Thursday, December 05, 2019
Great Lives No. 22
Before he was famous he wasn't an artist at all. You can only be famous as an artist once you are famous. A vicious or maybe viscose circle. His father was also an artist but his work belonged in a different genre and he was tragically killed in a mysterious encounter with a railway train by which time he was a proud grandparent. A swift and sad end for a commercial artist but he had also made a small fortune from illustrations and book sales, so the family recovered.
So junior continued his career in the beam of a comfortable spotlight. There was a kind of technical ecstasy and bewilderment when the soon to be fully famous artist revealed that he used eggs for his paintings, eggs to make up the paint. This goes back to some other century but the eggs remained fresh if controversial. The yolk must be separated from the white before the pigment is added, a tricky start to the working day. He had the grace and habit of living in the countryside and leading what was described in a documentary as an idyllic life. It was an ongoing and privileged upbringing with food and sunshine and funny tricks and japes. Oh how they laughed. This did not go unnoticed.
Once the eggs were ready to be used in anger it became more about bothering local farmers, hiding in barns and peeking through the weathered timbers of rustic doors. Often the wind would arrive from Ireland, far across the sea and disturb the curtains at a critical moment. All this went on for a while, there were marriages and families and artistic subjects were befriended in a kind of creepy way but they all went along with it because of a kind of strange fear. Some were unwell, unkempt or wrinkled but made good subject matter as this was still the dark ages before television. It was a business really and those boats and parties wouldn't pay for themselves and the farmers didn't mind as they were steady types, quaint and quiet and they accepted eccentric behaviour because it was common in most parts of the then USA. So lives and situations were captured in about twenty times the time it would have taken if a camera had simply been used but this is the sort of creative tactic that the critics love, that and the laborious repeated egg use and not taking easy shortcuts.
Then one day a lady called Helga arrived and nobody knew about her, not even the famous wife of the famous artist. She was exotic and sombre. Over a period of time she was painted by him 267 times and in secret, it was all happening but in the margins in an attic room. The paintings were hidden in the loft but were eventually released like caged birds and everybody was shocked but they still paid $6m dollars for a good look and then resold them to people in Japan in a cynical sales move. Newspapers even caught on and so did the famous critics. Helga was made famous by egg paint just as Kodak was going out of business. If I had described this sequence of events more accurately it might be seen as quite ironic but that hardly matters now. Through all the rough and tumble they remained friends an even his wife forgave him after she saw the colour of the money coming in. About now they bought an island.
After a while he befriended some townspeople and painted them while they were asleep or eating dinner or leaning out of windows. He would sneak in at all hours and sneak out at all other hours and often cause a disturbance that everybody said was humorous. Because he was a famous artist the police or the social workers were never called and the tittle tattle was welcomed by the locals. It made the town seem interesting. Sometimes he'd work and lose track of time because despite being strong in the interpretation of light and colours he failed to notice that daylight was fading or that his subjects were bored and tired. This is dangerous and obsessive behaviour in anybody's book in my opinion, but was never called out as it should have been.
It seems that being good at painting allows you to be an acceptable social deviant and the local weirdo and that people will make allowances because you have a talent. People are often kind and surprising in that way even if somebody isn't all that likeable or their manner is disturbing. We all just put up with stuff now and again to over indulge spikes of genius. Anyway there are lot of his paintings left and most of them hang in fine museums and purpose built whiter than white galleries. Some are prints now, displayed in fine homes or on coasters and have become geeky talking points in the background of scenes in Simpson's episodes. That is a true measure of fame and acceptance and it's all fine because society has been enriched (according to academics) and we now see ourselves as we really are.
When he died at a ripe old age many people were understandably sad so they buried him by the famouus farm. Once the cold stone was carved with as few words as possible life just carried on and the paintings remained popular and most folks agreed that it had all be worthwhile if at times a little unconventional and unsettling. This is one of the primary jobs of artists; to unsettle people as you record the dullness of their grey and futile lives, their deterioration into old age and juxtapose all that with the corresponding beauty of their natural surroundings. Time has at last passed and a retrospective view is possible and of course you can't please all of the people all of the time and you can't easily get a dairy cow to stand still for a portrait but you can always try. Dead black crows hanging in a feather black barn are easier meat.