We all know the story of Vincent van Gogh who perilously swiped off his ear in despair following arguments with Gauguin. Having sold just one of the circa 900 paintings produced in his lifetime, posthumously he’s one of the most famous artists in the world. Aged 18 Frida Kahlo suffered serious injuries in a near fatal bus crash. It was a moment that changed her life forever as it was whilst confined to her bed she took up the paintbrush. In June 1968 Andy Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanas. Reportedly pronounced dead at the hospital, the bullet tore through his lungs, oesophagus, spleen and stomach. He survived after five hours of surgery.
In 1975 Dutch-born Californian based conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader endeavoured to sail across the Atlantic in a thirteen-foot sailboat in his piece ‘In Search of the Miraculous’. Setting sail from Cape Cod and bound for Falmouth, England three weeks into his journey radio signal was lost. Under a year later his boat was found off the Irish shore and Ader was declared lost at sea. This follows his 1970 series of gravity-defying ‘fall’ performances captured in photography and snippets of film. Since his death, in the art world Ader has been imbued with the mythic status of someone prepared to literally die for their art. Can we then ask: what is the impact of storytelling on the perceived persona of an artist and how do artists create their own myth?
Director and fellow emigrant filmmaker Rene Daalder revisited Ader’s story in his 2008 documentary ‘Here is always Somewhere Else’ in which Bill Leavitt, a friend of Ader, confessed in an interview that his memory of the artist has all but disappeared behind the legend:
When I see this picture [of Ader]…I recognise the face but it’s like somebody else all of a sudden…at the time we were friends I had no idea I was friends with a myth.
Assistant Curator of A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance Fiontan Moran recently talked about how artist documentaries can affect the way we think about an artist and their work. Jackson Pollock and David Hockney are both immortalised in film in completely different ways. Pollock’s chain smoking, paint throwing, overtly masculine private performance made public seems instinctual, visceral and raw. Hockney on the other hand participates in a series of semi-constructed scenes setup by director Jack Hazan and his vibrant, dandyish persona brought to the fore.
Then there is the big, glossy, modern ‘Hollywood’ biopic. The lives of hugely successful 20th century artists such as Francis Bacon, Kahlo and once again Pollock have been dramatised in films starring Daniel Craig, Salma Hayek, and Ed Harris.
So then, does a good story surrounding an artist’s life make for a better artwork? Does a life is shrouded in myth, legend and intrigue make an artist’s work more interesting? Do you have to weave a story to be an artistic success?
Tate Debate sponsored by Vodafone