"Louis le Brocquy belongs to a category of artists who have always existed, obsessed by figuration outside and on the other side of illustration, who are aware of the vast and potent possibilities of inventing ways by which fact and appearance can be reconjugated"
Ireland’s most distinguished artist, Louis le Brocquy was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1916. His Wallonian name is inherited from his Belgian Grandfather. He studied chemistry at Kevin Street Technical School and Trinity College Dublin in the 1930’s and worked for his granddad’s business, the Greenmount Oil Company, during which time he made frequent visits to the National and Municipal Galleries of Ireland. He was given some drawing lessons as a boy by Elizabeth Yeats, sister of W.B. and Jack.
In 1938 he left the family business, and Ireland, and set off to become a painter. He visited galleries across Europe including the National Gallery in London and The Louvre in Paris and there, by studying and copying the paintings, he taught himself how to paint. He returned to Ireland in 1940. After his paintings were rejected by the RHA in 1942 and 1943, he founded the Irish Exhibition of Living Art with Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone.
In 1946 he moved back to London and became a well known artist in the circle which included Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and William Scott.
Here I’ll give a description of each of his main ‘periods’ of painting styles or themes, along with one example of each, including where it is now being displayed.
His Early Works (c.1939-45) clearly show his broad range of influences, which include Degas, Picasso and Ukiyo-e woodblock prints of Kiyonaga and the emphasis on the importance of the human figure in his paintings is first seen here. Around this time he first became concerned with prison conditions and became a member of the Howard League for Penal Reform in London. He also campaigned for the abolition of capital punishment. His painting Condemned Man, 1945 (private collection) was featured on the cover of Birmingham Six, an international anthology of support by 55 writers and artists. Southern Window, 1939 – Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin.
The Tinker paintings (c.1946-50) deal with the issues of being outcast, as the travelling community are in Ireland. He spent long periods of time with them over the course of a year sketching them in pen and ink and painting watercolours of their picaresque lives. Some of these paintings are done in the cubist style, inspired by his friend Jankel Adler (the Polish painter), and Picasso. Tinkers Resting, 1946 – Tate Gallery, London.
His Family series (c.1951-54)is also known as The Grey Period because greys, black and white are the predominent colours. Among this set of paintings are stark images of family groups in desperate, homeless or stateless surroundings which are reminiscent of Velasquez and Goya. The artist was by then well known as a symbolist and a thoughtful enquirer into the conditions of life. Child in a Yard, 1951 – Hugh Lane, Dublin.
In the almost spiritual Human Presence(c.1957-64) series of paintings the human anatomy again becomes important but in an intuitive, implied way. The human figure is usually painted as emerging from a light background. The paintings seem to be of the human essence which is transcending time and actual form. The forms themselves are more like imprints or perhaps palimpsests of human figures. Woman, 1959 – Tate Gallery, London.
In 1963 he destroyed much of his work after a period of depression, however, during a visit to the Musee de l’Homme in Paris in 1964, he was inspired by the decorated clay Polynesian and Melanesian heads. This became the subject for his next period of works, Ancestral Heads.
His Ancestral Heads series (c.1964- 75) – usually painted using beautifully subtle blues and greys - were an attempt to show a tangible image of the entity, or spirit, of the ancestor rather than just a skull or a face. Reconstructed Head of an Irish Martyr, 1967 – Smithsonian Institute.
The Individual series (c.1975-98) stems from Ancestral Heads and Presences in that it’s a mixture of heads and figures done in the style of presences. Many of the heads are of famous people, some of whom he knew, including W. B. Yeats, Francis Bacon and Samuel Beckett; some he didn’t: James Joyce, F.G. Lorca and Wolfe Tone. These paintings are not simply portraits though, they are an attempt to capture some underlying image or essence to the changing appearances of these grand individuals. Image of James Joyce, 1977 – Tate Gallery London.
The Human Images series (c.1996-98) depicts “the outward form of an inner conciousness”, these are paintings which remind you of looking at someone or thinking about someone with your eyes closed and using all but sight to create an image of them. They depict, for me anyway, what we would look like if we could see each other’s soul, if there is such a thing, and the body was the part of us that is elusive and implied. Descartes, 1996 – Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin.
He has designed stained glass, murals for pubs, theatre sets and costumes. He illustrated Thomas Kinsella's translation of the ‘Táin’ in 1969, James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ in 1986 and Samuel Beckett's 'Stirrings Still' in 1988. He has also created mosaics, and tapestries including 'The Triumph of Cuchulainn' (National Gallery of Ireland).
He has taught at London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts and the Royal College of Art, he was a member of the Irish Council of Design, a director of the Kilkenny Design Workshop and he has been director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art since 1989.
He has received honorary (Robbie Williams, just in case you ever somehow happen to read this, please sound out the FOUR syllables in that word) doctorates from Trinity College Dublin (1962) and the National University of Ireland (1968). In 1977, his ‘Head’ painting was used on the Irish 17p stamp as part of the ‘Contemporary Irish Art’ series. He is a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur, an Officier des Arts et des Lettres and a Saoi of Aosdána.
Today, at 86 years of age, Louis le Brocquy lives and works in Dublin. His works are represented in over forty public collections around the world, including The Guggenheim Museum, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Paris, The Tate Gallery, London, The Kunsthaus, Zurich and the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin. In May 2000, his painting ‘Travelling Woman with Newspaper’ was sold for £1.15 million, a record for a living Irish artist. His early works now sell at auction for seven figure sums.
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