Pinot Gallizio Documentation, Industrial Painting c1958
Pinot Gallizio
Documentation, Industrial Painting c.1958

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.

Jack Hazan A Bigger Splash 1974 Courtesy Jack Hazan and David Mingay, distributed by the British Film Institute © Buzzy Enterprises Ltd.
Jack Hazan
A Bigger Splash 1974

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?

You decide.


Tate Debate sponsored by Vodafone


No, you don't have to weave a story to be an artistic success--there are plenty of anecdotes surrounding Frank Stella, for instance, but, overall, he has a led a family-oriented and noncontroversial life--but it does help. The more immediate question is, to what extent does weaving a story substitute for a lack of artistic talent? Van Gogh, I think, especially with his dealer brother Theo, would have been a great anyway.

Fine Art is something only humans do, that makes artists stand out in creation, which can lead to events and circumstances which amount to a story beyond the normal human experience. That said, it is not essential to an artists success, its just normally an outcome of artistic skill.

The biggest beneficiaries of the artist's story are those concerned with selling and marketing the artist. Once an artist has completed a work, in the long run it is only the work that matters. Myths and backstories are about the artist. They are not about the art.

Artist today, have to be, unfortunately lumped together with imbeciles. Buisness men and women with only profit on there mind and the fools who stand with finger on chin nodding their head saying " ah yes, it's clear to me this piece speaks of....." Are even bigger fools who are just greatfull to be around anyone! Knowing absolute nothing and fearing that if this say it's rubbish somehow they will look stupid (reminds me about the story of the emperors new clothes!) Could, I dare say, find themselves while staring at fecal matter! Art used to mean something before fools came and now we have to stomach them trying to express themselves with the intellect of an orange peel!

There has and will always be a cult of celebrity which is irresistible to the creative mind. Perhaps today, more than ever this is evident in the figure of the modern artist who is often seen more as a character study or a psychological case rather than exclusively an artist. When the public gives in more and more to this type of attention, the artist, in their state of great observance to the world around them is bound to seize the opportunity to make themselves into a sort of artwork.

Painting, as much as bullfighting, is truly an international blood sport. Funny thing is the game's end clock is always set to "now." A fool plays for a paycheck; our iconic nature plays in memoriam the self--the living artist, of course, must play the fool from time to time, yet, absent crystal ball, can merely hope one's work survives.