Samuel Beckett timeline

A timeline of Samuel Beckett’s life and works with page references, where relevant, to James Knowlson’s 1996 biography of Beckett, Damned To Fame.

1906
13 April – Samuel Barclay Beckett born in ‘Cooldrinagh’, a house in Foxrock, a village south of Dublin (page 3), on Good Friday, the second child of William Beckett and May Beckett, née Roe. He has an older brother, Frank Edward, born 26 July 1902.

1911
Beckett enters kindergarten at Ida and Pauline Elsner’s private academy in Leopardstown. The spinster sisters had a cook named Hannah and an Airedale terrier named Zulu, details which crop up in later novels (p.24).

1915
Attends Earlsfort House School in Dublin (pages 30 to 35). Begins to excel at sports, for example, long distance running.

1920
Follows his brother Frank to Portora Royal, an eminent Protestant boarding school in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, set in a strikingly beautiful location (pages 36 to 46). During his time there, Ireland was partitioned (1921) and Portora found itself in the new Northern Ireland. Beckett excelled at sports, in particular boxing, cross country running and swimming.

1923
October – Enrols at Trinity College, Dublin (TCD) to study for an Arts degree (p.47). Here he is taken under the wing of the individualistic Professor of Romance Languages, Thomas Brown Rudmose-Brown who teaches him classical French and English literature, but also more recent authors. He also engages a private tutor, Bianca Esposito, who teaches him Italian, in particular they embark on detailed study of Dante (p.51). During his time as a student Beckett’s father bought him not one but two motorbikes, one of which, the AJS, he rode in competitive time trials (p.62). His father then bought him a sports car (p.49) a Swift (p.79) in which he managed to run over and kill his beloved Kerry Blue terrier dog (p.67).

1926
August – First visit to France for a month-long cycling tour of the Loire Valley.

1927
April to August – Travels through Florence and Venice, visiting museums, galleries and churches (pages 71 to 75).
December – Receives BA in Modern Languages (French and Italian) from TCD and graduates in the First Class.

1928
January to June – Teaches French and English at Campbell College (a secondary school) in Belfast and really dislikes it. He finds Belfast cold and dreary after lively Dublin (pages 77 to 79).
September – First trip to Germany to visit seventeen-year-old Peggy Sinclair, a cousin on his father’s side, and her family in Kassel (p.82).
1 November – Arrives in Paris as an exchange lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure. Quickly becomes friends with his predecessor, Thomas McGreevy who introduces Beckett to James Joyce (pages 97 to 98 ) and other influential writers and publishers (pages 87 to 105).
December – Spends Christmas with the Sinclairs in Kassel (as also in 1929, 1930 and 1931). His relationship with Peggy develops into a fully sexual one, causing him anguish about the conflict (in his mind) between the idealised belovèd and the sexualised lover.

1929
June – Publishes his first critical essay (Dante…Bruno…Vico…Joyce) and his first story (Assumption) in transition magazine. Makes several visits to Kassel to see Peggy.

1930
July – Writes a 100-line poem Whoroscope in response to a poetry competition run by Nancy Cunard (pages 111 to 112).
October – Returns to TCD to begin a two-year appointment as lecturer in French. He hated it, discovering he was useless as a teacher and not cut out for academic life (pages 120 to 126)
November – MacGreevy introduces Beckett to the painter and writer Jack B.Yeats who becomes a lifelong friend (p.164).

1931
March – Chatto and Windus publish Proust, a literary study they’d commissioned (pages 113 to 119).
September – First Irish publication, the poem Alba in Dublin Magazine. At Christmas goes to stay with the Sinclairs in Kassel.

1932
January – Resigns his lectureship at TCD via telegram from Kassel, stunning his parents and sponsors (p.145). He moves to Paris.
February to June – First serious attempt at a novel, The Dream of Fair to Middling Women which, after hawking round publishers for a couple of years, he eventually drops and then, embarrassed at its thinly veiled depiction of close friends and lovers, actively suppresses. It doesn’t end up being published till after his death (in 1992). (Detailed synopsis and analysis pages 146 to 156.)
December – Short story Dante and the Lobster appears in This Quarter (Paris), later collected in More Pricks Than Kicks.

1933
3 May – Upset by the death of Peggy Sinclair from tuberculosis (p.169). They had drifted apart and she was engaged to another man.
26 June – Devastated by the sudden death of his father, William Beckett, from a heart attack (p.170). Panic attacks, night sweats and other psychosomatic symptoms. His schoolfriend, Geoffrey Thompson, now a doctor, recommends psychotherapy.

1934
January – Moves to London and begins psychoanalysis with Wilfred Bion at the Tavistock Clinic (the London years as a whole are described on page 171 to 197).
February – Negro Anthology edited by Nancy Cunard includes numerous translations by Beckett from the French.
May – Publication of More Pricks than Kicks (a loosely linked series of short stories about his comic anti-hero Belacqua Shuah (pages 182 to 184).
August to September – Contributes stories and reviews to literary magazines in London and Dublin.

1935
November – Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates, a cycle of thirteen poems.

1936
Returns to Dublin, to stay in the family home in uneasy proximity to his demanding mother.
29 September – Leaves Ireland for a seven-month tour around the cities and art galleries of Germany (pages 230 to 261).

1937
April to August – First serious attempt at a play, Human Wishes, about Samuel Johnson and his household (pages 269 to 271).
October – After a decisive row with his mother, Beckett moves permanently to Paris which will be his home and base for the next 52 years (p.274)

1938
6 January – Stabbed by a street pimp in Montparnasse, Paris. Among his visitors at the Hôpital Broussais is Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, an acquaintance who is to become Beckett’s companion for life (pages 281 to 284).
March – Murphy, his first novel to be published.
April – Begins experimentally writing poetry directly in French.

1939
3 September – Great Britain and France declare war on Germany. Beckett, visiting family in Ireland, ends his trip in order to return to Paris.

1940
June – Following the German invasion of France, Beckett flees south with Suzanne.
September – Returns to Paris.

1941
13 January – Death of James Joyce in Zurich.
1 September – Joins the Resistance cell Gloria SMH (pages 303 to 317).

1942
16 August – As soon as Beckett and Suzanne hear that the Nazis have arrested close friend and fellow member of his resistance cell, Alfred Péron, they pack a few bags and flee to a safe house, then make their way out of Paris and flee south, a dangerous trip which involves being smuggled over the border into unoccupied France.
6 October – They arrive at Roussillon, a small village in unoccupied southern France, where they spend the next two and a half years, during which Beckett worked as a labourer on a local farm owned by the Aude family, working away at his novel, Watt, by night (pages 319 to 339)

1944
24 August – Liberation of Paris.

1945
30 March – Awarded the Croix de Guerre for his Resistance work.
August to December – Volunteers as a lorry driver and interpreter with the Irish Red Cross in Saint-Lô, Normandy. Appalled by the devastation of war and works closely with people from different backgrounds (pages 345 to 350).

