Archive for the Favorite failed artist stories Category

NOTE: This is not a book review. This is just a head’s up to all you hungry CAFAians out there.

I just picked up a (relatively) new book by the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest Press about artistic failure. Called Failure! Experiments in Aesthetic and Social Practices, it’s a low-budget, special-interest sort of publication (supposedly published two years ago–though there’s no date on the copyright page) that appears to contain a good amount of the dense, almost unreadable academic-style writing you often find in curator-driven vanity monographs that art centers often “publish.” I say this without having really dug into the book yet (though I intend to soon), and admit that what I have read thus far has been pretty compelling. The editors seem overall to take a whippet-smart approach to examining the very hot issue of failure in art (and politics and society, yadda yadda) (though they also seem to be, at least from the note I received from them about an earlier version of this post, somewhat testy, and for little reason).

I may (or may not) post more about this text in the near-future, but for now here’s a sampling (from the book’s intro), which could have fit in well with some of what’s been written thus far on the very webblog you’re reading now:

Just as any human enterprise is defined by what it excludes, it is a culture’s failure–quickly forgotten, repressed, buried away–which have the most to say about that culture’s beliefs and values. Our project is conceived of as part of the archeology of thos lost failures, a way of bringing to light our own culture’s aberrations…. The work in this book takes different approaches to failure. Some writers investigate failure’s root causes (both specifically and generally), in an attempt to understand why things fail. Others use the idea of failure as a way to reinterpret our relationship to history and progress, while still others question the rhetoric of failure and success altogether.

An alert Friend of Failure sent the text to J.K. Rowling’s recent Harvard commencement address, wherein she credits failure for her eventual success.

…Why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.

“We should not forget that 99 percent of all art-making attempts are failures.”
-Phillip Lopate, Portrait of My Body

My favorite story of artistic failure happens to be among the first such story. Honore de Balzac wrote the long short story Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu (”The Unknown Masterpiece”) in 1831. It was first published in the newspaper L’Artiste with the title “Maître Frenhofer” and tells the quintessential story of an artist driven insane by the failed pursuit of his art.

Plot summary: Balzac’s story takes place nearly two centuries before, in the early 17th century, when the young and still unknown artist Nicolas Poussin, visits another painter, named Porbus, in his studio. With him is the famous old master Frenhofer (who, unlike Poussin and Porbus, is fictional), who comments that a painting by Porbus seems unfinished. Frenhofer picks up a brush, makes some slight touches on it, and transforms the figure in Porbus’s painting so she appears to come to life.

The two marvel at the mastery Frenhofer has over his technique, but the old painter has to admit that he is frustrated in his own work. He has been unable, for the past ten years, to complete his one great masterpiece, which he calls La Belle noiseuse (”The Beautiful Troublemaker”). To help the old master, Poussin offers his own lover, Gilette, as a potential model, and Gilette’s beauty is so great that it inspires Frenhofer to finish his project quickly. However, when Poussin and Porbus visit Frenhofer’s studio some time later to view the painting, they see instead a mass and swirl of crazed brushstrokes and mishmashed colors. In fact, despite Frenhofer’s belief in the great beauty of the painting, all the two young and bemused artists can make out in the work is part of a foot. In the end, their disappointment in the painting drives Frenhofer over the edge into madness, and he destroys the painting and kills himself.

What I like most about this story is its absolute truthfulness and keen perception in examining certain key features of the artistic drive. While Poussin and Porbin are the rare workmanlike and analytical artists, especially when it comes to their own work, Frenhofer is stifled by an absolute desire for greatness, the hubris of wanting to create a true and historic masterpiece (importanitis). He is blinded by his creative urges to his own failings and the (lack of) quality of his output, though not of others (artistic delusion; artists are their own worst enemies). He is so driven by some his internal artistic urges and his conviction of their greatness, that he is unaware what his work is unappealing, inept, and a complete mess.

Like many such blind, proud, and deluded artists, when he realizes the depths of his failed vision for himself and his work, when he learns that all his burning efforts to create the great masterpiece he is sure he is capable of are in vain, Frenhofer is devastated, driven to insanity, and he can no longer live.

