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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (of Letters)

There are many things that can prompt an artist to put aside the usual apparatus for some time and write: uncooperative weather, the horrors of a poorly drawn figure in someone else’s painting, irreverent kids, buffoonish patrons, an ordinary face with particularly fine nostrils, that one cloud that looked so much like a naval ship, a meal or a commission that did not agree with the artist’s constitution. The creative mind is largely helpless in the face of stimuli, and there is infinite stimuli, at all times, for the creative mind. Yet artists cannot be expected to respond to all that they feel through a sketch or a painting, a hasty poking and patting of a lump of clay. Moreover, as a look at their diaries, notes, and correspondences would suggest, provocations come in all degrees of pettiness and grandeur. Where many artists would not have wanted to immortalise as a history painting a physiological complaint of theirs, or an instance of nocturnal, romantic gallivanting, they may have wished, still, to record it, to make a note of it, confide it, if only to paper. At the same time, the process of work itself has been an impetus for many artists to pick up a pen. There is a bulk of prose by artists that supplements image-making, explains what they make and how they make it, expands on philosophies and sciences, formulas, mixtures, market trends.

Both words and pictures are components of language. The earliest known recording of expression is pictorial, and the earliest writing systems used pictograms. This is not to say that phonetic or verbal communication has not been around for as long. Language – whether phonetic, gestural, or visual – can be seen as instinctive, with writing and painting extended and lasting forms of what it communicates. The fact is, humans think in a combination of words and images, although some can be more verbally inclined and others more prone to visual thinking. The impressive variety of artists’ writings available to us for perusal offers insights into the relationship of text with image, and into the contexts in which different mannerisms of writing would be adopted by artists. Sometimes, their writings shed light on unprecedented facets of their lives and personalities; sometimes, it is only their art that is stripped bare. Then there are those whose writings can be reviewed independently of their art (should they be called poets first or painters? There will always be some contention on which prowess of theirs is superior).

Take William Blake, the Romantic patriarch. The Sick Rose, by Blake, is a trim and poignant piece of poetry and one does not need be acquainted with his legions of stocky angels and demons, slowly and with effort swirling in the universal scheme, to be moved by word pairings from the poem:

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Consider the choice of words – “sick rose”, “invisible worm”, “howling storm”, “crimson joy”, “dark secret love”. There is a nimbleness to them, a concise, pinching power, that makes me uncomfortably aware of how heavy and trudging his painted creations seem to be, in comparison. His words are airborne imps, his figures lumbering giants. I have never been able to connect both with the same Blake. Of course, in his case, there is no need for a comparison. Many would even feel that his art and writings are similar – sprinkled alike with silver mentions of angels, hung with large, innocent, medieval stars, moons, and suns. He remains, however, one of the few artists whose writings have won popularity of their own. Dante Gabriel Rossetti comes to mind, too, and William Morris. But the poetry of the former, despite being prolific, displays a dependence on his art – or, perhaps, it is the other way around. With Rossetti, it is hard to disentangle poetry from art, art from poetry, and either from a succession of long-necked, sad-eyed models/muses. And the latter, though to the art-breathing populace a master designer of things enchanting, was also a master story-teller and poet, and an important figure in the development of fantasy literature.

But most artists write and have written – or, in any case, their words have been received – in conjunction with art (their own or others’). I have attempted to present some of my favourite examples in a way that would allow a range of documents to be reviewed (I was led principally in this by fondness and amusement).

Revelatory (mostly epiphanies, welcome and unwelcome)

When I discovered, on reading Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, that Michelangelo never quite wanted to paint, let alone take on a surface as colossal and permanent as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I was – as you can imagine – devastated. I think every aspiring artist inherently sees Michelangelo’s iconic frescoes as a labour of love – the finest, most laboured-on labour of love the world has ever seen. Learning that the great Italian’s motives for painting the ceiling were a blend of insecurity and hauteur (Da Vinci seemed to be getting all the attention and something had to be done) can shake the still frail foundation of a young artist’s world. But all the better for it – you learn that heroes are human and beauty can be reached even with anger at the wheel (at times, only with anger at the wheel). In 1509, Michelangelo Buonarroti composed the following poem, voicing mostly his agony to a friend, Giovanni da Pistoia:

I’ve grown a goitre from this trap I’m in,
as cats do from foul water in Lombardy,
or some such place, wherever it may be.
My stomach’s almost up against my chin,

My beard points skyward, at my nape the store
of memory dangles, I’ve grown a harpy’s breast,
and from above, my dripping brush, for jest,
transforms my face into a mosaic floor.

And while my haunches press into my gut,
my ass serves as a steady counterweight.
My feet tread blindly somewhere down below.

In front I feel my skin stretched lengthwise, but
in back it crimps and folds. This is my state:
arched and indented like a Syrian bow.

Not to be trusted, though,
are the strange thoughts that through my mind now run,
for who can shoot straight through a crooked gun?

