Artists tend to be mystified, put on a loftier pedestal. They might be seen as superior beings with the sole purpose of enlightening others with their exceptional vision of the world. Because it would be crazy to think that someone capable of producing such beauty could be equal to poor, little us, right?
It’s a bad habit we frequently fall into in budding romantic relationships. How does someone so perfect exist? Why would such a gorgeous creature choose me? In our contemporary society, this comparison of ourselves to others is becoming way too common, not to mention self-defeating.
We can’t blame it all on an unconscious need to be submissive to a higher figure, like Freud theorised in his book The Future of an Illusion. Sometimes artists would gladly place themselves in the position of messiahs. For example, when the French poet Jean Mauréas wrote the manifesto for the Symbolism movement in 1886, he described the artist as “the only person able to reveal the sensible part of ideas.”
And there it is. That infamous, profound question, “What is the purpose of art?”, which still triggers PTSD in any student broaching courses on art theory in school. In this fascinating, perhaps traumatising, line of thinking, we might indeed frequently consider the artist as the standard bearer of truth, the craftsman of Beauty. But what if we regarded artists merely as human beings? What if we mirrored this inquiry of “what is the role of the artist?” with our own personal-yet-universal methods of self-questioning?
We wouldn’t be debating whether or not art is a path to understanding. We could rather seek wisdom at the source — the artists — by remembering that, at the end of the day, they were simply people like us.
In the words of the American songwriter and poet Chad Sugg, “the basis for figuring it all out is throwing it all away and realizing that the words, nothing and everything, were both made up by men as lost as the best of us.” (This Year and How to Survive, 2011)
When developing an interest in art history, it doesn’t take too much digging to get exposed to an artist’s daily life. Through letters, journals and sketches, it’s just there — the fact that just like us they were pondering what to eat for dinner each night and forced to pay the bills at the end of every month.
You’ve probably heard how Vincent van Gogh would try to exchange his paintings for food. He was often lacking and often saw his offers denied. Chances are your initial reaction would be, “Oh! If only that person knew the worth of what had been dangled before them!” Yet that’s still puffing up Van Gogh’s post-humous greatness over the fact that the Dutch artist was simply trying to survive in this world by any means necessary.
On one hand, it’s unfair to reduce Van Gogh to that one anecdote, just as unfair as equating him only with his mental illness. But on the other hand, there is a very blurry line between the artist’s personal life and body of work. In this case, we do need those fragments of Van Gogh’s intimate history to break that concrete line between the artist as an artist and the artist as mere flesh and bone. We can see him as an equal, and can better reflect on him, his art and even ourselves.
One of Van Gogh’s finest works is his Olive Trees series, landscapes he painted while admitted to the Saint-Paul asylum. At first glance, there is a striking symbolism in the contrast of a man depicting nature and the outside world while being “stuck” inside an institution and “locked” in a struggle with his inner self. But it would be a misunderstanding to look at it in a melodramatic way.
To Van Gogh, the olive trees, and all of creation, were signs of hope. In a letter to his brother Theo he described it all as the greatest representation of the circle of life, comparing the inevitable duality of happiness and unhappiness with the inevitable duality of birth and death.
By adding, “Even faced with an illness that breaks me up and frightens me, that belief is unshaken,” Van Gogh points out that whenever we feel trapped or cornered, our best option is to find a way to look outwardly at what is holding us captive. For if any markings of faith and optimism are to be found, they are surely out there.
Van Gogh may indeed be a depends-which-end-of-the-telescope-you’re-looking-through case that might strike you more if you’ve ever struggled with finances or mental illness. If, hopefully, you never have, then the “If only that person knew what that painting would be worth!” attitude is the one you’ll naturally lean towards.
Because, while sadly very commonplace, money and health problems aren’t universal problems. We need to find a telescope with only one end (a very useless navigational device, but an excellent metaphor). For a broader example, let’s pick at those thoughts we all share in bed before drifting off to sleep at night. Am I where I should be in life? Do I really want this path I’m on? Where will it lead me?
We’ve all experienced such insomnia-driven introspection, which often doesn’t dissipate with the return of the sun to the sky. As confusing as those times are, they necessarily highlight what is probably the most human philosophical struggle out there: finding our voice and proper direction in this world.
We might find ourselves split between our own desires and others’ demands of us. This parallel extends to the artist in search of his or her own style and subject matter, which for a painter is a matter of feast or famine. One of the most explicit examples of surmounting this task can be drawn from the career of the nineteenth-century French painter Henri Fantin-Latour. Best known for a group portrait featuring his contemporaries, men like Baudelaire, Manet and Rimbaud, he had a particularly noteworthy struggle toward creative independence.
Fantin-Latour’s soul was a somewhat romantic one, at a time when wild, dreamy reveries could only be presented by ethereal Symbolism, which didn’t sell very well. He set aside a good deal of his own creative fire to pander to the straight-laced tastes of the art market. The only thing more frustrating than regarding the works of an artist barred from expressing what really lingers inside, is being the artist unable to unabashedly use their voice.
Throughout his career, Fantin-Latour produced around a hundred still-lifes, of fruits and flowers and dainty things. As delightful as they might be, they are restrained, subdued and not exactly what might be expected from such a passionate spirit. But those still-lifes sold, particularly well in England. Like a doll with a pull-string, Fantin-Latour was able to earn his daily bread from his craft, but only by going about it in an automated, stifled, pleasing-to-the-masses sort of way.
Once again, our idealistic expectations might start showing. Notions of starving but true painters that would prioritise art over everything, even sufficient funds. Is Fantin-Latour a bad artist for settling and denying his own taste to ensure he could live comfortably? While hard-pressed artists sustaining themselves on creativity only conjure up fascinating bohemian imagery, reality often doesn’t allow for such poetry.
Pulled off his elevated podium, can’t we find grace and lyricism in Fantin-Latour’s dilemma? In the struggles and obstacles and growing pains we all encounter while figuring out who we are?
Don’t worry, his story has a happy ending. Fantin-Latour eventually took a stand for the sake of his career, declaring in 1899, “I’m not doing flowers anymore. I may, thanks to heaven, do what I please.”
He then devoted his talent to a more allegorical, unearthly art form that better suited his aesthetic and aspirations. When we meet Fantin-Latour, the man behind the artist, his work suddenly becomes a warm and reassuring reminder that during the journey to our goals, our most authentic selves, we might have to compromise with life along the way. And that is fine, as long as we end up where we want to be.
By looking at the person behind the pictures, by seeing past their portfolios to glare directly at them, we can draw lines between their artistic progress with our own duties of self-discovery. These correlations should help us grasp that the ordeal of being human is as alluring as Art itself.
Sources: Edwards, Cliff, Van Gogh and God: A Creative Spiritual Quest, 1989
Kahn, Gustave, Fantin-Latour, 1926
L’Objet d’art, issue no. 104, September 2016