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Monday 2 October 2023 Dublin: 11°C Louis le Brocquy beside one of his portraits of Samuel Beckett in 2006.
The Irish For The enduring genius of artist Louis le Brocquy
The Irish artist’s painting Táin was sold for €102,253 at an auction earlier this week.

IT WAS A noteworthy week in the Irish art world as two works by Louis le Brocquy, the first Irish artist to sell a work for over a million pounds in his lifetime, went up for auction.

The market for fine art is a peculiar one. Headlines frequently announce prices for paintings that sound bafflingly high, and yet it is usually a buyer’s market at the highest end as the owner tends to only sell when in some sort of distress when work needs to be disposed of quickly.

This is usually due to one of the three Ds – death, debt or divorce. This is even truer near the end of the tax year.

As well as his famous head portraits of Irish writers and artists such as Samuel Beckett, le Brocquy is best known for his series based on the Táin, widely considered the greatest epic poem in the Irish language.

This series included the illustrations for Thomas Kinsella’s 1969 translation of Táin Bó Cúailnge, the first English language version which didn’t attempt to play down the work’s violent, weird and sexual aspects.

50 years ago, it landed in bookshops at a moment when conversations about Irish history and identity were reaching a new pitch.

While the timeliness of the publication of Kinsella’s translation certainly contributed to its success, le Brocquy’s illustrations were also a massive factor in that version’s enduring appeal.

90178876_90178876 Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland Louis le Brocquy's A Family being hung at the National Gallery of Ireland. Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Bringing together three genres

The accomplishment of these illustrations is how le Brocquy effortlessly combined and evoked three very different art genres.

Triail an Dúchbhloba (ink blot test) – earlier illustrations of the Táin and its characters tended to follow the example of paintings of Arthurian and Wagnerian characters, presenting an escapist world of knights and kings and queens.

Le Brocquy and Kinsella were more interested in psychological research on mythology, such as Carl Jung’s writings on the collective unconscious (neamh-chomhfhios comhchoiteann in Irish).

Inspired by the Rorschach ink blot tests, a recent innovation at the time where the viewer’s unconscious thoughts are revealed by what they think they see in a random shape, le Brocquy’s dark blobs suggest warriors and hounds and chariots rather than define them, the final brushstroke being applied in the viewer’s imagination.

Ealaín Uaimhe (cave art) – the discovery of prehistoric cave art at Lascaux in the 1940s gave the world a rare insight into the artistic sophistication that humans were capable of thousands of years in the past, challenging perceptions of the ignorant caveman.

Interest was so high that the caves were closed to the public in 1963 to protect the works. One of the rooms in the Lascaux caves of most public interest was The Hall of the Bulls, depicting a stampede (táinrith, a cattle run).

While the Táin is set centuries after these cave paintings, le Brocquy took inspiration from them as being close to how the Red Branch Knights might have illustrated themselves.

Peannaireacht Bhreá (calligraphy) – le Brocquy’s use of a calligraphic brush gives many of the illustrations the appearance of letters in an unknown alphabet, the kind that seems to be full of a secret, noble wisdom to suburban eyes- the kind that a backpacker or free spirit might get tattooed to commemorate an adventure or merely broadcast their worldliness.

These illustrations managed to capture what is so exciting about mythology by emphasising how the story is ancient and urgently modern, global and local all at the same time.

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