In a sense, all portraits are self-portraits. If drawn from observation, the work of art is a contract between the object of perception and the maker of image; maker often dominating. Today when we gaze at a portrait or figure painting executed by a master, the identity of the model disappears behind the grandeur of the artist’s persona, position and practice. The most famous painting of the world, Mona Lisa, in actuality the portraiture of a living being, is now recognized being a canvas by Leonardo da Vinci; not many are familiar with the name of Madam Lisa Giocondo, who posed for the painting.
In order to understand a work of art, one needs to have knowledge of the artist’s life. Several works, created during a movement, under a school, following an ideology, conveying a strong concern, communicating social and political concerns, have another dimension – necessary to grasp the work. Personal, private and biographical details provide clues to comprehend structure, context, and connections of an art work. Produced in the solitude of studio, the work unfolds its multiple folds once viewed through the lens of the maker’s personality.
Probably the earliest attempt to discuss artists, rather than artworks, is the two volume Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574). These accounts of artists are full of information, analysis, comparison and amusing anecdotes – possible for a person who was closely linked to artists. One example. Discussing Paolo Uccello’s relationship with his patron, the abbot, Vasari quotes the painter’s comments/complaints: “What with his cheese pies and his cheese soups, he’s stuffed me so full of cheese that I’m frightened they’ll use me to make glue. If he went on any more I wouldn’t be Paolo Uccello, I’d be pure cheese”.
Apart from these delightful details, the book is an important document to understand the process, methods and imagery of the artists, and their interaction with their contemporaries, patrons and general society. There have been numerous books on artists, mostly biographies – both authentic and unauthorised – which help to construct the aura of an artist. In addition to these, especially in present day discourse, we have some other genres – not part of orthodox art history or conventional art criticism, but as essential and crucial. Even more in some instances.
Autobiography to start with. A number of artists, including Marc Chagall, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dali, George Grosz, Andy Warhol, Larry Rivers, Judy Chicago, David Hockney, R. B. Kitaj, Eric Fischl, Satish Gujral, B. C. Sanyal and more have published their autobiographies. Significant and useful to observe their works in a new light.
The other means to glimpse an artist’s psyche is the letters sent to fellow professionals, family, friends, dealers, writers etc. These collections can also be baptised ‘autobiography’ since one can draw portrait of an artist through these texts. The most celebrated name in this format is Vincent van Gogh, but letters of Eugene Delacroix, Paul Cezanne, Camille Pissarro, Kathe Kollwitz are also enlightening in terms of their clarity of prose and their passionate approach.
In our times, when letters are reduced to emails and mobile messages, the artists are expressing their views through interviews. Various publications contain these exchanges of modern and contemporary artists belonging to every part of the globe. When we read those lines, we rekindle the voice of the makers while seeking to comprehend their productions (here one includes artists’ statements too).
The present issue of Art Now Pakistan is also a way to approach artworks through the lives of artists, or the other way around. Focusing on connections between life and art, the question still persists; do we need to know the personal history of a painter to appreciate a canvas, or this information may mar our perception – hence appreciation of an art piece.
Queries like these are dealt with in Essays, and are reflected in the Profile and Interview sections, along with Photo-essay of artists in their studios rendered by Manisha Gera Baswani. Whether studios or private life, one finds a harmony – or a paradox; a creative individual can be exemplary messy and rough, but his/her work space or life may be entirely in order; or an artist who appears in much control in his/her work habits and correct in his/her life pattern, may produce art of scandalous nature. A situation that reminds of Umberto Eco’s observation: “With some great men, it was their writing that was salacious and their lives virtuous, but with others their writing was virtuous and their lives salacious”.