'He loves wine, women, dancing'

In 1952, one of his paintings was denounced in Dublin as ‘satanic' and ‘repulsive'. Now it hangs in the National Gallery, making Louis le Brocquy the first ever living artist to have work acquired by the gallery


/images/village/open.jpgLouis le Brocquy, elder statesman of Irish art, is sometimes portrayed as something of an aesthete, indifferent to the charms of the world outside his art.
“Au contraire!” exclaims his wife of 40 years, Anne Madden, “Louis is a hedonist.”

“He loves wine, he loves women, and not so much song as dance – he loves dancing.”

Louis le Brocquy is 90, Anne Madden is 74. An operation on her back years ago left her unable to tango, but they dance to any other Latin American music: salsa, rumba, mambo.

“We dance together, always have, always will,” she says.

They met at a party in London in 1956. For many years they shared a studio as well as a home – something possible thanks to his total absorption in his work, she says.

“He is extremely removed from the humdrum goings-on around him. He's on his own planet, and that means that he does concentrate on his own work in a way that's unusual and unusually focused,” says Madden.

This facility is “very useful to him”, but “not so useful to other people”, she laughs.

It's been a big year for Louis le Brocquy. His ninetieth birthday was marked by exhibitions in the National Gallery, the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Hunt Museum, as well as in London and Paris; an honorary doctorate; and an ‘Arts Lives' documentary. Still to come, in January, is an exhibition at the Hugh Lane gallery of his most recent work.

Anne was afraid the schedule would exhaust him, but in fact he's enjoyed “the feeling that he hasn't wasted his life, that he has achieved something”, she says. “So many artists die before that happens.”

Louis le Brocquy was born in November 1916 in Rathgar, Dublin. He attended boarding school at St Gerard's in Bray, and after school entered his grandfather's oil refinery business, working as a trainee chemist. He met a girl, Jean Stoney, she became pregnant, and in 1938 he and his young fiancée found themselves on the B&I mail boat to Britain.

With his mother's support, they married and toured Europe, where he studied art first-hand in the great museums of London, Paris, Venice and Geneva (where the Prado collection was housed during the Spanish civil war).

Starting to paint while abroad, he had precocious success: his first three paintings were each accepted by the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA). But back in Dublin, he struggled to make a living, and turned to mural painting and set design to make ends meet. His work was rejected by the RHA in 1942, and in 1943 the academy rejected all “modernist” work en masse. This provoked the setting up of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, under the guidance of Louis's mother, Sybil le Brocquy, in order to provide a forum where work by living artists could be shown, irrespective of its “academic” credentials (such as were favoured by the conservative RHA). Le Brocquy's involvement led to his work being spotted by the London-based gallery owner Charles Gimpel and, with Gimpel's encouragement, le Brocquy moved to London.

le Brocquy's 1952 painting, ‘A Family', was greeted in the Dublin newspapers with editorials and letters denouncing it as “satanic”, “bestial” and “bewildering and repulsive”. Outside of Ireland, though, the painting brought him some international recognition, winning awards at the 1956 Venice Biennale. That painting now hangs in the National Gallery, making le Brocquy the first ever living artist to have work acquired by the gallery. (The gallery rewrote its rules on acquisitions in order to accept a donation of the painting from Lochlann Quinn, who had bought it for €2.75m, and received tax relief for the donation.)
le Brocquy and Jean Toney had separated after just two-and-a-half years and later divorced. He and Anne Madden married in 1958 and moved to the south of France. There, in 1963, le Brocquy had “a bad year”. Artist's block led him to destroy over 40 paintings which lacked “revelation”, and he became, he says, “terribly depressed”.

(He regularly destroys work, he says. “To me a painting would be no good if it came out as I intended it. It must be a discovery, something unimagined. If it's not that, then I destroy it.”)

Anne Madden remembers the incident in less extreme terms. “There was a hiatus... He felt he had bumped into the wall, but he very quickly moved on.” She took him on a trip to Paris, in search of the energy of the metropolis. He came back inspired by the Polynesian heads in the anthropological Musée de l'Homme and set about what became the “ancestral heads” series, finding inspiration also in the Celtic tradition of seeing the head “as a magic box which contains the spirit”.

From ancestral heads, he moved to 20th-century heads. He painted 100 studies of WB Yeats, consciously avoiding a realistic or predictable likeness. “Many looked like Theodore Roosevelt, some looked like Marlon Brando,” he said in a recent interview. “I was groping for this underlying vision of Yeats.” Other literary figures followed: Beckett, Lorca, Heaney. And then, to the dismay of some in the art world, Bono. le Brocquy is unperturbed: I've known Bono for some 20 years. I find more and more depth in him. He's used his celebrity to try and improve matters in the world, and continues to do so – a form of revelation in a way.”

le Brocquy is regularly cited as the greatest living Irish artist, and ranked with Jack Yeats as a leading Irish artist of the 20th century. Barbara Dawson, director of the Hugh Lane gallery, describes his work as “constantly paring back to the essential, searching and revealing the essence of subjects”. Enrique Juncosa, director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, attributes le Brocquy's prominence in part to his longevity: “He's had such a long career that he's really [become] part of the cultural milieu of the city”. le Brocquy and Madden's hospitality is well known: “conviviality and art are the two things they enjoy most”, says Rene Gimpel, son of the late Charles Gimpel and now director of le Brocquy's gallery in London, Gimpel Fils. Anthony Cronin, a friend for “the best part of 20 years”, describes le Brocquy as “courteous, gentle, quiet spoken” and “very calm”. “He's quite a good story teller,” he says, “though his stories as much tend to be about the past as the present, about the Ireland of his day.”

le Brocquy remains engaged with the Ireland of today, however. Taking a break from work in his studio to talk on the telephone, he says the “Celtic tiger” has been “a revelation”.

“There are a lot of unpleasant aspects to it – the ‘tiger' has some nasty stripes on it. But at the same time it has lifted Dublin out of poverty. I saw this poverty and I saw the helplessness of it. The women were the people who kept it together. The mother would usually die around 35 and then the daughter, aged 13, would take over.

“Now, they grumble about inequality of wages, inequality of income – and quite right too, so they should – but all that terrible poverty has been wiped out, and that pleases me greatly.”

He is currently working on still lifes of fruit, he says. He explains how he saw an acupuncturist on French television once, demonstrating how he could use his techniques to improve the health of fruit.

“It was a kind of revelation, because I realised that we were all one, that all nature was one, that the lemon was a first cousin, twice-removed from the human being.”

Only a man of 90 could get away with that. Louis le Brocquy chuckles, and returns to his easel.