Louis Le Brocquy

Study Towards an Image of James Joyce


Not on display

Louis Le Brocquy 1916–2012
Oil paint on canvas
Frame: 913 × 913 × 79 mm
support: 700 × 700 mm
Purchased 1978

Catalogue entry


Inscribed ‘LE BROCQUY/77’ on back of canvas
Oil on canvas, 27 1/4 × 27 1/4 (69.2 × 69.2)
Purchased from the artist through Gimpel Fils (Grant-in-Aid) 1979
Exh: Louis le Brocquy: Studies towards an Image of James Joyce, Galleria d'Arte San Marco dei Giustiniani, Genoa, November – December 1977 (works not numbered, as ‘Study 66’, repr.); Gimpel & Hanover Galerie, Zurich, January – February 1978 (works not numbered, repr.); Gimpel Fils, March – April 1978 (works not numbered, repr.); Arts Council Gallery, Belfast, May 1978 (works not numbered, repr.); Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin, June – July 1978 (works not numbered, repr.); Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer, New York, September – October 1978 (works not numbered, repr.); Waddington Galleries, Montreal, November 1978 (works not numbered, repr.); Waddington Galleries, Toronto, December 1978 (works not numbered, repr.)
Lit: Michael Peppiatt, ‘Interview with Louis le Brocquy’, Art International, XXIII, No.7, October 1979, pp.60–6

Louis le Brocquy's fascination with heads began in 1963 when he saw the Melanesian-Polynesian images in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris (skulls, partly remodelled in clay, then painted in a decorative way), and he began shortly afterwards to paint disembodied heads, or rather heads seen in complete isolation. This interest was reinforced later by the discovery in 1965 of a further head cult near Aix-en-Provence, this time of Celtic or Celto-Ligurean origin, which he says provided a confirmatory revelation to him of the image of the head as a kind of magic box that holds the spirit prisoner. As he told Michael Peppiatt: ‘I'm fascinated by appearances and what they reveal, the way expressions change from instant to instant in some people because of the vitality rising within them and transforming them the whole time. So the head, for me at least, is a paradox, both hiding or masking the spirit and revealing or incarnating it.’

Though most of his early studies had generic titles such as ‘Head’ or ‘Ancestral Head’, there were also a few based on the heads of friends or famous writers such as Keats or James Joyce. However it was only in 1975 that he began to make extensive, systematic series of the same person, starting with one of W. B. Yeats, and following with series of Joyce, Federico Garcia Lorca, Samuel Beckett and Francis Bacon, in that order. He deliberately chose individuals of outstanding talent who were also vulnerable and poignant as human beings because of their suffering in life and the originality and breadth of their vision. In each case he steeped himself as deeply as possible in their work before beginning to paint. Though he knew Yeats, Beckett and Bacon, he had never met Joyce or, of course, Lorca. His paintings and drawings were made with reference to numerous photographs of them and in Joyce's case to a bronze cast of his death mask which he owns and has hanging on the wall. These images often gave differing impressions and he made no attempt to resolve them into a final, definitive image. Many of the paintings were made without reference to a photograph while painting, but if he used photographs, he tended to have two or more beside him at the same time.

The catalogue of the touring exhibition Louis le Brocquy: Studies towards an Image of James Joyce (which consisted of 24 charcoal drawings of Joyce, 35 watercolours, and 10 oils, all executed in 1977) included the following note by the artist, dated March 1977:

'It is said that no Dubliner can quite escape from the microcosmic world of Dublin, and in this I am certainly no exception. James Joyce is the apotheosis, the archetype of our kind and it seems to me that in him - behind the volatile arrangement of his features - lies his unique evocation of that small city, large as life and therefore poignant everywhere. But to a Dublin man, peering at Joyce, a particular nostalgia is added to the universal “epiphany”, and this perhaps enables me to grope for something of my own experience within the ever-changing landscape of his face, within the various and contradictory photographs of his head which surround me, within my bronze death-mask of him and, I suppose, within the recesses of my own mind. Indeed I think that this preoccupation of mine is not altogether unlike that of the Celts of prehistory, with their oracular cult of the human head, the mysterious box which holds the spirit prisoner.

‘To attempt today a portrait, a single static image of a great artist such as Joyce, appears to me to be futile as well as impertinent. Long conditioned by photographs, the cinema and psychology, we now perceive the human individual as facetted, kinetic. And so I have tried as objectively as possible to draw from the depths of paper or canvas these changing and even contradictory traces of the man. In this fragmentary search I have seemed at times to encroach on archeological ground. Is there an archaeology of the spirit? Certainly neither my will nor my skill has played any essential part in these studies. For the fact is that many of them emerged entirely under my ignorant left hand - my right hand being for some months immobilised in plaster. So it would appear that no dexterity whatever was involved in forming these images, which tended to emerge automatically, so to speak, jerked into coherence by a series of scrutinised accidents, impelled by my curiosity to discover something of the man and, within him, the inverted mirror-room of my own experience.’

Though the series only began in 1977, he had made several earlier studies in oil of James Joyce, including ‘Image of James Joyce as a Boy’ 1964 (now in the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington) and four pictures of 1964, 1967, 1969 and 1972 all entitled ‘Reconstructed Head of James Joyce’. He told Michael Peppiatt that he must have made altogether something like 120 studies of Joyce, if one counts all the watercolours and charcoal drawings as well as the oils.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1978-80: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1981


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