Creating art is not an easy thing. As I talked about in my review of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, it can be a struggle, a battle even. Pressfield’s book was about overcoming the difficulty of getting down to work, of stopping procrastination and doing the thing you have to do. But there is another kind of creative struggle that many go through – the struggle with one’s self, with one’s inner demons.
Whether it be issues of mental illness, depression, physical disability, or addiction, many creative people have had to find ways to overcome their issues in order to create. Some have even used their problems to their own creative advantage.
Three artists who transcended their inner turmoil, at least for a time, and created masterpieces in the process were Francisco Goya, Vincent Van Gogh, and Jackson Pollock. They didn’t always win the war (and the fight sometimes ended up destroying them) but each went on to be regarded as a master of their medium partially because of that struggle.
Because of the tremendous range he achieved during his lifetime and the intensity of his work, Francisco Goya was a legitimately one-of-a-kind painter. Although he created work that encompassed neoclassical idylls and portraits of the Spanish royal fantasy, he is probably most famous for his more disturbing paintings: his images of war, of political corruption, and of monsters.
Early on, paintings like The Third of May and The Disasters of War print series – both made in reaction to Napoleon’s brutal occupation of Spain – showed the unfiltered the horrors of conflict. He became a kind of photojournalist (mostly of his own imagination admittedly) decades before the advent of photography.
However, to me, his most powerful images, known as the ‘black paintings,’ depicted the darkness that can lie within the recesses of the imagination – the black corners where most of us are too scared to go. Taken off the walls of his home, dubbed ‘the blind man’s house’ these terrifying and magnificent works were incredibly dark, both in subject matter and in color, and remain his most arresting images.
Goya’s turn from portraying an idyllic world of a fashionable aristocracy to plumbing the depths of the id came around the time he lost his ability to hear. His deafness meant a new inability to communicate or interact with the outside world. He was imprisoned within the self. Here he used his frustration with his disability, much as Beethoven did, to create arguably his best work. He dove headlong into the abyss.
Many have mistakenly called Goya crazy. This isn’t quite right. Some of his most poignant images deal with the theme of insanity. But to focus merely on the deranged aspects of his late images is to ignore their more potent intention: as a satire of the craziness of society and the systems of order that led often to war, poverty, and misery for so many.
His paintings also move from showing a fear of royal and military power run amok, to a fear of the mob, of witchcraft, and of monsters. What was truly Goya’s gift was his rare ability to go to the darkest most dissolute reaches of his imagination and pull out those aspects, those dark creatures that at once attract us, intrigue us, frighten us, and disgust us.
The black paintings, as well as other works from his later years, are difficult to look at precisely because they are so powerful and so visceral. We may want to turn away, yet we are strangely drawn to the dark images. They fasten our eyes to them like glue. This uncanny quality is precisely what Goya had a rare gift for.
Because he could not express himself normally through language, he used his art to tell the story about what was rotten and ugly in humanity as he had told about what was beautiful in his early paintings. In other words he told the truth both as we wish it were, as it truly is, and as we fear it might be. This deeper truth is what gave his works their immediacy and their staying power.
Vincent Van Gogh is one of those artists whose very existence has become a kind of cliché. He’s the mad genius, the misunderstood master, the artist who became famous only after he died. At the same time, these are clichés precisely because they are true. Van Gogh is today one of the world’s most popular artists. The reason for this is half because of his amazing and vibrantly colorful paintings and half because of the manic depression that made them possible.
Van Gogh’s mental issues were something he battled all his life. The ups and downs of his inner state moved between high points of manic energy and creativity and low points of despondency, erratic and sometimes violent behavior, and an inability to work.
In one of his most infamous moments, he cut off of his own earlobe to give it to a woman in town. It came at a time of creative ebb not long after his disastrous experience trying to form a cooperative art studio with the talented but equally difficult Paul Gauguin in the yellow house in Arles. It precipitated a breakdown that led to a long period at a sanitarium and the beginning of his slow decline towards his ultimate end.
Alternately Van Gogh would go through periods of incredible production. At one point he painting a picture a day, including some of his best known and beloved works. He created classics like his many self-portraits and landscapes including the instantly recognizable Starry Night. During his black depressions he did almost nothing, acted erratically, and sometimes violently. It was this back and forth that made Van Gogh both the great artist we all know and the intensely depressed man who would eventually shoot himself in the chest at the age of 37.
