Samuel Beckett is best known for his perennially reprised 1953 play "Waiting for Godot," about two men expecting someone who never arrives. But there is far more in the Irish Nobel laureate's canon, and as a new show at the Pompidou Center in Paris sets out to prove, his influence on other artists has been profound. "Samuel Beckett" (through June 25), explores the writer as a lasting cultural force by presenting an excellent mix of memorabilia and portraits of him, as well as works inspired by him. While the pieces themselves are individually powerful, the exhibit as a whole fails to explain them or how they connect to Beckett, who died in Paris in 1989. Intentionally or not, the show is as abstract as the author himself.
Only by reading into the exhibit's brief, esoteric descriptions—or by touring with a curator—can viewers fully grasp the contours of Beckett's life. Born in 1906, he was raised a Protestant in the well-to-do Dublin suburb of Foxrock. He studied French, Italian and English at Trinity College in the 1920s, and went on to teach English at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he met his compatriot James Joyce; a sentimentally preserved menu from the restaurant where they first met is on view. Beckett worked as Joyce's secretary and helped him research "Finnegans Wake." Sylvia Beach, proprietor of the English-language bookshop Shakespeare & Co. on the Left Bank, published Beckett's first work, an essay on Joyce's writing. The two writers eventually fell out after Beckett rejected the amorous advances of Joyce's daughter, Lucia, a schizophrenic who was later institutionalized.
After a stint teaching in Dublin and traveling through Europe, Beckett settled in Paris, and in 1938 published his first novel, "Murphy"—just one of the hand-written manuscripts on display at the Pompidou. They show his precise way of working: tiny, clean script in pen, mostly on the right-hand pages of notebooks, with occasional doodles or geometric drawings on the left.
Beckett's breakthrough came with "Waiting for Godot," which he originally wrote in French. At first, the play was seen as purposefully obtuse; when asked to explain it, the author would respond, "It means what it says." Audience reaction was tentative at best. But eventually critic Harold Hobson of the London Sunday Times embraced it, creating a classic. The exhibit spotlights Beckett's theatrical works, including several videos of rehearsals and productions.
A surprising number of contemporary artists have drawn on Beckett's writing, including Robert Motherwell, Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman and Dublin-born Sean Scully, all on show. Among the most stirring is a pair of Scully's giant colorful geometric paintings, "Falling Wrong" from 1985 and "Beckett" from 2006, which are patchworks of vibrant squares and rectangles. Also on display are two ocher landscapes painted by Beckett's friend Henri Hayden, with whom, co-curator Natalie Léger explains, the writer and his future wife hid from the Gestapo in Provence after Beckett joined the French Resistance during the second world war.
The show also explores Beckett's inspirations—as well as influences on others—in film or video. Clips of Charlie Chaplin films echo in the bowler-hatted bums of "Godot," and a 1965 Beckett-directed silent short starring Buster Keaton, called "Film," in which Keaton tries to avoid being seen, addresses one of Beckett's favorite themes: perception and being. Little of this, however, can be understood without a guide.
Ironically, none of the films shows Beckett himself, who was notoriously private: he married in secret, did not attend his own Nobel Prize ceremony and never allowed himself to be filmed. The closest viewers can come to experiencing the writer firsthand is a three-minute audio recording of him reading an unidentified text in his raspy lyrical voice, which plays on a small speaker near the exit. "Our goal is to give visitors the desire to read Beckett, to discover him," says Marie-Anne Alphant, who co-curated the exhibit. Once they do, they might begin to understand this show.