Samuel Beckett and Painting

David Lloyd talks about Beckett’s friendships with twentieth-century painters and his enduring interest in the visual arts
David Lloyd, Beckett's Thing: Painting and Theatre (Edinburgh University Press, 2016)
David Lloyd, Beckett’s Thing: Painting and Theatre (Edinburgh University Press, 2016)

What draws you to the work of Samuel Beckett?

I’ve been reading Beckett’s work since I was a teenager and writing on him since my undergraduate days at Cambridge in the 70s. I dare say part of my initial attraction to Beckett lay in the kinds of philosophical conundra his work posed, in its hilarious comedy and in its ascetic reductionism. In a letter to Georges Duthuit, in which he comments on his desire for “a theatre reduced to its own means”, he goes on: “That is Protestantism if you like, we are what we are.” It may be that there was also something about the South Dublin Protestant background that I shared with Beckett that felt like grounds for affinity: certainly there was something familiar as much in the ethos as in the local landscapes secreted in the works. But above all, it was the uncompromising aesthetic ethic, the commitment to a work determined to “reduce itself to its own means”, that corresponded to the refusal of extraneous resources like the resonances of identity or signifiers of cultural belonging. That offered a quite different set of possibilities, intellectually and aesthetically, than Irish culture at the time generally made available.

What motivated you to write Beckett’s Thing: Painting and Theatre?

As for many who read and write on Beckett, his writings on art were always crucial points of entry to his work for me. I still think of Lawrence Harvey’s beautiful study of the early writings, Samuel Beckett, Poet and Critic (1970), which I read as an undergraduate, as one of the indispensable books on Beckett. It introduced me to the art-critical writings and especially to the “Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit.” That of course led me to Bram van Velde, but it was a long time before I was able to see his work “in the flesh”. When I finally did, it changed the way I approached Beckett’s relation to visual art, which had been largely iconographic—that is, I assumed that there was a relation between the images he saw in paintings and the works he wrote that incorporated similar images. His brief review of Thomas MacGreevy’s book on Jack B. Yeats had been very provocative when I was writing on the later prose: the string of images, only partly derived from Yeats’s paintings—“the eyes abandoning, the man alone trudging in sand, the man alone thinking (thinking!) in his box”—all seemed to suggest the images of Ping, Imagination Dead Imagine, or the late plays. Indeed, images from Jack Yeats have been notoriously invoked as prompts for the scenario of Waiting for Godot. But van Velde’s work, which steadily destroys almost every vestige of image or figure, raised a quite different set of possibilities and I began to wonder what a painting so radically reduced to and in its means could offer the writer.

In what ways do you think the visual arts influenced Beckett’s work for the stage?

The more I looked at paintings by the artists on whom he wrote and, for the most part, had close and extended relationships with, the more I became convinced that Beckett’s engagement with painting was less—and over his writing career less and less—to do with the prompts that theatrical images found in painting and increasingly to do with an interrogation of the image and its communicative structure. Beckett seemed more preoccupied with what the procedures and problems of painting suggest for the writer in relation to his own problems and procedures. I don’t mean by that that the statements he makes about painting are really just statements regarding his own literary aesthetic and to be translated as such. Rather, he seemed to see in painting a set of aesthetic questions and responses that went to the heart of the crisis in representation that marks 20th-century art in general. It’s significant to me that he focused on painting. For example, he knew Albert Giacometti well, but never wrote about his sculpture, though one could certainly see abundant correspondences in their work. Three-dimensional art did not seem to capture his attention. Painting held his attention, I think, because it was the medium that most persistently addressed the question of representation and what he termed in an early review of Irish poetry “the breakdown of the object”.That “new situation”, he knew, implied also the breakdown of the subject, and Western painting, which had sought since the Renaissance to capture its objects on the flat plane of the canvas, sought no less to situate the subject perspectivally in the position of the sovereign. Beckett’s theatre very gradually absorbs the lessons of the painters whose work in evolving ways absorbs him for some sixty years and does so in ways that are quite painterly in the senses that they variously offer. Like painting, theatre in its very spatial geometry, so to speak, positions the spectator before a scene where the gaze captures an object. Beckett’s first plays turn around the image: it’s hard not to see how powerful the images of Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and Happy Days are and it’s no accident that critics have sought correlatives in painting—Yeats or Caspar David Friedrich, for example—for those images. But the plays do also refuse to allow the image to consolidate into a “message”: the texts of the plays constantly suggest symbolic meanings, through allusions, citations, images, etc—the whole gamut of modernist associations—but always take them only so far that they begin to unravel or fizzle out. Gradually, however, the image is replaced by a complete disaggregation of the spectacle into its component parts—voice, gesture, figure, light, all become separate entities dispersed on the stage, from Krapp’s Last Tape on. I argue that in Beckett’s theatre, the human appears as a thing among the things that are its world, including the “things” that are the voice and the gaze. The later plays gradually seem to remove all depth from the theatre, become tableaus on the surface of an arcanum of intense darkness behind the lighted strip located at the front of the stage. There the human thing momentarily appears and disappears. Think of Footfalls or Come and Go. They are, of course, very painterly in this: “still” the action of a Beckett play at almost any point, and you have a marvellous painting. But—like the paintings of Caravaggio which they seem to evoke procedurally—they do destroy the punctual sovereign gaze of the spectator: Beckett destroys theatre as Caravaggio was said to have “destroyed painting”. It’s interesting to see how Beckett’s practice as a director constantly emphasized tableau-like effects even in early plays like Waiting for Godot.

