Posts Tagged ‘Vincent van Gogh’

This is an age when the poet is not the only seer we have on earth, but is the seer particularly endowed to sing of what he sees.

(Bahíyyih Nakhjavání in Artist, Seeker and Seer)

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

I now have to confront the awkward problems of whether Browning was justified in pursuing so relentlessly his preoccupation with the dark side of humanity, and whether being a better human being trumps being a better artist.

There are all sorts of theories about the relationship between art and life, from Baumeister’s supposition that the huge demands on will power that producing art requires depletes our ability to control our impulses in the rest of our lives. Then there are, secondly, the madness-and-art marriage hypothesis, and after that, the supposition that all creativity requires a degree of anarchism in the artist that inevitably leads to transgression of boundaries both moral and social. And last of all for now, the transliminality model which suggests that art leaks through an artist’s filters, whose permeability makes them more prone to madness or gross immorality at the expense of others.

As far as I know there have been no systematic explorations of these models. There is plenty of evidence I could cherry pick to support any of them up to a point, but it wouldn’t amount to any kind of scientifically valid proof.

Their relevance here is the clear, shared implication that being a great artist is never going to be compatible with sanity, stability, any form of normality, or any kind of caring relationship. On this model artists are by definition anarchic and/or narcissistic and socially, emotionally and/or morally toxic, at least to a significant degree more than most of the rest of us.

Are the Arts as dark as we think?

Is that true, and if so, is it inevitable or perhaps even desirable?

That so many examples to support that position are so accessible and spring to mind within microseconds, makes me tempted to give in right away: Caravaggio, Christopher Marlowe, Ann Sexton, Byron, van Gogh, Shelley, Wagner, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Edward Thomas, Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Dylan Thomas,  – the list would seem almost endless.

Even so, it is almost certain that if we were to systematically examine the life of every creative artist, musician and writer for whom there was sufficient objective information, and compare it with the rest of the population, we would find a more complex picture emerging. Not even a significant minority of creative people might in the end cross the line and move significantly beyond the norms of a comparative population of non-artists.

The whole idea of art and life being in conflict may be a myth generated by our focus on prominent examples of that problem, not a probable fact rooted in systematically generated evidence. We haven’t managed to define normality accurately and completely yet, so how could we justifiably define most artists as abnormal? Only extremes unarguably qualify. If we wanted to confine our investigation to great artists, there’s no commonly agreed definition of great art. Also the whole of life is characterised by conflicting priorities, with which almost all of us struggle a lot of the time. The art/life conflict is just a glamorous example of how hard it is to achieve a work/life balance.

Mirror of the DivineAchieving a Balance

This means that I have to answer both the questions at the start of this post in basically the same way. The best any of us can achieve in our efforts to live our lives as constructively as possible, and/or create valid representations of our lived experience, is an imperfect but slowly improving holistic balance.

Ludwig Tulman gives a complex and nuanced explanation of just some of the factors that might be relevant. This is his list:[1]

… the artist’s inborn talents, developed abilities, innate and acquired qualities of character, personal inclinations, and the degree of spiritual maturity attained at a given point in his life, along with the characteristics he may be assimilated from his national culture, his local culture, and the surrounding geography and climate . . . .

I would add the multiple perspectives and even prejudices they have absorbed as they grew up and moved through their various flawed worlds.

To only honour limited aspects of such rich experience so that in the art we produce we show only the dark or the light and not both, betrays art’s purpose, I think. I acknowledge that a single work of art – whether it be a painting, a poem, a short story or a play or even a novel – may not represent all that is necessary for a complete depiction of the artist’s reality. Their work as a whole should come closer to that ideal though. I also feel that to live life in a bubble to protect our art risks constricting the breadth and depth of understanding upon which we draw for our art.

Robert BrowningThe richer and less egocentric our life the greater the art is likely to be, though I accept that time, energy, resources and personal space would have to be safeguarded to protect the creative process. But not to such an extent that the compass of compassion narrows too much and the lens of wisdom grows too dark.

Interestingly there is evidence that Browning, for all his attraction to the dark, did not avoid involvement with the ordinary world around him. Pamela Neville-Singleton makes this abundantly clear at a number of points. Early on she comments that[2] ‘he looked more like a prosperous man of business than a poet,’ and later quotes one of his contemporaries to prove it. Henry James felt there were ‘two Brownings’:[3]

The wholly original, passionate poet and the fashionable, practical man about town.

