Les éditions de minuit, Paris 1967, 9,5x18cm, broché.
First edition of which there were no large paper copies.Precious copy inscribed by Beckett to his friend the painter Geer (Van Velde) and his wife Lise.
Spine very slightly sunned, not serious.
“What to say of the sliding planes, the shimmering contours, the cut-out figures in the fog, the balance that any little thing can break, breaking and re-forming themselves under our very eyes? How to talk about the colors that breathe and pant? Of the swarming stasis? Of this world without weight, without force, without shadow? Here everything moves, swims, fells, comes back, falls apart, re-forms. Everything stops, non-stop. One would say it's the revolt of the internal molecules of a stone a split second before its disintegration. That is literature” (The van Veldes' Art, or the World and the Trousers, in Cahiers d'Art n°11-12, Paris 1945).
Beckett here is not talking – despite how it may appear – about his literary oeuvre, but about the paintings of Geer Van Velde, going on to add a few lines later “[Bram] Van Velde paints distance. G[eer] Van Velde paints succession.” This elegy, published on the occasion of the double exhibition of the Van Veldes (Geer at Maeght's and Bram at the Galerie Mai) is the first important text on these painters, more or less unknown to the public at the time: “We've only just started spouting nonsense about the Van Velde brothers, and I'm the first. It's an honor.” This is also the first critical text written directly in French by a young Irish writer who had not, as yet, published anything in France.
Thus, the first and most important of Beckett's writings on art, composed at the dawn of his literary career, establishes – right from the start – a fundamental relationship between his developing work and his friends' art: “Thus this text has often been read in a hollow or in the mirror, as one of the rare designations of Beckett's poetry (to come) by the man himself, a sort of anamorphic program of writing,” (Un pantalon cousu de fil blanc : Beckett et l'épreuve critique by Pierre Vilar).
A real statement of dramaturgical intent, this fundamental text whose introspective value Beckett lays out from the introduction on (“one does nothing but tell stories with words”) ushers in the writer's most fruitful creative period. In essence, like Apollinaire and Cendrars, Beckett draws from the artistic problems of his contemporaries the catalyst of his own future writing through “the deepest questioning of narrative, figurative or poetical presuppositions” (Pascale Casanova in Beckett l'abstracteur).
The major influence of modern painting on the narrative structure – or destructuring – of Beckett's drama and novels would be pointed out and examined by a number of thinkers, among them Gilles Deleuze, Julia Kristeva and Maurice Blanchot. It was, in fact, with the art of the Van Veldes (first Geer then Bram) that Beckett began to formalize this desire to translate the pictorial question into dramaturgical terms. Thus it was that he rejected Nicolas de Staël's set design for Godot, since: “the set must come out of the text without adding anything to it. As for the visual comfort of the audience, you can imagine how much I care. Do you really think you can listen with the backdrop of Bram's set, or see anything other than him?” (Letter to Georges Duthuit, 1952).
When he met Geer in 1937, “Beckett was going through a major existential crisis and had just been reworking his first novel, Murphy, which had been rejected by a great many publishers. He was lost in alcohol, leaving Ireland and moving once and for all to Paris” (Le Pictural dans l'œuvre de Beckett, Lassaad Jamoussi). He returned from a long artistic journey in Germany, where he was marked by classical works as well as contemporary art – it was during this journey that he discovered Caspar David Friedrich's Two Men Contemplating the Moon, his source for Waiting for Godot.
Art was thus at the heart of his creative thinking and the friendship that would tie him to Geer and later his brother Bram and their sister Jacoba (with whom his relationship may have been more than merely friendly), and which would profoundly influence his life and writing. His first writing on art is a short piece on Geer Van Velde, whose works he pressed on his new lover Peggy Guggenheim when she set up her new London gallery. Despite the relative failure of the exhibition (which followed Kandinsky's), he got his friend a one-year scholarship from Peggy. James Knowlson even thinks that “if Beckett maintained close links with Peggy for a long time, it was first and foremost because she could be convinced to give his artist friends a serious helping hand, starting with Geer Van Velde” (in Beckett, p. 474). Enigmatic, the little piece that Beckett wrote at the time at Peggy's request already contained a dramaturgical kernel of thought: “ Believes painting should mind its own business, i.e. colors. i.e no more say Picasso than Fabritius, Vermeer. Or inversely.”
Slower to develop, his friendship with Bram and interest in the latter's painting slowly changed Beckett's outlook on Geer's art and when, ten years after his first meeting the brothers, he wrote The World and the Trousers, Beckett brought up to date a duality symbolized by the title, taken from an anecdote given as a legend to the article. The world is the “imperfect” work of God, made in six days, to which the tailor compares the perfection of his trousers, made over six months.
The link between this anecdote and the Van Velde brothers is perhaps to be found in the second essay Beckett devoted to them, in 1948, Peintres de l'empêchement [Painters of the Problem] (Derrière le miroir n° 11/12) : “One of them said: I cannot see the object in order to represent it because I am who I am. There are always two sorts of problems – the object-problem and the ‘eye-problem…Geer Van Velde is an artist of the former sort…Bram Van Velde of the latter.”
Resistance of the object or impotence of the artist, this tale, the “true primary narrative core in kôan zen form,” (P. Vilar) would later find itself scattered throughout Beckett's work and would more specifically take centre stage in Endgame, whose similarity, by the by, with the art of Geer Van Velde was noted by Roger Blin. “At the time, he was friends with the Dutch brothers Geer and Bram Van Velde, both painters. Geer was a painter in the style of Mondrian. I have the feeling that Beckett saw Endgame as a painting by Mondrian with very tidy partitions, geometric separations and musical geometry,” (R. Blin, Conversations avec Lynda Peskine in Revue d'Esthétique).
Beckett's growing affinity for Bram Van Velde's work and the energy he put into promoting his work, especially to the galerie Maeght or his friend the art historian Georges Duthuit, was no doubt to the detriment of his relationship with Geer. Nonetheless, despite some misunderstandings, their friendship remained unbroken; as did the silent but anxious dialogue that the writer maintained with the art of the younger Van Velde brother, two of whose large canvases he owned. “The big painting by Geer finally gave me a sign. Shame that it should have turned out so badly. But perhaps that's not true after all” (letter to Georges Duthuit, March 1950). “Geer shows great courage. Ideas that are a little cutting, but maybe only in appearance. I have always had a great respect for them. But not enough, I think” (letter to Mania Péron, August 1951)
The death of Geer Van Velde in 1977 affected Beckett deeply and coincided with a period of intense nostalgia during which the writer decided to give himself over to “a great clear-out” of his house so as to live between “walls as grey as their owner.” Confiding his state of mind to his friend, the stage designer Jocelyn Herbert, Beckett bore witness to the indefatigable affection he had nurtured for the painter over forty years: “more canvases on display, including the big Geer Van Velde behind the piano.”
A precious witness to the friendship of these fellow travelers who had, ever since checking the veracity of the game of chess played by Murphy and Mr. Endon for Beckett's first novel, tackled together the great challenges of modernity: “It's that, deep down, they don't care about painting. What they're interested in is the human condition. We'll come back to that” (Beckett on the Van Velder brothers in The World and the Trousers).