‘Unveiling Towards the Unveilable’

Samuel Beckett and Jack B. Yeats

Liam Harrison

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To bore one hole after another in it [language], until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today. Or is literature alone to remain behind in the old lazy ways that have been so long ago abandoned by music and painting? – Samuel Beckett, letter to Axel Kaun, 1937        

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Morning in a City, Jack B. Yeats. National Gallery of Ireland

‘We are alone. We cannot know and we cannot be known.’ Beckett wrote these lines in his strange philosophical essay Proust, not long before he met the younger brother of W.B. Yeats, the artist Jack B. Yeats. Beckett’s Proust monograph, in spite of its title, manages to drift away from its subject and begins to resemble an aesthetic manifesto of sorts, written (in his own condemning words) with ‘cheap flashy philosophical jargon’.

Even if Beckett still displayed signs of philosophical flamboyancy at twenty-four years of age, the ideas of alienation which he explored in Proust undoubtedly resonated with the estranged figures of his new friend Jack’s paintings. A particular feature which bridges both Beckett and Yeats’s aesthetics comes in their blurring portrayals of man’s ambivalent relationship with nature.

Before long Beckett became a regular visitor at Yeats’s home whenever he was back in Dublin in the 1930s, taking afternoon tours of paintings with the artist, accompanied with a customary glass of sherry. He seemed to recognise a solitude and isolation in Yeats’s paintings which would later emerge in his own works. The painterly attention to form and pose is apparent across all of Beckett’s plays but becomes particularly prominent in the minimalist style of the later plays, as bodies on stage are minutely pronounced and diminished, such as the rocking figure of Rockaby and the floating lips of Not I.

In 1936 Yeats offered to sell Beckett one of his paintings, A Morning. The young Beckett was skint and the asking price was an intimidating £30. At the time Beckett was rebelling against the career path laid out for him as an academic. He had quit his teaching post at Trinity College Dublin to pursue the financially precarious life of an artist. Beckett’s actions had further alienated himself from his gentile Foxrock family who had wanted him to carry on the family trade, or work in the Guinness factory. He managed to scramble around borrowing the money to pay for the picture in instalments, sounding like Stephen Dedalus standing before the headmaster Deasy in Ulysses, recounting his frivolous debts. Once he got hold of the painting, it ended up staying with Beckett for a long time.

Years later whilst living in Nazi-occupied Paris during the Second World War, Beckett worked with the French Resistance, utilising his language skills and acting as a translator for messages to be sent to British allies. The resistance cell was betrayed, leading to the tragic death of Beckett’s close friend Alfred Péron. Beckett and his partner Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil managed to escape Paris, hiding in the town of Roussillon in unoccupied France, not far from the Spanish border. Fleeing for his life, Beckett could only scramble together a few of his precious possessions – his Yeats painting A Morning was one of them.

Beckett may have been initially drawn to the painting’s strange, fluctuating stillness, a quality which echoes across his own works right up to the appositely named late text Stirrings Still. He wrote to Tom MacGrevey in 1937:

One does not realise how still his pictures are till one looks at others, almost petrified, a sudden suspension of the performance, of the convention of sympathy and empathy, meeting and parting, joy and sorrow.

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A Morning, Jack B. Yeats. Bought by Beckett in 1936. National Gallery of Ireland

The shading of A Morning captures this simultaneous meeting and parting, joy and sorrow. The ominous blue shadows on the ground looming behind the rider haunt the optimistic whites and yellows in his line of vision. The lonely rider appears to be neither fleeing these eastern shadows whilst facing out west (a significant location in both Jack and W.B. Yeats’s work), nor is he about to be consumed by them, as he is caught in the suspension of the moment.

However, more important than the represented image, the picture plays on the fundamental tensions between form and matter. In the 1920s Yeats abandoned the sharp outlines of his early paintings for the blurred strokes and uneven layers we see in A Morning. The uneven paint surface cannot be truly appreciated in a reproduced image – but the physical inconsistency in the thickness of the paint forms a crucial part in challenging the formal structure of the artwork.

Yeats’s aesthetic shift was part of an exploration into the ambivalent relationship between material and image. The painting draws attention to its material conditions to the extent that they displace its ‘mimetic’ or representational designs. In other words, the ‘mode’ of representation could be considered more significant than the actual object represented. This mirrors Beckett’s own concerns with the relationship between content and form, as famously seen in his idea – there is nothing to express, that it is impossible to express, whilst there still remains the obligation to express. Yet this attempt to represent or express in painting or language, to ‘bore a hole’ in them to see what lurks behind, is still unstably tied to the object that eludes it, which leads to:

An endless unveiling, veil behind veil, plane on plane or imperfect transparencies, an unveiling towards the unveilable, the nothing, the thing yet again.

-  Beckett in Disjecta

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Grief, Jack B. Yeats. National Gallery of Ireland

Beckett was drawn to the unveiling quality in Yeats’s paintings’, their ‘imperfect transparencies’. He perceived in them a failure to confirm or deny the object, as they dwell in the ruins of representation, comprising of petrified images which are impossible to fully grasp. David Lloyd stresses the disorientating depths of focus when standing in front of Yeats’s paintings, how there is no total image achievable but an incessant veering of the image. In Beckett’s terms – a ‘total object complete with missing parts’. Lloyd goes on:

Wherever one stands, one has the impression of seeing the work at a different depth of focus, so to speak. It is as if the represented of the painting continually dissolves back into the medium of the representation, resisting totalisation and renewing the work of the gaze at every turn.

‘Resisted totalisation’ is also a useful description of Beckett’s texts, in response to attempts to establish their ‘meaning’. His work refutes neat categorizations, or as he put it when rehearsing Not I, his plays work on ‘the nerves of an audience, not its intellect’. To try and perceive a fixed whole, a visual totality in Beckett is to meet with a similar veering, a blurring of lines, an ‘unveiling towards the unveilable.’

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Two Travellers, Jack B. Yeats. Tate Gallery

It is tempting to look at the paintings Beckett loved, like Yeats’s, and try to trace direct influences on his later work. In fact, Beckett admitted that Caspar David Friedrich’s Two Men Contemplating the Moon was a visual source when writing Waiting for Godot (and the same has been suggested of Yeats’s The Two Travellers). However, Beckett’s biographer James Knowlson has stressed that we shouldn’t search the artwork which preoccupied Beckett’s mind so heavily for direct influences. Rather, he argues we should understand Beckett’s relationship with the visual arts as a more indirect and detached ‘aesthetic recognition’ – as a chord of resonance, as mirrors of Beckett’s stillness, as a similar stain upon the silence.


Images: The National Gallery of Ireland, Tate Gallery London