Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Performative Criticism: Samuel Beckett and Georges Duthuit

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Performative Criticism: Samuel Beckett and Georges Duthuit

Article excerpt

Samuel Beckett achieved worldwide recognition first as the playwright of Waiting for Godot by the mid-1950s, and the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature secured his reputation as a novelist. It is less widely known that before this fame in other fields, he was a published critic of visual art, especially painting, from the year 1938 forward. Some of these writings on art were collected and published in 1984 as the third part of his book Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment. This edition includes nearly forty pages of previously uncollected commentaries, reviews, and fragments about figures including Jack B. Yeats, Henri Hayden, Avigdor Arikha, and the brothers Geer and Bram Van Velde.1 Various Beckett archives around the world hold more of this critical corpus, as well as much of the same material in its original context, including his contributions to Les Cahiers à'Art (1945-46), Derrière le Miroir (June 1948), and Bulletin Galerie Michel Warren (May 1957). Beckett's extensive correspondence with Georges Duthuit, a major figure of the 1950s postwar visual art scene in Paris and a close friend of Beckett's between 1948 and 1952, reveals that he had regular involvement in the translation of French art criticism for the literary magazine Transition, which Duthuit edited from 1948. Beckett did this for financial compensation, but not attribution, so its full extent remains unknown.2 As has been widely discussed since the earliest stages of the now-institutionalized field of Beckett Studies, Beckett's works on paper and on stage are also saturated with cross-references to paintings.3 Finally, it emerges from all three of his major biographies that Beckett had lasting friendships with many artists, contributing to his evident knowledge of, and fascination with, both visual art and art history.

It is interesting that given this context, Beckett is not taken particularly seriously as an art critic generally, and is rarely considered as an Irish art critic specifically. There are several reasons for these interlocking absences from art historical discourse. First, Beckett's achievements in other literary areas clearly overshadow his identity as a critic, in terms of where his lasting importance is most evident and where scholarly attention is likely to focus. His theories on painting are mostly mined for the ways in which they give clues to his own emerging aesthetic, or in other words, tacitly in subordinate status to his other works. Second, Beckett's achievement of literary stature as an Irishman writing in self-imposed geographic and linguistic exile, together with the legacy of censorship of his works and other public conflicts with the ideology of the Irish Free State, created a mutually adverse relationship between Beckett and Ireland that is still not fully resolved (though notably rehabilitated as of his 2006 centenary).4 Third, Beckett's critical voice, especially in his early criticism, simply does not adhere to rhetorical conventions of contemporary academic discourse, nor does it make any special bid for clarity. During Beckett's student years Trinity College Dublin was not a bastion of the professional critical diction that would become New Criticism by mid-century, and it is unlikely that this movement's 1920s avant-garde - figures like Ivor Richards and William Empson - were known to Beckett. Instead, as Steven Connor notes, Beckett's rhetoric in his non-fiction is notable for its 'crustacean antiqueness'. In a 2009 lecture reflecting on Beckett's ambivalent attitude toward academia in general, Connor writes, 'His is a language of smirking self-exhibition, of highly wrought phrases creased and corrugated by snarling self-disgust [...] it is a sort of poisoned bell-lettrism, a connoisseurship turned convulsively and self-mutilatingly on itself.'5 In short, while Becketti s theatrical style may have won the twenty-first century, his critical style did not win the twentieth. It is particularly difficult to secure a legacy as a scholar without a readership that can follow one's arguments. …

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