Or, as he later expressed it[4] in his story, The Private Life, Browning was ‘a genius’ and ‘a bourgeois, and it is only the bourgeois who talks, circulates, and is so popular.’ This suggests that Browning could at least present as normal, though, of course, it does not prove he was. This image left people somewhat baffled[5] about how the bourgeois could ever have written the poetry, as ‘[t]he gulf between the “two Brownings” – the genius and the bourgeois – became ever wider.’

Poetry Review 2011Going beyond self-clinging

Perhaps I should close with some quotations from The Further Reach, an article in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, by the Buddhist, Maitreyabandhu, the first of which goes back to where I started from in the first post, where I linked the potential clash with ordinary life to the pursuit of both art and science:[6]

[Imagination] is not the sole domain of artists and poets, though it’s typically discussed in reference to them. It informs the best of science and mathematics, the best in human endeavour. It is essentially ethical, a going beyond self-clinging.

The ego can still be a trap, as he acknowledges:[7]

But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

But, he implies, we have a duty to transcend this limiting temptation if we are to be true to our art in its greatest sense. This leads us back to the very edges of revelation:[8]

In our best readings of the best work, we sometimes feel intimations of an order of reality that completely transcends us, as if the work took us to the very edges of form and pointed beyond itself to some formless, timeless mystery.

And in the end he points up the link that I too feel is there between the best kinds of creativity in the arts and true compassion:

And transcendence is not vacancy or negation, but the complete fulfilment of everything – a breaking down of all boundaries. This mystery, this dhamma-niyama aspect of conditionality, finds its roots here and now, in every moment we go beyond ourselves, whether by acts of imagination or in our everyday kindness and generosity.

And the link he suggests exists between acts of true imagination and ‘everyday kindness and generosity’ because both involve going ‘beyond ourselves’ is, I feel, profoundly important and a good place to pause for now.


[1]. Mirror of the Divine page 118.

[2]. Robert Browning: A Life After Death’ – page 5.

[3]. Ibid. – page 153.

[4]. Ibid. – page 171.

[5]. Ibid. – page 203.

[6]. The Further Reach – page 68.

[7]. Ibid. – page 69.

[8]. Ibid.

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Robert BrowningPicking up for where I left off last time, there is no doubt that Robert and Elizabeth clashed over his fascination with the dark.

The Darkness

She definitely torpedoed an earlier start on his masterpiece, The Ring & the Book:[1]

. . . he may well have mentioned his idea of forging a poem out of the crude elements of the [Italian murder] story. Elizabeth took an instant dislike to the whole business. She was repelled by the sordidness of the tail and refused even to leave through the papers [of the Old Yellow Book].

Her antipathy to any such thing was deep-seated:[2]

Elizabeth, in actual fact, would have been deeply disturbed by the predominance of evil – ‘the morbid psychology of the soul’, as he himself put it – in The Ring and the Book.

There was no hope of their ever closing this gap in their preferences:[3]

. . . [Elizabeth] never did learn to recognise or acknowledge that cold, dark place which lay at the very core of Robert’s art.

For Browning, though, it was part of who he was:[4]

‘this last’ – what one might call his dark side, which delighted in the strange and macabre, feeding his imagination – ‘is a true part of me, most characteristic part, best part perhaps.’

And as for my sense, after my first reading, that The Ring & the Book was simply a way to help Browning cope with his grief, my second reading showed this to have been a sentimental distortion which probably set him turning in his grave:[5]

[H]is vision of the soul may indeed have become bleaker following his wife’s death… but it had always been present in his work… . . . Browning felt he had to write about life around him as he saw it, the sordidness as well as the beauty.

He has always[6] ‘searched for truth amongst the filth.’ Pamela Neville-Singleton feels that this is what makes Browning ‘seem so modern to us – but which denied [him] easy popularity in his own time.’

Ring and BookArt vs Life

It was not only this disparity of taste that held him back as a poet while his wife was still alive. Her poor state of health was also a major factor. He was forced[7] to ‘confront the fact that his career had been bedevilled’ not only ‘by his angelic wife’s acute sensibilities’ but by her ill-health also. As it worsened her hold strengthened:[8]

As Elizabeth grew weaker and more dependent, her power over Robert grew stronger. He held back from doing or saying anything that might upset her.

This was completely understandable[9] because, as he said himself, ‘she had so much need of care and protection. There was so much pity in what I felt for her!’

