Review: Samuel Beckett and the Visual Arts

From Journal of Beckett Studies


Conor Carville, Samuel Beckett and the Visual Arts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. ix + 265pp. £75, hardback. ISBN: 978-1108399852.

Reviewed by Michael Coffey


Nearly twenty years ago, in her book-length study The Painted Word, Lois Oppenheim admitted surprise at the strength of the link she found between Samuel Beckett’s interest in painting ‘and his aims as a creative writer’ (2002, 2). The custom at the time, as well as its perceived limit, was identifying features common to both the paintings Beckett was known to have admired and the writings he produced. 
We have come a long way in the past two decades in understanding the profound significance of the visual arts to Beckett’s work, to a considerable extent owing to Oppenheim’s nervy declaration that the act of painting, for Beckett, was ‘emblematic […] of the creative process itself’ (3). Important books have followed: John Haynes and James Knowlson’s Images of Beckett (2003), Daniel Albright’s Beckett & Aesthetics (2003), David Lloyd’s Beckett’s Thing: Painting and Theatre (2016), and Mark Nixon’s Samuel Beckett’s German Diaries 1936-1937 (2011), in which the importance of the visual experience to Beckett’s developing aesthetic is made plain.
Carville’s aim, he states at the start of his book, is indeed to build upon the work of Oppenheim, Knowlson, Nixon, and Lloyd by paying ‘special attention to the cultural and historic contexts’ of Beckett’s engagement with the visual arts (23). As he proceeds through seven chapters of cultural and historical contexts, once verboten in Beckett scholarship and now widespread and fertile, he presents new material that sheds light on what Beckett was up to while also looking at several art works with a fresh eye. 
Carville begins, in his Introduction, with a discussion of Beckett’s early poem, ‘Malacoda’, about the death of his father.  The poem reveals, writes Carville, ‘the first trace of [Beckett’s] visits (3)’ to the National Gallery in London: ‘lay this Huysum on the box / mind the imago it is he’ (Beckett, 2012, 21). ‘Imago’, as Beckett told Lawrence Harvey, refers to the mature butterfly visible in a Jan van Huysum painting he had seen, most likely Flowers in a Terracotta Vase (Harvey, 1970, 111). Fair enough – lay upon the casket a framed still life with the very image of metamorphosis upon it as a touching farewell (‘all aboard all souls’). But Carville’s recognition that this still life is in the Dutch genre of Vanitas, with its wilting flowers and, in this instance, a fly on the lip of the vase, marks what will in time become Beckett’s signature and Carville’s theme: concepts in some form of opposition, here the beautiful marked by decay.
The first five chapters bring us from Beckett’s time at Trinity College Dublin to the writing of Watt. This comprises a dozen or so years of Beckett’s life but two–thirds of the book.  An understanding of the ‘Poetics of the Image’, the title of Chapter 1, is the first step. Carville pays attention to the earliest writing – the essay on ‘Work in Progress’, the Proust essay and Dream of Fair to Middling Women; to the art Beckett saw in Dublin and Paris between 1929 and 1931; and to his time at both Trinity and the École normale. Highlights of this chapter include Carville’s analysis of student notes on Beckett’s Trinity College lectures on Racine. Whereas Angela Moorjani (2012) compares Racinian plot structures to Beckettian ones, Carville, relying mostly on the Grace McKinley notes, attends to issues of stagecraft and the literary descriptions of backgrounds. ‘[N]otice […] the way [Racine] can call up pictures’, McKinley quotes Lecturer Beckett on Andromaque. Beckett, according to Carville, stresses the recurrence of striking images, ‘such as those of blood and fire […] as if [he] wants to translate the diachrony of literature into synchrony’ (41). Understanding this Racinian spatialization of time ‘enables Beckett to refine his thinking about the image and its material support’ (44), so that a text becomes a ‘material assemblage conceived in spatial terms’ (54). Such matters never left Beckett. 
The second chapter moves to the years 1931–36 and Beckett’s time in London. It is rich with politics. This is the period of the furious Beckett–McGreevy correspondence about painting. If you have ever been puzzled by the stridency in Beckett’s oft–quoted comment about Cézanne’s landscapes as ‘material of a strictly peculiar order, incommensurable with all human expression whatsoever’, you will be puzzled no more. As Carville makes clear, Beckett’s praise of Cézanne and his braying against the ‘anthropomorphism’ of landscape artists were in part his response to an attempt in inter-war France to locate French identity in the landscape and reject the avant-garde, which was seen as German or American or non–Catholic – and Parisian. In a sparkling pivot, Carville compares this development to the Free State’s emphasis on the true Irish identity to be found in the countryside, ‘the West of Ireland […] anointed as the locus of values of the new rural, Catholic nation’ (88). Carville suggests that this period is not only the one in which Beckett’s suspicion of representation as ideology takes hold but is also the origin of his belief that landscape is inorganic, so other as to be frightening (78). But as in all things Beckettian, this inorganicism is layered with its opposite, a vitalism: ‘Beckett draws on painting to acknowledge a duality at the heart of his thinking in the mid–1930s, a productive tension between a Classical attraction to a rigorous objective formal clarity […] and a vulnerability to Romantic affect’ (90).
Chapter 3 covers the crucial six months Beckett spent in Germany. Here, Carville focuses first on Beckett’s ‘assimilation of German–language art history’, particularly the work of Wilhelm Worringer, who contrasted the ‘expressive abstraction’ of Northern painters with the empathic work of Southern European painters. Carville contends that the German Diaries show that Beckett was more partial to abstraction than to the empathic but, typically, there were signs of equivocation. Before Beckett has left Germany, these art–critical debates have morphed into a ‘deep–seated agon between objective formalism and subjective fusion that is the motor of his aesthetic thought’ (97). 
