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.