If someday you have a few months to spare, come to Barbary…you will feel the precious and exceptional influence of the sun, which gives everything a piercing life”.
These lines, taken from Eugène Delacroix’s diary reflect his transfixion with North African, what he refers to as Barbary. One of the most famous French artists of the 19th century and particularly well-known for his orientalist paintings, this artist from the romantic era had a what might be referred to as a “signs taken for wonders moment” when he visited Morocco for the first time. Later his images from the country would feature in his paintings, which were often controversial due to their exoticization of the culture he sought to represent. In his writing about Morocco the artist is able to discuss topics of various interests including the people, the environment, the treatment of women, the attitude of the king and topics as minute as ideas of how gardens are constructed. The concerns of this artist, and many others from this era, would later constitute as part of Edward Said’s argument in Orientalism on the image of the East created by the West.
The diaries of Eugène Delacroix remain an essential and important text to denote the importance of the artist’s life. In the context of orientalism, his diary is an essential reader into an important moment of East-West relations.
Frida Kahlo, known for her vivid and haunting surrealist biographical paintings is perhaps one of the most famous artists to also keep a diary. Today, memorabilia about her is an industry. The artist’s diary is made all the more complex due to its illustrated nature which documents the turbulent years of her life, and an escape for her to pour out her anguish and despair. The diary does not mention many dates, unlike Delacroix’s, but themes of interest intersect with her art. There are concerns of communism – a clear awareness of politics. There is also discussion of trysts with Diego Rivera, a subject that would later inform her painting. The artist uses her diary as a confessional; like her paintings, many of the images are disturbing, yet layered.
Those interested in Kahlo’s art are perhaps as intrigued by her life, the very nature of which would continue to inform her practice. The artist’s diary acts as an essential text in order to read her work, and find clues in her paintings in order to inform ourselves, as historians, artists and collectors, of their nature and finesse. In the case of Kahlo, the text of the artist is supreme and cannot be divorced from any serious study.
“I began to be haunted by an intense longing to return to India… feeling in some strange inexplicable way that there lay my destiny as a painter.”
Closer to home, we can use these words as a commencement of Amrita Sher-Gil’s odyssey, wherein she explores her identity in the modern era as an Indian woman painter, bringing her experience from her Western education and interest in oil painting with an aim to create a truly localized aesthetic. Sher-Gil’s poignant and anthropological images of Indian women, inspired by Ajanta cave paintings, remain some of the most coveted and important works of modern Indian art.
The artist’s life and words, again, are perhaps as important as her actual final product. Yashodhara Dalmia, a curator from India has written extensively on Amrita Sher-Gil relying heavily on the artist’s own letters and writings. Indeed, the Sher-Gil retrospective in the National Museum in Delhi, curated by Dalmia,, demonstrated the extent to which the artist’s own letters, diary entries and words informed her practice, and therefore, that of the curator. In the case of an artist as Sher-Gil, with her intriguing history and very short life, as well as her trailblazing path, her word and text remains an important marker for generations to discover her thoughts, and also to be inspired by.
Throughout history we have been able to find artists and makers who have written down their life histories and their diaries, ranging from writings of early artists in the Renaissance Era, to more recent Modernists such as Van Gogh and right up to a contemporary era, in the case of Andy Warhol. I might even venture to claim that, perhaps, a big difference between Eastern and Western Art (if those categories really exist), at least until the onset of modernity, is that the artist’s voice in the non-West is almost absent. We don’t really know very much about any famous miniaturist painters in the time of the Mughals. Therefore, the artist’s writing is a window into the world of the artist, allowing us access to their life and to their reality, and thus becomes another window into their work.
A study of each of the artists mentioned above, whether Delacroix, Kahlo or Sher-Gil, would not be complete without looking at their personal written material. The diary of the artist becomes a source of that unique primary knowledge that is hard to access otherwise. To read a particular form of artwork, one normally applies a simple formal visual analysis, but whenever such texts are present, it richly adds context and direct reference, that informs our understanding in a more layered way.
At NCA in 2014, gaining inspiration from this research, I taught a course that looked at artist’s diaries and how they functioned informing our understanding of their practice. The discussions were rich and varied, and the young artists in the class were able to connect directly with the voice of their inspiration. The assignments were formulated for the students to create their own diaries and responses, which showcased the relevance of such practice even in the contemporary era.
Perhaps my course was linked to another observation seen in today’s fast-changing world. Today, there is a real desire on the part of the audience to hear from the artist. Indeed, we demand it. There is nervousness in our pedagogical system which ensures that the artist ‘write’, that they express themselves and that they are able to articulate their own practice. An artist’s work or exhibition is not complete without a detailed, well written and reviewed artist statement. Accompanying art fairs, those meccas of art sales, are incomplete without interviews, discussions and panels. We are in the age where the artist must ‘speak’.
However, this same age that we are living in, discourages perhaps the continuous documentation of an artist’s work. Today, we communicate via email. Interviews are conducted by magazines sending an email list of questions to the artist, which are then responded to. There is a certain blandness, perhaps, in this technological age, when the use of paper is limited, and in the same vein the use of the diary by the artist. It is a great paradox of our time that we live in an age that demands so much for the artist to speak, but yet opportunities for quiet reflection are less accessible.
One of the classic art history texts for the young student Is Lives of the Artists by Vasari – it is this same text that Hans Ulrich is inspired by in his recent volume Lives of the Artists and Architects that updates this volume and looks at some important contemporary artists. When Hans Ulrich discusses and speaks to the artists it is with the aim of putting the voice and speaking power of the artist front and forward and allowing them to have primacy over their own practice and work.
Thus, in our highly capitalized, market-driven world, the artist’s voice is perhaps even more central to the work. In the age of conceptual art, our understandings are informed by context, statements, panels and discussions.
Paradoxically, however, in the age of internet and computer this discourse is even more splintered, in Facebook chats, and email accounts and Skype calls, where it is difficult to record, and maintain, rather than in one central location, like diaries of the past.
I can imagine today’s artists standing in front of their retrospectives and offering me a long explanation of their works, but I cannot imagine them to send detailed letters to their contemporaries that would inform a future art historian’s understanding of their practice. In the same vein, I cannot somehow imagine Michaelangelo standing under the Sistine Chapel and doing the same, even though we have important and preserved documentation of the artist’s own voice through his own writing.
The question then continues to remain, is the word of the artist dying or just shifting, as it must, in a rapidly changing world?
Aziz Sohail is a curator and critic based in Lahore and Karachi. Currently, he is a Visiting Lecturer in History of Art at the NCA and works with the Lahore Biennale Foundation