Samuel Beckett Modernist Painting: Design of Failure

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Perhaps because Samuel Beckett’s novels make clear reference to modern art, most critical work has focussed on this aspect of his oeuvre. I would like to concentrate on the intersections of modern art and Beckett’s later, dense, minimalist, and elliptic dramas and on the reasons for this sparse expressiveness in a specific cultural climate and landscape. In such works as Not I, That Time, Breath, Play, to name just a few, Beckett manipulates spatial and linguistic ‘textures’ in ways that are analogically reminiscent of abstract painting.

In a 1937 letter to his German translator Axel Kaun, Beckett asked: “Shall literature be left behind on that stale path which has long been abandoned by Music and Painting?” In his view, fiction and drama were still driven by language and in order to illustrate its authentic power as an art form and as human expression, literature had to move away from representation. His models here were modernist music and painting. For Beckett, not only was it necessary for literature to ‘confess’ its inadequacy as a carrier of meaning, but it ought also to be compelled to illustrate its own impotence as a system of meaningful notation.

To cite only two examples: Frank Stella’s grid-like minimalist paintings as well as Tal-Coat’s abstract expressionist style (which Beckett admired) enact a methodology of conceived ‘failure.’ These works resist representation and rational equation in order to demonstrate how art must sabotage mimesis and announce its collapse as both a modality and a signifier. Beckett increasingly expunges the mechanics of drama, erasing set, figure, dialogue, stage, and promoting contraction, mechanisation, and absence. Obsessively Beckett’s narrators illustrate the hopeless but relentless compulsion to express, together with the exhausting self-distillation of such infinite regression. Through a flattening of effects, both drama and painting announce the depletion of former conventions.

Keywords: Samuel Beckett, Abstract Painting, Modernism
Stream: Arts Theory and Criticism
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.

Dr. Claudia Clausius

Associate Professor, Modern Languages
King's University College, The University of Western Ontario

London, Ontario, Canada

Claudia Clausius had degrees from Oxford, England and the University of Toronto. She is currently Associate Professor in the Department of English at King's University College at The University of Western Ontario. Her publications and research interests focus on the intersections between modern drama (Beckett, Pinter, Soyinka) and modern art forms (Francis Bacon, Paul Klee, and the African Art Collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York).

Ref: A09P0095