1946
July – Publishes first fiction in French, a truncated version of the short story Suite (later to become La Fin) as well as a critical essay on Dutch painters Geer and Bram van Velde (who he’d met and become friendly with in Germany).
Writes Mercier et Camier, his first novel in French which he leaves unpublished till the 1970s (p.360).
On a visit to his mother’s house in Ireland has the Great Revelation of his career (pages 351 to 353). He realises he’s been barking up the wrong tree trying to copy Joyce’s linguistic and thematic exuberance, and from now on must take the opposite path and investigate the previously unexplored territory of failure, imaginative impoverishment and mental collapse:

‘I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.’

This unlocks his imagination and from 1946 to 1949 he experiences a frenzy of productivity, writing the Beckett Trilogy of novels and Waiting For Godot, all in French, arguably his most enduring works.

1947
January to February – Writes first play, in French, Eleutheria, unproduced in his lifetime and published posthumously (pages 362 to 366).
April – French translation of Murphy.

1948
Undertakes a number of translations commissioned by UNESCO and by Georges Duthuit (pages 369 to 371).

1950
25 August – Death of his mother, May Beckett.

1951
March – Publication of first novel of The Beckett Trilogy, Molloy, in French.
November – Publication of the second novel of the Trilogy, Malone meurt, in French.

1952
Buys land at Ussy-sur-Marne and builds a modest bungalow on it, subsequently Beckett’s preferred location for writing.
September – Publication of En attendant Godot (in French).

1953
5 January – Premiere of Waiting for Godot at the Théâtre de Babylone in Montparnasse, directed by Roger Blin.
May – Publication of L’Innommable, third novel in the Trilogy.
August – Publication of the pre-war novel Watt, in English.

1954
8 September – Publication of Waiting for Godot in English.
13 September – Death of his brother, Frank Beckett, from lung cancer (pages 400 to 402)

1955
March – Molloy, translated into English with Patrick Bowles.
3 August – First English production of Waiting for Godot in England, at the Arts Theatre, London (pages 411 to 417)
November – Publication of Nouvelles et Textes pour rien.

1956
3 January – American premiere of Waiting for Godot in Miami, which turns out to be a fiasco; the audience had been promised a riotous comedy (p.420).
February – First British publication of Waiting for Godot.
October – Publication of Malone Dies in English.

1957
13 January – First radio play, All That Fall, broadcast on the BBC Third Programme.
Publication of Fin de partie, suivi de Acte sans paroles.
28 March – Death of Beckett’s friend, the artist Jack B.Yeats.
3 April 1957 – Premiere of Endgame at the Royal Court Theatre in London, in French.
August – Publication of his first radio play, All That Fall, in English.
October – Tous ceux qui tombent, French translation of All That Fall with Robert Pinget.

1958
April – Publication of Endgame, translation of Fin de partie.
Publication of From an Abandoned Work.
July – Publication of Krapp’s Last Tape.
September – Publication of The Unnamable which has taken him almost ten years to translate from the French original.
28 October – Premiere of Krapp’s Last Tape.
December – Anthology of Mexican Poetry, translated by Beckett.

1959
March – Publication of La Dernière bande, French translation of Krapp’s Last Tape with Pierre Leyris.
24 June – Broadcast of radio play Embers on BBC Radio 3.
2 July – Receives honorary D.Litt. degree from Trinity College Dublin. Dreads the ceremony but has a surprisingly nice time (pages 469 to 470)
November – Publication of Embers in Evergreen Review.
December Publication of Cendres, French translation of Embers done with Robert Pinget.
Publication of Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies,The Unnamable soon to become known as The Beckett Trilogy (a portmanteau title Beckett actively dislikes).

1960
23 August – Radio play The Old Tune broadcast on BBC Radio.

1961
January – Publication of Comment c’est.
24 March – Marries Suzanne at Folkestone, Kent.
May – Shares Prix International des Editeurs with Jorge Luis Borges.
August – Publication of Poems in English.
September – Publication of Happy Days.

1962
1 November – Premiere of Happy Days at the Royal Court Theatre, London.
13 November – Broadcast of radio play Words and Music on the BBC Third Programme.

1963
February – Publication of Oh les beaux jours, French translation of Happy Days.
May – Assists with the German production of Play (Spiel, translated by Elmar and Erika Tophoven) in Ulm.
22 May – Outline of Film sent to Grove Press.

1964
March – Publication of Play and Two Short Pieces for Radio.
April – Publication of How It Is, English translation of Comment c’est.
April – First performance in English of Play at the Old Vic in London.
June – Publication of Comédie, French translation of Play.
July to August – First and only trip to the United States, to assist with the production of Film in New York (pages 520 to 525)
6 October – Broadcast of radio play Cascando on BBC Radio 3.

1965
October – Publication of Imagination morte imaginez (in French) (p.531)
November – Publication of Imagination Dead Imagine (English translation of the above).

1966
January – Publication of Comédie et Actes divers, including Dis Joe and Va et vient (p.532)
February – Publication of Assez.
4 July – Broadcast of Eh Joe on BBC2.
October Publication of Bing.

1967
February – Publication of D’un ouvrage abandonné.
Publication of Têtes-mortes.
16 March – Death of Beckett’s old friend, Thomas MacGreevy, the colleague who played the crucial role in introducing Beckett to Joyce and other anglophone writers in Paris way back in 1930 (p.548).
June – Publication of Eh Joe and Other Writings, including Act Without Words II and Film.
July – Publication of Come and Go, the English translation of Va et vient.
26 September – Directs first solo production, Endspiel (German translation of Endgame) in Berlin (pages 550-554).
November – Publication of No’s Knife: Collected Shorter Prose, 1945 to 1966.
December – Publication of Stories and Texts for Nothing, illustrated with six ink line drawings by Beckett’s friend, the artist Avigdor Arikha.

1968
March – Publication of Poèmes (in French).
December – Publication of Watt, translated into French with Ludovic and Agnès Janvier.
9 December – British premiere of Come and Go at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

1969
16 June – his 1-minute skit, Breath, first performed as part of Kenneth Tynan’s revue Oh! Calcutta!, at the Eden Theatre, New York City. To Beckett’s outrage Tynan adds totally extraneous male nudity to the piece.
23 October – Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Gets news while on holiday in Tunisia. Appalled at the loss of his anonymity (pages 570 to 573).
Publication of Sans (p.569)

1970
April – Publication of Mercier et Camier, written as long ago as 1946.
Publication of Premier amour, also written in 1946.
July – Publication of Lessness, English translation of Sans.
September – Publication of Le Dépeupleur (pages 535 to 536)

1972
January – Publication of The Lost Ones, English translation of Le Dépeupleur.

1973
January – Publication of Not I.
16 January – London premier of Not I at the Royal Court theatre featuring Billie Whitelaw.
July – Publication of First Love.

1974
Publication of Mercier and Camier in English.

1975
Spring – Directs Waiting for Godot in Berlin and Pas moi (French translation of Not I) in Paris.

1976
February – Publication of Pour finir encore et autres foirades.
13 April – Broadcast of radio play Rough for Radio on BBC Radio 3.
20 May – Directs Billie Whitelaw in Footfalls, which is performed with That Time at London’s Royal Court Theatre in honour of Beckett’s seventieth birthday.
Autumn – Publication of All Strange Away, illustrated with etchings by Edward Gorey.
Luxury edition of Foirades/Fizzles, in French and English, illustrated with etchings by Jasper Johns.
December – Publication of Footfalls.

