Edward Hopper and J.M.W. Turner: Two Old Men and the Sea
Two paintings of the sea by two artists. Looking at each as if we knew nothing of their creators, something of their respective dispositions is obvious right away. J.M.W. Turner's work is wild and stormy; you know he’s eccentric and passionate. Edward Hopper’s is detached and moody, angular rather than organic, with a sardonic undercurrent you can’t quite put your finger on.
The Snow Storm’s story is well known. It’s one of the most famous works by one of the most famous artists in history. Around 1842, J.M.W. was caught in a storm aboard the ship the Ariel. He allegedly asked to be tied to the mast to authentically experience man against the gods, or at the very least, man against the gales.
This might be romanticizing the Romantic painting. Without proof of the incident, there are two teams: one that upholds the anecdote as truth, and one that dismisses it as myth. I would cast my lots with Team A. It fits with the tempestuous temperament of Turner, but more importantly, it’s the exact story the painting itself tells. It’s a jewel among a multitude of masterpieces, and perhaps the wildness that sets it apart is the experiential. That artists are Method Actors is no surprise- we have a strange habit of stepping into all manner of harrowing scenarios in search of the story.
Now Hopper had a mean streak and violent temper that reared its ugly head in his relationship with his wife, but he was generally a more reticent character with rather staid emotions. His work is more introspective, more thoughtful. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Hopper painting that shows his hotheaded side. His art shows disconnection and resignation, and often melancholy, but not rage.
This particular painting from 1951 is not one of his famous works, and it’s not even one of his best. It’s as banal a picture of the sea as there ever was.
Except, it’s not. If some of Hopper’s paintings seem vaguely haunted, this one’s ghosts are palpable. Hopper gave Rooms by the Sea an alternate title in his notes- The Jumping Off Place. After discovering this darkly irreverent tidbit, a thin, icy breeze creeps into the frame.
These are only two of a trillion acts of creativity inspired by the ocean, but both are worthy of contemplation. In Turner’s, we are there at the mast, with the cold waves whipping our faces into raw meat. We are the crossroads of the elements, captive to our fate in between life and death. In Hopper’s surreal sunny calm, we’re already gone.
Lorette C. Luzajic
Founder of The Ekphrastic Review, Lorette C. Luzajic is a mixed media artist working in collage, paint, poetry, and photography. Visit her at www.mixedupmedia.ca.
Adam at the Art Institute
Rodin’s Adam stands at the top of the stairs, more than life-size, looking as if he’s
about to throw something. His left arm rests on his bent right leg; his right arm reaches
back, as if gaining momentum for the release of some (invisible) object. The pose
reminds me of the fifth-century Roman sculpture the Discus Thrower. To duplicate the
discus thrower’s stance, all he needs to do is raise that right arm farther up behind him,
bend his shoulders a bit more forward, and grip his fingers around a round metal plate.
And wipe that sad expression off his face.
Adam is my neighbour at the Art Institute, where, as a volunteer, I sit at an
information kiosk explaining to visitors how to find the American wing, or the Picassos,
or the toilet. Visitors flow steadily up and down the Grand Staircase, many of them
pausing to ponder Rodin’s depiction of their earliest ancestor. Often they say something
to me as they do so: “Look how big his head is,” or “Where’s Eve?” or “That position
looks awkward.” They bend to read the label, which explains that Rodin based the figure
on Michelangelo’s portrait of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. There, a newly created Adam
reclines, his index finger receiving the breath of life from God’s extended fingertip. But
Rodin has tipped him upright, as if to say, “Time to be up and about. Let’s look at what
we’ve got here.” What we’ve got, though, doesn’t look too good. Adam has caved in on
himself, eyes cast down, as if he’s contemplating his own flawed flesh. His right arm
reaches not out toward God but downward, and his index finger—in Michelangelo’s
depiction nearly touching God’s—now points uselessly toward the earth. Although he
seems poised for action, his feet are glued to the statue’s base. If he were to move, it’s
easier to imagine him toppling over than actually completing whatever motion he’s
But then, Adam is all about toppling. Rodin originally sculpted the figure to be
paired with Eve at a portal entitled The Gates of Hell, the Art Institute website explains.
Rodin’s inspiration was Dante’s Adam, who, before being raised to the left side of God,
spent thousands of years in Limbo. His “agonized body,” we’re told, “strikingly conveys
the sufferings caused by original sin.” Rodin’s version may aspire to the fluid power of
the Discus Thrower, but his muscles are knotted, his hands and feet too huge and
ill-proportioned for grace. Those feet anchor him to the earth to which his sin has bound
him (Adama: earth, in Hebrew), and on which he’ll now have to labour.
Adam’s awkwardness (old Norse: turned the wrong way) is, I think, why so many
visitors stop not only to contemplate but also to interact with him. Adam’s twisted pose
pulls visitors in, as if they feel his knotted muscles in their own bodies. I’ve seen multiple
young men imitate his pose, swaying unsteadily as their friends take pictures. I’ve seen
one man link an index finger through Adam’s, as if in solidarity, and another rest a hand
on Adam’s calf as he posed for photographs. When I saw the man touch Adam’s leg, I
thought of intervening: everyone knows, after all, you’re not supposed to touch the art.
But I figured by the time I rebuked him, he’d have removed his hand. In any case, I was
touched. I thought of Lincoln’s head at Springfield, his nose shiny from the touch of
passersby, and thought perhaps Adam, more than any other work of art, should bear the
mark of his fellow creatures’ caress.
Museums offer a charged space in which sparks of affinity leap between viewer
and object. Watching these intense responses to art, I feel like a lucky witness to the best
that human beings can be: curious, receptive, eager, kind. They connect with each
other—and me—as well as with what they see: a husband, pushing his wife in a
wheelchair, reads her the labels she can’t see; a woman excitedly points out to her friend
the Frank Lloyd Wright window suspended from the ceiling above me; a young man
high-fives me when I give him a flyer about our mini-tour based on Ferris Bueller’s Day
Off. I even become a strange kind of confidante, to whom they trust their uncertainties.
Not just “Where is the nearest rest room?” But, “These are all replicas, aren’t they?”
“You mean this is the only real American Gothic?” “Haven’t I seen a painting of Van
Gogh’s bedroom somewhere else?”
I thrum with sympathy, listening to these questions. What does “original” mean,
after all, given that artists often paint or sculpt the same thing more than once, and that
sculptures are cast multiple times, sometimes after the artist’s death? In how many
different places have I seen Rodin’s Balzac? There’s our own, a naked figure in Gallery
201, whose crotch melts between his legs into what looks like a traffic cone; there’s his
sibling, perched identically in the sculpture garden of the Baltimore Museum of Art; and
there’s the massive, enrobed figure striding through the garden of the Rodin museum in
Each question strikes me as complex and worth thinking about. “What makes a
painting get so famous?” a young man asks me, after I explain where he can find Grant
Wood’s American Gothic. Even “where is the nearest toilet?” requires a thoughtful,
“What did you want to see on the way there?” I ask.
But man, alas, is a fallen animal. That couple I thought was passionately
discussing Rodin’s Adam is in fact quarreling about when to get lunch. “We’ve already
waited six hours,” one insists, as loudly as you can in a museum without drawing the
attention of a guard. “Let’s go.”
And then there was the wealthy looking middle-aged couple who paused to ask
me directions. “How do I get to the modern wing?” the woman asked.
I told her.
“How do I get to the armour?” the man asked.
The woman re-inserted herself in the conversation before I could answer. “We’re
not going to see the armour,” she said disgustedly. “We’re going straight to the modern
The husband, ignoring her, asked me again, “How do I get to the armour?”
“Go straight, behind the Caillebotte,” I said, in my standard explanation, “until you
see furniture on the right. Then turn right and keep going.”
The woman turned to go, but then paused and looked at me angrily. “You’re
fired,” she said.
I smiled politely and glanced at my neighbour Adam to see how he was taking it.
He was, as usual, looking at his feet. His sad expression said all that needed saying.
Ruth Hoberman retired recently after thirty years as a Professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. She taught and published on modern British literature. Her 2011 book Museum Trouble: Edwardian Fiction and the Emergence of Modernism (U of Virginia P) focused on the depiction of art and museums in early twentieth-century literature. Her poems have appeared in [PANK], Natural Bridge, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Iron Horse Literary Review.