Does this sound like any artists we know? (Hint: To some degree or another, every artist that CAFA has profiled is, in his or her own way, a modern Frenhofer; indeed, it’s quite likely that 99-percent of all artists are.)

OK, so I’d intended to write a follow-up post on the issue of artistic competition by now, but, as it turns out, I’ve been distracted. Maybe I have a decent enough excuse—today was my birthday, after all, so there was that to attend to. But whatever the case, I apologize for the delay, and promise to have something for you by tomorrow.

In the meantime, here’s a song about an artist growing old. It’s by self-taught artist and folk musician Daniel Johnston, whose work was included in the last Whitney Biennial. Compelling stuff, methinks. Hope you enjoy (until I can get back to the blogstone).

by Daniel Johnston
Listen up and I’ll tell a story
About an artist growing old
Some would try for fame and glory
Others aren’t so bold

Everyone, and friends and family
Saying, “Hey! Get a job!”
“Why do you only do that only?
Why are you so odd?

We don’t really like what you do.
We don’t think anyone ever will.
It’s a problem that you have,<
And this problem’s made you ill.”

Listen up and I’ll tell a story
About an artist growing old
Some would try for fame and glory
Others aren’t so bold

The artist walks alone
Someone says behind his back,
“He’s got his gall to call himself that!
He doesn’t even know where he’s at!”

The artist walks among the flowers
Appreciating the sun
He does this all his waking hours
But is it really so wrong?

They sit in front of their TV
Saying, “Hey! This is fun!”
And they laugh at the artist
Saying, “He doesn’t know how to have fun.”

The best things in life are truly free
Singing birds and laughing bees
“You’ve got me wrong”, says he.
“The sun don’t shine in your TV”

Listen up and I’ll tell a story
About an artist growing old
Some would try for fame and glory
Others aren’t so bold

Everyone, and friends and family
Saying, “Hey! Get a job!”
“Why do you only do that only?
Why are you so odd?

We don’t really like what you do.
We don’t think anyone ever will.
It’s a problem that you have,
And this problem’s made you ill.”

Listen up and I’ll tell a story
About an artist growing old.
Some would try for fame and glory
Others just like to watch the world.

All this talk about Vincent van Gogh has got me thinking a bit about how artists often ruthlessly back-stab, undercut, and undermine each other in order to get themselves ahead. I recently wrote a quick essay on the subject of artistic competition for a project by the artist Monica Sheets, which began:

ARTISTS AND ART LOVERS OFTEN CREDIT COLLABORATION as a prime driver of creative expression. But if one examined the actual record of artistic accomplishment, one would find that togetherness and cooperation aren’t a very common spur to artistic efforts. Rather, artists often are driven in their creativity by baser impulses: jealousy, vindictiveness, competitiveness, even pure hatred.

Call it “creative differences” if you will, but head-to-head battles abound in art history…

Such behavior makes a certain amount of sense when you consider that artists struggle for a very small pool of reward. On one level, it’s simple and basic law-of-the-jungle behavior. At the same time, it may also just be that artistic people tend to be more high-strung and high-maintenance than their non-artistic counterparts.

Two recent stories bear out both theories. One, an account by Joseph Harriss, in the Smithsonian magazine, of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin’s life together for two months in Arles, for instance, relates numerous examples of the “creative sparks that flew when these two opinionated avant-garde artists came together in the South of France.” At the key moment, Van Gogh, upon learning his friend planned to leave their “poor little yellow house” after only two months (instead of the planned six months) threw a glassful of absinthe at Gauguin’s head and ran after him in the street hurling wild accusations; then, sometime before the next day, there was that whole cutting-off-the-ear episode (the exact circumstances of which we may never know).

Leading up to this climactic moment, of course, it was clear that Gauguin and van Gogh—though connected by an artistic affinity—were not compatible as people. Their work styles were different, Gauguin approaching each work in a more measured, plotted and composed, intellectual manner, van Gogh working with impetuous, “pell-mell,” poetic and manic energy. Whereas Gauguin worked to build up thin layers of color that affected certain moods, van Gogh’s technique was replete with gestural strokes and an impasto accretion of paint. “Their ideas on art differed greatly,” the article quotes Andreas Blühm, former head of exhibits at the Van Gogh Museum. “[While in Arles] they influenced each other to a degree, and then went back to their original styles.”

