Le Brocquy, Louis (1916–2012), artist, was born on 10 November 1916 at 4 Zion Road, Rathgar, Dublin, the eldest of three children of Albert le Brocquy and Sybil le Brocquy (née Staunton). Albert, an only child, managed the Greenmount Oil Company in Harold's Cross, which was owned by his father, also named Louis. Sybil was an author and dramatist active in Dublin's cultural life. Louis' siblings were his brother Noel and sister Melanie, who became a sculptor.
Early life and influences
Young Louis attended Miss Sweeney's Mount Temple School, where Elizabeth ('Lollie') Yeats (qv), co-founder of the Cuala Press, was his art teacher (1924–6). Aged nine he became a boarder (1926–34) at St Gerard's, Bray, Co. Wicklow, a Roman catholic school. Most of the teachers were converts from anglicanism and deeply interested in spirituality. Le Brocquy recalled that one, S. D. Collingwood, a nephew of Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and editor of Carroll's published letters, 'believed me to be an artist long before I had the slightest inkling of it' (Ir. Times, 20 April 1999). Summer holidays were often spent at his maternal grandparents' home, Aram Lodge, Castlerea, Co. Roscommon, near the iron age sites at Rathcroghan and Cruachan, ancient Connacht's royal capital. Le Brocquy's imagination was fired by hearing myths and stories, usually from his mother, and by the limitless landscape worlds away from red-bricked Rathgar. Resonances sound through his 'Eden' and 'Táin' works. His interest in Celtic, pre-Christian and early medieval cultures also drew him to the Corleck head (Cavan), the carved doorways at Dysert O'Dea (Clare), the Moone Cross (Kildare), Clonfert cathedral (Galway) and Newgrange (Meath), which appeared variously in the look or ethos of later work.
Le Brocquy joined the family business in 1934, working in its laboratory and attending chemistry classes extramurally at Kevin Street technical college and Trinity College, Dublin. He often accompanied Sybil to her voluntary work with underprivileged families in Dublin's tenements and helped out at a soup kitchen she ran that was later ordered to close by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (qv). The squalor and desperation he witnessed stayed with him throughout his life and emerged variously through themes of isolation and marginalisation, such as his initially controversial 'A family', and in his support of humanitarian organisations such as Amnesty International and Pavee Point, the Irish travellers' agency. Meanwhile, his foreign-sounding surname grated as the fledgling state foregrounded a canonical Gaelic Irish identity and denigrated others as 'west Brits'. Le Brocquy joked that he was a west Belgian, one of his eight great-grandparents being a Belgian immigrant from the minority Walloon community, yet he remained sensitive to what and how being Irish meant for him throughout his life.
Finding his way in art
By 1936 le Brocquy had begun a personal exploration of the visual arts, viewed mainly through reproductions because Irish public collections were severely limited. However, some works by Velázquez, Goya, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, Degas, Cézanne and Whistler were visible at the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI) and Dublin's Municipal Gallery of Modern Art (MGMA), founded by Hugh Lane (qv). He also studied the Japanese ukiyo-e genre ('floating world' of appearances), in particular the pillar form hashira-e. He started to draw and paint and had two works accepted by the Royal Hibernian Academy (1937), but felt his work was inarticulate compared to the painters he cherished. At any rate, his paternal grandfather's dynastic ambition darkened his hopes of leaving the family business. Ironically, grandfather Louis had wanted to be a painter until he saw artists and writers living in poverty.
Le Brocquy briefly explored more respectable alternatives, such as studying architecture at University College, Dublin, where he passed the mandatory Irish-language exam by memorising proverbs and turns of speech. But he found it impossible to continue. In 1938 he left abruptly for London, with a £100 gift from Sybil in his pocket and his sixteen-year old fiancée, Jean Stoney, on his arm. With Sybil's encouragement, he set out to create his own art education. The curriculum spanned galleries in London, Paris, Venice and Geneva, where the Prado collection was held for safekeeping because of the Spanish civil war. There, le Brocquy experienced a key moment when he stood alone before some of the western world's masterworks, none of which was by an Irish artist. For the first time, he felt a powerful sense of his own Irishness, an identification he would explore in his practice and ambition. Seeing Velázquez's 'Las meninas' decided him on being an artist.
