feared by the settled farming community and could only contact them at all on the basis of mutual individual curiosity. They were their own kind, their own community. When leaving a camp site they had a way of handing on information to those that following by secret "twig-sign", crossing twigs to indicate the way to water, or to a convenient henrun, or whatever. But also to leave behind traditional mystic "protection" against the forces of bad luck and malevolence. certainly I was influenced by Jack Yeats in the forties, whom I knew well, but not particularly by his interest in the travellers as such. On a personal level he never presumed to advise me as a painter other than what to avoid, telling me to pay no attention to adverse criticism. "The true artist has vision" he used to say, 'The critic has an opinion."
The walls of your studio are covered in photos of Beckett, Joyce, and Heaney among others. What part does photography play in your work?
Ever since I began working on head images of individuals I have surrounded myself with photographic records of their appearance. And, although appearance is directly related to identify, I try, rather like an archeologist to search beneath its surface in an effort to uncover deeper layers of being.
Finally, what aspect of your own work do you value most?
I think what I value in my work most is the element of surprise... the discovery of what is mysterious to me, that which I don't understand, what lies outside myself... The truth is, as a painter I really don't see myself as wholly responsible for my paintings. And by that I don't mean anything in the least esoteric. I simply feel that my own awareness is not entirely mine, that it is somehow wider or deeper than that. After all, like the rest of us I'm descended from pre-history. My legs are not altogether my legs. They are, so to speak, paleolithic legs on loan for a lifetime.
This sounds like Jung's concept of the "collective unconscious". Don't you think that creative work has its roots in ones childhood experience - childhood "trauma" even?
Yes, I do believe that Jung's "collective unconscious" colours our thought... I'm even drawn to Erwin Schrödinger's belief that the interior universe of consciousness is somehow shared; that it can be regarded as "a singular of which the plural is unknown". But, of course, childhood experience remains the underlying formative impulse within individual thought. Unfortunately I have never undergone analysis. Nevertheless I've gradually become vaguely aware of forgotten experience revealing to me the ultimate aloneness of the individual.