A portrait of the artist? Not so much…

Jumping for Joyce fails to get to grips with the great modernist author.

An exhibition inviting a host of artists to ‘react’ to the life and work of James Joyce sounds like a promising prospect. I mean, there’s plenty to react to, right?

He’s a colossus of literature. His door-stop opus Ulysses is lauded as the defining text of modernism, and ‘the book to end all books’, transposing Homer’s Odyssey to a single day in Dublin and drawing on all conceivable forms of expression to tell a story both humdrum and mythic. Not to mention Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a beguiling reflection on nationhood and artistic expression, and Finnegans Wake, one of the most impenetrable and yet enduring works of the literary canon.

Then there’s the man: living in self-imposed exile, shambling from Trieste to Zurich to Paris, dodging two world wars, borrowing money, and desperately trying to get his filth-strewn work past the censors. He drank with Hemingway, boyed off WB Yeats, and had Samuel Beckett learn at his feet, while behind him lay a fractious family life, blighted by his excesses, his poor health and his daughter’s schizophrenia – which, incidentally, Carl Jung diagnosed.

All the artists in the Jumping for Joyce exhibition at the Francis Kyle Gallery in London set about exploring and celebrating what they each take from Joyce’s unique story and the totemic works he left behind. But there’s something ultimately inconsequential and trivial about it all.

There are some undoubtedly grabbing pieces, and Peter Milton’s etching ‘The Ministry’ is among the best. Exquisitely detailed, it offers an imagined, surrealist scene of Paris in the roaring Twenties, the time in which Joyce rubbed shoulders with some of the most important artists of the modernist moment. The author sits po-faced in the foreground, doubled over a chessboard; Proust sits behind him, the taxi they once famously shared at the roadside in the distance; Duchamp clings to his ‘The Large Glass’ as he floats away in a hot-air balloon; and Man Ray, harnessed to an adjoining balloon, photographs the spectacle. However, as mad and pretty as it is, it is unavoidably superficial, a highfalutin version of those posters of Marxist luminaries hosting a rave that adorn the walls of pretentious undergraduates’ bedrooms.

Others offer more realistic snapshots of Joyce’s haunts. Genevieve Dael’s still life ‘Telemachus’ depicts the room in the Martello Tower in Dublin, where Joyce stayed in 1904 and later became the setting for the opening chapter of Ulysses. But its significance to the Joyce mythos doesn’t manage to elevate it above being an uninspiring oil of some bottles on a table and a shabby-looking hammock.

Nods to Ulysses naturally abound, from a ceramic model of Leopold Bloom’s beloved cat ‘the Pussens’ to a painting of the bar of lemon soap he purchases while poring over his elicit love letters. Meanwhile, others explore certain scenes from the novel with a more abstract zeal, including Craig Barber’s ‘Cyclops’ and Lucy Raverat’s ‘Molly Bloom’s Dilemma’. But they all make little impact, vaguely interesting only for their subject, not their aesthetics.

There are a few absolute howlers. Jon Weallans ‘Portrait of the artist’ is downright risible, depicting one of those pose-able desktop mannequin’s propping up a paint palette, while Hugh Buchanan’s photographic study of a crushed Guinness can (‘The wine of the country II’) is blithely offensive. But even at its most sincere and thoughtful, Jumping for Joyce offers up nothing that truly illuminates the great author, and little you’d look twice at otherwise.

Tom Slater is assistant editor at spiked.

Jumping for Joyce is at the Francis Kyle Gallery until 25 September.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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