Could you say a little bit about Beckett’s relationship to twentieth-century painters such as Jack B. Yeats, Bram van Velde, and Avigdor Arikha?

I chose to focus on three painters with whom Beckett was personally close and on whom he wrote critical responses of varying length. Yeats he met as a young man through MacGreevy when the painter was already quite old and producing his mature and most formally inventive work. Beckett’s long correspondence with MacGreevy constantly returns to his admiration for the painter, anticipating Yeats’s eventually very high reputation. I argue that Beckett sees in Yeats’s late work a tension between figure and ground, form and material, that is the formal correlative of his earlier, quasi-ethnographic depictions of Irish subalternity: both are recalcitrant to representation. Yeats’s late paintings are notoriously difficult to read, forcing the viewer to shift constantly between the material insistence of the paint itself and the image that emerges from it. Beckett’s early theatre will perform a corresponding play between the images it suggests and the textual instability that undoes them.

Van Velde, the Dutch painter whom he got to know in the late 30s, is the painter about whom Beckett wrote most, immediately after the devastating experience of the war. Van Velde, he says, was his “great familiar” and there was clearly a close aesthetic understanding between them, van Velde remarking in the volume of Transition that contained the “Three Dialogues”, “Painting is Man in face with his catastrophe.” I was struck that nobody seems to have noticed that this volume, Transition 49, contains reviews and reproductions of the work of the two other painters in the dialogues, Tal Coat and André Masson, both of whom Beckett knew and Duthuit championed. It seemed important to understand the “Three Dialogues” as a kind of intertext that critiques the journal’s agenda, which was to restore the continuity and global prominence of French painting. Tal Coat and Masson extend the traditions, most immediately, of Cézanne and Matisse, while the anti-hero, van Velde, pulls that tradition apart in his paintings that allude constantly to their stylistic traits while dispersing the last vestiges of figure and gaze across his increasingly abstract canvases. It is, I think, in his meditations on van Velde’s works that Beckett eventually understands how to disintegrate the image that had so powerfully informed his early theatre.

Unlike Yeats and van Velde, Avigdor Arikha, the Romanian Jewish painter who survived the labor camps, was younger than Beckett and got to know him after a performance of Waiting for Godot in the mid-1950s. They became intimate friends for the rest of Beckett’s life and frequently met and conversed about art and literature. Arikha is singular for the sudden rupture in his work, which had begun with abstract painting but, after he visited a Caravaggio exhibition at the Louvre, became exclusively figurative or, as he preferred to put it, drawing or painting “from observation”. His best paintings are astonishing constructions that blend saturated washes of colour with acutely observed depictions of things: the affinity with Caravaggio is not in subject matter but in the refusal of “historical” painting and in its interrogation of the gaze—traits that Beckett’s brief catalogue note on Arikha captures with characteristic condensation.

