The Artist- Alive and Healthy

…creative people across all genres, it seems, have this reputation for being enormously mentally unstable. And all you have to do is look at the very grim death count in the 20th century alone, of really magnificent creative minds who died young and often at their own hands…

But we don’t even blink when we hear somebody say this … somehow we’ve completely internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked and that artistry, in the end, will always ultimately lead to anguish.

Elizabeth Gilbert- from her Ted Talk on Re-defining Creativity

After a week in Amsterdam, bravely biking with the busy throng, visiting some of the best art collections in the world… I’ve been ruminating on what it means to be a successful, healthy living artist.

I’d like to focus on three creative beings whom have remained prominent in my thoughts. Rembrandt, Van Gogh and the contemporary artist Marlene Dumas.

The Night Watch by Rembrandt, touted as “the most famous painting in the world” is prominently displayed in the newly restored Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

From it’s inception in 1642, this painting has garnered much attention. Many artists at the time were duly impressed by its significant size (11.91 ft × 14.34 ft), Rembrandt’s effective use of light and shadow, and most importantly his hugely innovative use of the perception of motion in what would have traditionally been a static military portrait. He was hugely accomplished and successful as an artist.

Interestingly, there are persistent myths that The Night Watch ruined Rembrandt’s career. KLM, the Royal Dutch Airlines, featured the painting in an advertisement inviting travelers to “See Night Watch, Rembrandt’s spectacular ‘failure’ (that caused him to be) hooted down the road to bankruptcy.”

This myth has since been debunked by prominent researchers. Rembrandt was well paid for the commission; the painting was prominently displayed and was well received; no critic during Rembrandt’s lifetime wrote a word in dispraise of it and it continues to draw millions of visitors to the Rijksmuseum.

Nevertheless, this myth continues to be spread (even by the museum itself!)… perpetuating a pervading premise that a compromised and “troubled” artist makes a better headline.

It has been declared that the reasons for any “decline” Rembrandt experienced as an artist was a change in Dutch tastes in art which is a reality that any artist faces.

I think it’s better if we encourage our great creative minds to live.

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Artist- Alive and Healthy

Creating a richness of spectacular material in a short span of 10 years. The Van Gogh Museum houses the world’s largest collection of works by Vincent van Gogh, such as Almond Blossom and The Bedroom.

Van Gogh was certainly the quintessential “troubled artist”. Competing hypotheses about his ill mental and physical health are epilepsy, lead poisoning, syphilis. Certainly his self doubt as an artist dominated his life. He was broke, in poor health and went largely unrecognized.

“I can do nothing about it if my paintings don’t sell. The day will come, though, when people will see that they’re worth more than the cost of the paint and my subsistence, very meagre in fact, that we put into them.”   Vincent to Theo 25 October 1888

I left the Van Gogh Museum feeling deeply saddened that such a talent had suffered, died so young, and remained unrecognized both during his life and for so many years following his death.

It wasn’t until 1962 when the family collection was sent to the Vincent van Gogh Foundation and eleven years later the works were moved from the Stedelijk Museum.The Van Gogh Museum finally opened in 1973 and now draws a million and a half visitors every year.

Lastly, I went to the The Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

With almost two hundred drawings and paintings, the Marlene Dumas – The Image as Burden is the first major solo exhibition of Dumas in the Netherlands in 20 years. This retrospective exhibition brings together over one hundred of her most important works, from the late 1970s to the present day.

Its a powerful, impressive and very inspiring collection of work. Her level of investment and engagement in her subject matter left me breathless with admiration.

She’s a living artist. She’s successful and RECOGNIZED.

Great news!

However, in the brochure for the show, I was taken aback by the following statement.

It felt like the museum curators couldn’t accept a healthy, prosperous artist. (How can you sell that??!!)

I agree that sometimes her paintings are troubling, with a profound depth and range of emotional intensity. She investigates real people with an honest and broad human capacity.

“Marlene Dumas has continuously explored the complex range of human emotions, often probing questions of gender, race, sexuality, and economic inequality…. She is one of contemporary art’s most compelling painters, taking people from newspaper photographs and turning them into agents in a psychological drama who might shut their eyes on us or look out at us with a gaze that says, “Don’t go.”- Deborah Solomon, New York Times.

It seems that although Marlene Dumas is a passionate, successful and healthy living artist, articles about her still want to project the “poor struggling artist” scenario with accounts of unheated studios, bereft of furniture… and so on. It isn’t the truth. In 1987 Dumas became “the world’s most expensive living female artist”. She’s has a long term life partner and has raised a child.

In summary, what I’d like to propose is that we debunk this myth. Change the syntax around creativity and the life of an artist. I’m NOT OKAY with the prevailing image of “the Artist as poor and emotionally unstable.” 

I’d like to challenge us all to encourage “The Artist as Alive and Healthy.”

To cultivate our great creative minds.