Collage, Electronica, and the Meaning of Life
When electronic music first came out, there was a big-to-do over its legitimacy. Detractors grumbled that it wasn’t “real” music since there weren’t any instruments. Others dismissed its pastiche sensibilities, denouncing the very idea of sampling previously recorded music to make new songs.
I had other ideas about it. Clearly, the technological devices used to make it were “real” musical instruments, in my mind, even if they didn’t look like a French horn or didgeridoo. I didn’t foresee the annihilation of the symphony or opera. I saw instead a whole new art form, an expansion rather than a reduction. I went so far as to call it the “new classical.” It was a universal tongue, without lyrics. It had the power to create emotions in any language. And as for sampling, hadn’t humans been doing cover versions of the Eagles since kingdom come? Using a killer beat phrase to build a song, or mixing new life into an old classic was homage of the highest kind. Suing some poor unknown DJ who mixed your beats in his basement was kind of missing the point. And the point is this: there is nothing new under the sun.
Perhaps it was easier for me to understand the whole sampling idea because I was a collage artist. Until recently, thanks to the Internet, collage has been slow to earn formal recognition as a legitimate medium of creativity. By definition, it depends on “sampling.” Too many museums and galleries view us as vampires. Our inspiration depends on dismantling and deconstruction and reconstruction. In this view, we are not originators- we are thieves.
To get around the scary world of copyright infringement, some collage artists work exclusively from imagery found in the public domain. There are catalogues available specifically for us. To me, this defeats the purpose of using the whole world as my palette. Limiting the scope of collage to a set of predetermined images negates the meaning of the art. It betrays the divine spark within collage, which is the idea that anything can grow into something new, or say something other than what it said before. To think the collagist is trying to pass off a Renoir or a modern Revlon ad as his or her own work indeed misses the point entirely. And once again, the point is this: there is nothing new under the sun.
But what does that mean? Surely there is plenty new under the sun. When the depressed preacher wrote those words in the Old Testament’s book of Ecclesiastes several thousand years ago, he was already witnessing things that had never been seen before. And since then, clearly, we have advanced technologies; we have millions of works of literature; we have digital photography; we have Michael Jackson and state of the art hospitals and Tampax and cola.
Well, yes. And everything “new” is made from something else. Everything created is inspired by something else. Inspiration itself has to come from somewhere, and “studying” is nothing more than learning something that someone else has discovered or put together. And at the very base of it all, there is a world of subatomic particles and in the beginning and in the end, every living and every dead thing and all the air and the dirt are all made of the same stuff.
Like pigments and materials, the collage artist considers everything in the world around her to be a building block, whether a snippet of texture or a preformed concept. If so much can be made from three primary colours, how much can be made from everything! More, to remove one element from a whole means a new focus, a new way of seeing. To remove one element from a whole and combine it with other elements is invention, the mother of progress and civilization.
Perhaps this is too metaphysical to accurately describe a collagist’s creative process. Collage means “to glue” after all, from the French “coller.” It means tearing words and images from somewhere and gluing them somewhere else; it does not mean lofty gobbledygook jargon about science, God, and the meaning of life.
Still, what a collage artist does is take pre-existing elements to form something else. He manipulates the meaning of those elements by placing them in new contexts.
This is what an artist does, or any artist for that matter. From an assembly of elementary particles, he creates ways of seeing. He invents solutions for problems. He looks with fresh eyes; he juxtaposes disparate elements. He singles out a specific element, or he jumbles many together. Something may come of nothing, or nothing may come of something. Some are to be thrown away. Some are jolting. Some are exquisite.
“Emphasizing concept and process over end product, collage has brought the incongruous into meaningful congress with the ordinary,” Diane Waldman wrote in an essay on collage for the Guggenheim Museum. “…Collage served as a surrogate for the subconscious.”
It always bothered me when someone said an electronic musician was just a wannabe who didn’t have the ability to sing or play an instrument. I saw her instead as someone who had circumvented such archaic limitations. Creativity is the birthright of everyone. It is the very meaning of life, isn’t it? It is what we do, taken even from a purely biological standpoint.
Collage, for me, is the mother of all outlets, the natural result of artistic inquiry. It is unlimited in possibility, whether we are talking about possibilities in aesthetics, texture, colour, composition, or message. Collage requires engagement with everything else in the world. I think in random juxtapositions, not only when I’m holding my little pink scissors, but when I’m troubleshooting or inventing games for my nephews. I see in contrasting colours, in textures, and so my ordinary experience every day in my city is transformed into a visual extravaganza. I jot down words overheard- they find their way into my writing, into my art. The way I see the world is collage, and that informs even my interests. There’s no such thing as “uninterested.” I have learned through collage the value of everything, the range of emotions and creation and experience. I want to know everything and everyone. Through collage, I merge my conscious desires and manipulations with unconscious memories and meanings.
In this way, collage removes the artificial gap between art and living.
Lorette C. Luzajic
This essay was originally published in 2011 at Art Nectar.
Lorette C. Luzajic is a mixed media artist working with collage, paint, text, photography, and creative writing. Visit her at www.mixedupmedia.ca.
blue october and the blue dress lime green and blue cheese cracked pepper and pink salt black olives and white wine carmenere and lithium little esther and edith piaf polka dots and stripes apples and oysters pat condell and steve martin mozart and michael jackson johnny cash and rhett butler cigars and play doh sterling silver and turquoise peeling paint and rusty doors matthew mark luke and john shalimar and red lips bluegrass records and big machines cilantro and sriracha world war two and marshall mathers mommie dearest and marilyn monroe combines and colour fields culture and couture paradise and purgatory the marchesa di casati magritte and miro john bender and gentlehands terabithia and robbie joe cornell’s boxes and flea market treasures vintage nudes and ephemera the secret history and nancy drew mysteries african masks and indian beads bosch and breugel methamphetamine nightmares eternal mourning silver springs and new orleans voodoo and the crying game old hymns and amazing grace spring and fall and the red wheelbarrow lilacs and forget me nots tea and oranges that come all the way from china the wind up bird and pick up trucks star child and harriet the spy ketchup and hamburgers diamonds and bombay sapphire a heartbreaking world of staggering genius and the heart is a lonely hunter the stories of the street blue jeans and billie jean severed heads and suicide sociopaths and freedom fighters nighthawks and mannequins blood sucking monkeys from north tonawanda the black dogs and orange cats black pearls and cora pearl sailors and psychonauts invention and ativan demian and demian king david and the king cleavage and campbell’s cans wonder woman and the vivian girls camille paglia and sister wendy the blind assassin and walking the dark jughead and kramer and adrian mole the queen and the rook churchill and history bradbury and the future crazy for you and the angelus new york and lake charles war and peace freedom and reason cocaine and sunglasses a man who can be counted among the great loves of my life the salamander and the rabbit cowboy angels and when bobby sang the blues true friends and girls with narcissistic personality disorders ten of cups and five of pentacles strawberry island and rapa nui clandestino and caravaggio candy hearts and u.f.o.s e.e. cummings and oscar wilde medusa and yemaya mermaids and men lucinda and miller warhol and wonder sickness
Lorette C. Luzajic
Lorette C. Luzajic is an artist and writer in Toronto, Canada. This creative prose piece is from her book Truck, and Other Thoughts on Art.
Reflecting On Loneliness
It was in the news today- again- science has proven that loneliness kills.
I suspect that this was a surprise to no one. And the lonely people flooding Facebook posted it with comments that reflected nothing less than accusatory glee. There was a gloating surrounding the story, a kind of pathetic, desperate jabbing meant to declare with neon lights the truth found in the findings. People are lonely, the lonely shouted, and it’s all your fault because people like you just don’t give a shit.
No one got lonely from loving too much, someone commented after the story, and I felt the cold sea that engulfed him, keeping him apart from the strangers who didn’t know he was alive. I felt an icy flash of that dark place he was writing from and my heart broke for him. But loneliness has a different face for everyone, and where I stand, it looks an awful lot like love. Speak for yourself, I thought, with sorrow that is usually more contained. Loving too much is exactly what has made me lonely.
