SAMUEL BECKETT'S CRITICAL ABSTRACTIONS: Kandinsky, Duthuit and Visual Form

By Lawrence, Tim | Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

SAMUEL BECKETT'S CRITICAL ABSTRACTIONS: Kandinsky, Duthuit and Visual Form


Lawrence, Tim, Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui


The development of Beckett's prose style has long been framed as a movement from relative plenitude to one of abstract minimalism.1 Spurred by the switch from writing in English to writing in French, Beckett's gradual move towards a form of abstraction specific to his work was frequently read as a process of casting off national and historical markers and traces of other literary influences. Critical responses to Beckett's early writings in French were commonly articulated along the lines suggested by A. Alvarez, who was content to call French "the perfect instrument" for Beckett because "its own special rhetoric runs continually towards abstraction." Alvarez went on to argue that, by adopting an inherently abstract language, Beckett "has evolved a style which is clear, hard and precise and yet as without history and associations as the characters who speak it" (46).2 This line of interpretation was later legitimised by Beckett's own comments on his embrace of abstract forms, as related for example in his oft-cited 1964 interview with John Gruen:3

If my work has any meaning at all, it is due more to ignorance, inability and an intuitive despair than to any individual strength. I think that I have perhaps freed myself from certain formal concepts. Perhaps, like the composer Schönberg or the painter Kandinsky, I have turned towards an abstract language. Unlike them, however, I have tried not to concretise the abstraction - not to give it yet another formal context.

(qtd. in Gruen, 210)

Beckett's statement makes it clear that his movement towards an apparently pure state of abstraction took place in relation to traditions of artistic abstraction that he understood well. This position certainly complicates claims that his abstract language produced a style "without history and associations." Although the conception of Beckett's writing as a steady movement towards absolute minimalism remains resiliently present, later trends in Beckett studies have sought to engage more firmly with the complexities of influence on Beckett's writing, and several recent studies have unpicked the various historical settings and influences that informed Beckett's uses of abstract style (Morin, 127-35; Tonning). Beckett's mention of Kandinsky as a forefather isjust one sign among many others of his on-going engagement with Kandinsky's work and the principles of abstraction that underpinned the painter's compositional practice and theory. This engagement is manifest in many facets of Beckett's correspondence and art criticism, and intersects with deeply formative discussions on modern art and aesthetics with Thomas MacGreevy and Georges Duthuit. In this essay, I examine the congruence between specific aspects of Kandinsky's writings on art and Beckett's development of a theory of art in his criticism and correspondence, a connection discussed in the light of visual tropes that recur throughout Beckett's post-war prose.

Kandinsky was, like Beckett, an exile. In 1934, faced with persecution and censorship from the newly ascendant Nazi leadership, Kandinsky moved from Germany, where he had achieved prominence largely through his association with the Bauhaus, to Paris, where he settled until his death in 1944. Beckett was certainly aware of the challenge Kandinsky's use of abstract form posed to Nazi ideology. During his journey through Germany in 1936-37, Beckett was alerted to the ways in which abstract art such as Kandinsky's had been labelled "degenerate"; details of Beckett's discussions with Will Grohmann, among the most influential early critics and biographers of Kandinsky, are well known (Nixon, 135, 139; see also Knowlson, 250-52).

In the last decade of his life, Kandinsky became an influential presence in the Parisian communities of artists and his influence was deeply felt long after his death. He is certainly present in Beckett's writing during the 1930s and 1940s: his name and the conceptual terminology he coined recur in Beckett's essays on modem art, which regularly invoke visual elements such as "coloured" and "receding" "planes" that were integral to Kandinsky's practice as an artist and a theoretician. …

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