Drawing odyssey


British artist Richard Hamilton writes about his 50-year preoccupation with Ulysses and putting together Imaging Ulysses.

The only benefit I gained from 18 months of enforced detention in our post-war army was time to read. An excellent regimental library of English classics from Chaucer to Hardy offered a staple diet; I also spent many hours in the barrack room reading and rereading my own two-volume Odyssey Press paperback edition of Ulysses. It was then, in 1947, that I first began to think about the possibility of illustrating James Joyce's great novel. It may be that an exhibition of French book illustrations at the National Gallery, London, in 1945 had fired me with enthusiasm to emulate the printmaking achievements of Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Rouault and others.

With illustration in mind, my examination of Ulysses was more intensive than that of any book I had read. The process of studying Joyce did more than provide me with subject matter. It made me aware of a stylistic and technical freedom that might be applied to painting in general. Joyce commands all manner of literary styles and combines them into an unprecedented display of linguistic pyrotechnics, and presents an example that later freed me to try some implausible associations in paint.

There was some interest in my drawings when a few of them were shown in the Joyce exhibition at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1950, but a meeting with T.S. Eliot, in his professional role as a Faber executive director, deterred me from taking the drawings further. He explained that the cost of resetting Ulysses for a limited edition would be prohibitive. It was then that I understood the reason for the School of Paris penchant for the illustration of poems: Villon, Verlaine, Rimbaud and Baudelaire created a few stanzas that gave the artist a big picture with minimum setting costs for the publisher. After a 30-year pause, and with the Joyce centenary coming up, I began to think again about illustrating Bloom's odyssey.

Illustration: the word itself is derogatory; to categorise an artist as a good illustrator is a put-down. Joyce himself was no great lover of painting and he would have seen little point in artists indulging themselves by seeking pictures in his musical prose. He said painting, except for portraiture, did not interest him, yet even in this he was scrupulous.

Perhaps Matisse found the right solution: whether by design or accident, his illustrations for Ulysses have more to do with Homer than with Joyce.

I like to think that the route my venture has taken was served by happy chance; the illustrations became a group of independent prints having their inspiration in Joyce - not bound to the words in a straight-book-jacket, but free to speak for themselves about the experience of learning ways to make images from a master of language. Now, having long forsaken the project of an illustrated text, I crave the integration of image with word. The novel doesn't need embellishment but the depiction can be informed by its context.

My original intention was to use etching as the medium for the Joyce illustrations, and the long-neglected project was revived only when the opportunity to work once again on copper arose. It is unlikely that I would have had the temerity to engage in the undertaking without the support of Aldo Crommelynck and the benefits I had gained from his technical expertise.

The pages of Ulysses can be combed through without finding an account of Leopold Bloom's appearance, yet we have an acutely real perception of him. Bloom's unique physical presence is built from the author's profound analysis of character; every detail of his hero's personality, his thoughts, and his location, both spatial and temporal, are so minutely specified that every reader sees him as possessing a recognisable aspect.

A preliminary drawing of Bloom in the bath took a sidelong look at the subject. However, the paragraphs it illustrates are anticipatory; Bloom is thinking pleasurably about stopping off at the public baths. Indeed, much of the chapter is written as interior monologue. The key words, "he foresaw", demand a view from the thinking mind, a foreshortened perspective as seen from an inner eye. The subsequent vertical treatment, also made in 1948, with Bloom's head at the bottom and feet at the top, is an inescapable realisation of that prospect from within.

A year before he died, I enjoyed the privilege of spending an evening with Richard Ellmann discussing Joyce and illustration. While looking at my watercolour of Bloom in the tub, he said: "I see you've circumcised him". I replied proudly: "Of course". Ellmann's response was shattering: "Did you know that Bloom wasn't circumcised?" Such erudition demanded a thorough examination of the text during the next few days. I could find no reference to endorse Ellmann's certainty. A brief note from him gave me chapter and verse: "This wet is very unpleasant. Stuck. Well the foreskin is not back. Better detach".

LYDIA Douce and Mina Kennedy, barmaids at the Ormond Bar, are the Sirens of Bloom's odyssey. This is the chapter of Ulysses that concentrates on sound, so there are many uses of onomatopoeia; it is "poetic" in style and every phrase sings out sweetly. In his complex schema for the novel, Joyce lists music as the theme of "Sirens", and colour is a necessary attribute. Apart from an uncertain sighting in "Lestrygonians", Bloom's visit to the bar is the only occasion in the course of his long day that might have brought about an embarrassing encounter between himself and Blazes Boylan, his wife Molly's lover.

Boylan is well ensconced in the bar flirting with the all-too-willing barmaids, but a face-to-face confrontation with Bloom is avoided. Bloom does his best to ignore his rival's presence.

A visual conundrum emerged in the representation of the words "Ormond Bar". The name, "Cantrell and Cochrane" is inscribed on the mirror behind the barmaids. Seen reflected in the mirror is the name of the bar written on the outside of the pane of glass fronting the street. That lettering, appearing mirror-imaged from inside the bar looking out, would read correctly when seen in the mirror. It looked right in the drawing only when the reflection was, wrongly, reversed.

The dictionary defines the word "epiphany' as "a manifestation or appearance of some divine or superhuman being". Joyce offers a broader and far more beautiful description of the experience he called an epiphany: it was the revelation of the what-ness of a thing; the moment in which "the soul of the commonest object seems to us radiant". Some thing, or some experience, could bring about this instant of understanding.

I experienced such a moment of understanding when I encountered a large button in a seedy gift shop in Pacific Ocean Park, Venice, California, with the words "SLIP IT TO ME" blatantly displayed across it. The greatly enlarged version of the badge which I characterised as a work of art was entitled Epiphany.

JOYCE'S Ulysses and Duchamp's La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même have something in common: they both have the character of an epic poem. While Joyce's narrative purports to be the story of events occurring during the course of one day in Dublin, it follows the heroic pattern of a mythical odyssey. We can extrapolate from Bloom's travails to see his story as a prefiguring of Finnegans Wake, the story of all mankind at all times: here comes everybody. La Mariée is, like Anna Livia, all women to all men.

Duchamp's work seems to invite a search for some mythic source, but the hunt will always fail because the myth is an original creation. Any similarity between persons living or dead is truly coincidental.

Duchamp, disgusted by a tradition of painting in which the handwriting had become more important than the rationale, used drawing instruments to delineate the lower part of his Large Glass. Words flowed from Joyce so effortlessly, delighting in every literary conceit, from pedantry to parody, moving fluently through so many styles, that style was not at issue.

Following these paragons, I tried to liberate the many languages and conventions of the visual arts so that they might combine to contribute to a new whole: photography, abstraction, words, diagram, collage, paint for its own sensual qualities.

Pastiche might be granted a new respectability if for no other reason than its power to deny the self-importance of art.

This is an extract from Richard Hamilton's programme notes in the catalogue for Imaging Ulysses (published by the British Council). The exhibition opened at IMMA on Thursday.