Although Carville remains in Germany in Chapter 4, the frame of reference extends beyond German artists to include Vermeer, Watteau, Yeats, Picasso and Duchamp.  In this reckoning, Beckett’s views of inorganicism and vitalism begin to harden. Carville argues that in Watteau Beckett senses a material continuity between the inorganic and the quick. In Picasso, man becomes ‘an object among objects’ (130). In Yeats, finally, the impassible immensity is there, but, in his handling, it is ‘petrified’ into a ‘hard irreducible singleness’ (134).  Tantalizingly, Carville suggests that Beckett’s high regard for Lionel Feininger’s ‘amalgam of German Expressionism and French Cubism’ (140) led him to a deeper appreciation of Gertrude Stein’s Cubist logographs. Carville muses that Cubism’s ambiguating of surface and depth is key to what Beckett proposes in the Axel Kaun letter, in which Stein is mentioned approvingly (141). 
At this point, Carville segues into a discussion of Duchampian nominalism, based solely on the ‘ironic nominalism’ Beckett mentions in the Kaun letter and the fact that Duchamp saw his own work as nominalist. But this gets Carville smoothly into his terrific Chapter 5, ‘Impossible Image: Watt and Failed Ekphrasis’, and Carville does indeed show that Watt is a tour de force of nominalism.  Although Carville builds his chapter on the description of three works of art in Watt, the real payoff is the fine assessment of British Surrealism – Humphrey Jennings, David Gascoyne, and the London Bulletin of E. L. T. Mesens. This is where Duchamp re-enters the discussion, given the shared interest among the British Surrealists and Duchamp in a kind of technical, documentary writing. Watt is then profitably considered in this light, with its prolix permutational operations on language, as if it were a machine made of parts. This chapter roars through a succession of fascinating ideas, including the resurrection of a point made in the German Diaries about abstraction itself being a component of the real, ‘a quality of the world, rather than transcendent to it’ (166). As to the ‘failed ekphrasis of the chapter title – language’s inability to adequately describe the circle–and–center figure on the wall in Erskine’s room – Carville points out that it nonetheless ‘excites a moment of successful empathy and identification’ (168). Contemplating the abyss between a broken circle and a wandering center, Watt begins to weep. 
Of course, it is obligatory to dilate upon Beckett’s writing on Bram and Geer van Velde, and in his penultimate chapter, ‘From Bram van Velde to The Unnamable’, Carville does so with some unusually heightened stakes. In short, Carville boils down the well–known Beckettian rhetoric about the impoverished Dutch painters (predominantly Bram) into a philosophy: monadism, from Beckett’s beloved Leibniz, he of the ‘splendid little pictures’ (Beckett, 2009, 172). At this time, in post-war France, Beckett is interested in the image excised from its context, in suspension, a pure ‘thingness’ (201). This is what Carville calls ‘an art of non–relation’ (202). But, by now predictably, Beckett scorns this very position through his own ‘virtuosity of negation’ (206), scorns Bram’s interiority and, in a letter to Georges Duthuit, parodies Leibniz’s notion that each monad is a mirror of the universe (207). Carville explores these concerns – the very nature of things – as they play out in The Unnamable: ‘what is the correct attitude to adopt towards things?’ the Unnamable asks (Beckett, 2010, 2). The questions continue, and ‘oppositions of inside and outside, voice and silence, actual and virtual [are] exhaustively explored in the novel’ (213).
In his concluding chapter Carville considers the two key concepts that refuse to yield: abstraction and figuration. In doing so, he becomes less reliant upon the empirical record. Clement Greenberg’s formalism is discussed in Kantian terms, as is his insistence that an artwork foregrounds its own medium and materials. Carville’s consideration of the extent to which Beckett was congruent with Greenberg’s views is at first blush less productive than his swerve into more surprising territory, George Eliot’s Adam Bede. Eliot’s impassioned description of Dutch genre painting – ‘do not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish from the region of Art old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands’ (219) – provides a new angle on Beckett’s love of the same art. This leads to a marvelous consideration of the use of light and dark in George Eliot’s writing, Dutch painting, Caravaggio, and in many later Beckett works. Carville races through a series of oppositions and then finds his true subject, what he calls ‘sordid abstraction’. That one arrives there through Greenberg and George Eliot, the former a formalist, the latter a realist, is quite original. Indeed, the tension between the real and the non–real, the vital and the inorganic, the light and the dark, the sound and silence, is certainly a mark of the Beckettian. Carville activates these correlates beautifully. He concludes that ‘the act of standing before an image underpins Beckett’s thinking in a paradigmatic way’ (244), which is not all that different from Lois Oppenheim’s original insight, advanced  almost twenty years ago, but here it is adduced with fresh perspectives and new insights yielded by the rich archival material now available.


Michael Coffey




Beckett, Samuel (2009), The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 1, 1929-1940, ed. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Beckett, Samuel (2010), The Unnamable, ed. Steven Connor, London: Faber.

Beckett, Samuel (2012), The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett, ed. Seán Lawlor and John Pilling, New York: Grove Press.

Eliot, George (2008), Adam Bede, ed. Carol A. Martin, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, Lawrence (1970), Samuel Beckett Poet and Critic, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Moorjani, Angela (2012), ‘Beckett’s Racinian Fictions: “Racine and the Modern Novel” Revisited’, Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui 24:1, pp. 41–56.

Oppenheim, Lois (2002), The Painted Word: Samuel Beckett’s Dialogue with Art, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.