In Their Own Words: Letters from Artists

This is a post published back in July at Read Watch Play for their #artread month. Since I have a new-ish blog that needs posts, I thought I would publish it on my own site.

Figure i: Ophelia, John Everett Millais, 1851–1852
Figure i: Ophelia, John Everett Millais, 1851–1852

I guess I’m an art snob. I love beauty more than chocolate, wax lyrical about votive cups from long gone civilizations and enjoy a good arthouse movie, even if factually inaccurate, provided it’s visually authentic (I recommend Desperate Romantics: apart from Aiden Turner’s smouldering looks that match any Darcy, it has a great scene depicting how Millais created this Ophelia painting). Of course, simply mentioning art in Australian society can leave you open to be called an elite (sometimes better known as a chardonnay socialist) but I hasten to add that not only am I drinking a hearty red as I write this post, but that I like sport as much as the next Aussie. However, sport is my (couch potato) leisure; art is a passion.

I have to admit that I don’t read books on art that often, possibly because, as a visual artist, I tend to get my inspirations directly, through visual media (the Roland Collection of art films and Taschen books are quick sources). What I do read is either history of art and design, mainly for work purposes; or philosophy of art, so as to understand what art and creativity really are – more about that later. But for insight into artists’ themselves and how they get through life, I find works direct from the horse’s mouth to be as good as anything: that is, the letters, memoirs and manifestos of the artists themselves. In their own words, you can find fascinating insights into the creative personality, as well as glimpses of the often daily striving that accompany bringing an artwork into the world.

Michelangelo, for instance, was a prodigious writer. Apart from over 300 sonnets, he composed almost 500 letters that document his endless domestic struggles with his family, his endless spiritual struggle with God, and his endless personal struggles within himself and his intense nature. By contrast, he wrote little about his work, yet that struggle must’ve been the impetus behind a creative force that he expended almost every day of his very long life.

Figure ii: Last Judgement, detail, 1537-1541
Figure ii: Last Judgement, detail, 1537-1541

Take love: love, he said, is “a fire in which my whole being burns”. For him, love is all-consuming and goes hand in hand with suffering. You just have to look at his Pietas, here and here, or read his poems, to see that this is not just poetic hyperbole, be it spiritual or temporal love. All his works embody this intensity: in this detail from the Last Judgement he supposedly depicts himself as a flayed skin. Michelangelo died six days before his 90th birthday, still in his studio.

By contrast, Vincent van Gogh’s creative output spanned only about ten years, but he also had an intense vitality that can be seen in both his fervent brushstrokes and 800-odd letters. We tend to think of him as a bit of a madman – “I put my heart and soul into my work, and I have lost my mind in the process” is a famous quote of his.

Van Gogh Self-portrait 1887
Van Gogh Self-portrait 1887

However, his letters paint quite a different picture. Yes, his personality comes across as difficult and he could be a bit of a boor in public, but his writing also reveals a perceptive and articulate mind. And he had a quite an appetite for reading, everything from the Bible to Shakespeare and beyond –

 “… my God, how beautiful Shakespeare is, who else is as mysterious as he is; his language and method are like a brush trembling with excitement and ecstasy”,

which is exactly how his own brushstrokes look. But then he goes on to say: “… but one must learn to read, just as one must learn to see and learn to live.”

Just the message that literacy programs are trying to get across. You can read van Gogh’s whole letter here.

That Virginia Woolf’s letters reveal an acute critical faculty would surprise no one who knows her works; nor that she could be arch and indiscrete about her friends and contemporaries. But it’s her fragile sensitivity that really touched me, especially her admission of feeling excruciatingly embarrassed the first time her books were published. I could really relate to the way she felt so vulnerable, so exposed by this first public display of her work, having had a similar experience myself with my first art exhibition, where I hardly dared enter the gallery while everyone was looking at my works. Not that I put myself in her class of artist, of course.

Few artists, though, are quite the misunderstood genius that popular myth would have them. It’s a bit of a stereotype left over from 19th century, really. Nor is personal trauma necessarily a source of creativity (when my marriage broke down, a fellow artist commiserated. And then said “but it’s great for the art, isn’t it!”). In fact, it was van Gogh’s mental illness that stopped him from painting. But there is always something of a paradox in creativity (this is the basis of my doctoral thesis), which may account for there being something paradoxical about artists. Such as a split between an artist’s perceived outer life, the one on public display, and their inner one, the source of their creativity. (People can have quite an idealistic expectations of their favourite artist and don’t like to see those feet of clay). Many great artists – da Vinci, Paul Klee, Magritte, Novalis – have stated in various ways that it’s the task of the artist to reveal the reality behind visible things. This is where their letters can be deeply revealing of what is perhaps hidden about themselves.

In this respect, I can find films about artists disappointing, because they usually focus on their love lives rather than their work. I understand that two hours of gazing at a canvas with an occasional dab with the brush doesn’t make for great cinema, but artist romances tend to be a bit like everyone else’s, unless you’re van Gogh. That’s why for real insights, I prefer their own words.

Letters show that many great artists are quite stable personalities who can be highly articulate about their thought processes, but for the real nitty-gritty about their creativity, you usually have to go to their notebooks or manifestos. The first can give you great context for all those famous quotes you can find at places such as Good Reads, but be impenetrable to the casual reader. Likewise, artists public manifestos are often more political statements. Two books I myself use are Goethe’s Theory of Colour, which is more of a guide to a phenomenological experience of colour; and Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane, which is very technical. If you do tackle them I advise that you take brush and paint, or charcoal, and actually try out what they are theorizing about, rather than trying to grasp at it conceptually, which can be tedious. But there is a more accessible option these days: you can watch Kandinsky at work. Or, if you want something a little freer, try the Dada approach.

Then you can sit back and read about how your Self is interacting with your artwork, with philosopher/artist Michael Krausz who once had a revelation while viewing a friend’s paintings, which turned him into painter; or reflect on the experience of the experience of creating, with some philosophically-inclined ponderings by artist of the mind,  John Dewey

Then you might discover, like Paul Klee, that suddenly, you have a vocation as a painter:

“Color has taken hold of me; no longer do I have to chase after it. I know that it has hold of me forever. That is the significance of this blessed moment. Color and I are one. I am a painter.”  

Paul Klee (1879-1940)

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