Another person commented on science by citing facts that were really pure speculation. Women are lonelier than men, they said, and black people are lonelier than white people. Poor people are lonelier than rich people, etc. This was in stark contrast to another posting that knowingly expounded on the happiness of poor tribes in Africa and destitute families in Cuba and Mexico. When you have nothing, you realize what you have, the person said, and those of us steeped in privilege and consumerism in white North America cannot possibly comprehend community and its value. Cubans know the meaning of family.
I don’t know. I love living alone. Sometimes I am heading home from a grueling social soiree and panic, thinking, what if I had a roommate or kids and wouldn’t find solitude when my door shut on the world? I often quip that when I find the man of my dreams, he will live next door, even if we are married. I’m not the only one who finds overcrowding annihilating. But apparently, say the wise men of science, flying solo is as deadly as being fat or smoking, and it causes heart disease, immune deficiency, high blood pressure, hormone disorders, and dementia.
It was a bit of caustic serendipity, perhaps, that before logging online this morning to find this story I waited for the coffee to brew in a quiet automat painted by Edward Hopper. Most mornings, I open one of my art books at random and contemplate a painting in those few minutes before the day begins. Today’s page turned out to be a familiar and favourite work by an artist dogged by interpretations of isolation and desolation. Hopper was a taciturn and ornery fellow but he resisted our translations of his work, however entrenched they have become. Hopper’s art most famous work, Nighthawks, is literally the poster child representing lonely. A few stragglers sit in a night café or bar, staring into the stillness. We can barely abide their lack of conversation or their late night solitude and have created a persistent mythology about the painting.
Automat, 1927, features a young woman seated at a round table our side of a huge dark window. Like most of Hopper’s works, it is interpreted as a lament to humanity’s terrible disconnection. A typical conclusion is this one, from an anonymous writer online.
“The woman looks self-conscious and slightly afraid, unused to being alone in a public place. … She unwittingly invites the viewer to imagine stories for her, stories of betrayal or loss. … Hopper does not tell a story but paints a moment, a moment that includes loneliness, isolation, and a spell of the dark…The viewer looks at this and immediately feel her isolation and loneliness as if it were his own.”
When I was a teenage outcast, I was so lonely that I couldn’t comprehend how much worse my condition could and would become. And I loved this painting.
But it wasn’t because I felt the subject’s loneliness so deeply. It was envy that I felt. I was madly jealous of what she had. There was a casual resignation in her expression. In Hopper’s picture, I didn’t feel the ongoing chaotic desperation that was all I knew. I didn’t read into this work the cues of hopeless isolation I was supposed to see. I felt instead someone else’s Zen, before I had even heard of the concept, a calm from the storm of others.
I constructed a whole life for this character, the woman with the fine calves and the beautiful cloche, whom I named Jane. She was an artist. She lived with her father, and her mother had passed away. She was Catholic, but only at weddings and funerals and maybe Easter. She was a young woman who had experienced tragic and epic romance. She was also ordinary, a woman patiently waiting out the day with a cup of coffee. My imagination imbued her story with a poignant poetry. I thought that if I could find hats like hers and the peace of mind to sit so solemnly alone, I would always find my way.
By the time the coffee maker breathed its contented and finished hiss, I was long transported into Edward Hopper’s painted café. I had already lamented the thick calves and crows feet of middle age that wedged twenty years between me and the last time I’d seriously searched this artwork. And I’d already been struck by thoughts that were bizarrely protective of the young woman’s solitude. I had woken alone and I would spend the day working, alone. Even so, I wanted to hog the woman’s solitude like a cache of diamonds.
Then I logged into my morning, Stevia and cream tempering the acrid and acid Maxwell house bargain canister. Lonely! Lonely! screamed the news. You’re dying of loneliness!
Simon says, science says.
Perhaps what is loneliest for the introvert, who now has a name and a category from which to perch piously, is not being lonely. It’s practically a sin. Who in their right mind would envy, over Christmas, those with no family rigmarole to attend? Who but the most selfish and miserly among us would prefer to wander aimlessly by themselves on Saturday night, when a gaggle of girlfriends was cheering and beering together in the local watering hole?
We are monsters, refusing the calls of people who love us and want to chitchat until the cows come home. Inane banter does nothing to assuage the hollows, but long hours walking solo restores our souls. How do you explain that you need more “me time” to people who would give anything for more anybody-else time? My extroverted sister makes me dizzy, and the kindness of strangers who reach out into the deserted geography where my mind resides is one I can’t always repay. My work, too, demands so much interaction that I have to steel myself to keep it together. Yes, writing and working in the studio are done in long stretches of gorgeous solitude. But the other side of my job is about attending art openings, mine and yours, meeting and greeting and mingling and jingling. In occasional doses, the jazz and white wine and meet and greet of this scene is nice work, if you can get it, and a chance for me to wear my red lipstick for someone other than my cats. But too much of this on my calendar, I begin to defragment and come apart at the seams.
Perhaps it is true that introverts are insensitive, self-centered clods who don’t give a rat’s ass about the brotherhood of man. But I suspect something else is going on for those of us who take our company in smaller doses. We may be more sensitive. I am so sensitive to the emotions of others that I can hardly take reign of my own. Being highly empathic is, indeed, a trait that fuels the work of many artists and writers. We must constantly create because we are always “processing.” Far from self-indulgent, we are stuck feeling and feeling and moving through everyone else’s ups and downs as well as our own. It’s a heavy burden to carry.
Following this logic, perhaps it is the “people persons” who need constant assurance of their place at the table, continual affection even if it’s from strangers, which makes it superficial even if it feels good. Maybe it’s these who are more selfish then, than us loners. We don’t need to scoop up a constant fill of emotions from others to feel good, to validate ourselves. Maybe the social butterfly is not the saint with endless love to give, but the piranha, with endless love to take.
Or maybe we are all just wired differently and need to stop pointing fingers at each other every time an article is posted on social media.
I always try to explain that I need a lot of “down time” in order to fuel up for the big gusts of loving everyone, and I take great cares to make sure that the people I love know my love is not a mild, airy, flaky kind of thing but something profound and loyal. It is not wasted on every Tom, Dick and Harry but reserved for the ones who grow with me and show deep acceptance and care. The biggest mistakes I’ve made in my life were the ones I spent distracted by and focused on emergencies of urgency for strangers and relatives alike, while ignoring the lovely, ordinary people in my life who loved me. My brazen errors of attention robbed those who were not fleeting stars on my path, but fellow travelers for the long haul.
Still, I can’t help but resent the archaic views that the individual is to blame and the collective overrides the ultimate minority, the self. It is our unique individual identity that separates us from the animal kingdom, where the most personality filled cat or dog or cockatiel will never look into the mirror and say, who am I? When will I die? Why did this poem make me cry? Why do I prefer golf over ballet? Should I take up Buddhism? Pyschology keeps harping over the joys of any old relationship, and people who prefer to live alone or love alone are made to feel they are missing something, that they are decrepit, lacking, maladjusted, dangerous, or sick.
It takes a village and such clichés are considered superior ideations, and retreat is antisocial and ill. But what of those of us who find the most healing in backing away? Are we always and forever retrogrades? More, are our intense social unions nullified by the lack of intrinsic need for constant companionships? Some of us get very tired of the pathologizing. We don’t feel incomplete. I have made peace with the fact that most people want to be paired up, or feel that a night without someone snoring and kicking next to them is an empty one. But I know that countless others aren’t lying when they find true fulfillment and relief in their own rhythm. How we survived the days of the cave, and the days of four generations in one kitchen all at once, I cannot guess. Perhaps I am grossly selfish, but the overwhelm of a big family would tip my mental health balance towards suicide, and quickly. It is not company that assuages these impulses for me: my lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder is always exacerbated by over-socializing and soothed by quiet time far away from the madding crowds.
The impulse of j’accuse is universal, though, so when some feel obligated to point at another’s paucity of love and empathy as a cause of the world’s loneliness, it’s as natural as breathing. If only lonely had an easy solution. I was so much lonelier before I recognized my introversion. I often try to explain to others that I’m never bored when I’m alone but quickly bored if I stay too long at parties.
