James Joyce's Ulysses is a work of literary fiction that keeps threatening to turn into something else. Chapter Seven, set in the offices of the Freeman's Journal newspaper, moves the action along through a series of shouting headlines and breathless news reports. Chapter 11, starring the flirtatious barmaids Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy, is written, or rather scored, as a musical soundtrack (complete with tuning-up noises and overture). Chapter 17 is couched as a Q&A interview. A chapter in which Leopold Bloom is given a flash of young Gerty MacDowell's knickers is written in the breathless locutions of the Lady's Pictorial romantic comic. The long, climactic Nighttown chapter is a film screenplay.
The whole book, in fact, is amazingly cinematic, in its variety of perspectives, its tracking shots and multiple narrators who inspect Leopold Bloom as he wanders the streets of Dublin on 16 June 1904, brooding about his unfaithful wife Molly, her lover Blazes Boylan, and sundry matters of the modern world, from the role of the Wandering Jew to the cake of flavoured soap in his back pocket. Some critics have traced Joyce's cinematic literary form back to his brief career as a movie mogul – he set up Dublin's first cinematograph for a consortium of Italian businessmen while he was working in Trieste, and was reportedly enthralled by the potential of film to tell a story through montage, flashback and complex time frames.
Attempts to film Ulysses, however, haven't been successful. Joseph Strick's 1967 version, starring Milo O'Shea as Bloom and Barbara Jefford as Molly, was uncomfortably stagey, awkward and lifeless. Radio versions (such as the 16-hour extravaganza broadcast by RTE on the centenary of Bloomsday, 16 June 2004) are more effective because they move in a succession of authentic Dublin voices, delivering the words with humour and gusto – breaking the bounds of fiction to become, in effect, a play for voices, like Under Milk Wood.
Many artists, however, have striven to capture the essence of both Joyce's mundane street encounters and his characters' spiritual epiphanies. Matisse had a go at illustrating Ulysses, as did Mimmo Paladino. Sidney Nolan did a series of portraits of Joyce called The Wild Geese. Louis Le Brocquy's 22 prints collectively titled “Shadows” sought to evoke the landscape of Dubliners. The artist Michael Farrell made a series of paintings and drawings on the theme of Joyce meeting Picasso when they both lived as exiles in Paris (though it probably never happened). Most of these works are in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, which celebrated the 2004 centenary of Ulysses by exhibiting them together under the heading High Falutin Stuff.
The most considerable of the works on show were the illustrations of Richard Hamilton, the British artist whose surreal montage, Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? ushered in Pop Art. Hamilton has been illustrating Ulysses for 50 years. He first read the book in 1947 while doing National Service aged 25. He was, however, puzzled by something. “I thought of doing some etchings,” he told me in 2002. “But then I realised that nothing is described in Ulysses. There's no visual sense in the whole book. And yet I had an image of the book in my head – somehow Joyce had put it there without any of the usual textual devices. Just as everyone has the same picture of Leopold Bloom in their heads, although he's never described.” Interestingly, he said that the fragmentary structure of Ulysses, and its use of several different genres, voices and cultural outpourings, had a direct effect on his own montage work (so you could say that without Ulysses, there would be no Pop Art).
Now, a group of 20 artists reveal their individual responses to Joyce and his work, at the Francis Kyle Gallery in London. They were commissioned by Kyle himself, who has previously inspired works on themes in Yeats's “Byzantium”, T S Eliot's The Waste Land, Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu and Goethe's Italian Journey.
The variety and eclecticism of the works in Jumping for Joyce is astonishing. Oils, watercolours, moving wood sculptures and even china pots have been employed to bring the Joycean worldview to life. Many artworks consider Joyce's wider output beyond Ulysses. Frieda Hughes, the poet and daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, contributes a poem in homage to Joyce's collection Pomes Penyeach, together with a sequence of oil paintings on the theme of pennies (“pennies being tossed into fountains and fishponds for wishes as their purchasing power diminished over the years”).
Wendy Sutherland was inspired by the last lines of “The Dead”, the closing story in Dubliners, about the snow that's falling all over Ireland and falling on the grave of the young lover whom the new husband Gabriel can never eclipse in his wife's heart. Sutherland conjures a web – or is it an ice crystal? – from the word “snow” used a thousand times, set against a dark, transformed landscape.
Stephen Hubbard, the distinguished portraitist, takes a section from Finnegans Wake about a visit to Dublin's Phoenix Park Museum. The passage contains references to Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington and the warring soldiery at Waterloo. Hubbard has painted slices of existing paintings of the Duke and the Emperor onto four rotating marquetry pillars that turn to reveal a sign in the Museum saying, “Mind your boots goan in; Mind your coats goan out.” It looks mad, random, even perverse, but makes perfect sense as a representation of allusiveness in the mind of someone arriving at the museum and thinking about Empire while walking through the door.
One of the highlights is the work of Alain Senez, a Paris-born realist who almost won the Prix de Rome in 1968 when he was just 20 and picked up a rave review from Balthus. His triptych of paintings, Dublin, Trieste and Paris, is wonderful – three interiors, each suggestive of melancholy, regret and faded grandeur, each with a barely glimpsed exterior, a road or path or sea offering an escape. Paris is a beautiful rendering of Shakespeare & Company, the Paris bookshop owned by Sylvia Beach who first published Ulysses in 1922. But here the shop is a bar, in whose smoky gloom Joyce himself can be seen flanked by half-recognisable arty figures (is that James Stephens? Is that Oliver Gogarty?) as if at some Last Supper, just before his ascent to heaven on publication day.
Also worth special attention is Peter Milton whose huge, densely detailed etchings astonish with their virtuosity: Piranesi himself would be impressed by Milton's touch. His massive work Tracking Shot yokes together the inside of St Paul's cathedral in London and the Galleria in Milan, to show a 1920s film crew in action and a group of girls cowering from a wind-and-rain special- effects machine, while, in the middle, the fêted and worshipped James Joyce of the post-Ulysses years converses with his younger, struggling self. The meaning of the image remains inscrutable, but the scale and achievement of the etching seems a handsome tribute to the size of Joyce's own achievement.
Lots of artists head for Sandymount beach where Stephen Dedalus, in the early chapters, has his moody walk and speculates about consciousness. Images of dogs, luggage, exile and loneliness are everywhere. So are the cafés of Paris and Trieste where Joyce might have written, unlikely crucibles of genius. Molly Bloom is pictured in sluttish or Spanish mode, and appears to best effect in the large-scale pots of Claudia Clare, entitled Molly's Odyssey. Here she is given an updated identity as “Rebecca Chance”, a bestselling novelist, seen lying on a bed, trying on a petticoat and tapping at her laptop. And Anna Wimbledon, in a bravura sequence of oils with collage elements, succeeds in pulling myriad themes from Bloom's wanderings into a cohesive, and beautiful harmony.
Joyce, I suspect, would have been tickled pink by the multiplicity of interpretations his work has provoked – especially the ones that take liberties or refuse to be reverent. “The pity is,” he once said to his wife, Nora, “the public will demand and find a moral in my book, or worse, they may take it in some serious way and, on the honour of a gentleman, there is not a serious line in it.”
Jumping for Joyce: Contemporary Painters Revel in the World of James Joyce, Francis Kyle Gallery, London W1 (020 7499 6870) to 25 September