Editor’s Choice

From the archive: Samuel Beckett’s appreciative review of Thomas MacGreevy’s study of Jack B Yeats

Samuel Beckett looks at Jack B Yeats’s painting, The Music, 1946. ©Reserved DACS 2006 on behalf of the Yeats Estate. Photograph: Courtesy of NGI Archive

Samuel Beckett looks at Jack B Yeats’s painting, The Music, 1946. ©Reserved DACS 2006 on behalf of the Yeats Estate. Photograph: Courtesy of NGI Archive


From The Irish Times on Saturday, August 4th, 1945: Samuel Beckett reviews Jack B Yeats: An Appreciation and an Interpretation, by Thomas MacGreevy

MacGreevy on Yeats by Samuel Beckett

THIS is the earliest connected account of Mr. Yeats’s painting. To it future writers on the subject will, perhaps, be indebted, no less than writers on Proust to Madariaga’s essay; or writers on Joyce to Curtius’s – indebted for an attitude to develop, or correct, or reject. It is rare for the first major reaction to art of genius to come, as here, from a compatriot of the artist. The causes of this are no doubt profound and forcible. It is agreeable to find them coerced. The greater part of this essay was written in London, in 1938. A postscript, written this year in Ireland, covers Mr. Yeats’s development from 1938 to the present time. The past seven vears have confirmed Mr. MacGreevy in the views that a dozen London publishers, not yet so fortunate as to lack paper, declined to publish. This is not to be wondered at. It is difficult to formulate what it is one likes in Mr. Yeats’s painting, or indeed what it is one likes in anything, but it is a labour not easily lost, and a relationship once stated not likely to fail, between such a knower and such an unknown. There is at least this to be said for mind, that it can dispel mind. And at least this for art – criticism, that it can lift from the eyes, before rigor vitae sets in, some of the weight of congenital prejudice. Mr. MacGreevy’s little book does this with a competence that will not surprise those who have read his essay on Mr. Eliot, or his admirable translation of Valery’s Introduction à la Méthode de Léonard de Vinci, nor those who follow, in the Record, his articles on writers and artists, little known, as yet, in the Republic.

The National Painter
Mr. MacGreevy sees in Mr. Yeats the first great painter, the first great Irish painter, that Ireland has produced, or, indeed, could have produced; the first to fix , plastically, with completeness and for his time finality, what is peculiar to the Irish scene and to the Irish people. This is the essence of his interpretation, and it permeates the essay in ail its parts. The position is made clear at the outset.

“. . . What was unique in Ireland was that the life of the people considered itself, and was in fact, spiritually and culturally as well as politically, the whole life of the nation. Those who acted for the nation officially were outside the nation. They had a stronger sense of identity with the English governing class than with the people of Ireland, and their art was no more than a province of English art. The first genuine artist. therefore, who so identified himself with the people of Ireland as to be able to give true and good and beautiful artistic expression to the life they lived, and to that sense of themselves as the Irish nation, inevitably became not merely a genre painter like the painters of the petit peuple in other countries, and not merely a national painter in the sense that Pol de Limbourg, Louis Le Nain, Bassano, Oslade or Jan Steen were national painters, but the national painter in the sense that Rembrandt and Velasquez and Watteau were national painters, the painter who in his work was the consummate expression of the spirit of his own nation at one of the supreme points in its evolution.”

This, the Constable and Watteau analogies, the statement of the political backgrounds to the first (until about 1923) and the second periods, the elucidations of “Helen” and the “ Blood of Abel,” seem to me art-criticism of a high order, indeed. They constitute an affirmation of capital importance not only for those who feel in this way about Mr. Yeats, or for those who as yet feel little or nothing about Mr. Yeats, but also for those, such as myself, who feel in quite a different way about Mr, Yeats.

The Artist
The national aspects of Mr. Yeats’s genius have, 1 think, been overstated, and for motives not always remarkable for their aesthetic purity. To admire painting on other than aesthetic grounds, or a painter, qua painter, for any other reason than that he is a good painter, may seem to some uncalled for. And to some also it may seem that Mr. Yeats’s importance is to be sought elsewhere than in a sympathetic treatment (how sympathetic?) of the local accident, or the local substance. He is with the great of our time, Kandinsky and Klee, Ballmer and Bram van Velde, Rouault and Braque, because he brings.light, as only the great dare bring light , to the issueless predicament of existence, reduces the dark where there might have been, mathematically at least, a door. The being in the street when it happens in the room, the being in the room when it happens in the street, the turning to gaze from land to sea, from sea to land, the backs to one another and the eyes abandoning, the man alone trudging in sand, the man alone thinking (thinking!) in his box – these are characteristic notations having reference, I imagine, to processes less simple, and less delicious, than those to which the plastic vis is commonly reduced, and to a world where Tir-na-nOgue makes no more sense than Bachelor’s Walk, nor Helen than the apple-woman, nor asses than men, nor Abel’s blood than Useful’s, nor morning than night, nor the inward than the outward search.

Jack B. Yeats; An Appreciation and an Interpretation. By Thomas MacGreevy. Victor Waddington Publications. 12/6 and 7/6 net.