We all have our limits and they are different. Without a few days of solo bliss I can hardly handle other hearts. After holidays with family I cherish, I need time off and working is like the holiday. But I do start to feel unloved after a week or so goes by without some solid meeting of the minds and souls of those close to me.
Still, I feel most lonely when tossed into buzzing social milieus with people I barely know, not when I’m by myself. Small gatherings of a handful of good friends somewhere with wine and the possibility of hearing each other speak are golden. Some people need more, some a lot more. A very few people need much less, and more, or even any, is painful for them. I’m not one of these, but I do understand that hermits aren’t necessarily damaged. They are avoiding damage. Extremely solitary people have long had cures of companionship thrust at them by the well-meaning but clueless, and doctors used to force autistic children into hugging and false bonding. But it is the individual who should set the pace of how much company and touch he or she needs
Scientists and other social philosophers will always come up with their own prescriptions of what is normal and healthy. I can only go with what works in my own life. I have felt such intense pain in my lifetime, I sometimes don’t know how I still stand. I do not say this to separate myself from others, but rather to glue. We all feel pain. Mine is mine, a private affair, and yours is yours, and if there is something I can do, I will. But I don’t presume that there is, and I’m certainly not vain enough to think I can make it better just by being around. In my book, loving someone doesn’t mean hogging all their space and time in the name of “giving.” “Being there” doesn’t mean literally being here, at least not for me. I am moved when someone wants to “be there” for me, and knows they don’t have to “be here” to “be there.”
The ultimate irony, perhaps, of loneliness, is that no one can fix it. It’s not so easy as stopping for a moment to consider the homeless or broken. It’s not about finding a party for a socialite or a friend for a widow. Even the most extroverted, social animals among us cannot find solace in a crowd after a death or separation. That demon of isolation and grief comes at us after loss, even when we have other magnificent offers. How many times have we squandered affection on a rejecter when we have had a thousand hands extended? The loneliest times of my own life could not be salved by anyone. When I weep, drunk and alone, it is nothing you can fix with all the love in the world. I want J. back, and I want my mother, and they aren’t there, and nothing else will do.
I would also extend that loneliness is an exquisite and important rite of passage. Like my romanticizing of the cloche lady in the Hopper, abandonment is a state of mind that we need to address and come to terms with. The theme in pop and country songs about being left lonely, left behind, left out, are crucial and integral to our personal evolution. In high school, I didn’t know that every high school kid was lonely. Yes, as a bullied kid, I was probably more lonely than some. But as a kid who had found a way into the realm of imagination and creativity, I was probably well ahead of the rest in finding sanctuary.
Just as today’s studies tell us about lonely science, we’ve known for some time that churchgoers and other spiritually grounded folks have better mental health. This is attributed to more connectivity. But that hive of community is one of the reasons I’ve avoided my spiritual matters in public life. I prefer to read poetry and the bible at home, and I commune with theologians and writers this way. I don’t want to see a bunch of people on Sunday mornings! I feel fragile and invaded after good-intentioned folks at my sister’s church fall over the pews to shake my hand and say “nice to see you come out” when they don’t know anything about me. Still, study after study after study has confirmed that religion is apparently good for your health and the reason is connection to a community.
Here, ever contrarian, I wonder. Is it really the connection to other lost and seeking humans over triangle tuna sandwiches that makes the difference- or is it connection to God?
The famous David Caspar Friedrich painting about the monk on the shore comes up in various Google searches for loneliness- self-portrait, lonely monk, desolate, empty. But like Jane waiting for no one in the automat, I see the work as a triumph. The monk is solitary against the wild, but he is intimately connected with the cosmos. I never see this painting as a lonely one. I’m not so sure the artist did, either.
Whether God is true or false, it’s scientific to say believers are ahead of the game. The interpreters of science leap in and conclude it’s the connection to community. Some of the first studies in sociology showed that active goers to synagogue and church committed suicide the least, and their lack of loneliness was cited as the reason. Perhaps many find joy through the hubbub of hellos, but I grow furious when someone who doesn’t know me and doesn’t really give a damn asks how I am and how my holiday was. It’s okay to just exist side by side and not pretend.
I wonder if it’s not the social aspect but the sense of meaning that gives the religious their edge. Maybe it’s the perception of relationship to God, not to everyone else. Maybe it’s the feeling that it’s not all futile. After all, people who go to casinos and pubs a lot are also around a lot of people, and this connection is not heralded as a lifesaver.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand that Christ said, Love thy neighbour. And I am not suggesting we should harbour rancour to others. I am not advocating cruelty, and I am not saying we should always leave everyone alone. I am not saying everyone has my kind of loneliness, or lack thereof, or any of the other things some will try to read into my words. I am only saying that superficial empathy and companionship are quick fixes that don’t hold for many of us. I am only saying that constantly giving love to those who haven’t earned it has been the undoing of many souls. I am only saying that for some, being around people does not cure their loneliness but creates it.
My most dark, profound, naked, terrible, disappointed moments are with other people. In all the days that I kept hoping you would fix it, I remained impotent. When I stopped asking you to love me beyond what you could and did, when I stopped asking the dead to rise, the unable to reign, I found a fragile peace. When I realized that fewer and deeper friendships with those whose trust I earned and mine theirs, I stopped giving myself away so easily. When I realized that you don’t go to church or to art receptions or to school to be seen or to make idle chit chat, but to nourish the soul with connection to something more important than superficial bonds, I started to find what I was looking for.
Since I have learned to sit in cafes by myself just like Jane and say no to group excursions to movies and go by myself, since I have said no to roommates and no to relationships with men just for their own sake and no to going out on Friday nights unless I want to, I have been far less lonely. Not forcing myself to hold up the social above all else has actually made me far more generous to the needs of others. Not spending time on people just because I’m supposed to has freed me to spend more time with the people I care about most and grow closer to my family, to give what I should to my closest friends, instead of spreading myself thin in the lunch room or on the subway. I am able to truly enjoy meeting people and being with them since I found the peace of mind to be alone when I need to be.
Far be it for me to question scientists and doctors and the New York Times. But I think Thomas Moore nailed it in his wonderful book Soul Mates. “…We may think we're lonely because we have no friends,” he writes, “when the fact is we have no relationship to ourselves.”
Lorette C. Luzajic
Lorette C. Luzajic is an artist and writer living in Toronto, Canada. She writes about art, and makes multilayered collage paintings that incorporate text and literary themes. She has published hundreds of poems, short stories, and creative essays. Visit her at www.mixedupmedia.ca.
The Art Project by Sherod Santos
Poet, essayist and translator, Sherod Santos is the author of six books of poetry, a book of translations, Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation, and a book of essays, A Poetry of Two Minds. Mr. Santos has received an Award for Literary Excellence from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as grants from Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in Chicago.
On the day I visit the gallery, it is raining. Manchester, famous for rain, revolution, and football, lives up to its reputation, and Mosely Street in March—seen from the third storey—glistens with passers-by holding dark umbrellas aloft.
Brett, Dorothy (1883-1977), hanging here on the white wall of the gallery, painted umbrellas in bright colours, parasols, really, for the sun. She does not call them parasols. Her bleak pessimism announces that it will surely rain soon.
Curved backs recline. Lytton Strachey, knees crossed under a yellow umbrella, book falling limply from his hand. Ottoline Morrell, on whom Dorothy has a crush, resplendent in pink silk, folding her hands in her lap beneath a sheath of green. Behind her, perhaps, Virginia, who was not yet Woolf, and Leonard, curled into blue and pink umbrellas, oblivious to the party, the absence of Vita not yet felt.
No sign of Lawrence here.
The slight man paying court to Ottoline is too tall, too dark, too earnest to be Lawrence.
Lawrence came later, cast Ottoline into controversy, drew Dorothy into his orbit. She followed him to Rananim—Dorothy, that is—by boat, leaving behind the grey March drizzle. In the heat of a parched New Mexico she put down roots, seeing no need now to paint umbrellas.
On the day I visit the gallery, I do not have an umbrella. I take shelter under Dorothy’s, spending long moments soaking in the warm light. Later, in the gallery gift shop, I buy a postcard of her umbrellas, slip it between the pages of a book I am reading, forget it is there.
