We are all composites of our life experiences. These experiences of life not only shape us as individuals but also resonate in our professional lives. Especially when it comes to the creative thinkers and artists who are deeply affected by their surroundings and personal life, which are then either overtly or covertly reflected in their artistic narratives.
Delving into the biographies of artists, historically, we find references that although artists were patronized by people who wielded great influence such as the Church that commissioned art for its own propagandist motives among others, they were still able to navigate between this politics of power and create work that allowed their individuality and vision to shine through. Many patrons may have chosen artists for their technical virtuosity, deeming them suitable for creating subject matter that would propagate their agendas but when it came to putting them down on a panel or as a fresco or even in oil, many artists were still able to sidestep these limitations and innovate to create timeless works. One of Caravaggio’s paintings was declined twice by the Church because it did not adhere to the norms of the church. Unperturbed and unfazed by rejection, Caravaggio continued to pursue his personal style with dogged determination and in retrospect when we look at his paintings, not only are they moving as works of art but reveal a great deal about his personal life. In Caravaggio’s case his unique depiction of male figures and their physiognomy alluded to his homosexuality. For example, in The Supper at Emmaus if the spectator views the work without knowing the background of the painting, then he or she might not be able to recognize the main subject as male or female despite the fact that the image is of Christ. Therefore, the folds of the body, the overt sexuality of his biblical characters did overtly reveal information about Caravaggio’s inclination towards other men.
During late 19th century and early 20th century when Modern art became the rage, artists began a different kind of struggle with narrative, one that searched for subjectivity and meaning within oneself rather than merely focusing mimicking nature. Artists like Toulous Lautrec, Manet and Modigliani strived to depict the underbelly of Parisian society in all its glory and its reality. The era of presenting grandiose historical narratives at Salons was about to come to an end and they became sites where painterly depictions of State propaganda were contested by scathing commentary on society. The artists emerged as the bohemian who lived by his own rules and flouted the norms of society. This of course came at a price and many artists suffered grave financial, psychological and health related problems. Modigliani continued to paint his sweetheart despite his dire circumstances. Vincent Van Gogh was in many relationships and fought not just with poverty but with mental health, anxiety, depression and excessive use of alcohol. The infamous incident where he cut off his ear as a result of his argument with Gaugin resulted in his painting Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear in 1890. Long Grass with Butterflies was painted in 1890 by the artist in the grounds of the asylum where he was admitted as a patient suffering from hallucinations. Van Gogh tried to channel his angst, manic episodes and depression into painting and his anxiety is evident in both his choice of subject matter and style. For example, The Starry Night became an iconic painting because of the unconventional form and exaggerated brushstrokes. The key to unraveling the demons of Van Gogh’s mind are in his art. Van Gogh’s turbulent movement of brushes and frantic whirlwinds of colour were glorious in representation but also presaged his deteriorating mental health. In the end Van Gogh did in fact succumb to his demons and in 1880 committed suicide.
There are some artists who have deliberately sought out art as a sort of refuge and catharsis so as to channel their unhappiness into something meaningful and escape their predicament; Frida Kahlo explored the trauma afflicted upon her by using her body as subject matter. She examined the interior processes of her own life by creating a complex visual language borne out of either fate or unfortunate circumstances. Not only did she paint herself but her surroundings and personal emotions are encapsulated in her canvases. Her physical and mental misery was reflected and in a way, accentuated in her self-portraits. After an accident that left Kahlo bedridden for months she sought refuge for her physical and emotional pain by painting her first self-portrait. Frida once commented about it by saying “I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best.” Kahlo’s work often contained surrealist overtones where she painted dream worlds- an escape from her misery and physical afflictions. Her work was a way of channelling her distress into something meaningful but it also meant that her domestic conflicts and relationship woes manifested themselves on canvas such as her tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera and her two miscarriages. In 1932 she painted Henry Ford Hospital which featured Frida lying naked and surrounded with floating objects around her. These included a flower, a foetus, a pelvis and a snail, all connected to her veins. These metaphors of life and birth embodied the conflicts and concerns that plagued her. Therefore, her works can be viewed as her personal journey – an endurance of pain and problematic relationships. According to the critic John Berger “That she became a world legend is in part due to the fact that . . . under the new world order, the sharing of pain is one of the essential preconditions for a refinding of dignity and hope.”
