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ARTS : EXHIBITIONS : Star of Joyce's firmament

She was a good friend of James Joyce and illustrated 'Finnegans Wake'. But the late Stella Steyn never became famous. Now she has a new show; and she's not the only Irish woman in London

Tim Hilton
Saturday 06 July 1996 23:02 BST

It's always pleasant to come across a forgotten artist and for me the rediscovery of Stella Steyn is exciting too, for it turns out that this Irish woman was a friend of James Joyce and made illustrations for Finnegans Wake. Those who love and study Joyce's book will know how important it is to find her. For she did her work at Joyce's instigation and perhaps under his tutelage. Most people think that Finnegans Wake cannot be illustrated. Joyce thought differently, and here is the artist he chose to interpret his writing.

Steyn (pronounced Stein) doesn't appear in Richard Ellmann's mighty biography, though he did his best to track down and interview everyone who had known Joyce. Nor is she mentioned in any of the histories of modern Irish art. But she wasn't a bad artist - even, on occasion, a rather good one, possessing deftness, some self-mockery, a firm sense of design and a nice touch. So thanks are due to the Belgrave Gallery for a representative selection of her work and for publishing a part of her previously unknown autobiography.

She was born in Dublin in 1907. Her family, of Russian extraction, had been in Ireland since the 1870s. They seem to have been a jolly lot. Stella was sent to the Dublin art school and her mother encouraged her fancy artistic clothes, black ringlets and so on. Her mother also helped her go to Paris as soon as she graduated. This was in 1926. Soon she was close to the Joyce family and met people in the writer's circle, including Sylvia Beach, the first publisher of Ulysses, and Samuel Beckett, who was just one year her senior. Later on Steyn was unforthcoming about Beckett, but we can say that they shared the aesthetic problems of young people who followed Joyce to his Parisian exile.

Most of the painting from this stage in her career has disappeared, but from photographs I would say that it belonged to non-cubist Parisian modernism. Influences were Chagall, Bonnard and Pascin. Steyn was keen on printmaking. She drew scenes of French life in Toulon and Marseilles as well as Paris, then transferred her material to lithographic stones and copper plates. Soon she began to appear in magazines, and quite rapidly established herself as a professional artist. At the same time, though, she felt she was a beginner and still attended Paris academies.

Steyn's occasional companion at these life classes was Lucia, Joyce's tragically schizophrenic daughter. With Beckett, to whom Lucia was attracted, they made up a tense but youthful threesome, all now a part of the Joyce family. Joyce asked Stella to do some lithographs and etchings for the third instalment of Finnegans Wake, currently being published in the avant- garde magazine transition. He read this "Anna-Livia Plurabelle" section to her. "I am afraid I understood nothing," says the memoir. However (Steyn goes on), Joyce persevered. He told her to listen to the musical notes of his book's language and explained who Anna Livia was, a Dublin publican's wife, also the spirit of the Liffey and furthermore of all regeneration in death and life.

Today, how should we approach Finnegans Wake? It's not incomprehensible gobbledygook, as people sometimes imagine. I think you need two copies. Faber publish a paperback at pounds 6.99. You should be naked and read it in bed with someone you like: currently I am into the Wake with my son, Daniel Hilton of Class 5, for I am fearful that bourgeois attitudes may enter his growing mind. It's best to have lots of wine to hand, preferably a frizzante from the Trieste region, singing is appropriate and maybe someone could bring a musical instrument. A zither is good.

Thus equipped, one can begin to appreciate the plashiness, the banded and brecciated concretions, the humour and (I believe) the beautifully familial and public-houseish atmosphere of the "Anna Livia Plurabelle" section. However, I do think that Finnegans Wake is beyond the reach of visual art, just as its text is beyond translation into French. Joyce's universalist ambitions included both these projects. Samuel Beckett was working on a French version of "Anna Livia Plurabelle" at just the same time when Stella Steyn was trying to comprehend enough of the text to provide its illustrations. Beckett's French is in its way a triumph, and years later would lead to his L'innomable. Steyn could not compete with literary art of this high order.

While she did a couple of nice pictures, especially Anna Livia Legging a Jig, Steyn's vision of the Wake too much resembles work for magazines. Yet who in Paris could have responded to Joyce's desire for a picture of his creation? I do not think that Stella failed, only that she had been asked to perform the impossible. However, she may have been conscious of the failure. Though she was doing well with such magazines as the Bystander Steyn had an impulse to join the Bauhaus. She could hardly have made the decision to go to study at its centre at Dessau without, as it were, cancelling all her previous inspiration. Her nearly abstract drawings and collages from Germany are competent to a degree, but I do not find them moving. And she could not build on them because it was 1931, and she feared future German politics.

The rest of Steyn's story, so far as we know it, is less dramatic. Escaping from Germany, she met David Ross, a modern-language chap who was later Professor of French at Birkbeck College. They married in 1938 and lived in Hampstead and Bloomsbury. They had no children. Stella died at their home in Tavistock Square in 1987. It looks as though she had given up art long before that time, though there are records of pictures at the Royal Academy up to 1959 and in 1961 she was in the Liverpool John Moores exhibition.

Why is Steyn so obscure? We might compare Steyn's career with other young Irish women of her generation who went to Paris from Dublin. I had no idea that there was so many of them, but the exhibition at the Michael Parkin Gallery suggests that Montparnasse was festooned with such girls. "Andre Lhote and his Friends" is about the little academy that this cubist painter ran in the 1920s and 30s until the threat of the Second World War. Lhote was a good painter and so was his friend Jean Marchand, also well-represented by Parkin. But I remember les irlandaises. Mainie Jellett, Evie Hone, May Guinness, Norah McGuinness, Elizabeth Rivers all studied with Lhote. My theory is that they came from Anglo-Irish backgrounds and that, since there was no Irish middle class to teach them good manners, they could do as they wished. Their parents went on the booze and had mad relations with horses. The daughters went to Paris to paint. And thus is - or was - a part of Irish life.

! Stella Steyn: Belgrave Gallery, NW3 (0171 722 5150); 'Andre Lhoto and Friends': Michael Parkin Gallery, SW1 (0171 235 8144); both shows to 19 Jul.

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