I’ll find it later still, when I have travelled above the clouds to leave behind the grey March drizzle, when I, too, have put down roots in American soil.
Unlike Dorothy, I still need an umbrella. I keep hers in a small frame on my sunny kitchen wall, in case it rains.
Catherine A. Brereton
Catherine A. Brereton is from England, but moved to America in 2008, where she is now an MFA candidate at the University of Kentucky. Her essay, "Trance," published by SLICE magazine, was selected by Ariel Levy and Robert Atwan as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, 2015. She is the 2015 winner of theFlounce’s Nonfiction Writer of the Year award. Her more recent work can be found in Crack the Spine, The Rain, Party, and Disaster Society, The Watershed Review, The Indianola Review, Literary Orphans, and The Spectacle, and is forthcoming in GTK Creative Journal, and Burning Down the House anthology. Catherine is the current Editor-in-Chief of Limestone, the University of Kentucky's literary journal. She lives in Lexington with her wife and their teenage daughters, and can be found online at catherinebrereton.com.
Fifty Shades of Grey: the Evocative Silence of Vilhelm Hammershoi
Vilhelm Hammershoi’s curiously withdrawn paintings of muted, spare interiors and a faceless woman in black are most often compared to Jan Vermeer and Edward Hopper. I see the chain of continuity, but Vilhelm’s works also contain an understated current of erotic poetry. There is softness in the hard angles, and a sense of eavesdropping, of happening on a window and looking into someone’s private world. These are not mere depictions of blank walls and pianos and housewives reading letters. They are haunted, too.
The grey Dane was a reclusive, elusive man whose art garnered modest recognition in his lifetime. But after his death to cancer, just shy of a century ago, he faded into relative obscurity.
There was an important retrospective at the Musee D’Orsay in 1998, and a well-received exhibition at the Met in 2001. Yet Hammershoi remains a cult figure. He is revered by a ragtag assortment of followers intrigued by the unsettling beauty of his images. The works fetch sizeable sums from museums at auction. But, perhaps as he would have wished, he has never found the limelight.
By the few accounts we have, we understand Hammershoi was a reticent man, preferring solitude or quiet company. He was described as “taciturn” and shy. He spoke softly, and was painfully sensitive. He had his own kind of closeness with a chosen few, especially his wife Ida, subject of most of his portraits. His paintings reflected the quietude he sought. “Hammershoi’s ‘reality’ is a room devoid of people,” wrote Dr. Kasper Monrad, chief curator at the National Gallery of Denmark.
The artist’s legacy was bolstered by a chance encounter with Monty Python’s Michael Palin, who found himself enchanted by the uncluttered, desaturated interiors and the mysterious figure whose back is always turned.
Palin said the artist’s grey and sepia paintings stood out from others, “like undertakers at a carnival. These…sparsely furnished rooms, almost stripped of colour, conveying a powerful sense of stillness and silence…there was something about the work that drew me like a magnet. Something beyond appreciation of technique or decorative effect, something deeper and more compulsive, taking me in a direction I'd never been before.”
Palin followed his muse to Copenhagen and made a documentary film, thereby dusting off the bygone relic and reviving Vilhelm to a brief vogue.
Besides Jan Vermeer and Hopper, there is little to compare to Hammershoi’s work. Alex Colville and Hopper share something of their detachment. They too convey ordinary life scenes with a kind of eeriness that is difficult to pin down. Magritte sometimes used a similar labyrinth of doors and windows to create mystery. And the tonalist artists of Hammershoi’s time certainly influenced his palette with their ranging greys.
We know he liked Whistler, for example, because he painted his own version of Arrangement in Grey and Black (Whistler’s Mother). Vermeer’s influence is obvious in Vilhelm’s interior subjects, light, and perspective. Indeed, after the 1998 retrospective, he was dubbed, “the Danish Vermeer.”
But Hammershoi distinguished himself from both his teachers and his heirs by stripping colour and detail utterly from his scenes. With all distractions gutted from the narrative, we find in the starkness a stunning, subtle subtext of sensuality.
What has been removed, what goes unsaid, what lies beneath, is the real story in these paintings.
The shifting light through the window, the people frozen in time. How we are standing at the edge of the painting, looking in, like the artist himself.
Hammershoi’s rooms are pared down, and his subjects are oddly unadorned, placing them in a kind of still-life twilight zone. But their quality of isolation does not beg for change. The paintings are evocative vignettes, haikus of sorts to the beauty of the ordinary. One gets the sense that much more would shatter this fragile shelter. He is already overwhelmed.
“Each of them looks like the sad home of a recently bereaved widower, whose place has been forcibly tidied up by a cold, hard, bureaucratic, social worker,” writes Christie Davies, who does not see what I see. She chides the artist for having “locked himself into his glum apartment in Copenhagen with his dull…wife and produced dull, glum interiors which he sold to his dentist.”
But I think that Vilhelm understands that he has all he needs, even if he seldom leaves his house. Christie minces no words in expressing her repugnance towards the “bleak houses” and bare walls and the “total absence of cheerful, welcoming clutter.” But I find each quiet conundrum to be like the moment of a sharp intake of breath. In their very stillness one can hear the heart beating wildly.
Christie finds the Danes’ unusual claim to fame as top producers of hard-core pornography unsurprising in light of such art history. “Perhaps it is necessary to arouse them from their dreadful ennui…Better they add lithium, for their souls are eaten away by spiritual caries…We can see from Hammershoi's work that the Danish sky is an endless undifferentiated grey and there are no hills.”
Perhaps. Vilhelm and his wife really did live in the kind of minimalism he portrays, with walls and furniture they painted white themselves. We are painfully intimate to the artist’s awkward reservation. There is the sense of existing apart from the routine clatter and upheaval of life. Indeed, This indicates to me someone who was extremely sensitive and easily overwhelmed. Many said the painter had neurasthenia. This was a popular but vague diagnosis in his time, pointing to a variety of nervous conditions from dyspepsia to chronic fatigue to depression.
But I feel there is an attentiveness to beauty, even if it is redefined by minimalism. There is a sense of awe rather than alienation. There is a reverence towards mystery. It’s as if Hammershoi found solace, and soul, in his unique relationship to the world and to Ida. To some degree, he understood or made peace with his own limitations, and he accepted those of his wife. Maybe Vilhelm did not require bright colours and rolling hills for a deeply sensual experience of life.
In my study of art, I return time and time again to the writings of Thomas Moore. Moore writes more about music, psychology, God, and even golf than he writes about art, but as an especially gifted observer, he shows me how to see. A recurring theme throughout his work is that real depth of experience comes from entering fully into life’s mysteries, including the painful ones. Instead of viewing every uncertainty, imperfection, quirk, or heartbreak as a pathology that needs to be tidied up and fixed, we can open ourselves to what it reveals about our soul. It’s not that we should never strive for better; rather, Moore acknowledges that both the hands we are dealt and the choices we make lead us into a range of encounters that deepen our very humanity.
My sexy has been filled with tumultuous highs and nightmare fall outs, and looks nothing like the serene and vacant world of the Hammershois. Its excesses and lackings have been messy and fraught with dramatics, inconsistent and embarrassing. “Colourful” is a fitting, if polite, description. In contrast, what we can see of Hammershoi’s is reserved, restrained, almost elegant, in fifty shades of grey.
So very, very naked.
Art allows us to conjure the lives of others. The fact of fiction gives us access to other realities. In speculating on the private world that Hammershoi has revealed publicly through his art, I can’t help but thinking about Moore’s insights on love and sexuality in his books Soul Mates and The Soul of Sex. The paradox of finding such intense sensuality in the chaste, introverted renderings of this painter makes sense through Moore’s lense.
That Vilhelm paints interiors with such sensuousness is even more interesting in light of Moore’s observation that, “The word ‘intimacy’ means ‘profoundly interior.’ It comes from the superlative form of the Latin word ‘inter,’ meaning ‘within.’ It could be translated… ‘most within.’ In our intimate relationships, the ‘most within’ dimensions of ourselves and the other are engaged.’
There is a heartbreaking dispassion in Vilhelm’s artworks, rendered in the almost obsessive neutrality of his depictions. Yet the artist remains focused on his wife, allowing all of us to share his preoccupation. His idea of beauty is unadorned, to be certain, but there’s a sense of complete surrender to the terms of the relationship. There’s a tenderness sometimes absent in more raucous, racy, noisy ways of desire.