My painting’s dead. I’m done.
Giovanni, friend, remove my honour’s taint,
I’m not in a good place, I cannot paint.

The translation from the Italian text, by Joel Agee, reveals not only an accessible side to the Renaissance demi-god, but shows how a creative mind can make the most of a tedious affair. The analogies employed are startling, rich, imaginative. Michelangelo compares his face to “a mosaic floor”, his arched body to “a Syrian bow”. He is weary and brutally honest. “I cannot paint”, he declares. I wonder if he could see, then, perched on a scaffolding, growing a goitre, that five hundred years later, throngs of people would be trying to take forbidden pictures of his life’s bane, their beards and chins pointing skyward like his own.

A text abundantly dotted with epiphanies is the journal of Eugène Delacroix – compiled from notebooks and diaries the artist kept from 1822 till his death in 1863. A selection of the original prose, translated from the French by Lucy Norton (for Phaidon), takes us to the heart of French Romanticism, through gilded museums standing firm amidst flux, through ateliers of Delacroix’s contemporaries, through Morocco and Spain. But, most importantly, it takes us through the mind of an exceptional painter – a place where Raphael and Rubens sit enthroned, ideas for paintings gambol about, twangs of heartbreak follow a percussion of flirtations, regrets and reprimands dine together with exultations. “My keenest wish is to remember that I am writing only for myself,” begins the painter, “this will keep me truthful, I hope, and it will do me good.” Ensuing entries reinforce this statement. Delacroix chides himself repeatedly for not being as disciplined as the likes of Michelangelo – who, for all we know, must have chided himself for being too disciplined –

“How can you do great work when you are always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude. If your life is well ordered your health will not suffer.”

There are notations of a less noble nature, alongside these. An entry with all the promise of great, painterly rumination suddenly veers off to noses that irk the artist. “It is an old weakness of mine,” he writes, “to think a turned-up nose one of nature’s shortcomings and a straight one a compensation for many defects. In point of fact, snub-noses are ugly things.” But he never shuts himself to more sanctifying visitations. He compares painting with writing, observing how each is perceived by the public – “When I have painted a fine picture I have not given expression to a thought! That is what they say. What fools people are! They would strip painting of all its advantages. A writer has to say almost everything in order to make himself understood, but in painting it is as if some mysterious bridge were set up between the spirit of the persons in the picture and the beholder.” He continues, “Hence, grosser minds are more easily moved by writers than by painters or musicians.” Here, he echoes Da Vinci who, in his notebooks, considers painting superior to poetry, albeit for the very reason that Delacroix attributes to writing’s wider acceptance – that most minds (“grosser minds”) are drawn to it. “Undoubtedly painting being by a long way the more intelligible and beautiful, will please most,” claims Da Vinci.

There is one other document in the annals of art history that merits mention because of its eccentricity. It is eccentric even by artistic standards. For the final two years of his life (1554-1556), Italian Mannerist painter Jacopo Pontormo maintained a diary in which he painstakingly listed all his meals and all his ailments, big and small. The diary reads more like a menu, or a hypochondriac’s litany to a physician –

“On the 11th of March 1554, on Sunday morning, I ate lunch with Bronzino – chicken and veal – and felt well (it is true that I was in bed when he came for me at home. It was quite late and upon getting up I felt swollen and full. It was a very beautiful day). In the evening I ate a bit of roasted dry meat which made me thirsty.
Monday evening I ate a cabbage and an omelette.
Tuesday evening I ate one half of the head of a kid and soup.
Wednesday evening I had the other half, fried, and a pretty big helping of zibibbo grapes, and 5 quattrini of bread, and capers in salad.
Thursday morning I felt a dizziness that lasted all day; and even after (it passed) I still felt bad and my head was weak.
Thursday evening, a soup of good mutton and salad of goat’s beard.
Friday evening, salad of goat’s beard and two eggs in an omelette.’

This goes on for a number of weeks, scantily interspersed with references to Bronzino, and just a few other living souls. One Sunday, Pontormo hides even from Bronzino, who comes to visit him, and from another friend who comes knocking the same day – “15th Sunday Bronzino knocked at my door and then during the day Daniello; I don’t know what they wanted.” The diary provides not only a rather thorough introduction to 16th century Florentine gastronomy but some understanding of the reclusive artist as well. The years this unusual diary was kept were also the years Pontormo was working on frescoes for San Lorenzo, a commission that would turn out to be his last. The frescoes, never finished, were lost during a later renovation of the church. But the artist’s dedication to the undertaking is evident from the original manuscript of his journal, where tiny, marginal drawings of figures from his compositions illuminate the dietary recital. If his writings display neurosis, it is not without a hint of his genius.