As a result, she had[10] effectively reined in ‘Roberts vivid imagination.’

Pamela Neville-Singleton, right from the start of her rewarding exploration of his life, expresses her sense[11] that ‘Robert knew that he had to break free from Elizabeth’s influence’ if he was going to survive ‘to write – without her.’

His was not the ideal starting point.[12] He had been ‘thoroughly discouraged by the negative reaction to Men and Women’ and had ‘published no more poetry during his marriage.’

Even so he made a huge step forward:[13]

Only after Elizabeth’s death did Robert take the creased vellum binding [of the Old Yellow Book] from its drawer and consider, as he told Isa in October 1862, making ‘a regular poem of it.’

It was a major break through:[14]

The very act of writing The Ring and the Book had – at long last – broken the soporific, opiate spell which Elizabeth had, unwittingly, cast over Roberts’s own poetic genius.

Its success[15] ‘made him realise that his angelic, impressionable wife had to some extent stifled his poetic imagination.’

However,[16] ‘If the marriage has stifled him as a poet, Elizabeth had brought out the best in him as a man, and he knew it.’

This created a degree of guilt:[17]

Robert is remorseful… because her death had somehow enabled his life – his poetry – to flourish.

Was he right to pursue the dark path he was treading in his poetry? Julia Wedgwood had observed[18] that ‘the scientific interest in evil’ was ‘unduly predominant in him.’ In fact, ‘He… not only understood evil but was somehow drawn to it. What is more, it informed his art; Elizabeth’s poetic genius had needed no such sullied inspiration.’

Two Way MirrorPerhaps its worth flagging up at this point that Elizabeth Barrett Browning had no such conflict between her art and her life, as Fiona Sampson’s valuable perspective makes abundantly clear in her biography:[19]

Elizabeth takes after Papa in flourishing with seclusion. She loves ‘silence & quietness & the sight of the green trees & fields out of the window’.… in her own sanctum, she is free to read and write to her heart’s content.

And her right to that seclusion goes unquestioned:[20]

. . . this ‘little slip of sitting room’ is a gift, an acknowledgement – and something of a gilded cage. It lays out a future that Elizabeth, of all the siblings, is expected to spend indoors, reading and writing.

She did meet obstacles, for example from at least one of her many doctors:[21]

Barry is just another in the long line of medics who ban rising women from the one activity that probably makes them feel better and stronger than any other.

She is sensitive to the fact that she may impede his development as a poet:[22]

. . . she feels that, if they married, he would be wasted on sickroom duties instead of writing the important books that are his destiny.

And her fears are well-founded:[23]

. . . there’s another fly in the ointment: Robert isn’t writing. For him, marriage has exchanged an extended adolescence at his writing desk day and night, for adult, practical – even if not financial – household responsibilities… Robert is, in effect, playing The Partner, that conflicted role to which, traditionally, artistic and literary partnerships relegate the women.

The dilemma posed by Elizabeth‘s health has an additional edge:[24]

In sunny Italy she appears as strong as anyone; it is Robert who suffers from the lack of social and cutting-edge cultural stimulation.

Whereas in Paris, to which they retreated in 1852:[25]

Their cultural milieu is tilting towards Robert; this tilt increases as Elizabeth’s illness allows him to resume the conventionally male literary life.

This must have made the period of their marriage a difficult dance in some senses for both of them. It certainly flags up how hard it can be to decide between one’s art and one’s life.

Where Next?

Next time I have to confront the awkward problems of whether he was justified in pursuing so relentlessly his preoccupation with the dark side of humanity, and whether being a better human being trumps being a better artist.


[1]. Robert Browning: A Life After Death’ – page 97. Unless otherwise specified all references are to this book.

[2]. Page 112.

[3]. Page 97.

[4]. Page 109.

[5]. Page 113.

[6]. Page 176.

[7]. Page 110.

[8]. Page 107.

[9]. Page 261.

[10]. Page 112.

[11]. Page 4.

[12]. Page 20.

[13]. Page 97.

[14]. Page 114.

[15]. Page 141.

[16]. Page 172.

[17]. Page 137.

[18]. Page 141.

[19]. Two Way Mirror – page 49.

[20]. Ibid. – page 103.

[21]. Ibid. – page 113.

[22]. Ibid. – page 156.

[23]. Ibid. – page 196.

[24]. Ibid. – page 211.