There is an exquisite intimacy within the seeming aloofness. Look at the rapt attention he pays to the naked curve of her slender neck. The few mussed tendrils against the bare skin are almost a fixation. Ida is a geisha. The nape, which the Japanese once saw as a woman’s most erotic aspect, is vulnerable and exposed.
Whatever the dynamics of their marriage, there is an understanding between them. There is no tension in the air, and the melancholy is balanced by some kind of reverence. “It isn’t easy to expose your soul to another, to risk such vulnerability, hoping that the other person will be able to tolerate your own irrationality,” Moore continues. “It may also be difficult…to be receptive as another reveals her soul to you. “ Such mutual vulnerability is “one of the great gifts of love.”
The gaze of the artist is almost fetishistic, and once you notice it, all the pretenses in the paintings and in your mind begin to unravel. You have a hundred questions. Is the woman waiting in vain to be touched by a man who is too tentative or tepid? Is she playing a losing game of temptation with a husband who is really married to his nervous disorders, or to his paintings? Was this as far as he could go, in his imagination?
Or, is this all that she will show him? Is this what she has had to become, for him?
The couple had no children. Is the barrenness of these pictures a more literal key?
These tantalizing scenarios toy with my inner voyeur, but I keep coming back to the lack of desperation in their distance. There is a comfortable certainty between them. Was the artist so reclusive that he found it safer just to look? Or was Ida the one who was aloof? That she never returns his gaze seems a reasonable clue. Perhaps he cannot bear for her to return his gaze. He is safe where he is. Perhaps she can only bear to be seen, not touched.
There is no sex in these paintings, and yet, I feel, that sex is part of their subject. It’s there right away, in our uneasiness when we first find ourselves inside of them. Sex is many things, gorgeous, topsy-turvy, sacred, complicated, ugly, absent. Sex is a shape shifter. Whenever we thing we’ve got the hang of it, figured it all out, come to terms with whatever it is we need to address or accept or change, it reinvents itself and takes us for another sort of ride.
We may find our ravenous curiousity about who is doing what to whom shameful and pathetic, but it’s rooted in more than lasciviousness. We are constantly trying to place ourselves and our shoulds and woulds and wouldn’ts on the human spectrum, and it’s a never-ending puzzle because where we find ourselves keeps changing. Every relationship and every unrequited desire changes the dynamic, exposing more of our interior world to ourselves and to others.
Sexuality is the theatre in which our most intense fears and weaknesses and our most painful wounds show themselves. Whatever our particular darkness, it rears its ugly head in our sexual dramas. It is where we enact our unresolved rage, losses, regrets, and betrayals. In it, our obsessions and compulsions are manifest. Conversely, it is also where our highest traits are brought to light. It is where we overcome our selfishness and heal deep-seated hurts. It is where we practice generosity, love, fearlessness, courage, openness, commitment, nurture, or self-control.
Hammershoi’s paintings are erotic hauntings. More frank treatments of sexuality, or vulgar ones, are in no short supply, and there are pragmatic perspectives and funny, bawdy ones, too. There are spellbinding explicit paeans to desire. But Vilhelm’s paintings remind us that sex is hidden. No matter how many times we have it, or don’t have it, analyze it, moralize it, medicalize it, avoid it, or confront it, there is still more mystery to fathom. In the deepest recesses of our psyches and our bodies is this mystery, the literal meaning of life, which we can never wholly grasp or catch up to. It is obscured even if we are addressing it directly, or doing it, for that matter. We return to it, over and over.
We have all of us evolved various defenses and compulsions in response to the heaven and hell or Eros. Vilhelm’s paintings of empty rooms and his evocative portrayals of his most intimate relationship reveal some of his. They are open-ended questions, with a silence that is all at once patient, reverent, despondent, and poetic.
He is on the outside looking in, while she is on the inside, looking away.
Lorette C. Luzajic
Lorette C. Luzajic is the editor of Ekphrastic, an artist, and the author of over fifteen books, including the poetry volumes, Solace, and The Astronaut's Wife. This piece originally appeared in her current book, Truck, and Other Thoughts on Art.
I am so happy to announce my newly released collection of reflections on art.
Truck, and Other Thoughts on Art
Lorette C. Luzajic
an Idea Fountain edition, 2015
click on title or image to view or purchase on Amazon.
This essay is long, but it seemed appropriate to run it after a Modigliani painting recently sold for one of the highest prices of all time. The piece is from my book, Fascinating Artists: twenty-five unusual lives.
In the essay, I gave my take on the "why" of exorbitant artworks, but Modigliani's life as a subject overall was extremely interesting. Enjoy.
Modigliani’s Lonely Masquerade (1884-1920)
“Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm, for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.”
Song of Solomon 8:6
There are few cocktails more potent than this one in the effortless seduction of women: intelligence; passion; an aura of wickedness; cultural sophistication; a host of vulnerabilities, begging a nurturing touch; a stormy, rugged physicality blended with features that seem childlike, almost feminine, in shifting lights; and the sublime erotic charge from a man who can apparently see one’s soul and body at the same time.
Viewing Modigliani’s remote, reverent, almost devout, sculptures and paintings, what woman wouldn’t want the thrill of Modi’s gaze, of his hands, his brush strokes, if only for a few days or hours? What woman would forego the profound mystery of unveiling herself to the artist, of feeling her defenses slip away, of feeling his hands form her body on his canvas? Such rhapsody could ruin a girl to lesser charms forever.
Everyone wanted Modigliani. The depth of this sensual tug can be felt a century later, flipping through collections of his work, standing in front of his models in museums the world over.
There is another element in our cocktail, one, when imbibed along with the others, guarantees instant and eternal intoxication. It is the threat of death.
In 1953, Felix Marti Ibanez captured something of this in Gentry Magazine. “Modigliani paints a woman, her neck like a swan’s, her eyes like jade, her mouth set in infinite sadness.”
There is a certain kind of immediacy and sensual urgency that come with the looming, dooming threat of death. Modigliani was sick with fevers, coughing, and alcoholism for most of his brief life. Meryle Secrest argues in Modigliani: a Life that his lifelong struggle with illness was the central force in his worldview, his passion, his art, and even his drug and alcohol addictions, which were born from the pain.
Not only for the one who is dying, but for those who love him, an expiration date, sensed or certain, stokes the flames. It is sex, after all, the making of love, the making of life, which cheats death. It is this grave phenomenon, I believe, that causes our intense attraction to train wrecks.
Nice men and women lament that though they long for stability, the “heart wants what it wants.” I believe that our strange penchants for prisoners, for cuckolding, for the wild child, for the self-destructive, for those whom we cannot have and hold, are rooted in the fleeting speed of life, in the glimmer of light under the shadow of death.
Ibanez writes: “A man who knows he is going to die, as Modigliani did, knows there is only one way to defeat death- to live fast. What is lost in duration must be made up for in intensity.”
This intensity was transferable to Modigliani’s passion for women, and whether or not these women understood tangibly the pending doom, the intuitive among them sensed it; their sensuality fed on it. Ibanez calls the artist’s women, “the most naked nudes in the history of art.” Later, he concludes that Modigliani’s figures, his women, seem “beyond death.” They are immortal, “ageless idols.”
Those with even a rudimentary interest in culture can immediately conjure the trademark immortal elegance of Modigliani’s women. His name is synonymous with a style of iconic elongation and mysterious, eyeless portraiture that is difficult to describe but instantly recognizable. The Modigliani brand, if you will, is a striking amalgamation of influences that include his fascination with primitivistic and classical sculpture, the mythology of pagan Rome, Egyptian art, African masks, and Jewish iconographic traditions. His portraits and stone head sculptures possess a distinctive blend of intelligence, eroticism, and religiosity.
Half of the portrayals of painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani focus on the artist as a tempestuous, brooding drunkard and drug addict, tortured by society and obsessed by his art. The other half laments the trivialization of genius and the clichés inherent in equating creative brilliance with the myth of insanity and addiction.
