Louis le Brocquy is 90 this year and his new show at Gimpel’s is merely one of four current celebratory exhibitions. (The others are at Tate Britain, The National Gallery of Ireland and Galerie Jeanne-Bucher in Paris.) He once wryly observed: ‘I’m aware that my age and vulnerability could be mistaken for some kind of authority.’
While the Gimpel show of his latest work does not in any way claim authority it also fails to exhibit any vulnerability. The whole subject of homage versus imitation could spark a book and here he gives us four homages to Manet’s ‘Olympia’ — which after all is not only an independent masterpiece but also a homage to Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ and has echoes of both Giorgione and Ingres. Of course it’s a universal subject, and le Brocquy brings to it a vigour and a freshness of approach which enable this timeless temptress to seduce our contemporary eyes. There’s no question of imitation; no trace of the studious copyist sitting on a collapsible chair in a museum. Here the nonagenarian is still playing games with the past; Manet’s female attendant has turned into a small boy (Cupid?), the flowers change shape in form and size in each of four variations and the large cat is a mischievous and self-satisfied onlooker who has strayed not only from Manet but also from le Brocquy’s own great 1951 painting ‘A Family’, also a tribute to Manet, now in the Dublin National Gallery. The nude, while possessing all of Manet’s model’s cool, unabashed eroticism, is wholly of today, more careless, more relaxed and far less perfect of physique.
His homage to Cézanne, a tiny ‘Four Apples and a Knife’, is only a compliment to the subject matter. The technique is wholly le Brocquy’s, in the soft pastel colours and the careful use of white and the texture of the canvas. But it’s when you compare his Spanish-inspired pictures with, say, Picasso’s variations on Velázquez’s ‘Las Meninas’ that you see that Picasso’s dazzling jiggery-pokery with shapes and forms is ultimately less satisfying than le Brocquy’s analytical transpositions in which, while the sophistication of the paint is as subtle as ever, it is the human element which predominates. His version of Velázquez’s ‘The Dwarf Don Sebastián de Mora’ gives him a grace and dignity which are wholly compelling and the setting, in the multi-layered fabrics of his clothes, arranged around him like an angel’s wings, lingers in the memory.
Le Brocquy is, in the very best, purest and even literal sense, a literary artist. While he has an obsession with heads, worked out over decades and in literally hundreds of paintings, drawings and graphic works, this is neither physiological nor anthropological. The heads which obsess him are not the conventional portrait studies done by virtually every artist who tackles mankind but, because of his choice of subject, studies also in literary analysis. Nearly all the best pictures are the heads of the writers he loves, mostly his fellow Irishmen: W.B. Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Heaney plus one or two painters including Picasso and, inevitably perhaps, Bacon. One of the few non-Irish writers is Lorca and, because we are so familiar with the features of, say, Yeats or Beckett, the Lorcas are the most surprising and, doubtless because of his appalling death, the most haunted and haunting.
Le Brocquy is also a dazzlingly inventive book illustrator. Of the many illustrated editions of Joyce’s The Dubliners his is, by a long way, the best; the most faithful to the stories and, because of this the most evocative of Joyce’s prose and, particularly, of the city that gave the collection its title. His brush drawings for Synge’s Playboy of the Western World are, as befits the play, much wilder than his other, more controlled illustrations, yet equally convincing. But his undoubted masterpiece is the 1969 Dolmen Press edition of Thomas Kinsella’s superb translation of that great Ulster epic tale The Táin. This inspired Seamus Heaney to write a poem entitled ‘Le Brocquy’s Táin’, which encapsulates le Brocquy’s genius as illustrator just as the painter has caught the essence of the poet’s striking head:
An Horseman. A horse
Beneath him as dangerous
As the one that broke
Out of its scroll one midnight
And trampled the paddy fields.
Add to these his superb Aubusson tapestries as seen at Agnew’s in 2001 and you have an artist of extraordinary versatility. That 20th-century Ireland has produced a plethora of great writers out of all proportion to its size is a cliché but it is also remarkable that it should have given us three great painters. Jack B. Yeats is long gone, Francis Bacon died only recently but the seemingly inexhaustible le Brocquy could easily reach his centenary in 2016.