While artists of every movement struggle with personal demons, culture makes the difference in the art pieces themselves. Whether in 16th Century Catholic Rome, 19th Century Protestant Holland, or 20th Century Atheist New York, the art that we remember represents the culture of its day.
The first worldview is one where Rome meshed the stories of the Apostles and Aeneas. Giorgio Vasari, 16th-Century Italian artist, and author of The Lives of the Artists, writes
I would say that design, the basis of both arts, or rather the very soul which conceives and nourishes within itself all the aspects of the intellect, existed in absolute perfection at the origin of all other things when God on High, having created the great body of the world and having decorated the heavens with its brightest lights, descended with His intellect further down into the clarity of the atmosphere and the solidity of the earth, and, shaping man, discovered in the pleasing invention of things the first form of sculpture and painting.
At the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries, it was Giotto who, “although born among inept artists, revived through God’s grace what had fallen into an evil state and brought it back to such a form that it could be called good.” [i] Brunelleschi had furthered this tradition with his architecture, most notably with his Duomo, while immersing himself in “matters of Christian scripture, not hesitating to intervene in the disputations and sermons of learned men.”[ii]
Catholic doctrine and Roman mythology permeate Caravaggio’s work because the culture decided that representations of its own heritage would be lauded as excellent and skillful. Like most artists, Caravaggio wanted praise, and he worked tirelessly to achieve a place in the tradition of his time. His painting The Madonna of the Palafrenieri is a representation of three of Catholicism’s most important figures: Anne, Mary, and Jesus. It’s a Catholic theme in the tradition of Renaissance painting, but with Caravaggio’s trademark play on light and darkness, his preferred technique known as “chiaroscuro.” But it was also a controversial piece because it is thought to have been rejected by the Vatican on the grounds that the Virgin Mary was too voluptuous.[iii]
In The Conversion of St Paul (second version), with arms outstretched, the newly converted apostle strikes the ground, having fallen from his horse. A great light has struck the eyes of the man who is destined to become the greatest missionary in the history of the world, blinding the sadistic Saul who is now become the prophetic Paul on the road to Damascus. The scriptural account, as well as the poetic license of the artist, accumulate to such a powerful degree that the painting seems to have motion, sound, and smell.
In contrast stands the Self-Portrait as Bacchus. It has intimate lighting, suggestive eyes, and subtle autoerotic gestures. Everything about the painting is stained with an air of seduction, guilty attraction, and sex. In The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, once again, the painter gives the viewer the illusion of motion. While the focal point of the piece has the apostle preparing himself for death by the hand of his enemy, reaching towards an angel descended from the clouds, in the background, we can see the painter’s self-portrait, regretfully fleeing the scene, sinking into obscurity. In David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio’s assistant, Cecco, who prepared the artist’s paint and canvases, posed for David. Rumor stated that this Cecco was the painter’s catamite (i.e., Caravaggio’s young homosexual lover). Cecco also posed for an erotic painting of Cupid, notorious for its repetitive visual allusions to the suggestive letter V. Moreover, in David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio places another self-portrait, as the image of the beheaded Goliath. Coincidentally, sodomy was a crime punishable by beheading in at least one Italian city in Caravaggio’s day.[iv] It was Roman Catholicism in all of its Christian, pagan, and homoerotic overtones.