He and Jean married in 1938 and celebrated the birth of their daughter, Seyre, in France in 1939. The couple lived in Menton, Cap Martin and St Raphael before returning to neutral Ireland in 1940 as war engulfed Europe. They separated in 1941 and divorced in 1948.
Le Brocquy stayed in Ireland from 1940 to 1946, and spent these years trying to earn a living as an artist and contribute to Irish cultural life. During the war Ireland became a temporary home for many artists and thinkers, such as Nobel prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger (qv), who was director of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Le Brocquy attended public lectures in February 1943 which informed Schrödinger's influential book What is life? (1944), and made a drawing of him which the physicist accepted. While Schrödinger's theory of an aperiodic crystal underlying space and time in the life of an organism went on to influence research that led to identifying DNA, its impact on the artist was to articulate his own sense of a mysterious and essential continuity underlying art and science like a matrix. The friendship encouraged le Brocquy to continue to educate himself interdisciplinarily through anthropology, archaeology, literature, music, philosophy and psychoanalysis, as well as the plastic and applied arts.
Modernism in Ireland
Especially after the introduction of the 1937 constitution, Ireland had become increasingly identified as a catholic state, with visions of Irishness tied to national separatism and an heroicised Gaelic rurality. A baptised catholic who had become agnostic, le Brocquy had a wider sense of Irishness in the world that provoked him to campaign actively against the reactionism he saw developing. In 1942 he opposed the rejection of a gift of Georges Rouault's 'Christ in his passion' by the MGMA's art advisory committee and rebuked the influential Seán Keating (qv), PRHA, for insulting Rouault. The RHA refused to exhibit le Brocquy's 'Spanish shawl' and 'Study in white' at its annual exhibition that year. Meanwhile, his Schrödinger-inspired inquiries at the National Library of Ireland sought to identify how colour affects emotion by a comparative examination of musical notation and colour to determine what vibration underlay both.
By 1943, le Brocquy and others who thought that the dominant anti-modernist bias was shackling contemporary practice co-founded the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA) as a salon des refusés for contemporary ways of seeing. The IELA was also influenced by the White Stag group and the avant-garde school of Paris as interpreted by Mainie Jellett (qv) and Evie Hone (qv). Sybil le Brocquy facilitated its founding and became secretary. At the 1945 IELA, Charles Gimpel, former prisoner in Buchenwald and Auschwitz, saw le Brocquy's work with his Canadian-Irish wife Kay (née Moore) and became le Brocquy's principal agent at his Gimpel Fils gallery (1946), encouraging him to move to London after the war. Other supporters included Ernie O'Malley (qv), republican, collector and author; James White (qv) (1913–2003), art critic and future director of the NGI; and architect Michael Scott (qv), then at the design stage for Busárus, the brave new modernist building in Dublin.
Meanwhile, le Brocquy melded his ongoing work as a painter with designing and making stage sets for the Gate, Gaiety, Abbey and Peacock theatres, and murals for various public houses round the country. Childhood memories echoed when Scott commissioned him to make a mural of An Táin Bó Cúailgne for the Palace Bar, Tullamore, Co. Offaly. This epic saga about marital strife provoking war between Connacht and Ulster had started close to his maternal grandparents' home in Roscommon when Queen Medb (qv) and her husband Ailill first fought each other and then the boy hero Cú-Chulainn (qv) over a splendid bull.
Le Brocquy spent much of his time in Offaly observing the nomadic lives and practices of the travelling community, who were largely shunned by mainstream Irish society. John Millington Synge (qv) had explored their shared outsider status with artists, while Picasso's 'Saltimbanques' (1905) made like connections. Le Brocquy's sketches occupied plane-drawn pictorial space rather than narrative-based anecdotal space, developing into a vibrant body of work called the 'Traveller' paintings (1946–50), with 'Travelling woman with newspaper' (1947–8) and 'Man creating bird' (1948) among the most iconic in style.