We know a lot about him from the sheer volume of correspondence he had with his art dealer brother, Theo (who tragically died not long after Vincent). From it, we can track his mood swings, as well as discover the incredible wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm he had for his art. He was wild about nature and beauty, a great driver of his work, and very open and honest about his attacks of depression.
He revealed that he had once been a preacher with a positively transcendental outlook. It was this feeling of god all around him that imbued his paintings with their characteristic frenzied brushstrokes, vibrant color, and sense of pure and loving energy. A good example is Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun, where the jubilation of nature almost teeters over the edge of sanity, its so intense.
Other times, such as when he painted the Wheat Field with Crows, the jubilation of those periods seems to go to the other emotional extreme, a kind of foreboding despair, the way drinking too much can move the drinker from joy to darkness. Some have argued that this painting, with its disregard for simulated perspective, frenzied brushstrokes, abstraction, and flatness, is the beginning of modern art.
In the end the incredibly boisterous, frenetic, and sometimes scary nature of his paintings always seems connected to his state of mind. Because of this and the fact that he painted so quickly and frequently, we have a kind of visual diary of his mental state which manages to pull the viewer in to Van Gogh’s very personal and deeply felt vision of the world.
Jackson Pollock was an extremely driven artist, but also an extremely difficult and self-destructive character. His work redefined what was considered possible in painting up to that time. With that gift, and the odd kind of notoriety he received from his revolutionary splattered works, dubbed ‘Action Painting’ by critics, Pollock changed the very way we look at art today.
With other artists in the Abstract Expressionist movement such as Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and his wife Lee Krasner, Pollock helped to create two new elements in the art world: painting that was completely abstract and unencumbered by metaphor, and the rise of New York as the new center of the art world (replacing Paris which had dominated it for at least a century and a half). He has also come to symbolize (in a kind of interesting reversal of Vincent Van Gogh’s extreme popularity after his death) everything that is difficult and even detestable to many people about modern art.
In some ways Jackson Pollock’s story is similar to Van Gogh’s. He too struggled with periods of extreme highs and lows. He had those of genius, filled with constant and consistent work, and those of complete stagnation and depression as well as excessive drinking to the point that it basically crippled him. Pollock’s alcoholism came to define him in a certain way, much as it did many creative people of the twentieth century. And it also led to his tragic end, drunkenly driving off the road with one young women in the passenger seat and another in the back, neither of whom was his wife.
Despite his wild nature, it is often overlooked that Pollock was an incredibly deliberate artist. He had formal training under the tutelage of Thomas Hart Benton and the Mexican muralists, from whom he would later adopt the idea of working on a large canvas.
He came from the American West, a place that influenced his work with its vast landscapes and Native American cultures. He thought of himself as acting in the way that nature did, creating spontaneity through his application of paint. His splatters and drips were never random. Using sticks, brushes, or even his hands he applied paint to the canvas in a controlled way, much as a jazz musician does when constructing an improvised solo.
Pollock’s dark side was very dark indeed. He would get drunk, become brutish and mean, and even commit acts of violence. During a thanksgiving dinner after a disagreement with the photographer Hans Namuth who was making a film about him, Pollock yelled out ‘NOW!’ and pushed over the table. All the dishes and food went crashing to the floor.
During these long dark periods of drinking he could do nothing but be unhappy. When Lee Krasner was able to convince him to stop for any short or extended period of time, he would go over to his studio on Long Island and paint. She made a concerted effort to keep bad influences away from him so he could remain stable and work.
It is partially because of these interventions that we have much of the most famous work. But there was a point at which, as he was losing popularity among the important critics, Pollock descended to his lowest point. Fat, constantly drunk, and cheating on his wife, he lost complete control. This downward spiral would eventually lead him to his premature death at the age of 44, late at night on a Long Island road.
Art and Struggle:
Creation is not usually an easy thing. Even those who love to do it, myself included, often struggle to get down to work, to get something out of it that is truly good. Being creative people, we are often plagued by our own dark thoughts: those of inadequacy, jealousy, and doubt. Sometimes this war is what allows an artist to create their best work as in the case of these three artists who worked to rise above depression, physical or mental issues, or addiction. In the end, whether or not they won that battle, their art serves to show what good can come from this fight with darkness.