Amrita Sher-Gil’s oeuvre is fascinating because initially she presented a body work that was a by-product of European education but as she returned to settle and work in India she became steeped in the ethos, history and nationalistic spirit of her time; she underwent a psychological cultural awakening of sorts that transformed her art practice. Gil was half Indian and half Hungarian. Her forthright personality and life influenced her professional career; she was also one of the first female artists who gained the spotlight in pre-Partition India at a time when male artists such as Rabindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose were attempting to challenge the hegemony of a colonial education and society. Geeta Kapur states, ‘At this complex juncture, the aesthetic questions Sher-Gil raised became particularly engaging. In her personal striving for a historically aligned aesthetic- an aesthetic calibrated to register her European and Indian profile she set up the initial terms for an existentially defined progressiveness.’ Her progressiveness showcased in her Indian subject paintings including Hill Women, a shift from European modernism to Indian modernist technique of vibrant colours and flatter surfaces. This shift can also be tracked from her inspiration from Ajanta cave murals, which transformed her visual language clearly orientalising it. Despite her Hungarian background and receiving training from Ecole des Beaux Artes Sher-Gil’s Indian roots, eccentric persona and iconicity defined her artworks that she created till her tragic death.
While artists like Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo experienced near death and disease early in their life, the health issues of Henri Matisse literally gave him a new lease of life as he began the second and most successful stage of his career in the 1940s. He would draw from his bed and work/supervise the cuttings of his compositions from a wheelchair; his limited mobility did not stop him from creating and experimenting with new art techniques. Matisse’s dynamic and eccentric ‘cut-outs’ became rivetingly avant-garde, this series was a dramatic shift from his large-scale paintings. He rightfully expressed, “I didn’t expect to recover from my second operation but since I did, I consider that I’m living on borrowed time. Every day that dawns is a gift to me and I take it that way.”
The destruction that was wrought by the two World Wars not only changed the fate and destiny of countries but also adversely affected the lives of the artists. Much of their art was born out of the trauma of war. Avant-garde art movements such as Dadaism, Surrealism, German Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism to name a few were the by-products of war. Max Beckmann was a German artist who not only witnessed World War I but actively participated in it by working in the Medical Corps. Overtly positive as first he stated “my art can gorge itself here”, however, soon he had a nervous breakdown in 1915 that was attributed to the turmoil of war. Beckman later engaged himself by painting the disaster-prone Weimar Republic. His works were heavily cynical which represented decrepit and ugly bodies that were juxtaposed with dark murky colours reinstating the chaos of post-war Germany mired in poverty, corruption and moral degradation. His triptych Departure was a response to Hitler’s sinister move of firing the artist from Professorship at the Frankfurt Art Academy. Since he was a German of Jewish descent and had no option but to emigrate to America. The triptych painting was a recalling of medieval or Renaissance altarpieces; however, some claimed that it had a political undertone to it. Eventually in 1947 the artist immigrated to America, where he started teaching in St. Louis and New York. He often used to tell his students to “work a lot…. simplify…. use lots of colour…. make the painting more personal.”
Despite the fact that War II remained a central theme for a majority of artists, there were some creative thinkers and artists whose works explored the artistic possibilities of living in a post-war metropolis and its city life. Georgia O’Keeffe’s urban landscape paintings of New York between 1925-1930 glorified skyscrapers attracting international attention of spectators and other artists. Her career underwent a life transforming phase after her husband passed away and she shifted to the Southwestern horizon of New Mexico. Her romance with the desert landscape began when she travelled every year to visit New Mexico to paint its canyons and animal skulls. In 1946, years after recovering from her mental breakdown and death of her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, the artist permanently moved to Abiquiu, New Mexico. The move to her new home and assimilation into her new surroundings manifested itself with the integration of architecture into her paintings. She also took up other hobbies such as gardening and writing a cookbook.
Contemporary artists that emerged in the 70s such as Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol have eschewed personal content that alludes to their lives or to emotion in general it seems. Paintings like Edvard Munch’s The Scream seem indulgent in comparison to their slick, savvy and morbid affirmations of the incorporated and commodified mind of the 21st century. Yet personal events and global changes have deeply affected contemporary artists around the globe after the so-called new World Order and post 9/11 and engagement with these conflicts has left an impact on their art practice. Artists hailing from the East, such as South Asia, South East Asia and Middle-East are deeply concerned about violence and terrorism in their countries in the name of religion and politics. Their lives are affected by extremism in their homeland and western stereotyping when they travel abroad. Husband and wife duo, Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi investigate the concept of deeply rooted violence in society through their miniature technique and installations.
The lives of many artists have been as complex as their works. To interpret their subject matter sometimes a nuanced understanding of both the artists life and his technique must both be considered. In retrospect, this can ultimately transform the context and meaning of the artwork when one is analysing it.