The two also clashed over ideas. “Our arguments are terribly electric,” van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. “We come out of them sometimes with our heads as exhausted as an electric battery after it has run down.” Ultimately, according to the article, Gauguin grew contemptuous of van Gogh’s intellect, citing his friend’s “disordered brain” and “absense of reasoned logic.”

Still, the real reason for the dissolution of the friendship may have been simple and petty feelings of jealousy and competition. A few weeks after Gauguin’s stay in Arles, Theo van Gogh sold a number of the artist’s paintings in Paris, giving him more money than he’d had in years, and Gauguin began thinking immediately of leaving Arles to go to Martinique, where he’d start a “Studio of the Tropics.” The portraits that each artist painted of each other in this time period—in their posing, composition, and rendering—were tense, loaded with “defensive and aggressive implications.”

After the glass-tossing, street-shouting incident, Gauguin left on a night train for Paris. The two artists never met again. A few months later, in early 1889, van Gogh entered the asylum in Saint-Rémy, and just about a year later he shot himself.

In 1891, Gauguin finally abandoned his family (back in Denmark) for good and moved to Tahiti. He became ill (possibly of syphilis) and developed a drug addiction. In 1892, he attemped suicide with poison, but he failed. He died of a heart attack, broke, in 1903 in the Marquesas Islands at the age of 55.

I can’t help but wonder whether either artists’ lives would have been different had their relationship not been fraught with mutual competition, back-biting, and intense jealousy; had they managed instead to inspire each other mutually and provide support in each of their struggles.  These questions, of course, are naive and moot. Not only can we never have an answer to them, but competition, jealousy, and ruthlessness are ever the artist’s bread and butter.  So intense and inbred is this behavior that Paul Gauguin, tellingly, continued exhibiting it years after van Gogh was gone.

Toward the end of his life, Gauguin, realizing that van Gogh’s reputation (even in death) was growing faster than his own , began to refer to his former friend as “crazy.” He wrote in 1903 that his stay in Arles was for purposes of “enlightening” a struggling and lost van Gogh. “From that day on,” he claimed, “my van Gogh made astonishing progress.” Gauguin even attempted to alter chronology to date van Gogh’s sunflower paintings after his arrival in Arles.

Even in death, even at the end of life—when nothing else was stake other than reputation—an artist will without a thought throw a fellow artist under the train.

Et tu, artifex?

(Note: A second story of the tragic consequences of artistic competition and mutual jealousy will follow in the next few days.)

Considering the topic of the previous post, I’ve decided here to dig out an old essay I wrote on Vincent van Gogh, in which I puzzled over the artist’s unlikely apotheosis to the front of the line of eternally favorite artists. Enjoy.

What Vincent van Gogh Means to Us Today

By Michael Fallon

News Item: Aug. 4, 2003
AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (Toby Sterling, Associated Press) - “Film of Van Gogh allegedly discovered.”

“Photography was still young and celluloid film had scarcely been invented when Vincent van Gogh committed suicide in 1890. Yet a team of Dutch filmmakers claimed Monday it has made a documentary about a snippet of film shot that year in which the artist allegedly appears…. According to Lumineus Film Productions producer Jeroen Neus, Van Gogh was attending a welcoming party for a new pastor in Zundert when he was coincidentally captured on film for a few seconds by an early film enthusiast. The film supposedly lay for almost a century in a damp attic before it was discovered in 1984 and restored.”

I WAS NOT SURPRISED to read the above news, for I’ve long thought that Van Gogh is accorded a near-Messianic status among the art lovers of the world. Of course we all know there’s little chance that the figure in the film is actually the artist, but it’s pretty to think so–in the same way we are fascinated to hear about Jesus Christ’s visage in a potato chip, or the Virgin Mary stain on a brick wall (or Elvis at the local minimart, for that matter).

