Christopher Le Brun PRA

Dream, Think, Speak


Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2440 x 2285 mm
Purchased 1982

Display caption

Le Brun’s paintings of the early 1980s were imbued with a sense of mystery, which seemed to tap into a Romantic tradition of mythical and literary association. He described himself as a ‘visionary painter after Turner or Blake’. The process of articulating inspiration is made explicit in the title: Dream, Think, Speak. This is one of a number of paintings in which a Pegasus-like winged horse may suggest imagination taking flight.

Gallery label, November 2008

Catalogue entry

T03454 Dream, Think, Speak 1981–2

Oil on canvas 96 × 90 (2440 × 2285)
Inscribed on reverse ‘19.12.81 → 13.1.82/Christopher Le Brun/Dream, Think, Speak’, and the following inscriptions cancelled but legible ‘Aram Nemus Vult’/Building, Dwelling, Thinking/“PASSAGE” ‘CLEARING’.
Inscribed on right tacking edge and adjacent rear canvas turnover ‘19.12.81’ and an illegible date and (cancelled) ‘18.12.81’
Purchased from Nigel Greenwood Inc. Ltd (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Exh: Christopher Le Brun, Nigel Greenwood Inc., May–June 1982 (no catalogue); Zeitgeist, Martin-Gropius-Bau, West Berlin, October–December 1982 (142, repr., dated 13.1.82); New Art at the Tate Gallery, Tate Gallery, September–October 1983 (catalogue not numbered, repr., dated 1981); Forty Years of Modern Art 1945–1985, Tate Gallery, February–April 1986 (works not listed)
Lit: ‘Twentieth-Century Acquisitions at the Tate Gallery’ The Burlington Magazine, cxxvi, December 1984, pp.810–13 (repr.), as ‘Dream, think, speak’ Also repr.: La Forma e L'Informe, exhibition catalogue, Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Bologna, April–May 1983, p.63 (dated 1982); Sarah Kent, ‘Between two territories: a way forward in British painting’, Flash Art, Summer 1983, pp.40–6, repr. p.42 (dated 1982)

Except where noted otherwise the following entry is based on the artist's replies to specific questions about ‘Dream, Think, Speak’ in conversation on 14 March 1986, and has been approved by him.

‘Dream, Think, Speak’ was painted in Le Brun's studio in 234 Burdett Road, London E14, which has since been demolished. It was painted on a wall only slightly larger than itself, in a narrow room which prevented Le Brun from viewing it from more than a short distance. It was painted over a period of weeks, during part of which time Le Brun was also working on a painting with very similar imagery, ‘Trophy (Anger, Reverie)’ 1982 (oil on canvas, 93 × 84 inches, collection Granada Television, Manchester), which is reproduced in colour in Artforum, xxi, December 1982, p.48. Le Brun customarily works on more than one painting at a time, but thinks that the dates 19 December–13 January, inscribed on ‘Dream, Think, Speak’, denote the starting and finishing points of the culminating period of work on this picture, during which he worked on it exclusively.

Le Brun believes ‘Dream, Think, Speak’ and ‘Trophy (Anger, Reverie)’ to be his only paintings in which a central image of a horse is accompanied by the head of a second horse to one side. He sees the central head as being more pronounced in ‘Trophy (Anger, Reverie)’ partly because, unlike the head in ‘Dream, Think, Speak’, it is almost severed. In this connection the dominant word of the title would be ‘Trophy’, a reading also associated with another title Le Brun considered for ‘Trophy ...’, namely ‘Falada’, which in one of Grimms' Fairy Tales, The Goose Girl, is the severed horse's head, above the gate, that speaks the truth. Le Brun thinks of each of these paintings as representing two horses, though some viewers see suggestions, in fainter form, of a third, or even more. A distinct kind of auxiliary horse image is the ‘shadow’ image of the central horse in ‘Dream, Think, Speak’, which (as it transpires) anticipates the emergence of further such shadow images in Le Brun's recent work. Le Brun does not conceive of the horses in ‘Dream, Think, Speak’ or ‘Trophy (Anger, Reverie)’ as winged. As will be explained below, the horse image in his work does not ‘stand for’ anything in a literary sense. Commentators have often noticed a broad similarity (which exists in respect of ‘Dream, Think, Speak’) between the clusters of tall dark trees in Le Brun's paintings and Böcklin's ‘The Island of the Dead’. While Le Brun admires Böcklin, ‘The Island of the Dead’ did not directly influence his work but rather confirmed for him intuitions he had already felt.