[25]. Ibid. – page 217.

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Robert BrowningAbt Vogler

My strong connection with Browning I owe to Mr Turner, called Tommy by us, a charismatic English Teacher at my secondary school. He was an unlikely inspiration at first sight. He was short and round, steel-rimmed spectacles with round pebble-thick lenses perched on the end of his nose. But his enthusiasm for the poetry was infectious. He paced and bounced back and forth at the front of the classroom, the sunlight glinting back at us from his glasses, as he probed our hearts for responses to the challenges of verse.

He somehow managed to convey to us, at the age of 15 in our Fourth Year, the rich layers of meaning in even a poem as complex as Browning’s Abt Vogler, which captures the experience of the organist:

All through my keys that gave their sounds to a wish of my soul,
All through my soul that praised as its wish flowed visibly forth,
All through music and me! For think, had I painted the whole,
Why, there it had stood, to see, nor the process so wonder-worth:
Had I written the same, made verse—still, effect proceeds from cause,
Ye know why the forms are fair, ye hear how the tale is told;
It is all triumphant art, but art in obedience to laws,
Painter and poet are proud in the artist-list enrolled:—

But here is the finger of God, a flash of the will that can,

Existent behind all laws, that made them and, lo, they are!

And I know not if, save in this, such gift be allowed to man,

That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but a star.

I can remember, though, the impact of Tommy Turner’s enthusiasm to this day. I doubt that such a poem would find its way into any classroom nowadays, such is the pressure to equip our children to be effective cogs in the competitive economic machine we have come to believe is the peak of civilisation.

Two Way MirrorRevisiting Browning

I had thought that rereading Pamela Neville-Singleton’s absorbing life of Browning, after my encounter with Fiona Sampson’s equally compelling biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, would have simply increased both my affection for the man and my understanding of the poems. But strangely I think it did neither straightforwardly.

Instead it enhanced my understanding of the man in a more complex way, and confronted me with the raw fact that too much of his poetry was and still is unintelligible to most people, including me – and in this respect we are in good company, Browning’s friend Tennyson among them.

What this revisiting has done is lifted a number of issues into the light of consciousness for me. There are some recent favourites of mine, all too familiar on this blog: obscurity (usually in the context of modern poetry), a focus on darkness (Beckett was one example) and the conflict between art and life (Shelley perhaps, and van Gogh). These play out against an intermittently flickering background of religion and a resurrected favourite from way back – subpersonalities.

I am tempted to go more deeply into the spiritual perspectives of the Brownings, perhaps especially because of their well-documented clash over spiritualism and my recent related sequence on Jeffrey Iverson’s book about the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, with its focus on Madame Blavatsky and Mrs Piper. Given that my current interest is focused on more mundane matters I’ll give that a miss for now. Sub-personalities will also get only a passing mention at the end in terms of Browning the poet and Browning the ‘bourgeois.’ In spite of Browning’s passion for the dramatic monologue, he’s no Pessoa.

Finding the Mother TreeBefore plunging in I think it only fair to say that my preoccupation with the art/life conflict discounts all other similar situations within our culture. My recent encounter with the life of Suzanne Simard flagged this up all too clearly.

Whenever someone is passionately convinced about the need to devote themselves to a calling, what they will encounter is a clash between the demands of their calling and the demands of more ordinary connections, for example with family and friends. This reached a critical point in her career, after she had obtained a university tenure in Vancouver and her husband, who absolutely did not want to live there, reluctantly agreed to this for a two year period. However, she writes,[1] ‘when I succeeded in getting tenure a year beyond our agreed-upon two, our relationship grew strained.’ As the book explores, her work was crucially important to the survival of the trees she loved and to the health of our environment, but the demands it placed upon her tested her relationships within the family.

Because the arts have been my constant background interest, I will continue to focus most on them, but they are clearly just one example of this testing situation.

Before re-reading this bio, I had retained its main theme in memory as a sentimental story of Browning coping with his grief by researching and writing The Ring & the Book.  It was all darker and far more complicated than that. I am grateful to Pamela Neville-Singleton for triggering me to reflect once more on some key issues


The clash between Elizabeth’s spiritualism and Robert’s detestation of fake mediums did not create much of a problem in terms of his art, except for his concealment from her throughout their lives together of his poem Mr Sludge, ‘the Medium’.

