The Melancholic Artist
For many, the artist is an admirable, cultured poet, living above society, constantly assessing the human condition and nature. The artist is seen as the ultimate division from society, in that they devote so much of their waking and dream life to the fire that burns them — their art.
This is an overly romanticized idealization of the artist, possibly because non-artists have only ever known the final result (the image prepared by the artist) to go by in understanding the artist. It is easy to deduce with those results that the artist is philosopher, great genius provided with superior understanding of the human condition, paired with a keen eye and hand for beauty. In all likelihood, the artist finds this understanding of the human condition through his own insight and investigative nature of his own psyche. It is true; the artist discovers something new of himself almost daily. With each new painting, each new creative thought, it is revealed to him an aspect of himself he had yet to uncover.
The same assessments can be made for the astute and analytical poet. He who finds parts of himself mirrored in his work, and is able enough to address these as parts of himself, this is the true nature of the artist. To be an artist is to be the most humble and the most vain; the most concealed and the most naked. It is true, he is sharing parts of himself with his viewers, but it is also true that he may yet know what these parts are. A painting is a psychoanalytic journey for the artist that begins once his brush hits the canvas.
What is found most deeply in the artist is a searing melancholy for life, his self, and humanity in all. This melancholy is what has pushed him forward, it is what urges him to create, discover, and uncover all aspects of himself, in a feverish attempt to understand why. Why he is cursed with such unique motivation, why he desires such melancholy, and too, if all human feeling results from this deep rooted melancholy.
The artist’s soul can be identified as brooding melancholic, although this is not always the case. True, a great many prolific artists have experiences such melancholy; I believe that for the most part, through artistic expression, the artist is more prone to experiencing an incredible wealth of emotions, and perhaps, feeling them too to a stronger degree. He is able to draw on these emotions for inspiration; even too, for motivation.
The understanding of the artist as melancholy begins foremost with Van Gogh. Van Gogh is of course, a profoundly incredible artist, and his melancholy has been cited in media before. It is easy to conclude that he, like many artists, carry with them quirky and eccentric characteristics that play a significant role in their creative process and final result. For Van Gogh, this reaches beyond “quirky” and into borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder, two very serious mental health disorders, not to be taken lightly, and certainly not to be degraded to mere melancholy. But, the image of the brooding melancholic artist persists, pervading even into our image of Van Gogh. We are so want as to claim his genius stems from his melancholy, when in reality, such a melancholy that permeates every facet of life is not in this case as much as a motivating force for artistic expression, as it is a disabling ghost that haunts the artist everywhere he goes; trying at each new turn to escape it.
Laurinda Dixon illustrates in “The Dark Side of Genius: The Melancholic Persona in Art“ the importance and development of the portrayal of the artist as melancholic. She states that the melancholic pose (neutral facial expressions, frowns, scowls, searing gazes from the depths of shadow) fulfilled the popular idea of how the artist should appear (artists being blessed with genius, but lacking social status, of course struggled with melancholy) (Dixon, 2013). She continues by illuminating on the fact that this image of withdrawn genius persists today; as a response to the modern world (Dixon, 2013). Considered in this light, not only is the artist seen as a genius, blessed with such abilities as to convey to the world the absolute understanding of human nature and suffering, the image of artist as melancholic soul, withdrawn from society, in fact, elevated above society, not only has its roots long before modern and post-modern art; it is and has been perpetuated by artists themselves.
The image of the brooding, melancholic artist, in touch with their inner psyche and the collective unconscious, is an image that may have superior meaning for some artists over others, but for most, it is a façade donned in order to play the role of artist; genius.
In the case of Van Gogh, we know that he did in fact struggle with some mental illnesses (bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder, two often comorbid disorders). For many others, we impress on them this image of melancholic soul, and in the process, romanticize mental ills. We romanticize the lifestyle of the artist; with images of brooding intelligence, artists seated in gardens drinking tea and spending their days struggling to create images that epitomize their souls. We witness the artist as far superior to the rest of society, and we hold them in such high regard, feigning for their assumed lifestyle; their easy, creative, artistic lifestyle. Without so much as understanding the reality of their individual lives.
The reality being, that an artist is no more superior in intellect or genius than their fellow man; the layman, the non-artist, the physician. The artist does not create to express his superior knowledge and understanding of the human condition; he does not sit in his garden waiting to be a symbol, a vision for others to model their lives after. The artist is not any more melancholic than the next man, unless otherwise diagnosed with some mental illness, which, as mentioned before, is not a petty nuisance that motivates the artist to creativity.
The artist may be more in tune with his emotions, and be more in tune with his understanding of these emotions and the ability to express and feel these emotions. What can we say of this: is this because he is an artist, or is he an artist because of this? This we simply cannot answer. To analyze an artist, and deduce that they fit the image of melancholic soul, while not truly knowing them is futile. Freud has attempted this before in his writing “Leonardo da Vinci and A Memory of His Childhood”, (Freud, 1910). It appears futile to me, and our understanding of the artist and his soul is lost in our analyses of his works. True, we get closer to him when we see and understand his works in completion (even to, individually), but we do not know him, we are merely witnessing an aspect of him, which he chose to share with the world. What lies beyond the painting, we are unable to determine.
As an artist, we feel our emotions more strongly because we allow ourselves to. We allow the sadness and despair to seep into every facet of our waking lives so that we may fully understand every dark corner of it; we let it haunt us so that we may better understand it and ourselves. The same can be said for happiness, joy, contentment, admiration… we are not limited to melancholy for our motivation and inspiration.
The artist’s soul is a tricky puzzle to decipher, because the artist is not one person, the artist is not one type of human, nor is he one-dimensional. He may present himself, or have been presented by others as the melancholic, genius who rides above society, but he is simply a man. The artist is one who understands himself, and in the process, others and parts of humanity; because he allows himself to. He gives himself time, and opportunities to uncover parts of humanity, and parts of himself, that others may be too busy to do.
But the artist is certainly not one who must be melancholic in order to create. He is certainly not one sitting in his garden, waiting for inspiration and admiration to come. The artist simply seeks to know himself, and to create the beauty that he knows.
Laurinda S. Dixon. The Dark Side of Genius: The Melancholic Persona in Art, ca. 1500-1700. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. 2013.
Sigmund Freud. Leonardo da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood. (Eds. James Strachey). W. W Norton & Company: New York. 1910.
Bourassa, T. (2017). The Melancholic Artist. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 22, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-melancholic-artist/