1977
March – Collected Poems in English and French.
17 April – Broadcast of …but the clouds… and Ghost Trio on BBC 2.
Collaboration with avant-garde composer Morton Feldman on an ‘opera’ titled Neither.

1978
May – Publication of Pas, French translation of Footfalls.
August – Publication of Poèmes, suivi de mirlitonnades.

1979
14 December – Premiere of A Piece of Monologue at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, New York.

1980
January – Publication of Compagnie (French) and Company (English).
May – Directs Endgame in London with Rick Cluchey and the San Quentin Drama Workshop.

1981
March – Publication of Mal vu mal dit (pages 668 to 671).
April 8 – Premiere of Rockaby at the State University of New York at Buffalo starring Billie Whitelaw.
April – Publication of Rockaby and Other Short Pieces.
9 May – Premiere of Ohio Impromptu at a conference of Beckett studies in Columbus, Ohio (pages 664 to 666).
October – Publication of Ill Seen Ill Said, English translation of Mal vu mal dit.
8 October – TV broadcast of Quad (pages 672 to 674).

1982
21 July – Premiere of Catastrophe at the Avignon Festival (pages 677 to 681).
16 December – Broadcast of Quad on BBC 2.

1983
April – Publication of Worstward Ho  (pages 674 to 677).
June – Broadcast in Germany of TV play Nacht und Träume (pages 681 to 683).
15 June – Premiere of What Where in America (pages 684 to 688).
September – Publication of Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, containing critical essays on art and literature as well as the unfinished play Human Wishes.

1984
February  -Oversees San Quentin Drama Workshop production of Waiting for Godot in London, which features the best performance of Lucky he ever saw, by young actor J. Pat Miller (pages 690 to 691).
Publication of Collected Shorter Plays.
May – Publication of Collected Poems, 1930 to 1978.
July – Publication of Collected Shorter Prose, 1945 to 1980.

1989
April – Publication of Stirrings Still with illustrations by Louis le Brocquy (pages 697 to 699).
June – Publication of Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho illustrated with etchings by Robert Ryman.
17 July – Death of Beckett’s lifelong companion, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil (p.703).
22 December – Death of Samuel Beckett. Buried in Cimetière de Montparnasse (p.704).


Credit

Damned To Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 1996. All references are to the 1997 paperback edition.

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Heard in the Dark, One evening and others by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett short prose pieces from the 1970s.

  • Heard in the Dark 1
  • Heard in the Dark 2
  • One Evening
  • As the story was told (1973)
  • The Cliff (1975)
  • neither (1976)

Heard in the Dark 1

The two Heard in the Darks were extracts from the work in progress which was eventually published in 1980 as Company. These two extracts were published as stand-alone pieces in literary magazines.

Heard In the Dark 1 begins with unusual syntactical clarity i.e. readable sentences:

The last time you went out the snow lay on the ground.

It depicts a consciousness ‘lying in the dark’ remembering taking a spring walk in the snow. Because Beckett is determinedly anti-romantic he depicts the snow with lambs frolicking in it but also ‘strewn with red placentae’. the blood-soaked reality of farming reminded me of Ted Hughes’s many poems of farm life and lambing, from Moortown in particular.

He knows the walk inside out, could virtually do it with his eyes shut. With characteristically Beckettian obsessiveness about numbers he says, ‘you need normally from eighteen hundred to two thousand paces depending on your humour and the state of the ground.’

He used to do the walk with his father but not any more: ‘Your father’s shade is not with you any more. It fell out long ago.’ But now the walk is getting harder.

The same hundred yards you used to cover in a matter of three to four minutes may now take you anything from fifteen to twenty.

This is because the character has, as if in a nightmare, encountered what you could call The Beckett Problem which is simply: he can’t go on. Of his feet, he asks:

Can they go on? Or better, Shall they go on?

Now he lies in the dark remembering the scene and the sense of slow decline. At the very end he looks back expecting to see the usual straight line of footprints in the snow. He thinks he’s walking in a straight line, ‘a beeline’, ‘taking the course you always take’. But looking back at his footprints, he realises he’s been walking in a great swerve, anti-clockwise or ‘withershins’. And that’s the end of the fragment.

This prompts two thoughts:

1. ‘withershins’ is a Scottish dialect word and he was fond of these abstruse terms for direction, also using ‘deasil’ in several works from this time, which is a Gaelic word meaning ‘right-hand-wise, turned toward the right; clockwise.’

2. The Faber Companion To Samuel Beckett suggests the counter-clockwise circular movement is a nod to the same direction taken by Dante in the Inferno. Dante isn’t mentioned anywhere, but the piece is obviously yet another journey, though that makes it sound too glamorous, it’s yet another laborious trudge and in this fairly basic way lots of Beckett’s prose pieces can be related to Dante’s Divine Comedy, insofar as they are often about people trudging through bleak, inhospitable landscapes and/or bodies contorted into uncomfortable or painful positions, which is what the Inferno is packed with.

The obvious difference is that in the Divine Comedy, Virgil carefully explains why the people they see are in the plight they’re in, there’s always a good reason and the punishment generally matches the sinner’s sins. Not only that, but the individual is generally emblematic if wider categories of sin, which themselves sit within a carefully worked-out framework of Christian reward and punishment. In other words, The Divine Comedy overflows with meaning and purpose.

Beckett is like Dante with absolutely all the meaning, purpose and understandability stripped away, leaving inexplicable trudging, crawling, contortions and punishments, for no reason.

Heard in the Dark 2

Another fragment from Company. Again, the person being addressed as ‘you’ is lying on their back in the dark and remembering a ‘cloudless May day’ when a woman joins him in ‘the summer house’. Being Beckett, we are immediately given, not the romantic, emotional or psychological aspects of this encounter, but the precise physical dimensions of the house:

Entirely of logs. Both larch and fir. Six feet across. Eight from floor to vertex. Area twenty-four square feet to furthest decimal. Two small multicoloured lights vis-à-vis. Small stained diamond panes. Under each a ledge.

Here his father liked to retire after Sunday lunch with a glass of punch and read. When he chuckled, the person addressing themselves as ‘you’ liked to chuckle along. It appears to be a disarmingly simple memory from his boyhood.

Unexpectedly, the narrative gives a major insight into Beckett’s obsession with numbers and permutations and calculations: it’s therapeutic!

Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble… Even still in the timeless dark you find figures a comfort.

And details his boyhood calculations of the size and surface and cubic volume of the summer house. Escape from feeling into maths. Hah! As if Beckett has made what appears to be a psychological coping strategy into an entire literary aesthetic.

So no surprise that he then devotes a slightly demented amount of time thinking through the issues of measurement and scale and maths triggered by the fact that when ‘she’ arrives at the summerhouse where he’s waiting, her eyes are at his own eye-level even though he’s sitting down within. Pondering this problem requires far more text than anything at all to do with ‘her’ or with his feelings.

She must have entered the summerhouse because he looks at her breasts and then at her abdomen. They are both bigger than he remembered. Could she be pregnant, ‘without your having asked for as much as her hand?’ They both sit on in the dead still of his memory, remembering it, there, as he lies in the dark.

Well, it seems, on the face of it, to be a surprisingly straightforward and surprisingly poignant boyhood memory (father chuckling) mixed and blended by a young adult memory (a presumed girlfriend) on the family property back in Ireland (which was substantial and comfortable).

