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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Are You a Magritte or a Gauguin?

This blog is inspired by Jamie Iredell's telling my wife that maybe I would come by and see his new baby as soon as I "was finished being a rockstar" and also by watching the new Woody Allen movie involving one of my favorite artists, Salvador Dali.
Magritte belongs to the same school of often jokey surrealism as Dali.  His paintings are simple, sometimes cartoonish - they look more like illustrations than canvasses, and are frequently used as cover art for collections of Kafka and Psychology Today magazines.  Some people look down on Magritte because he appeals to certain pseudo-intellectuals (his prints can be found thumb-tacked to the wall in many a dorm room) but I don't care.  I just love him.  You see a Magritte painting and you never forget it.
Magritte worked in an advertising agency with his brother, coming home at night to paint in a carefully sectioned-off space in his Belgian home.  He was meticulous, and never made a mess, so Mrs. Magritte never complained about him.  When the Germans invaded, he stayed in Brussels.  The Germans made things pretty hot for a lot of experimental artists; there's no evidence they took any particular notice of Magritte.
For that matter, no one took much notice of Magritte until the 1960's when he finally came into his own as a popular artist.  He died in 1967. He was 69.
That's one kind of artist.  Bourgeois, doesn't make waves with the power structure, keeps his day job, careful to not to let cerulean blue get on the linoleum.  Working steadily, carefully, and - if he's really, really lucky - getting recognized sometime before his death.
On the other end, we have Gauguin.  (A character in Roth's "Goodbye Columbus" calls him "Mr. Go-Again," and that's how I always think of him.)  Of course, he famously went to Tahiti - actually he went twice - where he had numerous liaisons with the native girls - and I do mean girls - fathered a mess of kids, and painted.  But even before then, you could spot him as a misfit.  He tried the middle-class route - marriage, job as a stockbroker, the whole nine yards - for eleven years before the whole thing fell apart.  He was friends with Van Gogh, a fellow-painter and depressive.  Gauguin went to Martinique to paint and worked on the Panama Canal for a couple of weeks before getting himself fired.
Gauguin's paintings look more like paintings than Magritte's.  The brushwork is more painterly, the colors are broad and savage, and the compositions aren't orderly and centered.  They look like the product of crazed inspiration after a night of palm wine rather than an afternoon of careful thought with a good pipe and a cup of tea.  While in Tahiti the second time he was charged with taking the native's side against the French during an uprising and was sentenced to prison.  Before he could serve, however, he died of a morphine overdose.  Lucky him.  He was 54 years old.
Soon after Gauguin's death, his work became very desirable, and now on rare occasions you can find one for sale at all, his painting goes for tens of millions.
That's the other kind of artist - bohemian, thumbing his nose at convention, a bad employee, bad marriage prospect, a trouble-maker from the get-go.  If he works hard and is truly, truly lucky, he may be recognized sometime after his death.
So which are you, chuckles?
The dangerous route of flying in the face of convention, authority, and responsibility - or the arduous route of accepting the heavy mantle of all those things and still attempting to make art?  No matter what, serious recognition is a long-shot; Gauguin and Magritte both got lucky.  Most of us begin in obscurity and end there too.  If we're sober and careful we may outlive our beatnik brethren by a decade, but in the end, we're all dead.  Both paths are hard, it's a matter of choosing which form of difficulty you prefer.
Being a rockstar ain't in it.

1 comment:

  1. Read a story several years ago (don't remember exactly where...probably in a newspaper) about the guy who painted most of the "See Rock City" barns throughout the South. On the surface you'd automatically think he's a Magritte, of course. Painted what he was told to paint, and every "work of art" (if a barn can be referred to as such) looked exactly like every other one.
    But in addition, he would just about always paint some little small something else inside each barn...usually in a corner somewhere or up in the back of a hayloft. Oftentimes the owner of the barn wouldn't even see it till years later when he'd be cleaning out a loft, and there it would be. Usually a rustic scene of some sort: cows eating hay, a horse by a stream, kids swinging into a swimming hole. Sometimes he'd even make them rather grotesque...a pig with both ears on the same side of his head, or a farmer's wife hanging laundry on the line while the laundry basket was on fire, or (my favorite) a farmer striding purposely with a hatchet towards a big tom turkey who is hugging his "wife" goodbye while little turkeys are in tears all around.
    The curious thing is, those extra little paintings had actually become rather valuable. (The more grotesque, the more they were worth.) Occasionally you can still see a "Rock City" barn in the countryside with a square patch of relatively new wood in a corner, and that's generally where some farmer (or his children, more likely) had gotten an offer for one of the "extra" paintings. They sell nowadays for several times what the guy got for painting the entire barn, even allowing for inflation. (At least, they did at the time this article was published...before the recession.)
    Hope the signing tour is going well.