In the art world, Vincent Van Gogh has a cult following and his paintings are granted the status of sacred relics–their worth is almost incalculable. The most expensive painting ever sold was a Van Gogh–his “Portrait of Dr.Gachet” was bought by Ryohei Saito in 1990 for $85 million. The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam is one of the city’s top tourist stops, drawing 1.3 million visitors last year, according to once source. Last March marked huge celebrations of the artist on the occasion of his 150th birthday. The Dutch village of Zundert, where he was born, has named 2003 the “Van Gogh Year” in his honor.

Meanwhile, any institutions that are fortunate enough to have a relic of the artist’s hand are given cathedral status. (”Does the Arts Institute have a Van Gogh?” is a question I’ve heard more than once.) Van Gogh’s work is revered more than any other art saint’s (perhaps only Leonardo’s work competes). “He is a big name like Einstein and Beethoven,” said Andreas Bluehm, head of exhibitions at the Van Gogh Museum. “We are always amazed by how popular he is and his popularity seems to be growing.”

One can only speculate why Van Gogh has attained such luminance. Yes, his paintings have a certain magic to them–they’re at once colorful, expressionistic, and edgy but still easily accessible. Still, just to compare, Gaugin was a far better painter than Van Gogh; Cezanne was more innovative and influential to the generation of the artists who followed him, and fellow post-impressionists like Georges Seurat and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec made more immediately eye-catching images.

If anything, Van Gogh was an eccentric in art history, a painter with an anomalous style of fairly negligible influence. After all, as we often hear, Van Gogh was a complete flop in his own time and sold but one painting while he lived (a mediocre and muddy effort called “The Red Vineyard”). And he has no direct artistic lineage into the twentieth century.

Many might suggest his popularity has to do with the sensational facts of his life–his scandalous love for a pregnant prostitute and for a cousin, that whole episode with his ear, his falling-out with the painter Gaugin, his institutionalization for mental illness, his suicide at the age of 37 in 1890. Much of the turmoil of his life is well documented in his paintings–the madness that tormented him is apparent in the eyes and swirling color of his later self-portraits, and in the wild fantasy of his most famous painting, “Starry Night.”

But for my money, these facts of his life don’t quite add up to his paramount status. After all, a lot of artists through the ages have been troubled or scandalous or infamous. Andrea dal Castagno was involved in murder and other mayhem; Michelangelo feuded publicly with popes; J. L. David had a hand in the French revolution and was nearly executed, and so on–and none of these artists are nearly the icon that Van Gogh is.

Instead, I think Van Gogh’s status today says something about our age, and the ideals we strive to attain as a culture. Van Gogh represents to many modern people the quintessential romantic dreamer, a cultural-creative Don Quixote-cum-urban hipster who was above the quotidian trials of daily life. Because of the obstacles he overcame to paint, and the single-minded passion he brought to the task, Van Gogh is representative of the burning, soul-wrenching passion to create that we want to believe lies at the heart of human experience. In this, he is an archetypical ideal. His life represents all the risks we wish we could take but are not brave enough to–giving up the day job and all the bourgeois comforts of middle class, dropping out of society and fleeing to the south of France, attempting to establish an artists commune and above all else burning to make up for the time lost in genuflecting to the daily fucking grind.

He gave up the day jobs–the comfortable life he could have had if he’d found any pleasure dealing art, teaching in a boarding school, preaching to Belgian coalminers–and in his late 20s set out to follow his passion, painting, in the biggest possible way. Here’s the truly unique fact of Vincent Van Gogh: he knew what he wanted to do, and he set out to do it despite its unconventionality. And he did it damn well despite that he attained absolutely no material success for it (and despite the fact that his early work shows little conventional talent for it).

It’s a pet theory of mine that humans are born with an endless capacity for passion, but everyone in our lives–parents, teachers, bosses, society-at-large–conspires to wean us of this trait. If you’ve ever heard a baby shouting for her mother’s milk, who is certain only in the knowledge that she is surely going to die of this hunger-pain, then you know how raw and human this sort of emotion is. Yet when’s the last time you felt remotely like that inner infant? If we think on it, passion is a great evolutionary tool. When we somehow find it in ourselves, not only does it help us perpetuate the species but it also spurs us to attempt great things–build bridges, make sculptures, invent life-saving devices–even if everyone you know is telling you it’s a damn fool mistake. Passion helps us say “scupper the consequences,” and it lies at the heart of most of our culture’s most meaningful achievements.