In addition to her health, his fascination with the dark side of life and her recoil from it did pose a problem for his art and their relationship. This makes it a good place to start, I feel, and not just because it is a preoccupation which I share to some degree, and I don’t mean my taste for murder mysteries. For example, I found Adrian Raine’s overview of the roots of crime in his book, The Anatomy of Violence, a compelling read to which I still occasionally return, and am currently burrowing my way through Adshead and Horne’s The Devil You Know, based on Adshead’s experience as a forensic psychiatrist working for many years at Broadmoor.

Maybe Browning’s obscurity and his attraction to dark subjects may have been related. Both would make sense as part of his recoil from the glossy sentimentality of the art he encountered in his youth.

More on most of this next time.

[1]. The Mother Tree – page 216.

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Ginny 1984 by Alice Neel

Ginny, 1984 (scanned from Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life — page 219)

Collecting Souls NeelAt the end of the previous post I indicated that I would be moving onto the Expressionist leanings of Neel’s art, primed by comments in Collecting souls. For example,[1] ‘[as] Alice withdrew increasingly into herself, her paintings exploded in expressiveness.’

She resisted what the Belchers term ‘abstract expressionism.’[2] They go on to explain why:

Alice remained committed to the human figure as the centre of her art. Her faithfulness to a belief in the importance of the human being stretched beyond an ideology of humanism. To Alice, artists have an obligation to history, not just to record, but to interpret the richness and complexity of the life of the period in which they live. She believed “that more is communicated about an area and its effect on people by a revealing portrait than in any other way.”

She persisted down this path even though she knew that ‘figures were not commercially viable.’

In Painter of Modern Life, Petra Gördüren in her chapter on Emotional Values lists her expressionist influences:[3]

The founding figures of modern art – Vincent Van Gough, Munch and Oscar Kokoschka – are primarily cited in this context, artists who, like Neel, understood painting as the expression of subjective sensations and did not hesitate to explore the depths of the human psyche.

Her expressionism seems to blend with her politics, into something I am tempted to label ‘social expressionism,’ as Gördüren seems to hint at when she writes (my emphasis):[4] ‘Neel established herself as a painter of the very personally felt social realism that dominated American painting of the late 1920s and the 1930s.’ Laura Stamps in her chapter, A Marxist girl on Capitalism, points very much in the same direction:[5] ‘She developed her characteristic style, tending on the one hand towards Expressionism, and yet also towards the documentary.’

Following up on my discussion in the previous post, this appears to be also linked with her tendency towards projection, as Stamps is strongly indicating: [6]

She wanted to capture her subjects psychologically and socially… Neel also deliberately projected her own desires and fears onto her subject. She in fact chose portraiture in order to enter into dialogue with “the other.”

The Belchers quote the words[7] ‘capturing of things essential’ to describe this quality in Neel’s work, and refer to[8] what seems to be ‘an unusual mingling of social commitment and subjective intensity.’ They attribute her motivation for this blending of personal and political to her being[9] ‘an individual who had suffered greatly’ so she therefore ‘painted pictures that communicated one of her core creeds, that “no one on earth should suffer.”’ A telling way to summarise this can be found in Laura Stamps A Marxist girl on Capitalism:[10]

She was working on something that, though it clearly concerned herself, also transcended the personal.

Closing Comments

Painter of Modern Life NeelIn Painter of Modern Life, in the Catalogue of Works, we find an appropriate portrait on which to end this sequence: Ginny, 1984:[11]

Painted during the winter in Vermont, it depicts Ginny in mourning for her mother who died the previous year, and was painted at the time when Neel knew her number was up, for she had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. . . . It is clearly an expression of endings,… an image of such power and subtlety that it appeared to subsume the knowledge of a lifetime of painting.

A perfect example, in fact, of the empathic projection I have been attributing to her most emotionally powerful portraits.

I can’t quite avoid being triggered into reflections here about van Gogh. When I am confronted by his life and his greatest art I find myself asking, ‘How is it that we so often find such life-enhancing beauty flowering from the soil of such peace-destroying torment?’ It gives Dylan’s dictum that ‘behind every beautiful thing there’s some kind of pain,’ a strange relevance. Behind the obvious meaning that encounters with beauty create a fear of their loss, there lurks the idea that out of some kind of pain everything of beauty flowers.

With Neel, though, you almost always see the pain behind the beauty: not so with van Gogh’s greatest work, where the beauty often masks the pain.

