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One man's eye:
Dr Riann Coulter. A Picnic, 1940

the artist either blows his own trumpet or is the herald of his time’ John Berger

A Picnic (1940), wax-resin medium on canvas mounted on board. 40 x 40 cm
Irish Museum of Modern Art, Beecher Collection

Painted when Louis le Brocquy was twenty-four, A Picnic is the first work to suggest the range of his artistic talent. The impact of this diminutive work outstrips its scale and influences. While clearly a response to Degas’s painting Bains de Mer: Petite Fille Peignée par sa Bonne, which le Brocquy knew from his frequent visits to Hugh Lane’s collection in Dublin’s Municipal Gallery, A Picnic is also a painting of its time. In 1940, just before this work was created, le Brocquy had returned to Ireland after a period studying in the art galleries of Europe. The outbreak of war ended his continental sojourn and his experiences of Europe on the verge of war are reflected in the cold and desolate atmosphere of A Picnic.

Painted during a tumultuous period in the artist’s personal life, this work can be read in terms of both individual and universal angst. Stranded on a barren shore, bathed in light more suggestive of the studio than a beach, the three fashionably dressed figures sit isolated in their proximity. Superficially, this is a scene of middle-class recreation but the empty tablecloth (accusingly blank like the canvas of an artist lacking inspiration) is a stark sign that all is not well.

The only food visible at this ‘picnic’ is an apple abandoned in the sand. Is this traditional symbol of temptation, lying within reach of the man’s grasp, key to the relationships between the figures? Perhaps they are caught up in a triangle of love and betrayal; or is their ennui a symptom of a much greater discord? The tea leaves at the bottom of the blonde woman’s cup may predict the horrors of death, destruction and genocide that were soon to engulf Europe.

Clearly something is wrong but these three appear paralyzed and unable to react accordingly. Their personal isolation echoes the national and cultural isolation that resulted from Ireland’s neutral status in the conflict. While the world was going to war, life in Ireland carried on under the pretense that this adolescent nation could ignore the momentous events happening all around it.

Le Brocquy is best known as a figurative painter, yet as A Picnic suggests, place and location are also important to his work. While the cell-like interiors common to his Grey Period works locate those paintings in a post-war era where the Cold War and the atomic bomb were palpable threats to civilization, the beach setting of A Picnic suggests a liminal location; a place where shifting sands, both literally and metaphorically, threaten to dislodge the existing order.

The contrast between the frozen bodies and the instability of their environment heightens the tension conveyed through the awkward poses and expressions of the three characters. The figures in le Brocquy’s post-war works are universal and transcend the restrictions of class, nationality and race. In A Picnic the figures are defined by their pencil-skirts, china cups and pin-curls; the paraphernalia of an era, and a vision of society, that the Second World War would do much to destroy.

If these accessories of a bygone era fix A Picnic in time in a way that le Brocquy’s subsequent works avoid, they also make the painting a record of a disappearing world. Where as the Grey Period masterpiece, A Family,is as relevant to the plight of those repressed by politics or poverty now as it was in post-war Europe, A Picnic is a historical painting; an image of an Ireland long gone.

Embedded in its social and historical context,this painting is also a record of the artistic influences that were engaging le Brocquy at the beginning of his career. Degas’s beach scene was a point of departure but the similarities of setting and composition are overshadowed by the graver tone and atmosphere of le Brocquy’s work. An image of recreation and relaxation has been translated into one of tension and foreboding. Degas’s white parasol has become a black umbrella and his lolling bodies  contrast with the awkward poses of le Brocquy’s figures.

These unyielding bodies, combined with the formality of the image and the compositional devices of cropped figures and flattened perspective suggest another influence, that of Japanese prints. Like many of his artistic forefathers, le Brocquy found inspiration in the measured grace of Japanese art. Sharing the small scale and tonal delicacy of the Japanese prints adored by Degas and his contemporaries, A Picnic displays the extent to which le Brocquy assimilated the diverse sources that he had encountered in the galleries of Europe.

A Picnic is an icon of an era – a work that reflects le Brocquy’s engagement with the political, cultural and artistic milieu of 1940, and confirms his position as a ‘herald of his time’.

Dr Riann Coulter. BA, MA, Ph.D.

John Berger, ‘Preface’, Realist Painters of ‘La Colonna’, Leicester Galleries, London, 9–31 May, 1956, quoted by James Hyman in The Battle for Realism: Figurative Art in Britain During the Cold War 1945-1960, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Yale University Press, 2001, p. 3.