As is customary in Le Brun's work, there were no preparatory notes, studies or sketches for ‘Dream, Think, Speak’. Like his other paintings it was developed on a single canvas by means of a succession of separate images the nature of which Le Brun could not predict before they appeared. He cannot recall the motifs of the images which preceded the final appearance of ‘Dream, Think, Speak’ on his canvas, but many of them were probably, as usual, unrelated to each other. In this, as in other works, as many as thirty or forty images may have preceded the final one. Such paintings proceed by means of a sequence of cancellations of images. The succession of cancelled images builds up the surface, though not in the sense of refining the painted texture towards one particular image. Rather it is a case of the often contradictory images forming an accretion, through which what is to become the final image begins eventually to emerge. This stage is reached when in the course of the painting Le Brun comes across an image which he ‘recognises’ as answering his need, in a search the goal of which he had not consciously identified when it began. From this point the painting process becomes directed by the nature of the particular image. The title ‘Trophy (Anger, Reverie)’ was conceived as a description of Le Brun's painting process, in which each successive ‘skin’ of imagery constitutes a discovery or ‘trophy’, an achievement which can then turn to frustration before he realises, as in a ‘reverie’, what form the succeeding image must take.

For many years at the outset of his career, images in Le Brun's work had only a secret life. In his abstract paintings he used representational images covertly. An aspect of which Le Brun is conscious in the discrete horizontal hands of paint in ‘Dream, Think, Speak’ and similar works is the way their discontinuity breaks up the surface, so that the viewer's imagination is working all the time on the paint and on the possible implications of any mark in terms of imagery. These bands of paint descend from the oblong slabs in paintings he made when a student at Chelsea - slabs which (as with their successors) he tried to make expressive in themselves, and which overlaid figurative images previously painted beneath. Commenting on this passage in draft, Le Brun wrote to the compiler on 7 April 1986 that:

The suppression of the image was less to do with the ‘climate’ than with the question of what was then the nature of risk, because I saw that the recognised image was now the carrier of openness and doubt in contradiction to the accepted wisdom for which it represented an understood and conventional meaning.

The roles suddenly reversed, a new and open place, a ‘region’ of images, broke out ahead.

Of course this is in retrospect, and at the time was immensely confusing, for to go on towards paradox seemed not only potentially disastrous but also required the invention of an almost Byzantine technique to hold the layering of opposites within an overall form that held the Gestalt and spoke with a timeless lack of an eccentricity - a form that seemed entirely natural ... The only method that seemed possible was to embody experience or sense in the structuring, not in the image, and yet necessarily employing the image.

The strong and longstanding element of ambiguity or elusiveness in Le Brun's imagery is at the heart of its nature. As it does not start from a particular image, each of his paintings lacks the particular kind of focus possessed even by pictures which abstract from a given motif. Rather, in each picture Le Brun is working towards something which, while in one sense it has always been there, like a buried archetype, and demands to be given representational form, is at the same time not only an image but also an idea. Thus it does not have a given iconographic source. To restate known motifs in art (whether figurative or abstract) is not the point of Le Brun's work. Strong imagery and strong forms are essential to him, but they have to arise not from a detached or calculated process of construction but through their being discovered at the centre of the lived experience at once of the artist, of the culture and of the art of painting.

Thus while, for example, he admires greatly some of the major colour field and Minimal artists, he finds that in this respect the artists are somehow ‘outside’ the idea of the work they make, by contrast with artists he admires even more, such as Turner and Delacroix, who were, in this sense, in the middle of theirs. Like Turner and Delacroix, a Rothko or a Judd produce kinds of archetypal structure, but in the case of Turner or Delacroix such structure cannot be identified without reference to the whole aim and process of depicting, with which they were centrally concerned. This is why Le Brun's inspiration in painting is drawn predominantly from the Western European heritage. The account that has been given of his search for the subject, in each work afresh, and of its inseparability both from his own inner being and from the act of painting, offers interesting parallels with Abstract Expressionism, but for Le Brun the Abstract Expressionists too often stopped short of a necessary association of a painting with the recognisable image. While in Abstract Expressionist painting, as in Le Brun's, the nature of the final statement made by the painting depends on the finality of the last marks made, for Le Brun the intensity of the final configuration consists crucially in its also being the completion of an image. For him, the risk involved in the process lies not in the authenticity or otherwise of the statement made by painterly gesture alone but in the successful identification, through such gesture, of the image - a kind of engagement which for him is at once broader and more acute. Each picture is the record of a behavioural pattern associated, vitally, with the experience of painting ‘in the midst of images’.

