While there are countless illustrated editions of literary classics from Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Dickens there is surely no 20th-century book which has attracted as many distinguished painters as James Joyce's Ulysses.
The most recent, who is indeed still at work on his multiple variations, is the octogenarian and father of British Pop Art, Richard Hamilton, currently showing the result of 50 years of his Joycean obsession at the British Museum in London. Hamilton, who serendipitously shares a birthday with Joyce (24 February) and was born in 1922, the year in which Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company first published the book in Paris, has been making drawings, lithographs, etchings and aquatints sparked off by the novel for half a century. He was, however, not the first artist to be thus inspired nor, one can reasonably venture, will he be the last.
The first was Joyce's great Zurich friend and confidant, the somewhat obscure English artist Frank Budgen who included some of his, not very good, illustrations in his 1934 book James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses. He therefore just pipped at the post the first attempt to do justice to Joyce by a major artist. In 1934 George Macy of the Limited Editions Club in New York commissioned Matisse to illustrate a de luxe edition, (limited to 1500 copies), of Ulysses. It is, with the exception of Matisse's ravishingly beautiful and subtle soft-ground etchings printed on superb paper, a singularly ugly book of quite abominable typographical design but that was entirely the fault of the publisher.
It has been unkindly put about that Matisse had never read the novel and Joyce is on record that he greatly preferred his daughter Lucia's illuminated initials for the limited edition of work in progress from Finnegans Wake to the Frenchman's images for Ulysses. But that, in reality, was simple paternal prejudice. Matisse had indeed not read the novel, but he had done, as one might expect, his homework. Joyce set out to get him some Dublin illustrated magazines of 1904 to give him at least some topographical guidance but that was, as it turned out, unnecessary. Matisse and Joyce did confer on the nature of the book and the painter talked to his friend Simon Bussy about it. Bussy got his sister Dorothy, who was an aficionado of the novel, to give Matisse an elaborate summary and Matisse who, like any educated Frenchman of the time, had a thorough knowledge of the classics, used the Greek saga as his model, thus in effect using the same template as the author. Which is why his versions of the Calypso, Cyclops, Circe etc episodes are so classical in tone, so visually beguiling and so true in spirit to Joyce's own time- shifting, parallel visions.
At about the same time, at the other end of the world, the young Australian artist Sidney Nolan had read and prodigiously admired the novel. …