It is made into Beckett material via the obsessive calculation of shape and volume and then the characteristically oblique paragraph about her possible position in order for them to have the same eye level etc. But the basic content is amazingly old school and sentimental. Beckett was 74 by the time Company was published.

One Evening

One Evening is a prose poem related to the long piece Ill Seen Ill Said. It describes a body lying on the ground in a green greatcoat where it is found by an old lady dressed in black. Once again, the style represents a massive backwards step away from the radical prose style of How It Is, back to something vastly more conventional and conservative.

He was found lying on the ground. No one had missed him. No one was looking for him. An old woman found him.

She was looking for flowers. It is lambing time (lambs, hmm – like the lambs in Heard In the Dark and therefore in Company also). The text gets a bit more adventurous with the narrator commenting that this or that detail ought to be like this or that – as if we’re overhearing the author thinking aloud about his piece.

He wore a greatcoat in spite of the time of year. Hidden by the body a long row of buttons fastened it all the way down. Buttons of all shapes and sizes. Worn upright the skirts swept the ground. That seems to hang together.

When the phrase is repeated we realise it is one of those words or key phrases, whose repetition Beckett uses to build up the strange mechanical atmosphere of his prose.

Were a third party to chance that way theirs were the only bodies he would see. First that of the old woman standing. Then on drawing near it lying on the ground. That seems to hang together.

Attention switches to the old lady who has been cooped up all day by the rain. Now it has ceased she hurries out to take advantage of the light before sunset. She is wearing the black she adopted as a young widow. It is to lay flowers on her husband’s grave that she has come out to pick them.

This is another example of the paradox that, although much of Beckett’s technique was pioneeringly avant-garde in the 1960s and 1970s, so much of the actual content of those was immensely conservative and old fashioned. His plays and prose are highly experimental but often, when there is a discernable content, actually describe old ladies and old joxers from his youth in deeply rural Ireland. Beckett has been called ‘the last Modernist’, or one of the first post-Modernists – but a lot of the content has a late Victorian feel. An old lady dressed in black picking flowers to put on the grave of the husband who died when she was young sounds like something from Thomas Hardy.

Thus the figure of an old lady in black out picking flowers at sunset literally stumbling over the corpse of a young man dressed in a green longcoat face down in the grass of a field forms what the narrator calls a ‘tableau vivant if you will’. The whole thing has a late-Victorian feel, it might be a Symbolist painting from the 1890s, The Old Lady and The Suicide, or, as the Faber Companion suggests, a nocturne in green (the coat and the grass) and black (the old widow’s mourning) and yellow (the scattered flowers).

As the story was told (1973)

A short prose piece composed in August 1973. Like many Beckett prose pieces it simply begins and he sets down words and images and then you have the strong sense that the initial formulations then have to be explained and create an ongoing momentum of their own, one detail leading to another, which needs explanation, and so the text ramifies outwards like a glass of wine spilt on a tablecloth.

As the story was told me I never went near the place during sessions. I asked what place and a tent was described at length, a small tent the colour of its surroundings. Wearying of this description I asked what sessions and these in their turn were described, their object, duration, frequency and harrowing nature.

The narrator puts up his hand and asks where he is and is told in ‘a small hut in a grove some two hundred yards away’.

The narrator is, as so often, lying down. (Beckett protagonists rarely do much more than trudge around barren landscapes, or sit cramped in claustrophobic skullscapes, or lie in bed; you can’t help thinking that these are the common physical postures of The Writer – they never, for example, run, shower, bath, drive a car, catch a plane, sit on a train. No. Trudge, Sit or Lying down, preferably in the dark, these are the Beckett positions).

The dimensions of the hut remind him of the summer house he spent so much time in as a boy. Aha. As described in Heard In The Dark 2 and Company. The penny drops and I realise that it is not just the obsession with measuring and counting and calculating displayed by so many Beckett characters which reflects his own coping strategy –

Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble

… but that maybe the umpteen cramped spaces in which so many of his figures find themselves – especially in the experimental prose works like Imagination Dead Imagine or All Strange Away or The Lost Ones – are imaginative recreations of the warm and cosy, womb-like feel of the actual summerhouse in the grounds of the big Beckett family home in Cooldrinagh in the Dublin suburb of Foxrock where he spent so many happy boyhood hours.

Thus the cabin the narrator finds himself in now:

had the same five log walls, the same coloured glass, the same diminutiveness, being not more than ten feet across and so low of ceiling that the average man could not have held himself erect in it, though of course there was no such difficulty for the child.

The narrator describes himself as sitting in a cane chair with armrests, like the man in Fizzle 7 who sits at an open window facing south in a small upright wicker chair with armrests. There is a ripe slice of surrealism or Absurdity when a hand comes through the door and passes him a sheet of paper which he carefully tears into four pieces and gives back to the hand which withdraws.

And the arbitrary or contrived nature of the piece is made overt in the next passage:

A little later the whole scene disappeared. As the story was told me the man succumbed in the end to his ill-treatment, though quite old enough at the time to die naturally of old age.

What old man? Only in the last sentences can we maybe piece together that an old man was being subjected to ‘harrowing’ sessions – presumably, tortured – and would have been released if only he could find the right answers to the questions. The narrator asked what the old man was required to say, but no, they cannot tell him.

So there are two familiar Beckett tropes: the confined space or room within which the narrator is, initially lying down, but then finds himself sitting; and someone being tortured, as in Rough For Radio 2.

The Cliff (1975)

La Falaise was a short prose poem Beckett wrote in French in 1975. An English translation was commissioned from Edith Fournier so it could be included as The Cliff in the 1995 Complete Prose. It’s so short I can quote it in full:

Window between sky and earth nowhere known. Opening on a colourless cliff. The crest escapes the eye wherever set. The base as well. Framed by two sections of sky forever white. Any hint in the sky at a land’s end? The yonder ether? Of sea birds no trace. Or too pale to show. And then what proof of a face? None that the eye can find wherever set. It gives up and the bedlam head takes over. At long last first looms the shadow of a ledge. Patience it will be enlivened with mortal remains. A whole skull emerges in the end. One alone from amongst those such residua evince. Still attempting to sink back its coronal into the rock. The old stare half showing within the orbits. At times the cliff vanishes. Then off the eye flies to the whiteness verge upon verge. Or thence away from it all.

It demonstrates several things. First, that although the Faber Companion calls it a prose poem, there is nothing sensual or passionate about the prose. It is a very cold prose poem.

The word ‘skull’ crystallises the mood, and the whiteness of the cliff itself echoes the white skulls and white cells and white rotunda inside which the protagonists of All Strange Away and Imagination Dead Imagine found themselves, and which prompted critics to use the word ‘skullscapes’ to describe them. Although out of doors, this short piece feels like another skullscape.

