Does the artist’s (visual, literary, musical, theatrical, etc.) personal life matter when you’re experiencing their art? It’s a question that arose in Lucas Nightingale’s response to Robin Laurence’s June 7, 2010 Georgia Straight visual arts review in his June 24, 2010 letter to the editor. The show in question was the Vancouver Art Gallery’s big summer exhibition, The Modern Woman: Drawings by Dégas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and other Masterpieces from the Musée D’Orsay in Paris. Laurence in her critique noted,
“I paint with my prick.” So claimed Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Asked what motivated his representations of plump, rosy-cheeked young women, he’s also reputed to have said his art was all about tits and ass. As for Edgar Degas—the perennial bachelor, anti-Semite, and misogynist—he said he wanted to view women in intimate settings, as if he were looking at them “through a keyhole”. That reads a lot like voyeurism, especially in light of his drawings and paintings of naked women drying themselves off after a bath, seemingly unaware of the viewer. Then there’s the aristocratic Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who hung out with and depicted women who worked in brothels, bars, and nightclubs. He died of syphilis and tuberculosis in 1901 at the age of 36. How and when the prostitutes died is not recorded here.
Nightingale’s comments included,
Despite Laurence’s article, I went to see for myself. I marvelled in front of Angrand’s Ma Mère. Did I see misogyny there? No.
I melted in front of Courbet’s Portrait of the Artist’s Young Sister Juliet, Asleep. Did I see treachery there? No.
Did I care that Degas was a misogynist or that Renoir was a pervert or that Toulouse-Lautrec hung out with prostitutes? No, because finding out about the skeletons in an artist’s closet is not why I go to the gallery—I go to be moved by what they create.
Laurence seems to set a standard that you must approve of an artist’s dirty secrets before you can appreciate their art; call me naive, but I probably wouldn’t know anyone if I set standards like that.
In general, I separate the art from the artist so I can appreciate the work but I also find that knowing a little bit about the background can inform what I’m experiencing. For example, The Lady from Shanghai, a movie directed by Orson Welles released in 1947 and starring then wife, Rita Hayworth is an amazing work. The scene in the hall of mirrors where the two lead characters shoot out their reflections with the shattered glass refracting ever growing numbers of fractured reflections is still studied and marveled over. You can enjoy the movie as a work of art without ever knowing that Orson and Rita were experiencing a breakdown of their marriage and working together on the film was an attempt to repair it. I do find that knowing some of the background story to the movie makes me appreciate the movie all the more even as I wonder at Welles’ insistence that his famous wife dye her legendary hair from red to a platinum blonde and casting her as a heartless vamp.
In a way I find the work that Renoir, Dégas, and Toulouse-Lautrec, etc. all the more amazing given their enormous shortcomings. It’s a paradox and, for me, how you resolve the issue of art/artist is highly personal. For a contrasting example, Leni Riefenstahl produced two film masterpieces when she worked for Hitler, a man who engineered the death of entire Jewish populations in Europe during World War II (1939-1945). I have seen clips of her work but am not sure I could ever sit through an entire film. To date, I have not been able to separate the artist from the art.
There is a good reason for learning about the background or the story of an art work. For conceptual art and a lot of other contemporary art you need the story to make sense of what you’re seeing. For example, the latest show (my previous posting here) at the Rennie Collection features (amongst other pieces) a rifle or two and a huge canvas which is a partial recreation of a Georges Seurat painting from the 19th century. Unless you know something about Seurat and his paintings, you’re likely to dismiss it as it doesn’t make much sense. Thankfully, the gallery insists visitors go on a tour and are accompanied by someone who can tell you something about the show and what the artist is doing. There’s a reason for the rifle. The artist (Richard Jackson) uses it to shoot paint pellets at the canvas and there’s a reason why he picked a Seurat painting rather than another 19th century artist’s work. See my previous posting for more about this but very simply, Seurat was a very precise painter who worked with tiny dots to create his images which contrasts with hurling a paint pellet using the propulsive power of a rifle at a copy of one of his paintings.
Jackson has also created a series of bronze ballerinas reminiscent of Dégas. The Rennie Collection has one on display for this show and I had the good luck to talk to a trainee guide about the piece. I’ve described the piece in more detail in my previous posting but briefly, the dancer has been knocked off her pedestal and lies crumpled below it. There’s paint dripping from the pedestal and elsewhere (including her head as I recall). The paint colour for the ballerina in the Rennie Collection is red, other ballerinas in the series have different colours for the dripping paint. The guide had found out from the artist who visited Vancouver for several weeks before the show was opened, that this series is intended as a commentary on how artists use women in their work and a commentary on how women in the arts were treated in the 19th century. Serendipitously or not, the piece provides an interesting contrast to the big show currently on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery which you can only appreciate if you know the story.
I think there’s something to be said for being able to go and experience a piece of art without having a degree in art history or knowing the backstory. There’s also something to be said for having one or both. As for being able to separate the artist from his/her personal behaviour, that’s up to the individual. Like I said, sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. I imagine many folks are the same.