Unfortunately, nowadays we live in a well-mannered age, a time when all the passion has been drained from our manner of living. We spend endless empty hours on the freeway, sitting at a desk in front of one cathode-ray tube or another, attending PTA meetings or watching kids practice soccer at a park, avoiding our own lives with diversion and entertainments, and doing very little of any creative significance. Our lives are anything but passionate. Our age is an age of anti-passion.

Is it any wonder then that art is so popular a practice now? We all dream of being a closet Van Gogh–chucking our shit jobs, our credit debt, and all the chintz that fills our crackerbox houses to live a life more meaningful and real, to be the passionate humans we are meant to be. No wonder there are so many more people who claim to be artists than ever before (2.5 million according to the last census), and no wonder we worship the painter Van Gogh so–we’re all looking for a glimpse of the natural creative passion that is our birthright.

“No more bread.” –Said by a baker to Vincent van Gogh; the painter had been exchanging paintings to the baker for food. (I wrote this in my notebook during my visit to Dean Fleming at the Libre Commune; I think I saw it in a book I had pulled from his bookshelf to read in bed while sleeping in the extra room at Fleming’s geodesic studio/home, but I can’t recall for certain.)

“I feel—a failure.” –Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother written after visiting Docter Gachet in Auvers. While in Auvers, van Gogh completed dozens of paintings and drawing, including a portrait of the doctor that later, in 1990, would sell for $82.5 million (the highest price ever for a painting sold in auction—proving “failure” is a relative term). At the end of his two-month stay in Auvers on July 27, 1890, at age 37, the painter would shoot himself in the stomach, and he would die two days later.

Because this site by design is concerned with the lofty idea of chronicling systemic artistic failure–following developments in arts policy, art world economics, the social condition of art, and the like–it may sometimes seem disconnected from the struggles of real artists on the ground. But of course, the reason I look at and write about these forces is because I am truly concerned about their effect on artists.

What I mean to say is, in the midst of my rants and deep investigations of this country’s unjust treatment of the arts I do realize we should remember the struggling artists who have come and gone and are still yet to fail. We should remember them and try to keep others from following in their miserable footsteps.

So, to remember the struggles of artists I’m introducing a new regular feature on CAFA, Favorite Failed Artist Stories.

And here’s the first story, Amedeo Modigliani:

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani (1884–1920) was an Italian artist who, following the long-standing tradition, moved to Paris in 1906 to work as a painter. He worked furiously when he arrived in that town, making myriad images first influenced by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, then, in 1907, by Paul Cezanne. Eventually he developed his own unique style, one that cannot really be grouped with other avant garde artists of the time.

Not only was Modigliani’s style unique, but his behavior also stood out among his peers of the time, even considering the Bohemian standards they upheld. He carried on frequent affairs, drank heavily, and used absinthe and hashish. While drunk at social gatherings, he would sometimes strip himself naked. In time, his childhood tendency toward illness was exacerbated by poverty, overwork, and self-abuse. His health declined. On January 24, 1920, Modigliani died of tubercular meningitis. He was 35. The following evening, his common-law wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, leapt to her death from a fifth-story window. She was eight months’ pregnant with their second child,

And here’s the kicker of the story:

During the 1920s, in the wake of Modigliani’s early death and spurred on by comments by the critic Andre Salmon, who credited hashish and absinthe as the progenitors of Modigliani’s unique style, many hopeful young artists tried to emulate this “success” by embarking on a path of Modiglianian substance abuse and bohemian excess. This was encouraged by Salmon’s claim that whereas Modigliani was a rather pedestrian artist when sober, “…from the day he abandoned himself to certain forms of debauchery, an unexpected light came upon him, transforming his art.”

This rallying cry—toward debauchery and excess—has grown to become the modern hallmark of the romantic soul longing to be a tragic, doomed artist. For this—the great seed source of failed artists everywhere—we can thank Modigliani and his posthumous propagandist Salmon!