To me, it has always been striking that these painters to whom Beckett seems to have been closest all work at the edge of what is generally known as “figurative” painting, where it verges into abstraction: even van Velde, who most approaches pure abstraction in the time Beckett was writing about his work, always seems to leave some vestige of figure in his work, a reminder of the thing that is the gaze, so to speak.

How can Beckett’s correspondence with the critic Georges Duthuit help us to understand his complex attitude towards painting?

For a reputedly solipsistic artists, Beckett was notably dialogical in practice. Duthuit, art critic and son-in-law of Matisse, befriended Beckett in the post-war period of French material and cultural reconstruction. He revived and edited Transition and gave Beckett regular translation work. (In fact, there is still work to be done to catalogue all the writers whom Beckett did translate during this period: it would make an interesting census of post-war French literature as well as painting). Their ongoing “dialogue” is represented in a large number of lengthy letters collected in the correspondence, which clearly formed the basis for the text Beckett eventually composed as the “Three Dialogues”. Beckett’s closeness to Duthuit recalls his friendship with MacGreevy. But Duthuit, who wrote extensively about Byzantine art in ways that sometimes vividly recall W.B. Yeats, was an interlocutor at the time when Beckett was most possessed by the potentialities of the image. At a certain point, he seems to lose interest in his conversation with Duthuit just as his faith in the image as a solution to literary and visual aesthetic problems was waning. You can see the correspondence tail off in the second volume of the Letters, though they continued to collaborate together as champions of van Velde at least into the late 50s. Rémi Labrusse has studied their relationship most fully and in very compelling ways.

Why do you think Beckett was sometimes drawn more to visual artists than to fellow writers?

I’m not sure that I would put it quite that way. Certainly, Beckett had a life-long “passion for painting”, but he was also deeply engaged with writers, Joyce and Proust most notoriously, as well as younger writers including Kay Boyle, Aidan Higgins and Harold Pinter. That said, I do think that he was drawn not only to the silence of the canvas (and to that of the notoriously taciturn Yeats and van Velde), but to the procedures of painting: erasure, over-painting, the emergence and waning of the image, all seem correlatives of his own desire, going back to the famous “German letter” written to Axel Kaun in the 1930s, to strip away the word-surface, in an endless unveiling. That’s exactly how he writes of van Velde in “Peintres de l’empêchement” (1948): “Un dévoilement sans fin, voile derrière voile, plan sur plan de transparences imparfaites, un dévoilement vers l’indévoilable, le rien, la chose à nouveau.” An impossible project, this unveiling that proceeds by accumulating veil upon veil, but nonetheless characteristically Beckettian. In Yeats’s work he saw “the issueless predicament of existence”; in van Velde this “art of incarceration”; in Arikha, “the gaze beating against unseeable and unmakable”. Nohow on.

Could you also say a little bit about the influence of Old Masters like Caravaggio on Beckett’s work?

Beckett had an amateur’s (in the best sense) deep knowledge of the Old Masters, from Flemish and German painters to Italian painters of the high Renaissance. Much of this work he saw during his Wanderjahre in Germany, and both James Knowlson and Mark Nixon have done wonderful work on documenting all that he saw there, though of course his study began in the quite rich collection of the National Gallery in Dublin as a student. He had remarkable visual recall: to give just one example, there is a St Sebastian by Antonello da Messina that he saw in Dresden in 1937 that he describes with astonishing accuracy and detail in a letter to Duthuit in 1948.

Caravaggio is an interesting question: he could scarcely have seen many actual paintings till quite late in his life, as for example when he saw the Beheading of St. John the Baptist in Malta that became a prompt to Not I, as he told Arikha (Knowlson records this in Damned to Fame). It’s hard to imagine he did not see the Louvre Caravaggio show in 1965 that was so influential on Arikha. Again, however, it’s less the images in themselves than Caravaggio’s procedure: his notorious use of an overhead light that not only produced the effect of chiaroscuro for which he is so famous, but also destroyed the perspectival depths that allowed painters to represent different moments of action and temporality through the successive planes of the canvas. Arikha writes fascinatingly about this in an extended essay on Poussin’s Rape of the Sabines, where he cites Poussin’s distaste for Caravaggio. Think of how Beckett increasingly uses such effects in producing the tableaus in his late plays: that seems to me far more important than identifying images that may or may not inspire the “picture” of the play.

