Thursday, June 22nd, 2017

“The Impregnable Without”: Samuel Beckett and Painting

Beckett’s Thing–Painting and Theatre by David Lloyd

Jack Butler Yeats, Above the Fair, 1946. Oil on canvas, 91 x 122 cm. National Gallery of Ireland © Estate of Jack B Yeats. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2013.
Jack Butler Yeats, Above the Fair, 1946. Oil on canvas, 91 x 122 cm. National Gallery of Ireland © Estate of Jack B Yeats. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2013.

David Lloyd, in his long-awaited book on Samuel Beckett and the visual arts, arrives, in his closing chapter, at this electrifying thought: “The political effect of Beckett’s work in general takes place not at the level of statement, but in its steady dismantling of the regime of representation.” (p. 222). Although Lloyd, here, is talking about the very late Beckett plays—Catastrophe, written for the dissident Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, and What Where, in which a voice exhorts three characters to extract information from each other by force—it is clear, thanks to the argument he has built throughout the book, that the wellhead of Beckett’s literary aesthetic lay in his intense, life-long devotion to looking at what he called “pictures,” specifically those by painters who were mounting their own assaults on representation.

That Beckett appreciated painting is beyond question. As a young man, he haunted the National Gallery in Dublin and its fine collection of Dutch Masters and Renaissance works. The gallery’s purchase in 1931 of Pietro Perugino’s Pietà, as just one example remarked upon by Beckett (25 at the time), prompted repeated visits: “One is obliged to take cognizance of it, square inch by square inch.” Living in London in the mid-1930s, he continued to look closely at art—he even applied for a job at the National Gallery. Frequent trips to Germany—including a six-month, twenty-city tour in 1936-37, when Hitler and Goebbels were driving abstract art into basements, labeling artists as officially degenerate, and burning books and paintings in public squares—showed Beckett just what might be at stake in the war of representation. He filled six notebooks with his thoughts. And Beckett spent the last fifty years of his life in Paris, most of it as a revered celebrity. Still, he went to galleries and openings throughout.

by Avigdor Arikha, graphite on primed brown paper, 1971
by Avigdor Arikha, graphite on primed brown paper, 1971

Given how much art Beckett made it his business to see, Lloyd has made the wise choice to concentrate on three artists that Beckett not only wrote about but also liked personally very much. Although work remains to be done on Beckett’s view of several other artists—he has a fascinating understanding of Cézanne, for example, and a soft spot for the Northern European romantics—Lloyd’s tight focus on the Irishman Jack B. Yeats, the Dutchman Bram van Velde, and the Romanian-born, Paris-based Israeli Avigdor Arikha yields valuable insights into the work of these underappreciated artists and gold for those trying to get a greater grip on Beckett’s work, particularly his work for theater.

The “thing” in Lloyd’s title is not a vague placeholder. Beckett’s thing is the human subject glimpsed as a reducible but not expungable thing among other things, tirelessly pursued in virtually all of his work (p. 232). He never sought to privilege the self as subject and did not like art that did so. He understood Cézanne landscapes as “incommensurable with all human expression” and possessed of an “impassable immensity” between landscape and the gazing subject. He complained that there was “nothing of the kind” in painters like Constable and Turner, where he saw only nature “infected with spirit.” In the work of Yeats, the younger brother of the great Irish poet, Beckett saw an artist whose stormy, swirling landscapes all but subsumed the figure, maintaining, by problematizing, the relation of the medium to what is represented. As Beckett said in his well-known “Three Dialogues” with Georges Duthuit (the editor of Transitions and the son-in-law of Matisse), “It seems absurd to speak, as Kandinsky did, of a painting liberated from the object. For what remains of representation if the essence of the object is to abscond from representation?” Indeed, what does remain? As anyone familiar with Beckett’s prose and theater knows, this is the Beckett conundrum.

The embrace of Yeats’s painting, Lloyd reminds us, is distinguished by Beckett’s rejection of a popular view at the time—that Yeats was a “national painter,” as his good friend, the poet Thomas MacGreevy contended, his work representing “the life of the people.” For Beckett, an artist worthy of interest cannot be reduced to the politics of representation. As he wrote of Yeats in “Hommàge a Jack B. Yeats,” “the artist who stakes his being is from nowhere, has no kith.” (In this instance, apparently, he’s not even Irish.)

