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Most people believe that popular and timeless artists have always been successful and famous, but that isn’t the case. In many situations, artists have been recognised post-mortem, raising the question of what success really is and how it is attained for artists?
Vincent Van Gogh
For example, Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch painter in the late 1800s, but he wasn’t appreciated during his life. His work gained popularity and recognition after his death and he’s now considered to be one of the most important expressionists. From his early teenage years, he struggled with melancholy and psychological problems. As it was the late 20th century when he faced extreme mental health difficulties and Dutch society was still conservative like most of the world, life was particularly hard. He did various professions that didn’t naturally suit him, before he began his occupation with painting at the age of 27, when he travelled to Europe with the minimal amount of money he had. Towards the end of his life, he went in and out of mental hospitals, cut off his left ear and committed suicide.
Van Gogh was influenced by nature and Japanese art, elements that are also evident in his portraits since they’re often seen in the background. He studied impressionism and especially the use of colours, using techniques such as the stacking or rhythmic technique. The most important variation was the use of complementary colours, something that impressionists avoided. He painted rural life with intense colours and he’s particularly known for his motion-filled strokes, as exemplified by his best-known paintings. The Red Vineyard is the only work he managed to sell during his lifetime. He continued painting in mental hospitals.
Domenikos Theotokopoulos: ‘El Greco’
Another example is Domenikos Theotokopoulos, commonly known as El Greco. He was a painter, sculptor and architect in the 16th century, though his work was properly recognised in the 20th century. As a young adult, he moved from Crete to Venice to study, and later on went to Spain, where he spent the rest of his life. He accepted commissions from the monasteries and churches, making a comfortable living. His first big commission was an altarpiece in Spain for the conventual church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, where his Venetian painting style and influence by Michaelangelo were revealed in their full extent. Εven though he was generally recognised as an artist, most of his contemporaries were puzzled by his works. A prime example of this, was his short and unsuccessful collaboration with king Philip II. Domenikos Theotokopoulos was hired to do two paintings of which the king disapproved and demanded to be replaced, ending their agreement.
El Greco’s painting style was a result of his Greek origins, Italian art studies and love for Spanish religion, making him unique and incomparable. His style is characterised by intense and contrasting colours, vivid expressions and a tendency to elongate the human figures. He was an established artist throughout his life and especially during his last decades, but after his death he was slowly forgotten and at times criticised to be eccentric and incomprehensible. A few centuries later, during the late romantic period, poets and artists started studying his works again. They considered his vision futuristic and ahead of his time. Since then, he has been considered to be one of the most influential artists of all time, which is something El Greco’s contemporaries and himself wouldn’t have believed.
What does Success Mean for the Artist?
So the question arises: what makes a successful artist? Is it something that is established while the artist is alive, or is it more important to have a timeless impact even if that comes after the artist dies? In the current capitalistic society, success is measured by income as well as appeal to the public, relating it to popularity rather than the artwork itself; if that had been the case, Van Gogh wouldn’t have been considered successful. During his life he was marginalised and made no considerable impact in the art industry, but today the public’s and experts’ attitude towards him has shifted dramatically. In the case of El Greco, he was a recognised artist who made a living, but he did not influence his peers or the public at the time.
Art has been linked to career and income rather than art itself. Naturally, success is also a personal goal of every artist, giving them the satisfaction and motivation to keep going and evolve. An artist’s work reflects their thoughts and their inner cosmos, but also comments on the status quo starting a dialogue with the people; acceptance and recognition become essential to fulfil their identity, especially when it develops into a full-time job.
Artists’ Recognition and Conclusion
When it comes to the recognition of the artist after his death, it’s really not about them. It’s about the work, which is alive in itself, but remains the product of its creator. Consequently, posthumous recognition is offered to art, history, the public and each of the gallerists, art dealers and curators, but not the artists themselves. It would be selfish to romanticise the terribly bad situation the creator can find themselves in and the struggle to find a place in the world with and for their work. The disparagement of an artist they’re still alive, not only by the artistic community but society as a whole, doesn’t equate to their recognition after death. That is, unless we want to believe that there’s another life, where we aren’t reincarnated into something new but continue our previous existence, something that’s doubtful to exist in any school of thought.
In a utopia, we would like art to find its place as long as its creator is alive, to be embraced, appreciated and exist with space and acceptance. But this is unfortunately not true. Let us be alert and ready to witness every moment and every artistic sensibility that deserves to be seen by the whole world, instead of ignoring its existence and importance.
Written by Despina Zacharopoulou and Nefeli Papanastasopoulou