With both van Gogh and Neel, of course, we need to be concerned at least as much by the pain they caused to others as by the pain of others they capture in paint.

Alice Neel, at least to a significant extent, saw herself as painting to draw attention to the costs of inequality and discrimination, and is now credited with having succeeded in doing so. From a Bahá’í point of view one of the main purposes of art is to enhance consciousness, not least in terms of raising our awareness of our interconnectedness with all humanity, in fact with all forms of life, as well as widening our compass of compassion. This seems to have been the main purpose of Neel in amassing this collection of souls. I am not sure she would have been aware that this title for her work had been in a way anticipated by a woman poet of the 19th Century, Elizabeth Barrett Browning when she wrote in her narrative masterpiece Aurora Leigh (First Book – lines 1097-98):

. . . .paint a body well

You paint a soul by implication.

Does the extent to which she succeeded in doing so justify the pain she caused others by focusing on her art and neglecting them? Are we facing a Dickensian problem here – and I don’t mean the Jellybys in Bleak House – I am referring to the novelist’s total lack of care and consideration for his wife, the mother of his children, whom he demonised, and deprived of contact with them, while at the same time exploring Scroogian conversions to caring and compassion, and advocating the mantra that ‘humanity is our business.’

Maybe we all face dilemmas of this kind, for example when we try to balance the needs of work and family. In the process we all make mistakes, perhaps only realising too late that we have spent too little time with our children in pursuit of our career, because of what we saw as our vocation.

Getting the balance right is a difficult art in itself, from the mastery of which our devotion to what we see as our real work in life can permanently derail us.

So, I am not keen to leap to judgement against Alice Neel, and condemn her for the possibly negative impact of her art on those closest to her who needed her most. I don’t see her as being as ruthless and deliberate as Dickens was, in defaming his wife to disguise his own involvement with his end of life romance. She was, as we have seen, to some degree tormented by the conflict between her art and the needs of others. Possibly the damage she caused was more than compensated for by how the suffering she depicted may have lifted her contemporaries’ attitudes to the left-behind and deliberately excluded to a higher and more compassionate level.

The Belchers seem to think so:[12]

. . . . hundreds of canvases, a buried treasure trove, chronicled Alice’s America over forty years, and even if any one portrait was not enough to capture the attention of the new category of viewers, the ‘oeuvre’ as a whole was compelling. . . . One art historian wrote that Alice had made portraiture “something more generous, more democratic and more expressive than it had been before . . .”

I can only suggest that this is a judgement call we each will always have to make for ourselves, both about the balance of our own lives as well as that of any public figure we admire and respect, be they artist, politician, activist, philanthropist, parent, partner or whatever else.

Anyway, I am grateful to these books on Neel’s life and art for forcing me to confront this important issue in all its complexity. Both books are definitely worth reading carefully, and her paintings will reward equally close attention, I believe.


[1]. Collecting souls – page 123

[2]. Ibid. – Page 201

[3]. Painter of Modern Life – page 31.

[4]. Ibid. – page 38.

[5]. Ibid. – page 41.

[6]. Ibid. — page 44.

[7]. Collecting souls – page 80.

[8]. Ibid. – page 172.

[9]. Ibid. – page 176.

[10]. Painter of Modern Life – page 42.

[11]. Ibid. – page 228.

[12] Collecting Souls – page 240.

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. . . . the role of the fine arts in a divine civilization must be of a higher order than the mere giving of pleasure, for if such were their ultimate aim, how could they ‘result in advantage to man, . . . ensure his progress and elevate his rank.’

(Ludwig Tulman – Mirror of the Divine – pages 29-30)

Given my latest sequence on Alice Neel, it seemed a good time to republish this one on Edvard Munch.

Moving on from a focus on his life to Munch’s art, we can see it was rooted in sensory experience. The surroundings that triggered The Scream, which are described in Sue Prideaux’s excellent biography, illustrate this powerfully (page 151]:

The main slaughterhouse for the city was up there, and so was the hospital, in which Laura [his sister] had been incarcerated. He had probably gone up there to visit her; there was no other discernible reason. The screams of the animals being slaughtered in combination with the screams of the insane were reported to be a terrible thing to hear.

However, the end result was meant to transcend even the most powerful transitory material details that were its origin. The term ‘soul painting,’ used frequently by Munch, captures this intention.

What did he mean by that exactly?

