In September 2000, Donal O'Donoghue visited the late Louis le Brocquy at his Dublin home.
“Herbert Read once said that I ‘was a painter of the inner world of feeling’ and although it didn’t mean a terrible lot to me at the time, I’ve begun to think that he was right.”
The first thing that strikes you about Louis le Brocquy is his humility as an artist. The second, which owes something to the first, is his unquenchable drive. Here is a man fuelled by a desire to discover what lies beyond the edge of the visible, an artist who paints to set the darkness echoing.
It is this impulse that fires le Brocquy, a slim cultured gentleman armed with a sharp self-awareness – he mutters something about vanity before he has photograph taken – and a keen intellect. Indeed it is hard to believe that he is 83 years old and still very active as an artist until you consider the scale of his life and work.
Long before his painting, Travelling Woman With Newspaper, fetched a record price of £1.158 million sterling at Sothebys in London last May, le Brocquy was rated as Ireland’s greatest living artist. He is also, arguably its most modest. When he was made aware of the record price, he admitted to being “flabbergasted”.
“Who wouldn’t be?”, he says now. “I was bewildered. I remember doing the painting in London. It was a terrible winter, ’46 and ’47, and I had just arrived in the city. There I was paiting in my overcoat with gloves on my hands –I just cut the fingers out – and there was a gas fire in this contrived studio which was actually a bed-sit. Last Aprul that painting was worth one thing and in May it suddenly went wheesh. Of course had changed except the valuation of the painting.”
For some years le Brocquy has been regarded as the rightful heir to the mantle of Jack Yeats. He has been feted and honoured accordingly and the record price for Travelling Woman (ten times more than the previous highest price for a le Brocquy) will probably, as the artist hopes, help to lift all boats on the Irish art scene.
With his wife Anne, whom he refers to as Anne Madden the artist, he has recently moved back to Dublin. (The couple have two sons: Pierre works as an agent for his parents and Alexis designs his own line of jewellery in Paris.) The renovated mid-19th century house is a stylish, minimalist and uncluttered residence: the living space of two artists. It is also tropically warm, or just comfortably cosy for a couple who have spent most of their lives in the south of France.
The main reason they returned, le Brocque explains, is that: “For one thing we have got to the stage where if one of us found ourselves alone it would be very uncomfortable and hopeless in that we were compartively isolated where we lived. The possibility, naturally, is that Anne will survive me and she will be surrounded by friends in Dublin.”
Le Brocquy is a terribly private man: utterly poised and precise in both his work and his manner. Before this interview he wondered if he could be faxed some questions so as to be prepared. “I’m not particularly interested in what you might describe as curious insights into trivial things I have done or even some of the important things in my early life or so forth,” he says. “It doesn’t concern me.”
So when we meet he hands me a sheet on which his neat handwriting, like spidery Giacometti figures, outlines some answers. “Suddenly, unaccountably, overwhelmed by great historic artists like Rembrandt, Velasques, Goya and Manet,” he writes about when he first started to take his art seriously: a time when he was working in his grandfather’s oil refinery as a cheist after graduating from Trinity College. Even then the Dublin (born in Rathgar on November 10, 1916) was already experimenting secretly with various media and paints.
A prize-winning watercolour of a chamber pot which he completed in kindergarten under the tuition of Elizabeth Yeats (sister of WB and Jack) is the much-quoted kick-off point of most le Brocquy profiles. “I didn’t have any convictions about painting at all,” he says. “But I used to be very clever as a child at painting.” However his mother, Sybil, firnly believed that the yoiungest le Brocquy boy was born to paint. “It was my mother and her belief in me,” he agrees. “Although she was more a literary person, she was quite certain that I was born to be a painter. At a certain point she contrived that I left everything without telling my father or my grandfather about it. She borrowed £100 from a friend, and with that in my pocket I lit out for the mailboat.”
Le Brocquy never underwent any formal training or tuition. Rather he observed, experimented, failed and failed better. “I worked very slowly and methodically on paintings, having been through a whole series of museums in London, Paris, Venice and Geneva where the Spanish paintings were on view after being moved from Franco’s Spain.” At that time the young artist was, as he said in a recent interview, attempting to “reach towards – touch even – some glimmer of the meaning of life.”
