Skip to main content

Beckett and Visual Culture - A Review

 

On November 17th 2007, a one-day symposium was held at the CAPITAL Centre of the University of Warwick, sponsored by the CAPITAL Centre and the University’s Humanities Research Centre, to explore the theme of Beckett and Visual Culture. The event was conceived to examine the significance of the visual and visual arts to Beckett himself, but also to look at the influence that Beckett had and continues to have on artists, film-makers and students of the visual in every context. To this end, scholars, artists, photographers, actors and directors came together in an interdisciplinary day which juxtaposed the critical and the creative.

The first session explored Beckett’s influence on the contemporary artist. The symposium was conceived in part to accompany an exhibition of Dr Bill Prosser’s art works, inspired by Beckett’s own doodles in the manuscript of his draft play ‘Human Wishes’, which hung in the foyer of the CAPITAL Centre in November and December 2007. Bill Prosser, currently engaged in a research project entitled ‘Beckett and the Phenomenology of Doodles: A Visual and Theoretical Analysis’ at the University of Reading, situated Beckett’s own doodles in a history of doodling, exploring the aesthetic, political and psychological significance of the phenomenon in a wealth of different contexts, and suggesting some possible sources for Beckett’s own images. Bill’s work is informed by the phenomenology of perception, an understanding of moment-by-moment experience which does not look for causal relations—an approach absolutely appropriate to the unmotivated activity of doodling. A common concern with phenomenology and the role of bodily experience in philosophical thought underpinned the investigations made in the day as a whole.

The second talk in this session, by Sarah Blair, began with a screening of contemporary film-maker Andrew Kötting’s film Klipperty Klopp (1984), a “post-punk piece of pagan sensibility”, in the artist’s own words, inspired by Beckett’s work. The film has recently been purchased by the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and was shown at the Tate Gallery between 1990 and 1993. Sarah introduced this extraordinary film, which portrayed a Beckettian character, itinerant, unhoused, absorbed by pattern and permutation, issuing a Lucky-like muttering somewhere between prophecy and babble, and running manically in a perfect figure of eight on a bleak hillside. Sarah went on to speak about the idea, which the film had brought to mind, of the verbal doodle, incorporating a reading from an unpublished work by Marina Warner which considered Beckett’s wordplay in this light.

In the second session, Professor Jonathan Bignell from the University of Reading screened Beckett’s 1965 Film, and gave a lucid and revealing talk on the interpretations, aesthetics and history of the film and its conception. The phenomenology of vision is central to this work. Berkeley’s influence on Beckett, as Jonathan noted, extends to his formulation of the idea that perceiving spirits have some notion of themselves as perceivers. Film takes this idea literally, and divides an individual, the Buster Keaton character, into perceiver and perceived. Being is seen to be irretrievably split, and Beckett substitutes the inescapability of God’s perception with the inescapability of self-perception. Following this, Dr Julian Garforth spoke about Beckett’s interest in the German comedian Karl Valentin, whom Beckett saw perform during his travels in Germany in the 1930s, and whose appearance in the accompanying illustrations chimed uncannily with the images of Buster Keaton in Film. Valentin’s physical appearance, clown-like visual comedy, and music-hall wordplay—both verbal doodle and quasi-philosophical wit—are all, as Julian showed, suggestive precursors of Beckett’s own theatre.

The afternoon session begain with a paper by Dr Mark Nixon, the Director of the International Beckett Foundation at Reading. The paper explored Beckett’s interest in fine art and his experiences of viewing paintings in Germany in the 1930s, and demonstrated how far Beckett’s consideration of the act of looking itself influenced his own aesthetic practice. Mark argued that Beckett was highly attuned to the relationship between perception and creativity in the 1930s, formulating a poetics of vision which explored the act and experience of seeing itself. Beckett’s comments on the painter Karl Ballmer’s Kopf in Rot (1930-31), for example, suggest that such a painting has a certain concreteness rooted in the fact that the optical experience of the viewer subsumes the ability of the painting to communicate, and provides both “motive” and “content” for the work of art. The eye provided for Beckett a potent metaphor for poetic creation at this time, the eyelid needing to close to the glare of the outer world in order to explore fully the unseen world of the mind.

Following Mark Nixon’s talk, Ulrika Maude from the University of Durham examined Beckett’s late prose and television work in connection with the images of the body, at once more objective and more virtualised and fragmented, that were becoming available in Beckett’s lifetime through new medical imaging technologies. Maude’s paper shed new light on the significance of the concept of the prosthesis to Beckett’s work, and also explored the phenomenology of seeing one’s own body, a process that renders problematic the position of both subject and object. The image of the eye and eyelid, so significant in the iconography of Film, as demonstrated by Jonathan Bignell, and the poetics of Beckett’s early work, as Mark Nixon showed, is likewise central to the phenomenological reading of the body that Ulrika Maude proposes in her work.

To conclude the academic business, the speakers came together with two other Beckett scholars, Dr Daniel Katz from the English Department at the University of Warwick and Dr Matthew Feldman from the University of Northampton, in a lively panel discussion on Beckett and Phenomenology. Chaired by Dr Liz Barry, the discussion introduced the forthcoming collection on this topic edited by Matthew Feldman and Ulrika Maude, and explored both the possible influences on Beckett from the phenomenological tradition, and the usefulness to contemporary scholarship of this philosophical approach to interpreting Beckett’s work. The panel touched on Beckett’s awareness of thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, Jean Beaufret and others working in the phenomenological tradition, and discussed the dramatization of certain phenomenological themes in Beckett’s own writing, expanding on the suggestions in this direction in the papers already heard by Prosser, Bignell, Nixon and Maude about the centrality of consciousness, lived experience and the body to Beckett’s philosophical and aesthetic explorations.

After the last academic session of the day, the Fail Better theatre company performed two little-seen Beckett plays, Rough for Theatre II (c.1960) and Ohio Impromptu (1981), and concluded the day’s proceedings with a short talk by the director, Jonathan Heron, Research Associate at the CAPITAL Centre, and a discussion with the audience about their interpretation of these works, and the challenges they offer to the sight, hearing and understanding of the audience.

 

Many thanks to all the speakers and participants for their time and contributions. I would also like to thank in particular Dr Susan Brock, Peter Kirwan, Ian O’Donoghue, and Professor Carol Rutter, at CAPITAL, and Dr Rina Kim and Robyn Smith for their support in organizing this event, Dr Bill Prosser for designing the outstanding publicity material, and Anastasia Deligianni for the evocative visual record. Thanks also to Jonathan Heron and the Fail Better company for such a wonderful culminating event.

 

Liz Barry

 

Department of English, University of Warwick