What writers or thinkers most influenced the book?

There’s such a wonderful body of scholarship on Beckett that it’s hard to know where to begin, though I’ve mentioned already some of the people who have influenced my thinking on Beckett over the years. To those, I’d add Daniel Albright, Eyal Amiran, and Lois Overbeck, all of whom write wonderfully about Beckett’s relation to painting. Leo Bersani and Ulisse Dutoit interestingly write about both Beckett and Caravaggio and I also found Louis Marin’s book on Poussin and Caravaggio, To Destroy Painting, was indispensable—it’s a work of art criticism that has a tremendously theatrical sense of painting. Of course, the book is called Beckett’s Thing, a title inspired by Beckett’s constant recurrence to the notion of the thing. It eventually struck me how closely his “thinking of the thing” paralleled that of Martin Heidegger during exactly the same period, 1936-1950, but also how much further into the apprehension of the reification of humans Beckett was willing to go. Beside him, Heidegger’s eventual meditations in “The Thing” (1950) seem markedly reactionary. I’m not sure there was a direct influence, though Beckett knew several students of Heidegger, including the Irish poet/philosopher Brian Coffey, the Swiss painter Karl Ballmer (whom he met in Hamburg) and the French scholar Jean Beaufret. Probably the coincidence comes from the fact that Beckett, like Heidegger, was reading Kant in the late 30s, but Heidegger’s sense of the “thing as resistance” was very important to my thinking-through of Beckett’s sense of thingliness. Beckett also anticipates very presciently Jacques Lacan’s later analysis of the thing—das Ding—and his conception of gaze and voice as things for the subject. But though Lacan’s terms were helpful to me conceptually, Beckett’s approach does not seem to me ever to be “psychoanalytical” in the sense that is sometimes applied to literature.

“Probably I couldn’t have done that without the help over the years of several friends who are practising artists and who have a strikingly different way of viewing painting and other artwork. So I’m very grateful to the painters even if, as Beckett said to Duthuit, ‘decidedly one is literary all one’s life’!”

Above all, however, it has not been so much writers or thinkers who influenced me in writing this book as painting itself. Having grown up with an amateur’s interest in contemporary art, starting with the great Rosc exhibitions in Dublin in the 1970s, but trained as a literary critic, having to learn to see painting—or, in Jean-Luc Nancy’s marvellous sense, to listen to painting—has been a profoundly instructive process in itself. Probably I couldn’t have done that without the help over the years of several friends who are practising artists and who have a strikingly different way of viewing painting and other artwork. So I’m very grateful to the painters even if, as Beckett said to Duthuit, “decidedly one is literary all one’s life”!

What’s next for you?

Like my previous book, Irish Culture and Colonial Modernity (Cambridge, 2011), which has a final chapter on How It Is, Beckett’s Thing is part of an ongoing dispute with the Kantian/Hegelian aesthetic tradition, and with the general discourse on representation which it founds, that has been a parallel strand in my work for a very long time. So the next book is a collection of essays on aesthetics, race and politics, called Under Representation, which runs from Kant and Schiller to Adorno and Benjamin. I’m very much hoping that book will see the light of day before too long. And my own play, The Press, is scheduled to appear in a bilingual French-English edition (The Press/Le Placard) with Presses Universitaires du Midi in 2018. In the meantime, I’m starting a new project on poetry and violence that will have essays on Yeats, Vallejo, Césaire and Celan. But that’s in its early days yet.

Beckett’s Thing: Painting and Theatre is available from Edinburgh University Press.

About the Author

David Lloyd is Distinguished Professor of English at U.C. Riverside and works on Irish culture and on postcolonial, cultural and aesthetic theory. His books include Irish Times: Temporalities of Irish Modernity (2008) and Irish Culture and Colonial Modernity: The Transformation of Oral Space (2011). He is also a poet and playwright: Arc & Sill: Poems 1979-2009 appeared with Shearsman Books (2012); his play, The Press, premiered at Liverpool Hope University in 2010.


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