“Since Modigliani’s death in 1920,” Maurice Berger writes, (in the epilogue for Mason Klein’s Modigliani: Beyond the Myth), “discussions of his work have been motivated by similar clichés and half-truths about artistic practice and temperament. These histrionic, fundamentally anti-intellectual approaches to the study of the artist and his work, fixated as they are on the biographical triumvirate of debauchery, illness, and tragedy, have helped turn Modigliani into a trivial art historical figure, an artist adored by the public but viewed with condescension by many scholars and curators.”
It is true that Modigliani is woven into art histories as volatile and self-absorbed, drowning his torments in absinthe and laudanum, churning out bastard children along the way. Yet the academics that disavow the public’s fascination with tragedy and dismiss such a dismal picture as populist gossip miss a very important point: an annoying little thing called truth.
And in this case, what is very closely linked to the truth, is something of the essence of the Modigliani appeal.
Human nature embodies light and dark. Both are parts of us, and so of course we are often drawn to the darkness, that vast abyss of terrible mystery. Looking into it makes us cling to life. Between reality and our natural attraction to drama and narrative, we have the truth, which is seldom picture perfect.
Doom and gloom, however, is never enough on its own: the vast majority of dead drug addicts and drunks fade into forgotten obscurity. But pretentious disdain for scandalmongers and muckrakers does not take into account that art and biography are interchangeable. Many scholars discount this truth, dismissing the very essence of art- the artist himself. It is not his decadence alone that attracts. That is only one ingredient in that heady brew.
When academics assume an elite understanding of art, with their important but ultimately secondary theories of mastery and craftsmanship and composition; when they assume that their studied conclusions make them trusted tastemakers, they are sorely wrong. No theorizing or scholasticism can compete with or overshadow people’s preferences. And like it or not, those preferences are inexorably linked to the cult of personality.
There are a variety of reasons why we love art. In Modi’s case, there is an elegiac tension, a desperate life force under the serene elegance of his sensual portraits. In contrast to the volatile intensity with which he lived, these coolly erotic tributes gaze eternally, dispassionately, beyond. They are frozen under his heat.
Modigliani was born to Sephardic Jewish lineage in Italy in 1884, the same year that his affluent family lost everything in bankruptcy. Modi would continue in lifelong poverty. Chronic illness began early, with childhood fevers and pleurisy. This meant little Amedeo spent most of his time sick or convalescing. This was time he spent studying and practicing art, since both were passions and sedentary pursuits. Despite their crash into poverty, his family remained cosmopolitan and valued sophistication and culture. French, Spanish, and Italian were all spoken in his household. The works of poets and philosophers were considered mandatory for culture and enrichment- Nietzsche, Emerson, Wilde, Spinoza.
Because the child nearly died of typhoid fever, Modigliani’s mother reluctantly permitted him to quit high school. This gave the inquisitive youth free rein to libraries and daydreams and drawing lessons. Because of his health, he was sent to milder climes like Naples, Capri, Rome, and Venice, where as a teenage artist he practiced and studied in reputable studios. He also joined his superiors in the exchange of ideas in long conversations.
In adulthood, plagued by weak lungs and tuberculosis, Modi discovered that alcohol and laudanum helped quell coughing fits and convulsions and eased pain. His self-medicating became a furious dependency.
The saturation in art and poetry and religious history, and the penchant for intoxication may not have culminated in greatness had there been an absence of passion and love. But this gorgeous blend of intelligence and volatility with his sensuality was infinitely appealing to women. There was no shortage of paramours. In turn, his portraits of women, nude or clothed, are the pinnacles of his profound talent. Biographer June Rose describes him in Modigliani, the Pure Bohemian, as, “always with a beautiful girl by his side.” She surmises that, “Women pursued him and so many loved him that he must have been a marvelous lover, sensual, tender, and gravely courteous, but a dreamer…”
Whether one views the man as a lothario or a Romeo is irrelevant, perhaps, to the women who loved him. Modigliani was handsome and charming, but his turbulent moods and his penniless, sometimes homeless, existence were not exactly selling points. At some points, the artist was so desperate that he gave his work away in bistros in exchange for food, an absurd contrast to the multiple millions fetched by his works today. But these women were spellbound by his tragic beauty and by his talent.
Modigliani worked prolifically but earned very little money. This was in part due to his own exacting standards and tempestuous destruction of works he deemed sub-par. According to biographer Alfred Werner, the artist destroyed all of his earliest works as a young man in Paris, exclaiming, “Childish baubles, done when I was a dirty bourgeois!” The work he loved, he would trade for a meal or a place to say. He would also give to women the portraits he had made of them.
One of his most famous lovers was Beatrice Hastings, a poet and an educated eccentric who vigorously defended women’s rights to birth control ahead of her time. She sometimes carried a pet duck in a basket and lived a life of colourful adventure and coarse commentary. Though known for harsh descriptives of her lover- “spoilt,” “drunk,” and “unshaven,” among them- she also considered his artwork the real deal and showed it in her studio. Her influence helped him with several sales.
Another romance was with Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, better known as Anna Akhmatova, considered one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th century. She went on to write acclaimed masterpieces of witness to the Stalinist atrocities in her homeland. She met while honeymooning in Paris with her husband. Ultimately, Anna returned to her husband.
In Memoir of Modigliani, the poet writes about her love affair. “In 1910 I saw him very rarely, just a few times. But he wrote to me during the whole winter. I remember some sentences from his letter. One was: ‘Vous êtes en moi comme une hantise’ (you are obsessively part of me.)”
Anna went on to say, “Modigliani’s divine attributes were still veiled. He had the head of Antinous, and in his eyes was a golden gleam – he was unlike anyone in the world. I shall never forget his voice. He lived in dire poverty, and I don’t know how he lived. He enjoyed no recognition whatsoever as a painter…I thought even then that he clearly saw the world through different eyes to ours.”
There were countless other women who professed undying love. But perhaps the most tumultuous and tragic love affair was his final one, with Jeanne Hebuterne (who was played superbly by Elsa Zylberstein in the otherwise wretched flick, Modigliani.)
It was a doomed romance in many ways, not the least of which was Modi’s rapidly deteriorating health and alcoholism. There was also an age difference. Jeanne was nineteen, and Modigliani was over thirty. A major obstacle was Jeanne’s Catholic family, who reportedly hated Jews. It is likely Daddy may also have preferred someone who was not a bum. So when Jeanne found herself pregnant with Modi’s “illegitimate” child, her father went through the roof. Jeanne defied her family and moved into the artist’s squalid room, an unwise move that endangered their child but reflected the intensity of her passion and devotion. Making their home with a shared family bed on a dirty mattress in a filthy little room, Jeanne’s family was unmoved by their steps toward “legitimacy” when the pair married.
In Meryle Secrest’s book, she argues for the absolute centrality of the artist’s illness. She suggests that everything about him was born from this chronic, lifelong struggle. She argues that the enfant terrible shtick was a disguise that he conceived to hide his contagious tuberculosis from his peers. He needed to continue to function among them as he strove for creative recognition. If they’d known the truth about his illness, he would have been taken to a sanitarium and that would have been like prison for him.
“Here was no shambling drunk but a man on a desperate mission, running out of time and calculating what he had to do in order to go on working and concealing his secret for however long remained… It must have been a courageous and lonely masquerade.”
I think it’s possible that Modi could have kept his dying a secret through robust theatrics, but it’s unlikely his drug use was merely a “cover.” I am convinced that his tuberculosis and concurrent health issues were central to his story. I often maintain that denying the primacy of addictions or other details we don’t like in someone’s story is actually dehumanizing.
It’s also quite unlikely that Modigliani was the only artist in the Belle Epoque and pre-Jazz Age eras who hung around the cafes, parlours, galleries, and speakeasies without his fair share of decadent behaviour.
Nonetheless, Secrest’s focus on his illness remains highly insightful. For example, she suggests that the constant knowledge of pending death created, in part, his passion for life and love. The obsessive pace at which he worked could have been fuelled by the persistent idea that he was running out of time. Furthermore, the looming threat of death gave life a sense of preciousness and beauty.