Has he ever felt that he has come close to that ideal? “No, I never have succeeded really,” he says with a shrug. “Sometimes I look at works I have done in the past and I am surprised to see some discovery. I suppose what I am talking about is the discovery of the canvas conversing back to me, of the surprises which occur in the marks that I make on it. Sometimes I am able to recognise and preserve these surprises. Sometimes from this an image emerges which I did not know to be there.”
For le Brocquy, the art of creation is very much a dialogue between artist and painting and the end result is achieved through this symbiotic process: an unpredictable journey that goes from the very first mark on the canvas to the very final flicker of paint and beyond. “Nothing which I ever painted, which is approximately carrying out an idea in my head, has ever meant anything to me,” he says. “I have always wanted to be surprised, to make a discovery within, to apparently uncover something which, if you like, was already there.”
As for all artists there are numerous impediments: fundamentally the tools of the trade. “Paint itself, the canvas itself is very material stuff. In order to get in contact with what lies beyond the visible in the human being is very difficult with paint. Impossible almost, which is in a way what drives me.”
For over thirty years le Brocque worked in the same studio as his wife (she now works in her own studio close to the Grand Canal) under a strict system of rules and regulations. No humming or other irritations were allowed (music was used to obliterate such disturbances) and most significantly neither was allowed to comment on the other’s work until they were invited to do so.
“At a certain stage one or other of us might say if you’d like to have a look at this and see how it is coming along,” le Brocquy says. “Sometimes one would say to the other ‘I think that is done, I don’t think you should touch it’ or you might say ‘I think you should throw it wide open again and see what you will get’. It was very valuable to have that impression. Francis Bacon would very often say to me, ‘I wish I had someone with a feeling for my work.’”
On another occasion Jack Yeats advised le Brocquy that ‘The true artist has vision, the critic has opinion.’ The recollection elicits a wry smile. “Sometimes I have had things said about my works which I thought were not merely unfair but also unworthy of the critic. One thing that that was said, and I’ll never forget it, is that I’m making paintings to look like paintings. In other words I trying to produce something with no sincerity at all.”
Then there is the importance of being acknowledged by your contemporaries. “Yes it is very necessary to get encouragement because otherwise you might think that you’re going mad,” he says. “That’s why I think artists like Cezanne or van Gogh were real heroes.” He considers himself a fortunate man in many respects. “I’m not saying that I haven’t had any misfortune or tough times or never needed money,” he says. “But I have always had the belief that something will turn up.”
The lowest point of le Brocquy’s artistic life came in late 1962 just after he finished the torso or ‘Presence’ series of paintings. The artist had lost his muse or vision and was utterly distraught. In despair he burned forty of his works – both large and small – a purging that he has since regretted. “I was in a really bad way at the time,” he says. “My wife, Anne, thought she would get me out of this by bringing me up to Parish where I might find something.” And it was there, in 1964 at Musée de l’Homme, that le Brocquy rediscovered his muse throught the “extraordinary” ancestral heads of Polynesia.
Initially he worked on ancestral headsand then began a series based on the heasd of iconic literary figures such as James Joyce, W B Yeats, Federico Garcia Lorca and Samuel Beckett. “Of course I never had the intention of painting any meaning into their consciousness, into their spirit or into their work,” he says. “So we have what is undoubtedly an image of Yeats, one of his many possible images but at the side of it there’s a thing which one dealer described to me as a kind of ‘swarm of bees’. It’s a very good description of what is going on.”
Later, following the interview, we chat with the artist and his wife. He offers us a drink (wine? beer? whiskey?) and asks us about future assignments. Daniel O’Donnell? His face fails to register recognition. He’s a very popular performer? Still blank. “We have Bono and the Edge around here quite a bit,” he offers before we head upstairs to his studio and his current work.
We stand in front of a diptych titled States of Bieng which he has been working on since June. It is a spare work, primordial in its intensity and redolent of his recent body parts series. It also reflects a central since he first picked up a paint brush. “We are all ultimately alone,” says le Brocquy. “I have always had that conviction. It may have been possibly stimulated by various experiences I had as a child, I wouldn’t know. But I see the human being as being ultimately alone and I also see the human being as being fundamental and basic – the only true reality of the human being.”
(from RTE Guide, September 15, 2000)