Soul painting

Perhaps it is no real surprise to find in a letter from one of his currently most admired precursors an overlap in the language both Munch and van Gogh use. Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in March 1884 (Letters of Vincent van Gogh – page 272):

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly.

This is not just a one-off from van Gogh. He refers to this kind of approach in various places (page 272):

. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

In a way though, Munch seems to have taken this to another level. As Prideaux puts it, when she describes the nature of Munch’s influence once his fame was established (page 238):

‘Soul paintings’ galore were created in the wake of ‘the powerful dreamer’ . . .

How can we explain what ‘soul’ painting is? Not very easily as it turns out, but this is my best shot.

It’s about truth (page viii) ‘I have always thought and felt that my art might be able to help others to clarify their own search for truth,’ and meaning (page 35) ‘In my art I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself.’ It entails penetrating beneath the surface of things (page 169): Réja, an art critic referred to Munch’s ‘ability to pierce the exterior.’ Some of his potential subjects feared this ability, one in particular refusing to be painted, saying (page 268): ‘He sees right through us and turns us inside out.’

This does not mean he ignores the exterior (page 257): ‘his own constant struggle as an artist [lies] in the depiction of the inner by means of the outer . . .’ This was as true at the end of 1904 before his breakdown, as it was after it (page 237):

Even as he felt most estranged from the world and most conscious that the black bird of insanity was making its dangerous escape from the cage of his soul, the white bird of outward appearance was stretching its wings to fly into an annus mirabilis.

The Night in Saint-Cloud (scanned from the Taschen edition)

He turned aspects of the physical environment into a trope that is repeated when needed (page 133):

[He] set The Kiss in the same corner as the blue-hazed room in Saint-Cloud where he had set the figure of himself/his father in The Night in Saint-Cloud. The room had now become spiritualised into a universal chamber of his brain, a location he could revisit for the rest of his life.

And memory plays an important role in this process (page 305):

‘I paint not what I see but what I saw’ was an oft-repeated maxim that he used to indicate the vital role that the depths of memory played in transforming transitory insights into timeless themes.

When he succeeds the word ‘soul’ keeps appearing. Even a painting has one, which suggests we shouldn’t always take his use of the term too literally (page 231): ‘Each physical painting aspires towards its idea, its eternal prototype, which may be called its soul.’

Each painting says what words can never capture. Munch wrote (page 201):

‘Explaining a picture is impossible. The very reason it has been painted is because it cannot be explained in any other way . . .’

Not surprisingly his influence lived on after his death.

For instance, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, Alice Neel termed herself a ‘collector of souls,’ perhaps indirectly acknowledging Munch, whom she admired even though she explicitly denied he had influenced her early work (Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life– edited by Jeremy Lewison – page 31:

‘But Munch I never saw in the beginning. I did a painting, and you’ll swear that I was influenced by Munch, but I hadn’t even heard of him yet.’

It is also true to say that the word ‘soul’ in this context has not lost all its spiritual significance. More on Munch and his spiritual take on things next time.

Ginny by Alice Neel (from Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life)

Munch’s Inger in Black and Violet (from the Taschen edition)

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Mother and Child Havana

Mother and Child (Havana), 1926 (scanned from Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life – page 71)

Collecting Souls NeelI closed the previous post with the reflection that, in perhaps a similar way to van Gogh, her art was her most constructive way of connecting with life: in her case, this was mainly with people:[1] ‘Alice Neel once said that, for her, painting was a way of reducing the distance between herself and others, and the world around her. It enabled her to express a deeper sense of experience: [2] ‘Neel repeatedly described the absolute necessity of visualising an inner sensation, and inner reality, as the motivation for her tireless productivity as an artist.’

There is a wealth of evidence to support the view that she had a special affinity with those our unequal society has left behind, what in Collecting souls is called ‘opposites’. The Belchers list her typical subjects in Havana as ‘beggars, poor mothers, and blank-eyed children, black dancers, and quietly desperate old people.’[3] It’s perhaps worth noting that Naifeh and White Smith in their biography of van Gogh describe him as equally fixated on the same strata of his society in his early work: he did not display the same degree of understanding as Neel seems to have done, and one reason he chose such models may have been that he could afford no others.

Neel’s motivation seems to have been more political: painting the left behind was her way of ‘condemning the society that produced outcasts.’[4] She joined the Communist Party in the mid-1930s, as ‘the thing to do for anyone with a social conscience.’[5] One of her admirers called her a ‘poet of the ugly, the lyrical, the down and out, bohemian to the core.’[6]This relates to the description of someone else who knew her:[7]

“You have done in art what writers do in the characterisation in a novel. You have called yourself a collector of souls; you have said that you would like to make the world happy.