The use of ‘residua’ (the plural of ‘residuum’ which is simply a more formal way of saying ‘residue’) is like a hangover from his earlier writings which he liked to stuff with arcane and obscure terminology, and has a double effect: insofar as it is a scientific term, it adds to the sense of clinical detachment and unemotion; but as an unnecessarily pedantic word it introduces a whiff of satire, self-deprecating satire against the author.

neither (1976)

Short enough to quote in its entirety:

to and fro in shadow from inner to outershadow

from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither

as between two lit refuges whose doors once neared gently close, once turned away from gently part again

beckoned back and forth and turned away

heedless of the way, intent on the one gleam or the other

unheard footfalls only sound

till at last halt for good, absent for good from self and other

then no sound

then gently light unfading on that unheeded neither

unspeakable home

Another meditation, brief as a prayer, about the gap or space between self and unself, I and not I, the immediate consciousness which experiences and the posterior consciousness which reflects, remembers, re-assembles experience into a permanent flow of memories, thoughts, decisions, neither of which, in Beckett’s bleak phenomenology, can provide a resting place or home.

The word ‘footfalls’ anticipates or echoes the name and the subject of the stage play he wrote in the same year.

In fact, Beckett wrote neither to be set to music by the American modernist composer Morton Feldman and described its subject, living in the shadow between self and non-self as ‘the one theme in his life’.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Words and Music by Samuel Beckett (1961)

Another work from Samuel Beckett’s ‘radio phase’, when he experimented with the possibilities of radio between about 1956 and 1961. It’s a short text (just eight pages in the Faber Collected Shorter Plays) for voice and music, so it tells you a lot about the contribution of musical interludes and silences, that the fully dramatised piece stretches to over 40 minutes.

Characters

There are three entities or ‘characters, Words (who speaks a lot), Music (whose parts consist entirely of patches of music) and a human character named Croak. Right at the beginning, before Croak arrives, Words makes it plain he detests Music:

Music: How much longer cooped up here, in the dark? (With loathing.) With you!

Word tries to keep himself going by giving himself a topic for discourse, namely Sloth and rattling off a paragraph of bombastic nonsense on the subject, before breaking off because he can hear the ‘Distant sound of rapidly shuffling carpet slippers’.

Croak

Croak arrives. He apologises for arriving late, saying something about a face on the stairs. Croak appears to be a lofty impresario who gives subjects for Words (who he calls Joe and who, in reply, calls him ‘My lord’) and Music (who he calls Bob) to describe or embroider as if in a competition. At moments Croak shouts at them, calling them ‘dogs!’, at other moments calls them ‘my comforts’, ‘my balms’. At the beginning he tells them to be friends, reinforcing the impression given by Words’ opening words, that the two hate each other.

The competition of Words and Music

And then, as if at the start of a familiar routine, Croak gives them their first topic for the evening. First Words has his speeches, then Music makes its noise. Croak signals the change between each with the loud thump of a club, presumably on the floor.

After Words and Music have each had a go (accompanied by Croak’s groans and comments) one section is drawn to an end, and then Croak gives them another topic. The topics are:

  • Sloth (ad libbed by Words)
  • Love
  • Age

Morton Feldman’s music

‘Music’ is meant to produce actual music and various composers have risen to the challenge of writing music to represent the contribution of Music to the dialogue. In the original BBC radio production the music was written by Beckett’s cousin, John Beckett, who wrote the music for a number of Beckett’s productions.

The earliest version I can find is this production which features the music of Morton Feldman, the highly experimental avant-garde American composer. I’ve always liked Feldman’s music, it has a slowly penetrating, atonal, modernist simplicity, and its sparseness seems a perfect accompaniment for Beckett’s sparse words and scenario.

A twentieth century masque

Because I’ve been reading 17th century literature recently, this work strikes me as being a kind of twentieth century masque, in which allegorical Types compete for the favour of a judge or adjudicator, in just the same way that, in the classic 17th century masque, allegorical performances were put on for the enjoyment of the king himself (King James or King Charles), who were sometimes asked to display their wisdom and authority by deciding stylised debates between classical virtues or attributes.

Except that, it being the twentieth century and Beckett a writer of the absurd or of nihilistic futility, the words of Words are a meaningless farrago, a pastiche of Shakespearian eloquence whose booming clichés elicit only groans from his master, Croak.

‘What is this love that more than all the cursed deadly or any other of its great movers so moves the soul and soul what is this soul that more than by any of its great movers is by love so moved?’

It’s like a Shakespeare sonnet which has been put through a blender, grammatically it makes sense but has been deliberately mashed to sound like repetitious nonsense, making the rather obvious, schoolboy point that Shakespearean rhetoric comes from an age convinced of its own values and coherent worldview, whereas in our own oh-dear-so-disillusioned age, that kind of confidence and fluency is no longer possible. Alas and lackaday.

Sex

Sex is surprisingly present in many of Beckett’s works, albeit in deliberately harsh, absurdist and anti-romantic forms. Take the second part of Molloy, where Moran casually tells us about his masturbating, or the hint of BDSM sex in Murphy, the narrator of First Love having sex with Lulu, Sam having sex with every woman in the neighbourhood despite being confined to a wheelchair in Watt, references to gay sex and being ‘sucked off’ in Mercier and Camier, MacMann folding his penis up and trying to stuff it in Moll’s dried-up vagina in Malone Dies. Many of the prose texts go out of their way to use the rudest words possible, starting with bugger and shit and working up to the f word and the c word.

My point is we shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging sexual references or vocabulary just because it’s in Nobel Prize Winner. The opposite, he thoroughly enjoyed ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’ as Leslie Fiedler put it, with rancid descriptions of sex and the crudest sex words.

There’s another element which is the surprising presence of the memory of a love affair in Krapp’s Last Tape. Krapp obsessively repeats the memory of a moment when he lay with an unnamed young woman, his hand on her breast.

I don’t for a minute find it a moving memory. Beckett is anti-sentimental. I find it more interesting to entertain the notion that Beckett refined a rhetoric of paucity and impoverishment, of senility and forgetfulness, of mechanical repetitions, he created some great scenarios (man plays tapes of his younger self, woman buried up to her waits in sand who accepts it as perfectly normal, old man conjures Words and Music to compete with each other) but then doesn’t know what to do next and so resorts to sexual imagery and content.

Exactly as this play’s immediate predecessor, Rough For Radio II, starts out being about two characters supervising the violent torture of another but, about half way through, loses interest or gets distracted from the nominal theme, when the pretty young stenographer is asked to take off her overalls, when the torture supervisor orders her to kiss the torture victim and when the torture victim’s chief memories seem to be of a full, milky breast.

I find most of Beckett’s scenarios powerful and impressive, but am quite regularly disappointed by the lack of subject matter. Or the fact the two men in the bunker and the woman up to her waist in sand and, as here, the allegorical figures of Words and Music have so little to say for themselves. Are incapable of anything but tittle tattle and trivia, as when all Words can think of to describe Age is:

‘Huddled o’er . . . the ingle (Pause. Violent thump. Trying to sing.) Waiting for the hag to put the … pan … in the bed…’

Waiting for a hag to bring a bedpan, is that it? So I’m not surprised that, rather as Krapp’s Last Tape runs out of ideas and is forced to resort to a basically sexual memory of the young man lying with his hand on the woman’s breast, so Words and Music appears, similarly, to run out any ideas for content and resorts to… breasts.