London years; 'A family'; 'White' series; tapestries and design
In 1946 le Brocquy arrived to a London shattered literally by the trauma of the second world war. His years there (1946–57) place him within a community of artists including Ben Nicholson, Victor Pasmore and his Irish-born friend Francis Bacon (qv). Gimpel Fils hosted his first London exhibition in 1947, attracting critical interest from a circle that expanded later to include John Berger, Maurice Collis, Eric Newton, Herbert Read and John Russell. He was soon shown in British Council exhibitions such as 'Twelve contemporary British painters', which toured to the Stedelïjk Museum, Amsterdam (1948). He became a visiting tutor at the Central School of Arts and Crafts (1947–54) (latterly Central St Martins) and at the Royal College of Art (1955–8). Prompted by his growing interest in industrial, product and fabric design, as well as book design, he co-founded the design agency Signa with Michael Scott (1953), was elected fellow of the Society of Industrial Artists (1960) (latterly Chartered Society of Designers), and became a founder member of the Kilkenny Design Workshops (1965). He designed two album covers for Tradition Records (1956), with the one for innovative folk group the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem featuring the blood-stained shirt of the executed socialist 1916 leader James Connolly (qv). Edinburgh Tapestry Weavers invited him to design a tapestry, 'Travellers 1948', which the Arts Council of Great Britain exhibited in London in 1950. He began a lengthy collaboration with Tabard Frères et Soeurs at Aubusson, France, creating the tapestry 'Garlanded goat' (1949–50), as well as the first of his 'Eden' series (1951). He worked from number-coded linear cartoons rather than coloured sketches, after innovative designer-artist Jean Lurçat. Almost fifty years later, he collaborated with Aubusson weavers Atelier René Duché to create tapestries from colour- and tone-inverted cartoons of The Táin.
Le Brocquy's palette grew sombre as cold war and threats of nuclear conflagration advanced. The tone was grey, underpinning a politics of figuration imbued with existentialist aesthetics (1951–6). 'A family' (1951) resonates with the aftershocks of war and human displacement, replacing the naked eroticism of Manet's 'Olympia' (1863) with fractured planes of palpable despair. The figures have nothing left: as in Picasso's 'Guernica' (1937), even the bulb is bare. This key transitional work bridged le Brocquy's experiments with carving up the picture surface, pioneered in the 'Travellers' paintings, and anticipated his eventual elimination of surface detail in the 'Heads' series. Shown at Gimpel Fils, London, in June 1951 and at the Victor Waddington Gallery in Dublin that December, 'A family' became an unwitting cultural agent by provoking intense public controversy in Ireland in 1952 when the Municipal Gallery's art advisory committee refused it as a gift. This occurred within a year of the collapse of a coalition government following condemnation by the catholic hierarchy of a mother-and-child healthcare scheme as being contrary to catholic teachings on women and family. In 1956 the painting won an international prize at the Venice Biennale, where le Brocquy and Hilary Heron (qv) were representing Ireland under the delegation's commissioner, James White. Two years later the painting featured prominently in 'Fifty years of modern art' at the Brussels world fair. By 2001, it had become a cultural product too, having exceeded the £1 million barrier for sales by British and Irish artists, broken only by Lucien Freud, David Hockney, Francis Bacon and le Brocquy's own 'Travelling woman with newspaper' (which had sold in excess of £1 million in 2000). Le Brocquy did not receive royalties because they were not then mandatory. Gifted to the NGI by Lochlann and Brenda Quinn, 'A family' was placed in the gallery's permanent collection, making le Brocquy the first living artist represented there (2002).
Isolated figures of the grey period became single figures, or traits of them, in his 'White' or 'Presence' paintings (1956–66), which play on light and shade, presence and absence. Composition recedes, chance is admitted, as the eye peers into the cage of the body seeking a being or spirit somewhere within superficially fresco-esque flesh and bone. Some were inspired by the artist Anne Madden, le Brocquy's companion, who had been seriously injured after a riding accident. In 'Woman' (1959), horsehair and sand customise a resolute, structural spine grafted in greys and blacks. The couple married in Chelsea Register Office in March 1958 and at Chartres cathedral the following month, moving from London to the south of France because of Madden's health. They lived at Bargemon in the Var, then at Préverenges on Lake Geneva on the Swiss side of the border. From 1961 the couple lived at 'Les Combes', a villa near Carros, Alpes-Maritimes, and commissioned a studio from Ronald Tallon (qv), a partner in Scott Tallon Walker Architects. They welcomed two sons, Alexis (b. 1961) and Pierre (b. 1963).