There seemed to have been other factors at play as well. Lewison, in his introduction to Painter of Modern Life[8], mentions the possibility that in her art ‘a new humanism was another way of maintaining or developing painting’s relevance post photography.’ Annamari Vänskä, in her article in the same volume, describes ‘the driving theme of Neel’s output is her social consciousness’ and argues that she ‘saw art as an arena for social criticism .’[9]

There is another possibility, which complements rather than contradicts this perspective. In the Catalogue of Works which completes the volume Painter of Modern Life the commentary on the painting Mother and Child refers to Neel’s ‘lifelong interest in depicting mothers with their children.’ This sits easily alongside what the book describes as Neel’s ‘great empathy for the disadvantaged.’ [10]

However, her interest in this theme of motherhood to me also implies that there might also be an element of projection in Neel’s portrayals of her subjects. This could easily combine most of the time with a degree of genuine sympathy with the subject. It may even have helped enhance the emotional impact of her portraits.

There will be more to say on this matter when I come to discuss her choice of Expressionism. For now, suffice it to add, her attitude to motherhood was in no way sentimental. She painted it as it was in a way that was anticipated by Munch ‘when he wrote in a notebook around 1889: “No longer should you paint interiors with men reading and women knitting. They must be living beings who breathe and feel and love and suffer.”’[11]

The Catalogue continues to highlight how she conveys ‘a sense of adversity experienced by the poor in a period of high capitalism,’[12] and, for example, portrays ‘an African-American man with his Caucasian or Hispanic girlfriend in 1954’ as ‘a statement of solidarity with a cause.’[13]

Death, as I mentioned in the first post of this sequence, was also a constant preoccupation, not least because of her loss of Santillana, ‘as it had been in the mind of her mother following the death of her child, Hartley, from diphtheria before Alice was born.’[14] We will see later a powerful example, painted towards the end of her life, where she captures the grief of a young woman for the death of her mother, even as she paints that portrait in full knowledge of her own diagnosis of terminal cancer – a perfect fusion of empathy and projection.

The issue of projection was almost certainly not restricted only to motherhood and death. In the Catalogue of Works there is a rare self-portrait painted late in life. The comment on it contains an illuminating sentence:[15]

Neel was, in general, uninterested in self-portraits, preferring to project herself into others; thus in some senses her portraits of other people contain elements of her own character.

We are left at this point with a quandary. Did she choose the subjects of her paintings because she genuinely felt for them or because she perceived them as reflections of herself, or possibly both?

I think the evidence suggests it was a bit of both. The Belchers’ view is that:[16]

. . . as an individual who had suffered greatly, she painted pictures that communicated one of her core creeds, that “no one on earth should suffer.”

and mention that:[17]

art historians have noted simply that her paintings during this period were marked by “an unusual mingling of social commitment and subjective intensity.“

Whatever the exact truth of that may be, her work became more clearly expressive, partly as a result of an enforced change of medium:[18]

Her other discovery, during those months and the following year, was also the result of her poverty. She learnt to paint, expressively and with control, in watercolours… If Alice had been able to stay with oils alone, she might not have developed the crisp new style with the bold lines that became her hallmark after 1930.

Alongside that,[19] ‘[as] Alice withdrew increasingly into herself, her paintings exploded in expressiveness. Her line grew bolder as her morbid preoccupation with herself grew stronger.’

More of that next time when we come to consider in more detail her choice of Expressionism.


[1]. Painter of Modern Life – page 46.

[2]. Ibid. – Page 38.

[3]. Collecting Souls – page 78.

[4]. Ibid. – page 80.

[5]. Ibid. – page 159.

[6]. Ibid. – page 242.

[7]. Ibid. – page 247.

[8]. Painter of Modern Life – page 28.

[9]. Ibid. – page 58.

[10]. Ibid. – page 70.

[11]. Ibid. – page 166.

[12]. Ibid. – page 112.

[13]. Ibid. – page 132.

[14]. Ibid. – page 124.

[15]. Ibid. – page 206.

[16]. Collecting Souls – page 176.

[17]. Ibid. –  page 172.

[18] Ibid. – page 88.

[19] Ibid. – page 123.

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