“The phrase and the day and the scene harmonized in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language manycoloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?”

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Happy Bloomsday!

Week 8: Abstract Expressionism and Literature

Part 1: What is Abstract Expressionism

Abstract expressionism is a movement in painting that encompasses many styles, which aim to express the artists feelings, and convey greater meaning about the human condition using non-representational painting. The style is credited as largely a creation of west-coast american artist Clyfford Still, whom became an important figure in the movement. The movement includes three major styles, Action painting, Colour field painting and Hard edge abstraction, although the latter is sometimes included within the colour field genre, or no at all. Action painting is a style in which brush strokes, marks or paint traces are gestural and visceral from which a viewer can get a sense of the movement, the action required to paint the picture. Its most well known artist is Jackson Pollock. Colour field painting is characterized by very large paintings with fields of expansive colour engulfing the viewer. This style is known as Mark Rothko’s. Finally Hard edge abstraction is the genre that includes solid colour paintings, pictures that relly mostly on colour and geometrical shapes and patterns, such as Barnet Newman’s work.

Part 2: How Abstract Expressionism relates to Finnegans Wake

James Joyce’s book Finnegans Wake is a notoriously difficult to read, and especially difficult to understand book. I’ve only been given the exert from the page 3 of the book, that is the first page of writing, and I am quite in awe of the phenomenal task of reading such a work. As many people, I have been able to make out a few biblical references, water, some sort of journey I think, but no real understanding. And in this way, the book could be considered an abstract work of writing. And in that way, it really does relate to abstract expressionism, which is hard to understand and abstract because of that; only when one knows why the pictures are so, can they truly examine and understand them.

However, Finnegans Wake has a cast of characters and a plot. The book, whilst very experimental, is not an abstract work. It is prose, a fiction, a story, which is representational, unlike abstract expressionism. Abstract expressionism is based on the idea of abstraction, which Finnegans Wake is not. Furthermore, the book is not intended to convey the writers feeling during the writing, or speak of the human condition by the means the writer’s feelings. It was written over a period of 17, for which is hard to maintain the exact same feeling and express such a devastatingly intense emotion.

Whilst Finnegans Wake may resemble a written version of abstract expressionism, it does relate to on more than a superficial level, only perceived by those who don’t understand the book, or the painting movement. The book does not share the methods, ideals or goals of abstract expressionism, therefore, is not related to it.


You may not have heard this but James Joyce wrote a very long book.
Don’t worry though! Benito has put together a summary of Finnegan’s Wake in this video.