Lloyd’s close analysis of the surface and depths of several Yeats canvases is convincing, and alters this common view. In Yeats’s Above the Fair (1946), for example, a severely foreshortened view of a country fair, a dozen faces crowd the foreground in a rush. And yet,

[I]t is often extremely difficult to achieve a total image of the painting no matter where one stands before the canvas, and wherever one stands, one has the impression of seeing the work at a different depth of focus…. It is as if the represented of the painting continually dissolves back into the medium of the representation, resisting totalization and renewing the work of the gaze at every turn. (p. 54)

In the explosion of colors typical of Yeats’s work, Lloyd adduces, in painting after painting, that nothing is resolved into conventional outlines of what they might be taken to represent—travelers, horses, children, swimmers. The subject will not be brought into focus, which is what interested Beckett, as in all of his work, where the self is elusive if ever-present. In his hommàge to Yeats, Beckett wrote approvingly, in his inimitable style: “None of this great inner real where phantoms quick and dead, nature and void, all that ever and never will be, join in a single evidence for a single testimony.” No, none of that.

Bram van der Velde, caption details to follow
Bram van Velde, Untitled (Montrouge), 1947. Oil on canvas, 144.5 x 113 cm © Artists Rights Agency (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris, 2016

Beckett’s enthusiasm for the painting of Bram van Velde was intense. He deeply admired the courage of the destitute artist who was living in Paris. He gave him money, bought his work, and was constantly asking friends after van Velde’s well being. He wrote more about van Velde than any other artist. “I suggest,” he told Duthuit in the “Three Dialogues,” “that van Velde is the first whose painting is bereft, rid if you prefer, of occasion in every shape and form, ideal as well as material, and the first whose hands have not been tied by the certitude that expression is an impossible act.” But what is going on in a van Velde painting? In still lives and enjambments of masks, shards, and imperfect geometric shapes, what held Beckett’s eye, Lloyd proposes, is “the shifting borderland between figuration and abstraction, where… the viewer cannot help but be captivated by the possibility of discerning a vestigial figure, the figure, if you like, of figure itself… the prototype of all figuration.” Lloyd, in his closing chapter, “The Play’s the Thing,” cites many examples of the Beckett “painted stage,” as he calls it, in which such vestigial figures lurk and haunt. There is perhaps no greater example than Beckett’s play Not I, which features but a mouth and a torrent of language. And there are many others.

It is Lloyd’s considerable contribution to have discerned the importance, to Beckett, of the figure, or the figure of the figure, in van Velde, the astuteness of this insight amply supported by his discussion of the work of the third artist under review. Avigdor Arikha, nearly twenty-five years younger than Beckett, was a Jewish exile during World War II, deported from the Ukraine in 1941 to a labor camp, where he made “unsettling and unsentimental drawings” of the camp in charcoal on butcher paper. After studying at Betzalel, the Bauhaus-themed art academy in Jerusalem, he settled in Paris, where he lived until his death in 2010. Arikha was, by his own admission, an abstract painter—until 1965, when he saw a Caravaggio show at the Louvre that changed everything. Whereas Arikha had been committed to the “structure of content” and “hidden pictorial melodies” (p 156), after Caravaggio he turned to drawing from life, from observation. Arikha commenced a “process of unlearning,” driven by intense scrutiny and “a violent hunger in the eye.” Self-portraits, painting of his wife’s hands, his two daughters, and several portraits of Beckett followed. He set himself the task of completing works in one sitting. He painted, or drew, rapidly. To Beckett, who was a regular visitor to the Arikha flat for the last thirty years of his life, Arikha’s work was “Siege laid again to the impregnable without. Eye and hand fevering after the unself” (“For Avigdor Arikha”). Arikha settled on the term “depiction” for what he was doing. Although his work could be seen as a mixture of abstraction and figuration, he was unhappy with either term. As Lloyd helpfully observes, for Arikha, “[d] epiction seeks to render the thing seen without reducing it to a reference to something else for which it may be taken to stand,” (p 164) which harmonizes with Beckett’s final line in Watt: “No symbols where none intended.”

If indeed Beckett was intent on a “steady dismantling of the regime of representation,” it is helpful to understand the place of the figure—elusive, fugitive, often in shadow—in such an enterprise. In these three artists, Lloyd effectively posits, Beckett recognized projects that returned his attentions with material and ideas for his own work. If it did less than this, it was nothing less than providing true fellowship, whether with kith or kin no matter.

David Lloyd: Beckett’s Thing–Painting and Theatre. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016. 253 pp. 49 color illustrations, ISBN 9781474415729. $75.00).