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James Joyce, Rembrandt, Picasso, Fellini, and Me


June 16th was Bloomsday, the annual celebration of James Joyce's novel Ulysses, the action of which takes place on one day in Dublin in 1906. I've written before about the set of etchings I made back in the late 1990s, based on the Nighttown chapter of Ulysses. But after posting images of these etchings via social media during the most recent Bloomsday, I realised I could still say something about the various things that influenced my particular interpretation of Joyce's text.

When I started planning the project in 1997, I was aware of a few other artists' visual responses to the book, such as Robert Motherwell's attractive and entirely abstract etchings, some hasty and uninspired lithographs by Matisse, and (the best ones, in my opinion) semi-abstract etchings by Mimmo Paladino:

Mimmo Paladino, from Ulysses
I started by narrowing down to one chapter: the Nighttown chapter, which takes place in the red light district of Dublin, and parallels the Circe episode in Homer's Odyssey. Odysseus and his men land on the island of the sorceress Circe, who lulls them with food and wine before transforming his men into pigs. Joyce's text is written in the form of a stage play, complete with stage directions that are in fact completely un-stageable hallucinations that become more bizarre, dark, and dangerous as the chapter goes on. Such is Joyce's skill, however, that it isn't too difficult to figure out where you are in the action, and to distinguish between what's being said and what's being imagined by the characters. The chapter teems with people and incident, and it was this combination of wild action, night, theatre, and a large cast of characters that I tried to capture:

"Stone him!" 1997
Copper plate etching and aquatint allows you to create strong contrasts between light and dark in a print, and combined with the night-time setting of the Circe chapter, I kept seeing images from Federico Fellini films in my mind's eye:

from La Strada
I love the way Fellini lit scenes like this, using the full richness of black and white cinema. Or the way he uses contrast to create huge depth of space:

from La Dolce Vita
And there's the crowd scenes in his films, and the fact that his particular combination of reality and garish fantasy even gave rise to the phrase Fellini-esque. The constant parade of characters in Joyce's text reminded me of similar aspects of Fellini's mise-en-scene, and was something I tried to capture as much as I could in my print series.

For the etching "I'll do 'im in!", I also had in mind a Picasso etching from 1970, and a Rembrandt print that Picasso himself borrowed from. First, here is the Rembrandt etching, Christ Displayed to the Crowd:


The setting is the courtyard of Pontius Pilate's palace. Christ is led out in front of a crowd so that Pilate can ask them what he should do with him. The thing I want to point out is how much like a stage set this looks, including the two dark cellar archways at the foot of the steps.

Here is Picasso's etching:


This comes from a long series of etchings that Picasso created in the late 1960s which he filled with multi-layered references to his own life and past artists. In typical Picassian fashion, Rembrandt's retelling of Christ's humiliation becomes Picasso himself on a stage, surrounded by a throng of people, mainly women he remembers from a long life of affairs. Picasso reworked this plate quite heavily, this proof print being the seventh state of the print. As I think back to the 1990s again, I remember being struck by the strong contrasts within the image, and the looseness of inspiration this 90 year old artist maintained.

Finally, here is my etching "I'll do 'im in!":


This is the moment towards the end of the Circe chapter in Ulysses, when Stephen Dedalus is punched by an English soldier, who thinks Dedalus is insulting the king:
PRIVATE CARR I'll do him in.
PRIVATE COMPTON (Waves the crowd back.) Fair play, here. Make a bleeding butcher's shop of the bugger.
(Massed bands blare Garryowen and God save the king.)
CISSY CAFFREY They're going to fight. For me!

. . . BLOOM (Over Stephen's shoulder.) Yes, go. You see he's incapable.
PRIVATE CARR (Breaks loose.) I'll insult him.
(He rushes towards Stephen, fists outstretched, and strikes him in the face. Stephen totters, collapses, falls stunned. He lies prone, his face to the sky, his hat rolling to the wall. Bloom follows and picks it up.)
I recall laying down a thick dark aquatint first to block in the stage curtains, and a solid dark area filling the bottom half of the copper plate. I then took some of the figures from the text that I had drawn in a sketchbook and began the arduous process of scraping their forms into the aquatint (this is like scratching white shapes out of a scratchboard). The on-stage figures of Private Carr, Dedalus, and Bloom were drawn with drypoint. I also used drypoint in the crowd/audience to enrich the dark areas and the shadows.

This is the print where all these influences came together: Fellini's crowds, the black and white contrasts of his filmmaking and of etching, Joyce's theatrically staged story-telling, Rembrandt and Picasso's placement of their visual storytelling within a stylised space resembling a proscenium stage. It was a happy confluence of many of my own aesthetic interests into a medium (printmaking) that was just beginning to reveal to me its infinite richness and capacity for visual expressiveness.

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