Sunday 22 April 2018

Celebrate centenary of great Irish artist Le Brocquy's birth

Artistic family: Louis le Brocquy and Anne Madden in 2006 Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Artistic family: Louis le Brocquy and Anne Madden in 2006 Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Emer O'Kelly

The guns were ratcheting up for the War of Independence on November 10, 1916, in Ireland - in France, Germany and Belgium they had been pounding relentlessly for two years, and the slaughter of the Somme was still raging. Unforgettable history, into which was born a man who was to make unforgettable art.

Louis le Brocquy was born in Dublin on that day, so last Thursday was his centenary, although he died only in 2012, and worked with unflagging determination, inspiration and commitment until shortly before his death.

Along with his friend, the late Patrick Scott, he was one of our first modernists, and they remain the greatest. Le Brocquy's art was self-taught, and his early career flew in the face of his prominent business family's ideas on a suitable career for a young man; but his mother supported him in his early years, and in 1958 her faith in her son was justified, when his painting, A Family, was included in the exhibition of Fifty Years of Modern Art at the Brussels World Fair.

That was the year he left London, where he had spent the previous decade, and went to live in the south of France with his second wife, the painter Anne Madden, where they worked in a shared studio, and brought up their two sons, Pierre and Alexis (he had a daughter, Seyre, with his first wife).

The family was a frequent subject for his modernist brush, startling, thought-provoking images that asked questions of our pre-conceptions (A Family has hung in our National Gallery since 2001, when it was purchased and presented by the businessman Lochlann Quinn). He also had a long fascination with what is now called the Travelling community, and his extraordinary works from that period seemed to see into peripatetic life, with all its pride and insecurities, as well as its deprivations.

But Le Brocquy's painting instinct always saw behind; it is what makes the series of Heads such a spectacular insight into the souls of his sitters, who included James Joyce, as well as close friends such as Francis Bacon, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, and in later years, even Bono. One of the remarkable facets of Le Brocquy and his vision was how aware he was of society and its movements. Even as he approached his 90s, he saw through a contemporary lens.

Nor would he permit old age to let his energy flag. Privileged as I was to know him well, during one visit to his and Anne's home, I saw he was limping. He was in his late 80s, and mentioned cheerily that he had climbed on a chair balanced on a table in his studio in order to photograph something, and ended flat on his back on the floor. He had a soft, elegant voice, which made his comment even funnier: "No fool like an old fool, Emer."

On a commercial level, he is quoted as the first-living Irish artist whose work has fetched in excess of €1m at auction. But there are better testaments, including a National Gallery publication for his 90th birthday, which included essays like 'Portrait of the Artist as an Alchemist', and 'Ireland's Prospero of Painting'.

His last major exhibition in his lifetime was typical: mounted at Gimpel Fils, his London gallery for many years, it was in 2007, and called 'Early Heroes; Homage to his Masters'.

And in this week of his centenary, his adored wife Anne was in her studio, working on a major exhibition of her own new work. He'd have liked that.

Sunday Independent

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