… flare of the black disordered hair as though spread wide on water, the brows knitted in a groove suggesting pain but simply concentration more likely all things considered on some consummate inner process, the eyes of course closed in keeping with this, the lashes . . . (pause) . . . the nose … (pause) … nothing, a little pinched perhaps, the lips….. tight, a gleam of tooth biting on the under, no coral, no swell, whereas normally… the whole so blanched and still that were it not for the great white rise and fall of the breasts, spreading as they mount and then subsiding to their natural… aperture…

As a heterosexual man I am all in favour of heaving bosoms but their appearance in three of Beckett’s plays in a row suggests a pattern, one of the oldest writing strategies in the world… if you run out of inspiration, put boobs in it! Maybe you can dress it up quite considerably more academically than that, but that’s what it appears to boil down to – Beckett doesn’t have much to say, what he does have is either gibberish versions of Romantic rhetoric or pseudo-philosophical speculation, images of decrepitude and decay, or, to keep the thing going a little longer (which is, after all, THE central Beckett theme) sex, the most basic, primeval aspect of human nature. If it is a description of a woman’s young nubile body, then her natural… aperture, is obviously her ****.

Which brings me to my final point. We have heard Words describing the heaving bosom, and Croak cry out ‘Lily!’ as if Words is evoking a memory of a woman called Lily (so similar to the repeated memory of the woman’s breast in Krapp’s Last Tape). The final passages of Words and Music have Words repeating the same idea in the same phrases over and over again:

…the brows uncloud, the nostrils dilate, the lips part and the eyes … (pause) … a little colour comes back into the cheeks and the eyes (reverently) … open. (Pause.) Then down a little way (Pause. Change to poetic tone. Low.)
Then down a little way
Through the trash
To where … towards where…

Then down a little way
Through the trash
Towards where…

All dark no begging
No giving no words
No sense no need…

Then down a little way
Through the trash
Towards where
All dark no begging
No giving no words
No sense no need
Through the scum
Down a little way
To whence one glimpse

A glimpse of what, we wonder?

Through the scum
Down a little way
To where one glimpse
Of that wellhead.

What is a wellhead? ‘Wellhead is a general term used to describe the pressure-containing component at the surface of an oil well’ (Science Direct website). Pictures show it to be rather phallic in shape, and it contains pent-up, high-pressure liquid.

So is Words evoking a memory of a woman named Lily giving Croak a blowjob? Moving down, down, past the tummy fluff and pubic hair (the trash and scum) down to his pressure-containing equipment?

And is that why Croak drops his club, says nothing more, and shuffles off, thus ending the play? Is the memory of such unforced (‘No giving no words/No sense no need’) bliss too much for the old man to bear, just as the memory of young Krapp cupping a young woman’s breast in a field is too much for old Krapp to bear?

Long pauses

Maybe. But maybe the more dominant impression of hearing an actual production of Word and Music like this one is of the immense, yawning silences it contains. Pauses. Gaps. Emptinesses. You have to be in just the right mood, very attentive, totally engaged, in order to let the full tapestry of sounds and silence entrance you. Otherwise, all those silences run the risk of alienating the less engaged listener. And repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Beckett’s main literary technique. Beckett’s main literary technique.

The face. (Pause.) The face. (Pause.) The face. (Pause.) The face.


Credit

Words and Music by Samuel Beckett was written towards the end of 1961 and broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 13 November 1962.

Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Abstract Expressionism edited by David Anfam (2016)

This is the catalogue or book of the 2016 Royal Academy exhibition of Abstract Expressionism – ‘arguably the most significant movement of the twentieth century’ (Christopher Le Brun) – the first large retrospective in this country since 1959.

It’s a massive hardback book, 320 pages long, and containing:

  • four long essays – by exhibition curator David Anfam, Susan Davidson, Jeremy Lewison, Carter Ratcliff
  • a twenty-page chronology of the movement
  • followed by 200 pages of illustrations of paintings and sculptures, then a further section of watercolours and sketches, and then key photographs from the era

Several thoughts arise from a slow careful perusal of this enormous tome.

Earlier than realised

Although I associate it with the 1950s, and the style did indeed dominate that decade, the creation, labelling, and publicising of Abstract Expressionism all happened in the 1940s. It was as early as 1946 that the art critic Robert Coates, writing in The New Yorker, first used the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’, perceptively describing how the new school took the anti-figurative aesthetic of modernist French and Dutch artists but combined it with the emotional intensity of the German Expressionists.

It was even earlier, in 1943, that Jackson Pollock was talent spotted by the rich heiress Peggy Guggenheim, signed up to her gallery and given his first one-man exhibition, invited to paint a mural in the entrance to her New York apartment (Mural – ‘the first outstanding large-scale painterly abstraction ever created in America’, p.33). This was seen by umpteen influential visitors including the critic Clement Greenberg who promptly wrote an article declaring Pollock ‘the greatest painter this country had produced.’ To step back a bit, this was all happening in the same year as the Battle of Stalingrad i.e. the first decisive defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Allied invasion of Italy. The Second World War hadn’t even finished yet. Nobody knew about the Holocaust.

It was still only in the 1940s that Abstract Expressionism was reaching a mass audience – August 8, 1949 to be precise – when Pollock was given a four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ and which projected him to nationwide superstar-artist fame. The next year he dropped his trademark ‘drip’ technique, which in fact only lasted the short period from 1947 to 1950, in order to explore new styles. Neither the critics nor buyers were interested. They wanted more drips. ‘Play us the old songs, Jackson.’ Given the pressures and the spotlight, it’s surprising that he soldiered on till 1956 before dying in a drunken car crash which might have been suicide.

This all lends support to the revisionist view of Stephen Polcari, that the Abstract Expressionists were not responding to the crises of the Cold War – though that is how they were marketed and perceived at the time – but in fact had their roots in the social, economic, and political crises of the 1930s, when they were all impressionable young men. If they shared a tragic sense it was shaped by the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the war in Spain and then the descent into darkness of the entire continent whence ‘civilisation’ supposedly originated.

It was well before the Cold War and the A-Bomb, way back in 1943 that Rothko and Gottlieb wrote a letter published in the New York Times which expressed the kind of doom-laden intensity which all the AEs seem to have shared, asserting that:

the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. (quoted p.21)

Is Abstract Expressionism a good label?

As usual with many art ‘movements’, many of the key players weren’t particularly happy with the label imposed on them – Abstract Expressionism – and others went the rounds, like ‘the New York school’ or ‘Tenth Street painters’. But AE stuck. They never produced a manifesto or exhibited together, and there’s no one photo with the main players together. But people – curators, collectors, galleries, journalists, and us – the poor uninformed public – we all need labels to hang on to, especially in the middle of the century when art movements came and went with such dizzying rapidity.

And the artists certainly all knew each other, lived in the same area of Downtown Manhattan, hung around in the same taverns and bars, and were subject to the same washes of influence as America experienced the Depression, the great influx of refugee artists from the Nazis, reacted (in different ways) against the naive nationalist art of the 1930s, against Regionalism and Social realism, but engaged in highly individual struggles to find a new idiom, new ways of seeing and doing art.

The paintings

This brings us to the actual art and the obvious conclusion that the mature styles of the four or five main players were very different and extremely distinctive. There were a lot of second string artists floating around, who produced good work or influenced the Big Boys in one way or another – and the generous selection in the RA exhibition and this book goes out of its way to include works by Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Joan Mitchell, Conrad Marca-Relli, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, some 20 artists in all.