Exploratory (how art is made, and sometimes why)

From treatises on painting and colour to manifestos on the need for a certain kind of art, to letters chronicling the births or evolutions of various works, artists have left us many clues to comprehending and interpreting visual creation. A collection of clues that I find particularly fascinating is Paul Klee’s handwritten notes for lectures he delivered at Bauhaus from 1921 onward. First edited and published in 1925 by Walter Gropius as a handbook for Bauhaus students, the notes were translated into English by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy and republished in 1953 as Pedagogical Sketchbook. Packed with small, neat diagrams illustrating Klee’s terse statements, the sketchbook can be read as a strange, mathematical ode to the modern concepts of line, structure, and dimensionality –

“An active line on a walk, moving freely, without a goal. A walk for a walk’s sake. The mobility agent is a point, shifting its position forward.”

Accompanying the opening statement is a freely drawn line, a lovely little flourish, which then morphs into squiggles and snags, duplicates, truncates, angulates. Klee’s commentary continues – “The same line, accompanied by complementary forms”, “The same line, circumscribing itself”, “An active line, limited in its movements by fixed points”. The numerical drawings are as much a part of the text as Klee’s polite, minimal prose, defrocking the line of all its ceremonial trappings and presenting it in its essential neutrality and infinity.

But art can be explained with both reticence and eloquence. South African painter Marlene Dumas frequently introspects about her work, and art in general, through poems and frank, pensive passages. These have been compiled by Dumas as Sweet Nothings: Notes and Texts (1982-2014), and published by D.A.P./Walter Konig. Among my favourites from her writings is the poem Woman and Painting, written in 1993. The following fragments from it make me a reader and a participator at once (a quality of Dumas’ lucid, hyper-conscious style) –

I paint because I am a woman.
(It’s a logical necessity.)
If painting is female and insanity is a female malady, then all women painters are mad and all male painters are women.

I paint because I am a religious woman.
(I believe in eternity.)
Painting doesn’t freeze time. It circulates and recycles time like a wheel that turns. Those who were first might well be last.

Painting is a very slow art. It doesn’t travel with the speed of light. That’s why dead painters shine so bright.
It’s okay to be the second sex.
It’s okay to be second best.
Painting is not a progressive activity.

I paint because I am an old-fashioned woman.
(I believe in witchcraft.)
I don’t have Freudian hang-ups. A brush does not remind me of a phallic symbol. If anything, the domestic aspect of a painter’s studio (being “locked up” in a room) reminds me a bit of the housewife with her broom. If you’re a witch you will still know how to use it. Otherwise it is obvious that you’ll prefer the vacuum cleaner.

I paint because I am a dirty woman.
(Painting is a messy business.)
It cannot ever be a pure conceptual medium. The more “conceptual” or cleaner the art, the more the head can be separated from the body, and the more the labour can be done by others. Painting is the only manual labour I do.

Defamatory (feuds, allegations, feuds)

Artists have been known to scoff at each other’s creations. Indeed, there would hardly be any art if scorn and subversion were not patron deities of the profession. Delacroix pshawed the “inaccuracy” of Girodet’s drawing, Monet famously said of the French Realists that they were “blind idiots” who wanted to “see everything clearly, even through the fog”, and the Pre-Raphaelites liked calling Joshua Reynolds (British portraitist and founder of the Royal Academy of Arts) “Sir Sloshua” because, well, his paintings were slosh. But there was no one who relished a good feud as much as James McNeill Whistler. Whistler, who painted a caricature of one of his former patrons as a glaring, anthropomorphic, piano-playing peacock because they had quarrelled, also authored the book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. The book, published in 1890, carries an account of Whistler’s historic lawsuit against art critic John Ruskin, padded with further pronouncements against him and others who were myopic enough to engage in verbal duels with the painter. Oscar Wilde was one of these – poet and writer, rival wit, and once a friend of Whistler’s. The book contains a record of their epistolary bantering, with Whistler’s bristling –

“What has Oscar in common with Art? Except that he dines at our tables and picks from our platters the plums for the pudding he peddles in the provinces. Oscar – the amiable, irresponsible, esurient Oscar – with no more sense of a picture than of the fit of a coat, has the courage of the opinions…of others!”

But for artists working today, to write is no longer a choice, or a matter of being inspired enough or incensed enough. Words have become a requisite for making and exhibiting art. Individual artist statements, curatorial notes, meaningful or catchy titles, catalogues, e-catalogues, are all central to the daunting paraphernalia of contemporary art. Was Joseph Kosuth speaking for most of us when he gave us definitions of words in place of images? Is Jenny Holzer being prophetic when she projects aphorisms onto buildings and monuments? Is Damien Hirst’s real art the poetic titles he gives his works – The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything? The fact that words are being increasingly assimilated into art as visual vocabulary can hint at two things – we are embracing writing as a more immediate, more caustic, more honest technology, or we are a sceptical generation, trying desperately to reattach meaning to words we have lost all faith in.

Dua Abbas Rizvi is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan

 

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