Perhaps tuberculosis also granted to Modigliani a sense of artistic genuineness, a shared torturous bond. After all, it was how many greats met their maker, including Chopin, Keats, all three Bronte sisters, D.H. Lawrence, the great Chekhov, and many others. In this view, he may have also romanticized his own poverty and addiction as well as the TB, since as we discussed, madness itself had long been a perceived marker of the authenticity of the artist.
Today, appreciation of Modi’s genius is near universal, and his work sells for millions of dollars. Still, a group of pranksters committed a fraud in the early ‘80s to protest what they perceived as ludicrous and fickle trends in the art market. Making use of longstanding legends of Modigliani destroying his work, three youth tossed some stone sculptures into a canal where Modi, in a huff, had been rumoured to sink some poorly received works.
The art world was briefly aflame when draining the canal yielded pieces that every expert was sure had been created by Modigliani. The discovery was trumpeted the world over, but the excitement was short lived, as several of the pranksters came forward and confessed. They subsequently demonstrated their ability to create Modigliani-style sculpture to prove their abilities. The purpose of their hoax was to trump the authority of the art historian and expose the ludicrousness of value attribution in art trends.
There is some truth to what these students expressed, but this kind of thinking misses a few important points. One of the greatest indicators of value is rarity, whether in gemstones or haute couture or art collecting. When someone dies, naturally the rarity of their products increases, getting still more rare over time as works are lost or deteriorate. Secondly, it is asinine to assume that one’s ability to copy the style of another artist devalues that artist’s talent. Many masters of the fine arts learned and practiced by directly copying their masters before them. Perhaps these tricksters should pursue their own skills in art and imagination! There is nothing new under the sun, and despite the dazzling originality of Modigliani’s voice, his work too merged a number of influences, from Brancusi to El Greco to Egyptian history to Cycladic art to Jewish ethnographic portraiture.
But the most important factor that these hoaxers dismiss or fail to grasp is the power of essentialism. It may seem silly to be willing to pay a million for a sheet torn from Van Gogh’s sketchbook, and throw away the exact same drawing copied from him by Joe Shmo. And some will see this as evidence that all art is worthless, after all, or that the standards by which we judge art are faulty. But this misses the essence of art entirely.
Art is both worthless and priceless. In other words, it is worth only what someone will pay for it. I may find it absurd that anyone would pay millions for Rothko’s gargantuan sheets of muddled orange rectangles. But someone else chooses to pay that, and so it is they who set the price.
Because of essentialism.
The essence of art is not whether it is nearly impossible to create or reproduce, because nothing is. It is in the fact that a particular person touched it, put their heart into it, their skin cells, their presence, their time and labour and love.
There are many facets in the lure of essentialism. It may be the dizzy edge of a brush with death, in the case of those drawn towards objects owned by serial killers or pieces of a dead movie star’s crashed car. Or, an object can act as a time machine, when we know that our great-grandmother used a family heirloom, or that something existed a thousand years ago and we now behold it in a museum. Essentialism is a bridge of geography, bringing us the world, in the case of artifacts that were taken from another country. There are many, many reasons why the essence of an object might give us pleasure. We may enjoy the fact that it was made by or in the presence of a person with intelligence, rarity, greatness, heroism; perhaps it is, for us, our brush with a warrior, with a celebrity we love, with supreme physical prowess, with history, with genius, or divinity, or a family tie.
The unique talents and story of Modigliani mean that some people care a great deal about things that he made and touched. These same people do not care about sculptures carved by some unknown engineering student or dockworker, even if they possessed the technical skill of replication. The making of a thing is not in and of itself enough. We want that link to the individual creator.
It is this grim fact to which I relegate my own anonymity, a fact that millions of other struggling artists must also accept. Those who do purchase my work must perceive at least a shimmer of brilliance or beauty; perhaps they find me insightful or funny. I am deeply grateful to these supporters, but in the scheme of the universe, they are few and far between. It is highly likely that in my lifetime or after it, few will care enough about the objects I have touched, including my paintings, to pay dividends just to have my ghost nearby.
Essentialism is a concept delved into at length by Yale scientist Paul Bloom in How Pleasure Works. He explains with great clarity the unconscious impact essentialism has on our choices and our pleasures. The desire to own an original Modigliani stems from the same place in our soul that values a ballplayer’s autograph. A forger can easily copy Michael Jackson’s or Marilyn Monroe’s signature. But the real deal is far more valuable, because Monroe touched the pen and the paper herself.
The idea of transference of essence, that an object can carry a part of the person, is the driving logic behind sympathetic magic. Note that hexes and spells cannot work unless their targets and initiators believe. And when there is belief, it is powerful, and primitive, and as irrational as love.
This sympathetic magic is it is common for people to sleep with the clothing of a deceased or otherwise gone partner. They are holding on to some part of who they have lost. It is why people believe psychics can “see” better when holding the belongings of a lost child or dead relative.
We pass our wedding rings and baby shoes down through our family, and they are treasured beyond riches even when their monetary value is worthless.
These impulses are the same ones many of us condemn when we hear about some pervert nicking a girl’s knickers off the floor to take home with him, or when we read in the paper about some weirdo keeping his victim’s finger or stuffed animal as a “trophy.”
Beautiful or disgusting, the power of essentialism should not be underestimated. Consider its deep resonance in religion- supposed relics of Christ’s cross or shroud or bones of the saints are deeply revered. At its most extreme and most primitive, the near-universal trait in history of ritual cannibalism is driven by essentialism, the desire to imbibe the traits of a person, whether as a warrior or as an ancestor, to keep him or her as a part of one forever, a way to integrate their essence.
Essentialism is a profound intimacy, a relationship, a defense against our own lonely masquerade.
All of this is why I argue that an artist’s biography is inextricably linked to his or her work. His life story, his struggles, his scandals, his thoughts all matter when it comes to assessing our connection to him. When some scholars argue against the maudlin sentimentality of masses glomming onto tragedy, claiming that artwork should stand apart from the personality that created it, they are missing the point. It is the relationship we have with a person, perceived or actual, that increases the value of their cultural contribution. It is the perceived intimacy that determines how deep our attachment will run. Their essence is a conglomeration of all these life experiences.
Their original art is the essence of their essence, if you will.
As Bloom observes, much of the pleasure or connection we derive from art, much of its value, is, “rooted in an appreciation of the human history underlying its creation.”
Modigliani held a powerful erotic charge through his passions, his trials, and his talents. His illustrative skills were important to his women, who gave up their mighty comforts and good reputations- indeed, their very lives- to be with him.
The art remains our tie to this charismatic personality and the strong tide he exerted over our emotions. His excesses and tragedies are not merely the fodder of the unwashed masses. They are an inescapable essence in the artwork itself. They are vital, they are its vitality. According to Oxford, the word “vital” means, “critical” or “absolutely necessary.” Elsewhere, it turns up full circle as “essential.”
And if you go all the way back to its roots, the etymology of “vital” is “life” itself.
We can get close to Modigliani by examining his paintings, and even closer by contemplating his originals. Januszczak writes, “When you lean closer to any example of a pale and silent madonna, clothed or unclothed, you discover brushwork that is always restless and insouciant and brave.”
Essentialism is not rational, but neither are the other profound mysteries and joys in life, from the varieties of religious experiences to falling in love.
If Jeanne had been more rational, she would have stayed with her family and raised her baby, eventually finding a suitor who could provide her with stability. But in all probability, she was, in that blush of youth, powerless to help herself.
She couldn’t live without Modigliani, so she stayed with him. In the end, Jeanne was sure that she could remain with him, that they could merge essences, if she experienced death, too. When he died at thirty-six, of excess and of tuberculosis meningitis, Jeanne concluded their epic love in a garish finale.
Mary Morton writes, “Two days after his death, poor Jeanne, pregnant with their second child, jumped to her death out of a window of her parents’ apartment, sealing the romantic tragedy of the Modigliani myth with a gruesome flourish.”
Young Jeanne could not live without him; now the rest of us who are moved by his life and talents want a piece of him.
I cherish his vision of beauty and sorrow and passion through reproductions of his work. Through these, his story, his essence, lives on, especially in the treasured originals in museums and private homes.
And I can go there, to the gallery, to transcend a century, to stand beside him, just to be in proximity of a portrait, near a canvas, near him, near anything, something that was touched by his hands.
Lorette C. Luzajic
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