But leafing through the beautiful reproductions, again and again the works of five key names stood out for me, emerging as titans above the crowd. (In essay four, the gallery owner Betty Parsons who played a key role in promoting AE, is quoted describing Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman as ‘the Four Horsemen’.)

A word about aesthetics

It’s challenging and entertaining to try and put into words what it is that makes some paintings canonical and some redundant or not-quite-there. The latter phrase gives a clue to my approach. I find that, for most art or museum objects I see, some give the sense of being finished and completely themselves. Thus among my favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes at the British Museum. They seem to me to have set out to do something and to do it perfectly and completely. They are completely themselves, impossible to alter or improve. Similarly, the famous helmet from Sutton Hoo completely (ominously, threateningly) says what it sets out to, bespeaks an entire world and civilisation.

So if I have any aesthetic theory it is not the application of any external guidelines of beauty, requiring a work of art to conform to this, that or the other rule. It is something to do with a work coming entirely into its own, its own space and design. Having suggested a certain form or subject or shape, then delivering on that idea, completely. Fulfilling its premises.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

Pollock’s best drip paintings dominate the era and all his contemporaries as clearly as Andy Warhol dominated Pop Art. Possibly others were better artists, showed more consistent artistic development and certainly others have their fans and devotees – but nobody can deny Pollock and Warhol’s works are immediately recognisable not just as art, but as icons of a particular period and place.

And, in my opinion, they fulfil my theory of completeneness – that an artist has a moment when they crystallise a signature style by fully developing the tendencies implicit in their approach (as discerned in their earlier developing works).

Thus it is very obvious that there is a long run-up of pre-drip Pollock (Male and Female 1942, Eyes in the heat 1946) as he groped his way in the dark from works whose size and shape was influence by his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton the mural-maker, but whose content is often dominated by Guernica-period Picasso — and there is a hangover of post-drip Pollock (when he experimented for a while with just black – Number 7, 1952). Both of them are interesting, but so-so.

But then there is drip PollockBlue Poles (1952) is a masterpiece, a completely immersive experience, as completely itself as the huge lily ponds of Monet. Immersive because it is vast and its size is an important factor. After splatting the surface with a preliminary network of black, white, yellow and red loops, Pollock used the edge of a plank dunked in blue paint to create the eight poles. Like Matisse’s dancing cutouts, this is an example of perfect taste, perfectly ‘getting’ the possibility of a visual rhythm. It isn’t classical or symmetrical or figurative of anything – it is a pure design which, for some reason to do with perceptual psychology, just works. Close up you can appreciate the extraordinary lacework of other colours dripped across the canvas, trademark yellow, red and whites, to create a dense tapestry weave of texture and colour. It is entirely itself. It is a summation of everything implicit in the drip approach to painting. And it is this sense of completing all the potential of the method which gives it its thrilling excitement, which makes it a masterpiece, and also a ‘classic’ of this style.

Along with works like Summertime (1948) and Number 4 (1949) these seem complete expressions of what they’re meant to be, of a certain Gestalt. Once you’ve thought of dripping raw paint across the canvas, then it turns out that certain levels of complete coverage and a certain level of complexity of the interlinking lines is somehow optimum, others less so. Too much and it is just mess; too little and it looks empty. At his peak Pollock produced a string of works which experiment with colours, shape of canvas and so on, but which all display an innate feel for just how to do this kind of painting.

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

Rothko, also, is up there in the recognisability stakes in the sense that his final, achieved style is instantly distinctive. He too struggled to find his way from a sort of blocky blurry realism (Interior, 1936) on a journey via a completely different look in a work like Gethsemane (1944), which looks like washed-out surrealism, before coming to the brink of his mature style with experiments in big blotches of soft-edged colour (No.18 1948, Violet, Black, orange, Yellow on White and Red, 1949).

But then – bang! – he hits it, he finds his voice, he claims his brand, he crystallises his vision, he stumbles upon the formula of big rectangular blocks of shimmering colours which will last the rest of his life, what Anfam calls his ‘chromatic mirages’ (p.21).

Rothko left the murals he’d prepared for the restaurant in the new Seagram building to London’s Tate Gallery. There’s a darkened room containing all of them in Tate Modern and you can sit staring into them for hours. Critics saw in them the same kind of existentialist anxiety (all those massive blocks terrifying threatening the viewer, all the anxiety of those unknown fraying edges) that they saw in Pollock — but these days they are more like aids to calm reflection and meditation, and the audioguide plays very quiet meditative music by American experimental composer Morton Feldman. From Cold War angst to post-modern pleasure.

But however you read them, there’s no denying that Rothko stumbled upon (worked his way through to) an entirely new way of conceiving of coloured paint on canvas, a discovery and a formula – and then spent twenty years working through hundreds of variations, exploring and stumbling across further discoveries. Big, bright, abstract, moody. And a world away from Pollock’s splats. the casual viewer could be forgiven for asking how the two could ever be bracketed together, where the one is very much about the dynamic power of vibrantly interlacing lines and the other is very much about the calming meditative effect of enormous blocks of shimmering colour.

Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)

The much-told story about Still is that he was prickly and difficult, went his own way, argued with all the other AEs, in the early 1950s terminated his contract with a commercial gallery and ended up neither exhibiting nor selling any of his pieces, but working away steadily in provincial obscurity in Maryland. He died in possession of 95% of everything he’d ever painted and made a will leaving his life’s work to whichever organisation could create a museum dedicated to housing and showing it. After numerous negotiations this turned out to be the City of Denver and it was only in 2011 that there finally opened a museum dedicated to Still, and that this vast reservoir of work was made available to critics and the public. In the short time since then his reputation has undergone a major revaluation and the room devoted to his work at the Royal Academy exhibition was, arguably, even more impactful then the displays of Pollock and Rothko. Still was a revelation.

Like the others, Still took a long journey, and his early work is represented by another semi-figurative work from the 30s, PH-726 (1936). But by 1944 he has stumbled upon his formula – sharp rips or tears against solid fields of colour, PH-235 (1944), all done in a really thick impasto or thick layer of paint which adds to the sense of presence and impact.

What are they? Wikipedia says his mature works ‘recall natural forms and natural phenomena at their most intense and mysterious; ancient stalagmites, caverns, foliage, seen both in darkness and in light lend poetic richness and depth to his work.’ Because the commentary goes heavy on his upbringing in the mid-West and of the associations of Denver, Colorado, I saw in several of them the pattern of cattle hides, the tans and blacks and beiges which you see in some Indian art, teepees, shields. Just a fancy.

Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970)

Newman had his first one-man show in 1948, the year he broke through to his mature style with the Onement series. Again, his was a long journey out of 1930s figurativism, until he made a discovery / stumbled across an idea / achieved a mature style (delete as applicable), creating what Anfam calls his ‘transcendent spatial continuums’ (p.21). Once he’d found it, repeated it through countless iterations.

A classic Barnett Newman has a vertical line – or ‘zip’ as he himself called them – dividing a field of colour – initially drab colour but becoming brighter and brighter as the 1950s progressed. The zip defines the picture plane, separates the composition yet binds it together, sunders it yet gives it a weird tremulous unity.

Why does it work? I’d give good money to read an analysis by a psychologist or expert in the psychology of perception, of shapes and colours, who could explain the effect they have on the mind of the viewer.

