Christie's, London, 12 May 2006, Lot 114;
'Louis le Brocquy and the Celtic Head Image', State Museum, New York, September to November 1981, catalogue no. 110
Initially, when the head paintings emerged in 1964, they represented ancestral figures, suggesting antecedents who, with the passage of time, were no longer named and identified and were thus represented as ethereal and insubstantial. This phase provided a kind of human provenance on which to build, and Le Brocquy's Head series evolved into portraits of influential creative practitioners, primarily writers and artists. Some of these were known to the artist only through their work, like Shakespeare, while other senior figures that he had met in his youth, like WB Yeats, were admired, but elder, distant inspirations. However, others were known to him personally and became friends and project collaborators, as was the case with Samuel Beckett.
Image of Samuel Beckett (1980) is one of several paintings of this subject. As with his portrait heads in general, each is recognisably of the sitter, but each is subtly different, as Le Brocquy explored the challenges of representing complex, multi-faceted individuals. John Russell described this process: '… we no longer accept the idea of human personality as something that has a unified existence and can be captured in a single image.' (3) Elsewhere he noted the artist's view that no one image can be definitive; the process was rather a long and patient siege rather than a headlong assault. Russell quoted the artist in this respect: '… to attempt to-day a portrait, a single static image, of a great artist … seems to me futile … we now perceive the human individual as facetted, kinetic'. (4) Le Brocquy's practice reflected the words of physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, who for a time taught at Trinity College Dublin: 'Consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown and what appears to be plurality is merely a series of different aspects of the same thing.' (5) As a consequence, while the various images of a sitter may be understood as parts of a common project, no one series could ever be considered completely finished as there was always the potential for a further study; as Russell observed of the 'variants beyond number … there is no reason why the series should ever come to an end'. (6)
While Louis le Brocquy's subjects can be identified by their facial features and expressions, he aimed to convey something of their inner character and creativity rather than simply the external features. The artist was fascinated with the idea of the head as a container of the spirit, and that concept, which had been initially triggered by a visit to the Musée de l'Homme in Paris in the early 1960s, was developed by him over time into an original and distinctive body of work that provided a significant impetus for several decades. Typical of the series is the representation of the head, independent and disembodied, emerging from the depths of the canvas, primarily in white impasto but with tones introduced to develop intensity and form. Russell recounts how, in conversation with Michael Peppiatt, the artist had explained the reaction to light and to whiteness that evolved over time, and that eventually he '… had the idea of conjuring up images out of nothing, out of light, out of the depths of the blank canvas, as it were.' (7)
That Le Brocquy knew Beckett personally is indicated in the convincing immediacy of the representation. While Beckett's craggy features are clearly evident, what makes the image outstanding is the penetrating gaze emerging from the depth of the eye sockets. The deep shadowing of the left half the face, and the highlighted right, convey at once a sense of presence and absence, of the physical and the imaginative, of both intense observation and of contemplation. Russell's words on his portraiture practice are relevant to the present Image of Samuel Beckett in 'building an image that is vague or vacant in some areas and startlingly clear and exact in others'. (8) While it presents a tangible, credible individual, it also evokes the kind of familiarity and insight that comes only from exposure and friendship. As Louis le Brocquy observed of his practice: 'In painting you can only hope for discovery. Invention for me is recognition.' (9)
Dr Yvonne Scott,
1. Dorothy Walker, Louis le Brocquy, Ward River Press, Dublin (1981), p.148.
2. John Russell, 'Introduction', in ibid., p.9.
3. Ibid, p.14.
4. Ibid, pp.14-15.
5. Louis le Brocquy, 'Notes on painting and awareness', in Dorothy Walker (ed), Louis le Brocquy, Dublin, 1981, p. 139.
6. Russell, op.cit., p.18.
7. Ibid, p.13.
8. Ibid., p.18.
9. Louis le Brocquy, 'Notes on painting and awareness', in Walker (1981), op.cit., p.149.
- Auction Details
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AUCTION: Monday 16 September 2019, starting at 6pm
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