Bloom Time: Jumping for Joyce: Contemporary Painters Revel in the World of James Joyce, at the Francis Kyle Gallery

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

In a new London show, Jumping for Joyce, contemporary painters and sculptors bring the world of the Ulysses author vividly to life. John Walsh is astonished by the extraordinary variety of the works

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

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'