According to this book, among the big-name AEs, Newman was rather overlooked in favour of the brasher bolder works of his peers. Also, Pollock and Still, to name two, used highly expressive brushwork and thick or spattered layers of paint. Standing close you can see the thick clots of oil on the surface. Newman’s paintwork is flat and restrained. In fact his colourfulness and geometric designs link him more to the school of ‘post-painterly abstraction’ which emerged in the 1960s and are almost connected to the cool understatement of minimalism.

Franz Kline (1910 – 1962)

Kline’s breakthrough moment is much mythologised. Working as a commercial illustrator in New York while struggling to work his way towards some kind of abstract language, Kline was visited by Willem de Kooning who suggested he use a projector to blow up & project his complicated paintings onto the wall and then select small details to reproduce as full scale canvases. Taking this insight, Kline quickly worked out a style of broad black brushstrokes on white, which continually seem to gesture towards something yet are abstract. Are they fragments of larger designs and shapes? Or references to Japanese calligraphy (which Kline always denied)? Or dramatic actions in themselves?

Like all the other AEs, Kline’s work is big, really really BIG. Whatever the differences in style and approach, the AEs had this one thing in common – their work is huge and immersive. (A sign at Barnett Newman’s second exhibition at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in May 1951 actually requested visitors to stand close up to the picture; visitors had been requested to do the same at the Pollock exhibition which immediately preceded it – p.93.)

Kline is further evidence for my theory that artists often reach a recognisable defining style and produce a number of works which somehow express the quintessence of their voice or vision, only after a journey upwards and, alas, sometimes a later decline or wandering away… Having perfected the black and white calligraphy style – so instantly recognisable – by the time he was just 40, after a while at the top of his game, Kline had nowhere to go except back into colour, and these later colour works, although fine in their own way, represent a really noticeable falling away of the energy which the stark black-and-white contrasts produced. For some reason this style looks terribly dated, very late 50s early 60s, whereas the black and white calligraphic works look timeless to me.

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)

De Kooning is the one big AE I couldn’t get on with at all, and the more I saw the more I disliked his stuff. Partly because I think he never did develop a defined style. To me, all of his stuff looks like messy sketches on the way towards something better, they all look like the dispensable journey works on the way to… nowhere. The same horrible messy scrawl effect is his one signature effect.

All the other AEs strike me as having a purpose, a direction. Pollock’s works are far more artful than they appear, Rothko’s are careful experiments, Newman achieved a kind of classic restraint and Still’s jagged compositions are unerringly ‘right’, conveying something much bigger than the images seem to warrant.

Only de Kooning’s works, out of the whole show and this long book, consistently look to me like a slapdash mess, a dog’s dinner, victims of what Anfam calls his ‘lacerating sweeps’ (p.21). And the series of depictions of women  – his ‘wrenching engagements with the female sex’ (Anfam, p.22) – which are often singled out by the critics for praise, to me could hardly be uglier and more repellent if they tried.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903 – 1974)

Apparently Gottlieb is perceived as a second string AE, his career weaving through a series of styles, including surrealism in the 1930s, a spell in the Arizona desert simplifying images to a primal essence, and the development of ‘pictographs’ representing psychologically charged shapes and patterns. It was as late as 1956 that he developed the ‘burst’ style, dividing the canvas into two halves, with a round sun-like object above and a busy earth-like mass below – creating a dialectic between calm and busy, with the use of bright colours to interfere and resonate.

Hundreds of bursts resulted and I can see why critics looking for world-shattering angst and grand existentialist statements might deprecate them, but I like him for devising a new ‘look’ and then producing fascinating variations on it.

Neglected women

One of the most pressing concerns of our times, in the arts and elsewhere, is restoring the reputations, the overlooked achievements and untold stories, of neglected woman. Four women artists worked in and around Abstract Expressionism and are included here:

Janet Sobel (1894 – 1968) began painting at the mature age of 43 when her son left home leaving behind his copious art materials. She progressed from figurative paintings featuring dreamy rather Chagall-like faces enmeshed in zoomorphic patterns, through to pure abstraction and eventually the technique of dripping paint. Some scholars claim it was Sobel who arrived at the drip technique before Jackson. That’s one for the scholars. All her works have a lightness. Maybe it was the light decorative effect as opposed to the Big Boys’ existentialist histrionics more than the fact she was a woman which wrote her out of the story for so long.

Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984) Krasner evolved through a series of styles. During the heyday of the AEs she tended to be overlooked by virtue of the fact that she was married to the top dog, Jackson Pollock. But the works included here show she had a related but distinct vision of her own.

Just living with Jackson sounds like a demanding job, but creating alongside him, in a related but clearly distinctive style, is little less than heroic. The next two are to one side for the simple reason that they were of a younger generation

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) You can see the importance of the gesture but, a little like de Kooning, I don’t see it going anywhere.

They’re big, one of the simplest criteria for being an abstract expressionist. But arriving at Salut Tom at the end of the exhibition felt like we’d moved a long way from late-40s existentialism into a brighter more decorative world. Same style, different world.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) She painted onto unprimed canvas so that the paint soaked into it, thus creating a very flat surface.

Peggy and Betty

The fourth essay in the book is in many ways the most interesting, telling the complementary stories of two hugely important gallery owners who promoted the work of the Abstract Expressionists from the first – the Jewish millionairess Peggy Guggenheim and the scion of a wealthy WASP family, Betty Parsons. Peggy lived in Paris between the wars, becoming fantastically well-connected among the city’s avant-garde, arranging exhibitions and starting her own staggering collection, before fleeing ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940, back to New York, where in 1942 she set up The Art of This Century Gallery.

Like Peggy, only without the millions, Betty went to live in Paris, where she herself pursued a career as an artist, taking lessons, before losing her money in the Wall Street Crash and being forced back to the States, to teach, and then to work in commercial galleries. She learned the trade, becoming popular among artists for her good taste and business sense (i.e. selling their pictures and making them money). In 1945 she set up the Betty Parsons Gallery which ran till her death in 1982. When Guggenheim returned to Paris after the war, Parsons took on many of ‘her’ artists, and the article turns into an impressive roster of the exhibitions she put on for one after another of all the key artists of the time, working hard to promote them and get them sales.

The essay is a fascinating insight not only into the achievements of these two vital women, but into the art world in general. It’s shocking to learn how little the artists sold at these shows – they’d display a dozen or 16 new works, for between $250 and $1,400 – and quite frequently none would sell at all. Or only small watercolours would sell to what turn out to be friends of the artist or the gallery owner herself. Works which now fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction.

In a fascinating detail, the book mentions several times that one problem was the paintings’ sheer scale: it was one thing to create a fourteen foot square canvas in the space of a half derelict loft-cum-studio, quite another thing to expect even quite rich people in New York to find enough wall space to hang it, back in the cluttered 1940s and 1950s. It was only well into the 1960s and more so in the 1970s that ideas of interior design changed significantly, that clutter was thrown out and rooms knocked together to create large airy spaces, often painted white, in which the vast canvases of the Abstract Expressionists suddenly made sense.

But by this point the AEs were up against the equally large creations of Post-painterly Abstraction, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and so on and New York was established as the centre of a fast-moving, big money art culture.


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

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