Turning point: the 'Heads' series
During 1963 le Brocquy experienced intense despair and destroyed forty-three recent paintings because he considered them failures. He had lost his bearings for the first time since his abrupt break from the family business in 1938. The turning point was his encounter in 1964 with Polynesian heads on display at the Musée de l'Homme, Paris, formerly directed by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whom le Brocquy admired. These decorated ancestral skulls brought to his mind Celtic beliefs that the head was the magic box of the spirit, which was why the Celts had also collected skulls. When he viewed Celto-Ligurian remains from Entremont and Roquepertuse, theory and practice came together in a revelatory moment. Le Brocquy evolved an aesthetic that combined his sense of Irishness with his modernist preoccupations, connecting him to his own cultural history as well as the international context in which he chose to work. For him, Ireland, or aspects of it such as the Corleck head, was a singular surviving example of an archaic Celtic consciousness that had been destroyed elsewhere. By some mysterious process of transmission, this Celtic way of seeing, with its radically other conceptions of space and time, lay beneath and before the linear single-point perspectives of Renaissance visual culture, along with the cultural and linguistic ruptures of the seventeenth-century plantation of Ireland. Its cyclical ethos informed masterworks from the books of Kells and Lindisfarne to the novel Finnegans wake by James Joyce (qv).
Le Brocquy began a series of 'Ancestral heads' (1964–74), including Wolfe Tone (qv) (1964) and Oliver Plunkett (qv) (1967), which developed into his 'Portrait heads' (1975–2006), including W. B. Yeats (qv), Joyce, Oscar Wilde (qv), Francis Bacon, Samuel Beckett (qv), Seamus Heaney and John Montague, as well as Shakespeare, Lorca, Descartes, Mandela and the musician Bono. The artist became an archaeologist of the spirit, who followed a secret logic of the imagination governed by accident. He was scrupulous. Images examine human isolation and consciousness, wondering what might constitute embodied human being and how paint could materialise that inward uniqueness, if at all. Le Brocquy was familiar with the skull's construction, having observed surgeon Adam McConnell's brain operations from 1940, and made commissioned drawings of the pituitary gland for him. Now, the images shifted repetitively but differently, uncertainly, seeking an irreducible, a fragment of spirit, within the faces of great male writers and artists who had struggled creatively, as he did. Le Brocquy saw them as 'vulnerable, especially poignant human beings who have gone further than the rest of us and for that reason are more isolated and moving. Above all, I was drawn to the journey they had made through life and the wide world of their vision' (Peppiatt, 'Interview', reprinted in le Brocquy, Head image (1996), 23). In 1976, as part of his sixtieth birthday celebrations, the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris exhibited one hundred 'imaginary portraits' of W. B. Yeats with the Proust-inspired title 'À la recherche de W. B. Yeats'.
Honoured by a retrospective exhibition at the Municipal Gallery for his fiftieth birthday (1966), le Brocquy embarked on his most innovative work when designer and publisher Liam Miller (qv) of Dolmen Press wrote to him on 12 December, the day after the exhibition closed. Miller invited him to make drawings for Thomas Kinsella's translation of An Táin Bó Cúailgne, which is part of some eighty fragmentary stories drawn from oral and written sources, without beginning or end, that are known as the Ulster cycle. Le Brocquy replied affirmatively on Christmas Eve 1966. Called simply The Táin, the work happened at a transitional moment in Irish and global culture, being bookended by the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the Easter rising and the beginnings of civil unrest in Northern Ireland, as well as the escalation of the Vietnam war and widespread human rights protests. Much of the project, such as marking proofs and drawings, was conducted laboriously by post between Dublin, France and the United States, where Kinsella was based. Seeing his images as shadows thrown by the text, le Brocquy departed from the 'Heads' series in content, affect and style. Rather than plough quasi-nationalist illustration, he drew a broken, Rorschach-like writing, echoing oriental calligraphy along with western assimilations such as Mark Tobey's ghost writing, via Henri Michaux's 'Phantomisms' and the reversed body prints of 'Anthropométries' by Yves Klein, with whom le Brocquy had shared Paris and London galleries.