To Le Brun it is essential that the painter should take on everything and delegate nothing. This includes the heritage of great painting, with which the painter must engage because it has an insistent momentum of its own in which the painter participates almost by definition, and which is only understood by a recognition of the pivot, the hidden image at the heart of the tradition. The early 1970s were a key period in Le Brun's development. In the humiliating position (as he saw it) of painting at that time he found a spur to his conviction of the necessary fullness of painting's ambition. He resented both the excessive reductiveness of much painting of the time and the attacks that were being made on painting's metaphysical claims. His view, by contrast, was and remains that far from restricting himself to the material characteristics of painting (important though these are) the artist's task is to respond to the need of the culture for those open to images who, through the ancient art of painting, will represent deep-seated needs and desires.

Both the final title of the Tate's work and all the titles which Le Brun considered for it earlier (inscribed on the reverse, but in the end crossed out) relate to this conviction. The phrase ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ is the title of an essay by Heidegger first published in 1954 in German and translated into English by Albert Hofstader in M. Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought (New York 1971, pp.145–61). For Le Brun this phrase suggested not so much a specific image as the sense of the clear centre of a place where thought is possible. (Another of the titles considered for this work, ‘Clearing’, bears a similar meaning. Le Brun used it for a painting exhibited at the Sperone Westwater Gallery, New York, in June 1986. He gave the title ‘Passage’ to a painting of 1984–5). It brought to mind for him the notions of classicism, the centre, permanence and the ideal. As this example shows, discussion of the specific motifs in the Tate's painting is an inadequate means of explaining their subject. In Le Brun's words, he aims in a work ‘to bring in every association in order to pinpoint one association’. Integral to the subject of each work are the concepts of memory, centrality and permanence and the aim of reconnecting with the key sources of Western painting. Le Brun's search for a central archetype is recalled in another title he considered for the Tate's painting, ‘Aram Nemus Vult’. This Latin phrase, which Le Brun found in Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos, where it occurs three times in slightly different forms (The Cantos of Ezra Pound, 1960, pp.473, 512, 525), may be translated as ‘The Grove Requires an Altar’. It is associated in Pound's work with his use of the pictogram <?>. For Le Brun the key word in Pound's phrase is ‘vult’ (requires), for this carries the sense of the final image's absolute necessity. Le Brun observes that this sense distinguishes his work fundamentally from that of the Italian ‘Trans-Avant-Garde’ painters, with which his has on occasion been linked on account of a shared concern with associational imagery. On this passage, Le Brun comments in the letter already quoted that in the phrase:

aram nemus vult each is a key word: and ‘requires’ for vult seems a polite translation. Also grove (nemus - Latin) must lead us back to hyle - Greek - ‘The Uncut Forest’, thus material nature. The connection for me is therefore clear - out of the material nature, the uncut forest, the natural history of the canvas, the image (aram, The Altar) must rear itself.

Le Brun combined the <?> pictogram with the image of a central horse's head in the drawing ‘Untitled’ 1983, graphite and watercolour, 75.8 × 61 cms. (repr. in col. in CDR Fine Art, catalogue 1, Twentieth Century Works on Paper, Spring/Summer 1986, p.47).

The title finally chose for the Tate's work, ‘Dream, Think, Speak’, was adapted by Le Brun from a sentence in the Journal of Delacroix, which he recollects as ‘Colour dreams, thinks, speaks’. Like ‘Trophy (Anger, Reverie)’, this sequence of words suggests that of making something, and thus an assertion about the nature of the process of painting the picture which bears it as title. But Le Brun deliberately gave the words of the title the form of an exhortation to the painting. He felt that in observing that colour dreams, thinks and speaks, Delacroix implied that the life of the material itself was not metaphorical but real. In selecting as this picture's title his own version of Delacroix's words, he wished to affirm his belief that both the materials of this painting and painting itself were alive; and further, that by the act of addressing them he was demonstrating his conviction that, far from being separate phenomena, the painter, the painting and the life of images become, through the act of painting, a single thing. ‘The image completely penetrates the painter, the painting and the surroundings.’ Le Brun observes that while we are accustomed to speak of painting's ‘development’, its ‘growth’, etc., in a metaphorical way, he works as if painting is literally a live thing. As much as the horses it depicts, the exhortation to painting to ‘Dream, Think, Speak’ is itself the subject of this painting.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986