This is a particularly fine, early example from a series of portraits of Samuel Beckett, both in oil on canvas and watercolour on paper, which Louis le Brocquy began painting shortly after he first met the writer in Paris in 1978. The subject had first attracted him, however, as early as 1965 when he painted his first Beckett image, an oil painting entitled 'Reconstructed Head of Samuel Beckett' (Opus no. 171). Le Brocquy's celebrated images of the human head were originally inspired by the chance discovery in 1965 in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris of a display of ornamental Polynesian skulls. This followed a period of profound dissatisfaction with his work that had led him to destroy about forty paintings of human torsos, his preferred subject matter for much of the previous decade. The images of torso and head alike are invariably isolated in the centre of a generally undifferential field of bright white or grey. Le Brocquy himself tends to play down the distinction between these two series of works, preferring to see body and head as functioning synecdochically as 'alternative image of "the whole in the part"', stressing that in both instances he is attempting 'to paint some sort of image of the mysterious state of conscious being'. Some of the earliest head paintings are called 'ancestral heads' reflecting le Brocquy's perception of the importance of head imagery in the art of the Celts throughout the ages. Anne Crookshank has noted of these works that 'the heads are nearly abstract, more skull than head, beings which lack the emotive quality of recognition'. In 1965, however, le Brocquy embarked on studies of specific individuals, mostly celebrated cultural heroes such as James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Federico Garcia Lorca and his friends Francis Bacon and Samuel Beckett. These images of the human head were his main preoccupation from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, and they have remained a characteristic subject to this day.
Beckett's famously gaunt, craggy visage, high, furrowed brow, unruly shock of hair and piercing eyes made him an ideal subject for le Brocquy's characteristic depiction of the human head (like the earlier torsos) as caught in a double movement of emergence from and recession into a bright, unfathomable ground. The right side of the writer's face is bathed in light revealing an alert, penetrating regard, while the left side appears to recede into the shadows. Of all of le Brocquy's subjects it is perhaps Beckett who best exemplifies Seamus Heaney's observation of the head images in general that 'they take hold of the air, they probe it with a deep pure stare'. Le Brocquy's friendship with Beckett during the last eleven years of the writer's life led to two important collaborations: his illustrations for Stirrings Still, published in 1988, the year before Beckett's death, and his set and costume design for Walter Asmus's highly acclaimed production of Waiting for Godot, which opened at the Gate Theatre that same year.
Le Brocquy gifted this particular Image of Samuel Beckett in 1981 to John Russell, author of numerous monographs on leading figures in 20th Century art as well as the best-selling book The Meanings of Modern Art. Russell was the art critic for The Sunday Times from 1945 to 1970 and began writing for The New York Times in the mid-1970s, later becoming the paper's chief art critic. Le Brocquy first met Russell during the latter's London years and Russell wrote on his work on a number of occasions from the 1950s onwards. Among these writings is his introduction to Dorothy Walker's 1981 monograph on le Brocquy. Writing of the artist's 1981 retrospective at the New York State Museum in Albany, Russell had the following to say of the head images: 'Louis le Brocquy has for years been meditating on the variability of the human head as it is found in people of genius ... Where most painters resent or gloss over the hit-or-miss element in portraiture, le Brocquy welcomes it into the studio as an indispensible familiar. No one image can be definitive, in his view, and the act of portraiture should be a long and patient siege, as distinct from a headlong assault'.
We are grateful to Caoimhin Mac Giolla Léith for providing this catalogue entry.