In August 1969 le Brocquy joined Kinsella, Miller, Celtic scholar Proinsias Mac Cana (qv) and some merry others at Rathcroghan, Co. Roscommon, to follow the places named in The Táin across and north to Ulster. Kinsella poeticised their quest in his poem 'The route of the Táin' (1973). First published in September 1969, The Táin appeared gradually in de luxe, slip-cased cloth, limited and paperback editions, and variously inspired other writers, musicians, choreographers and artists. The paperback made the epic accessible to millions for the first time. Visualising a Táin that seemed to have always looked that way, le Brocquy's images were translated later into print and tapestry. Selected other book collaborations include Synge's The playboy of the western world (1970), Andrew Carpenter's Eight Irish writers (1981), Joyce's Dubliners (1986) and Beckett's Stirrings still (1988). Selected theatre design includes Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot' (Gate Theatre Dublin and international touring (1988–2008)).
Other works; late career; awards
Stark images emerged in le Brocquy's 'Northern' paintings, which wove gestural marks onto spare signs of horror in works including 'Head' (1971) and 'Northern image' (1971). Hand- and fingerprints maintained his deployment of embodied markings, referencing ancient marks of human hands at sites such as Pech Merle, France, as well as the Tollund Man, Denmark, whose remains also inspired Heaney. Visually emerging too from the 'White' ('Presence') series, they look forward to his 'Human images', where bodily holes or protrusions – mouth, nipple, navel – hover on an apparently mobile surface, puncturing or inhaling a void (1996–2005). They were shown as his ninth decade began in 1996, coinciding with a retrospective at the new Irish Museum of Modern Art, for which he had long campaigned.
Gradually, his and Madden's Dublin base in Portobello became their permanent home. They also maintained a cottage in the Beara peninsula and a pied-à-terre in Paris. From 1984, a theme that first materialised as 'Riverrun: procession with lilies' (1962) emerged with paintings where time seems staggered and possibilities endless, such as 'Children in a wood' (1988). A newspaper photograph of children in a first communion procession in Dublin prompted the investigations, le Brocquy noticing a symbolic serendipity because the date was Bloomsday, 16 June 1939, one month after Finnegans wake was published and three months before the second world war started.
In 2006, aged 90, le Brocquy showed new work, while his lifetime practice was being lauded with exhibitions in London, Paris, Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Limerick and elsewhere. 'Homage to his masters' reinterpreted his creative respect for Manet, Goya, Rembrandt and Velázquez, through subjective conversations outside linear time. Each title began with 'Looking at…'; for him, 'looking at' meant learning. 'Jack Yeats once told me: “Don't pay any attention to critics. The artist has conviction, the critic only has opinions,”' le Brocquy said (to author, March 2006). In one of his last works, a printed limited-edition donated to Amnesty International, le Brocquy wrote words on paper of his own choosing: 'dignity, freedom, justice, life, equality, human rights' (2009).
Louis le Brocquy died at home in Dublin with his family on 25 April 2012 after a gentle decline. He was 95. A celebration of his life was held at St Patrick's cathedral. He is buried in the cemetery at Calary church, Kilmacanogue, Co. Wicklow.
Awards, in addition to those cited above, include: hon. Litt.D., TCD (1962); chevalier de la Légion d'honneur (France) (1975); hon. LLD, UCD (1988); saoi of Aosdána (1994); officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France) (1996); IMMA/Glen Dimplex lifetime award (1998); hon. D.Phil., Dublin City University (1999); officier de l'Ordre de la Couronne (Belgium) (2001); hon. D.Univ., QUB (2002); hon. D.Phil., Dublin Institute of Technology (2004); hon. associate, NCAD, Dublin (2006); freedom of the city of Dublin (with Thomas Kinsella) (2007). Exhibitions of his work were held in over twenty countries in four continents. Television films about his work include: Louis le Brocquy (1983; RTL (Luxembourg), dir. Liliane Thorn-Petit); Louis le Brocquy: an other way of knowing (1986; RTÉ, dir. Michael Garvey); Louis le Brocquy: the inner human reality (2006; RTÉ Arts lives series, dir. Joe Mulholland). His principal agents were Taylor Galleries, Dublin; Gimpel Fils, London; Mark Adams Contemporary Art, London; and Galerie Jeanne Bucher, Paris.