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Human Images, thirteen silkscreen editions


The suite of prints, Human Image I-XIII, is the most recent manifestation of Louis le Brocquy's lifelong fascination with the human form. This enduring concern has been expressed in different ways over the course of his long career. In many paintings of the 1940s and early 1950s the human figure appears embedded within a rudimentary social or familial context that can never quite mask the underlying aloneness and existential alienation of the individual human being. From the mid-1960s on, in the works for which he is probably still best known, he has repeatedly focused on the human head as the physical chamber within which consciousness and creativity abide, and on the face as the principal site for the expression of unique personality. During the crucial period between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s, however, and once again for much of the past two decades, le Brocquy has concentrated on the depiction of the isolated human figure apparently adrift in an alienating world that lies forever beyond full comprehension. These paintings, which the artist has lately come to refer to collectively as "Paintings of the Human Image", arguably constitute the most powerful and sustained exploration within his oeuvre of the nexus between consciousness and corporeality.

Each edition is limited to 75 proofs on sheets of 400 gsm Arches paper. Each proof is individually numbered and signed by the artist.15 additional proofs of each silkscreen are reserved for distribution hors commerce, as are 15 artist's proofs. Printing by James O'Nolan at Stoney Road Press, Dublin, in conjunction with Advanced Graphics, London.

The earliest Human Image paintings, described by le Brocquy at the time as Presences, first came literally to light in the year 1955 in a moment of powerful revelation, as he himself has recounted on several occasions. During a trip to Spain he was forcefully struck by the image of a number of figures standing in brilliant sunshine against a white-washed wall. From that moment, as he later recalled, he would never perceive 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. It is especially prominent in the Human Image paintings and also in this recent, related suite of prints. Executed over a two year period and printed in the artist's ninetieth year, this new body of work gestures both backwards and forwards in time, revisiting and reconsidering specific compositions first produced as long as half a century ago, as well as others realised over the past few years. Yet these earlier images are thoroughly re-imagined and recast with the aid of the most advanced digital technology, allied with the more traditional technique of silkscreen printing.

Though he is, of course, known primarily as a painter, le Brocquy has also been an accomplished printmaker almost from the very beginning. His exploration of the possibilities of etching and lithography began at the Central School of Arts & Crafts in London in 1947 and he has produced over one hundred and fifty prints in subsequent decades. Lithography has remained his preferred print medium though he has also made aquatints and carborundum prints. No account of le Brocquy's engagement with print can ignore a succession of exquisite artist's books, and his justly celebrated illustrations of Thomas Kinsella's English translation of Ireland's "national epic", The Táin, must also be noted in this context. While most of the changes and developments within his painting over the years are also reflected in his printmaking, it seems fair to say that the Human Image has been, until now, under-represented in the medium of print. This slight imbalance, if one could call it that, has now been emphatically remedied. The prints of the Human Image extend this core concern of le Brocquy's, the attempt to envision what it is to be an embodied human consciousness, into a radically new medium, a complex, multi-staged process of digital photographic manipulation and silkscreen printing. True to the relentless and acutely focused curiosity that has driven le Brocquy throughout his long life as an artist, these new works test the nature of their specific and novel medium, drawing out certain fundamental differences, in texture, colour and form, between the painted and the printed image.

All of the Human Image works feature a centrally located human torso - sometimes largely inchoate, sometimes headless, sometimes male, sometimes, female - which seems to struggle over and over again to achieve or maintain a worldly fleshiness that would allow its spirit to body forth, thereby providing the viewer with some sense of its mundane and troubled particularity. This has remained a constant for more than fifty years, whether the isolated human be shown transfixed in the glare of a brilliant, unworldly light, or shrouded in penumbral shadows, or merging with/emerging from an all-encompassing granular matrix. In his ninetieth year Louis le Brocquy continues to focus resolutely on the depiction of some common core of physical embodiment, some essential aspect of human presence (or indeed self-presence) that might transcend the myriad distinctions of age, race, gender, class, and so forth which combine to constitute the individual in society. He has long acknowledged his fundamental need "to pare back the human image to his or her essential aloneness". In all of his work, in whatever medium, his concern is with what he has described as "an ultimate state of being". This latest suite of prints continues to be informed by the impulse that animated the very first paintings of the Human Image. They remain grounded in, as he puts it, "the same, unaltered belief in the irreducible reality of the human individual".

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, 2005