I have a terrible need of – shall I say the word? – religion. – Vincent van Gogh
The second worldview is one of Protestant upbringing in the Netherlands. Obsession ruled Vincent’s van Gogh’s life. But what proved to be a destructive characteristic concerning women was a helpful characteristic concerning art. “I have the thing in my head, a starry night; the figure of Christ in blue, all the strongest blues, and the angel blended citron-yellow.” His first attempt to paint a starry night included a figure of the Christ and an angel as the focal point. However, such an undertaking proved to be too strenuous for Vincent as it evoked painful memories of his apostate past. Upon failing to translate his mental visuals into physical artwork, he decided to paint a starry night void of the image of Christ, but nonetheless presenting God in the image of nature itself. With memories of his mother writing to her teenage son that “The lovely evening stars express the care and love of God for us all,” with his father commenting on his late-night walks “under lovely starry skies,” and with his sister seeing in the stars “all the people I hold dear very near…urging me: ‘Be brave,’” stars certainly held a nostalgic value for the painter. Furthermore, during evening walks, he “heard God’s voice under the stars.”[v]
Between drafts of his would-be masterpiece, in the year of 1889 during the month of June, Vincent finally made an admission. “I have a terrible need of—shall I say the word?—religion.”[vi] His family must have been relieved to have heard this, as he wrote this letter after boldly declaring that he had no room for God in his work. Additionally, this is when he painted what would become one of the most recognizable paintings of all time, Starry Night. His skill and innovation had reached a climax. His body of work would be remembered for centuries. Starry Night, in addition with Two Women in the Moor, Basket of Potatoes, and Still Life with Bible, each serve as motifs from the Protestant Netherlands.
Within the final few years of his life, Vincent was diagnosed with epilepsy. As may be easily noticed at a glance of many of his works, Starry Night in particular, his painting style reflected exactly that of a man who saw the world from a bright, but painful, and even dizzy perspective. Nevertheless, this is the perspective that would become his trademark, and an early precursor to the Impressionist Movement.[vii] Family-life, Christianity, and nature were each a refuge for Vincent. It was the Protestant culture into which he was born, and by which he painted.
The third worldview is one of Atheism during the Cold War Era. Here is a culture that believed that life started from an explosion, but would also end with one. Post-World War I, the world had become cynical. Artist Morton L. Schamberg’s construction of a plumbing fixture mounted on a box facetiously entitled God is testament to the decay of standards in faith, art, and beauty. By the Cold War, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner together found a way to market their art successfully despite their turbulent relationship. Although Lee’s career was mostly overshadowed by Jackson’s, she seemed to find happiness by playing the role of muse, businesswoman, and wife. Every piece of Jackson’s work speaks a language that suffers from a self-obsessed religion, and the titles of the pieces speak for themselves.
From Cathedral (1947) to Ritual (1953) to Lucifer (1947), the paintings of Jackson Pollock never failed to express his deepest frustrations and bizarre interpretations of that which was previously held to be sacred. The infinite drips, spots, and tangles of his drip paintings destroyed orthodox standards, and the art world loved him for it. That is, until his work became cliché. The epilogue of Jackson’s painting career is marked by tragedy. He began to verbally abuse Lee to a degree that even she was unable to bear. His mysterious outings into the homosexual underground subculture of the art world involving unexplained bizarre beatings by strangers continued to plague the couple’s marriage.[viii]
Pollock began to have a serious extramarital affair with a voluptuous admirer in her mid-twenties named Ruth Kligman. She was attracted to Jackson for his infamous reputation as an artist, and Jackson was attracted to Ruth for her sensuous lips, seductive voice, shapely figure, and flattering, girlish way with men.[ix] Finally, Jackson’s wife left him, and this proved to be his final undoing. During one fateful night of heavy drinking, he attempted to drive Ruth and one of her friends, Edith Metzger, back to his house. The two girls found themselves being driven in a speeding car with Jackson behind the wheel. After ignoring a familiar bend in the road, Jackson lost control of the car. The car spun in every direction, violently throwing all three passengers. As Edith was flying through the air, she managed to grab the car only to have it land on top of her, killing her instantly. Ruth happened to land safely in the woods with no serious injury. Jackson, according to the coroner’s report, was fully conscious when airborne, meeting his death upon impact with a tree.[x]
[i] Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, 15 (Oxford University Press) (2008).
[ii] Id. at 114.
[iii] Caravaggio: A life Sacred and Profane at Image 64.
[iv] Id. at 247, 416.
[v] Van Gogh: The Life at 648.
[vi] Id. at 651.
[vii] Id. at 750-1, 762.
[viii] Jackson Pollock: An American Saga at 772.
[ix] Id. at 774.
[x] Id. at 792-3.