An ample stock of feel-good tales with a melodramatic twist may well be essential equipment for living. These tales come in all shapes & sizes: ‘from-rags-to-riches’ stories spur on the ambitious poor, tales of glorious sportsmen conquering insidious diseases teach perseverance, legends of debauched heretics eventually turning into saints remind us, poor sinners, that we still may correct our dissolute ways.
As to me, I dote in particular on those many instances of art (or beauty, or goodness) that have sprung in conditions of hardship. Somehow they reconcile me with our quite pathetic human condition. Maybe because belief in the autonomy of the mind & the heart appeals to a naïve trust in ‘mind over matter’? Or perhaps, more pessimistically, because it is a last-ditch defense for anyone fearing the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. A bit like the Stoics, who anxiously tried to console themselves by proclaiming the independence of the moral self from the wretched worldly conditions: “though I can’t be happy, I can be good”.
But this penchant for “beauty-in-hard-times” is not merely about spineless escaping in dreams of happiness and success (with the eventual rude awakening). It’s rather about a quite stubborn affirmation of the self, the will to practice our most cherished faculties despite all adversities.
It reminds me of an exhibit of ancient Chinese drawings and aquarelles I went to a while back – these most delicate studies of clouds and trees had been made in a period of great upheaval and hardship in China. I myself was at the time struggling with a whole set of petty assaults (ranging from nasty practical problems, over minor health issues to a general emotional malaise). And so what could be more wonderful than concentrate for an hour or so on these fragile and yet so powerfully beautiful images. The accompanying commentary read “ the artist felt it was important to still be able to create beauty, also in these hard times” . Yes. Yes. Indeed.
But I can recommend even stronger consolatory stuff! Nothing like a good story of an unhappy artist, preferably isolated and/or infirm, who still manages to create great works of art, and who by the end of his or her life achieves recognition and fame. (I must admit I’m a bit less keen on stories of posthumous fame – I do wish people to have their morsel of happiness in their own lifetime).
Now I’m definitely not talking here about self-assured ego-trippers chasing glory – no, in this context I prefer my unhappy artists to be rather unassuming. It is then all the more vindicating when glory finally strikes.
For me, one of these exemplary artists is Clara Haskil
(1895-1960) , a Roumenian born pianist and Mozart-specialist. After a flying start as a child prodigy she was beset by ill health and long bouts of depression. It is only at age 55 (!) that she is rediscovered and then she goes from one acclaimed performance to another, recording Mozart sonatas and concerto’s, Beethoven sonatas, …
For a few years she receives her due from the world, in terms of recognition and happiness. But then, at this, improbably belated, height of her career – fate strikes again: “a fall on the steps of the railway station at Brussels ended a life that had [seldom] known optimism or a sense of victory, had been ill-equipped to face everyday life, and was ruled by self doubt, self-hatred, and depression”(1) . But now, almost 50 years later, her few recordings are still devoutly cherished. Because of that resilient piano-play that comes to us, through all the crackling recording imperfections, so dashing, dazzling & delicate.
And then there’s this Finnish artist, Helene Schjerfbeck (1862- 1946)
– who now, after all this time…,has a deserved retrospective in the Paris Museum for Modern Art. Hers is also a tale of ill health, impoverished living conditions and decades of isolation.
But ah, how she sublimates a childhood wretched by infirmity in that sparkling and endearing portrait of a convalescing child. … There is so much light there and so much stubborn life ….
Apart from these delightful impressionist exercises, she comes most into her own when rendering tranquil scenes (of women sitting while reading or sewing or talking) in a formal language of great economy, focusing on shapes and shades, almost Chinese-flat & subtle if it weren’t for a persistent attention to the stray variations of light (by the way – that is my single greatest objection against abstract art: bluntly shutting out the enchanting play of light and atmosphere, how dare they!) .
But most impressive perhaps are her self-portraits … As a young adult they show a classical northern beauty , but with already a disturbing gaze of persistent inquiry. By the time she has turned 60 she starts a courageously confronting series of self-portraits – portraits concentrating on the stark lines of an emaciated face, on the persistent gaze of staring eyes, on the expressive lines of lips. And always that fierce expression …….
Yes, one is haunted by these old age portraits – because they have attained the haunting bareness of truth.
“Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.” (2)
(1) CD-sleeve-notes by Uwe Kraemer
(2) WB Yeats