Robert Motherwell was a serious reader of modern literature and James Joyce was the kind of modern artist with whom he most closely identified. In 1935, at the age of twenty, Motherwell bought a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses in Paris and he would continue to consult the book throughout his career. The titles of many of his works come from phrases in Joyce’s books, and the Dedalus Foundation is even named for Stephen Dedalus, a protagonist in Joyce’s novels Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.
In explaining this connection, Motherwell described an event involving a copy of Finnegans Wake:
Joyce is permanently on my mind. For over forty years I have dedicated pictures to him and taken titles from him. The title for “The Homely Protestant” [an oil on Masonite painting], which is from 1948 and one of my most important pictures comes from Joyce. The Surrealists used to say, if you’re stuck for a title, take a book, it must be your favorite book. Close your eyes and open it at random. Put your finger on the page and use that as the title. I was stuck with that picture. I didn’t know what it was even though I knew it was very abstractly a figure with a certain quality. When I put my finger on the words, “The Homely Protestant,” I thought, of course, it’s a self-portrait.[i]
In 1980, Motherwell participated in the International James Joyce Foundation’s annual meeting in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he was on a panel with Nathan Halper, a Joyce scholar and friend. That event reignited Motherwell’s interest in Joyce, and led to his doing a suite of illustrations for an Arion Press edition of Ulysses.
Motherwell had several copies of Ulysses in his library, which is now part of the Dedalus Foundation archives. We can get a sense of how Motherwell read by looking at these cherished books of his, and seeing how he underlined several evocative phrases, some of which ended up as the titles of his own works.
Pictured above is the page in one of his copies of Ulysses where Motherwell underlined the phrase “saint Stephen’s iron crown.” In September 1981, he painted Stephen’s Iron Crown in acrylic on canvas as part of the Drunk with Turpentine Series.
Then, in 1982, he produced a print titled Stephen’s Iron Crown Etched.
In late 1981 and early 1982, he discussed the meaning of the phrase and its location in the edition of Ulysses shown above in letters he exchanged with Nathan Halper. (Fig. 6-8)
Of course, we don’t know for certain when Motherwell underlined the phrase in his copy of Ulysses, but it is tempting to see these materials as showing a sequence of events.
Only a few years later, in 1985, Motherwell agreed to illustrate an edition of Ulysses for Arion Press, which was published in 1988. The Arion Press publication was recently mentioned in a New York Times article by Jack Hitt titled “The Strange Case of the Missing Joyce Scholar,” about the scholar James Kidd, who had been engaged in producing a definitive edition of Ulysses. Hitt wrote that “Early on in the Joyce wars, in fact, Arion Press issued a new edition of ‘Ulysses’ that included some of the preliminary Kidd edits. The book was luxurious, with prints by Robert Motherwell, and only 175 of them were printed.”
This beautiful book is now on view at the Dedalus Foundation in Brooklyn in an exhibition titled “Word and Image: Literary Influences in Motherwell’s Works.”
The exhibition includes other paintings and prints inspired by Motherwell’s love of literature, including works by Octavio Paz and Rafael Alberti. The exhibition can be seen by appointment and will be on view through the end of the summer.
[i] David Hayman, “An Appreciation: Ulysses and Motherwell: Illustrating an Affinity,” James Joyce Quarterly vol. 26 no. 4 Summer 1989, p. 588.