E. Kris-O. Kurz, “The Heroization of Man” I – The Heroization of the Artist’s Biography As subsections here we can distinguish the following: – unusual background: (as repeating motifs we come across things such as illegitimacy, poverty, serious illness in childhood).
As such, some premonition of an extra-ordinary future is apparent already in childhood; – an early talent in arts that is manifested in some very noticeable fashion (the artist sketches animals as he is tending the herd, doodles on the walls – as with Filippi Lippi or doodles in notebooks – Poussin, Michelangelo; this passion for drawing is often actively discouraged, for example the child is beaten by the father); – the artist meets a benefactor or teacher who recognized the child’s talent and who in later life becomes a significant force, often assuming the role of the father.
Part of this is the often repeated admission of the teacher that he has no more that he can teach the future artist. An appropriate example of this, albeit from a significantly later period, is provided by the description of Pablo Picasso’s childhood: The heavy rain that had been falling a few days earlier had given way to a strong easterly wind. Night had fallen early and it was dark. It was a heavy autumn night in the city of Malaga. At number 36 in the Plaza de Riego … , there was an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty.
Dona Maria Francisca Picasso Lopez was lying in childbed. [–] The birth was not easy but at a quarter past eleven on that autumn night it was all over. A new baby, another son of the city of Malaga, had come into the world. [—] That night, Tuesday October 25th, saw the start of the life of the man who, with time, would become a myth, and like all myths, a legend. His uncle Salvador Ruiz Blasco, a qualified doctor, attended the birth and made sure, with his skill, that the newborn baby survived. (Mallen 1999a) «His unusual adeptness for drawing began to manifest itself early, around the age of 10, when he became his father’s pupil [Picasso’s father was professor of Drawing Jose Ruiz Blasco] … At this time he started his first paintings. From that point his ability to experiment with what he learned and to develop new expressive means quickly allowed him to surpass his father’s abilities. (Mallen 1999b) One of the favourite motifs in the childhood stories of Renaissance and later-day artist was the tending the herds.
Probably the most famous of these childhood shepherds in the history of art is Giotto. Vasari describes in a very lively fashion how Giotto loved to draw animals as he tended them. It was there that his future teacher, the artist Cimabue discovered the boy: «… and while the sheep were grazing, [Giotto] was drawing one of them with a roughly sharpened piece of stone on the smooth surface of the cliff, even though apart from Nature he had no other teacher. » (Vasari 1927: I, 66. ) This fact found its way into the eleventh canto of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The herder and in particular the shepherd motif was particularly successful in artists’ biographies for centuries. In Vasari we can find the same episode in the biographies of Andrea Sansivono and Andrea del Castagno, Mantegna was a shepherd, Raffaellino da Reggio was a goatherd, and from later periods we know that Zurbaran and Goya were also herders (Kris ; Kurz 1979: 2638). Another story was circulated about Giotto. According to this version Giotto was supposed to have become a wool merchant but he ran away from the workshop in order to paint (Kris ; Kurz 1979:24).
In the descriptions of the artists’ lives, the facts are not important but rather how they can be made to follow the canons and preconceived notions that were already prevalent assumes importance. We find instead of accuracy, mythical motifs. In Giotto’s times and in the following centuries a spirit of pastoralism was floating over Europe and so it was inevitable that the artists had to be sent to tend herds too. The post-Freudian myth of the artist today is obviously going to be different in comparison to that of the renaissance. The premonitions and influences are going to be different, but they will be there nonetheless.
As a premonition at birth, the place of birth has often become significant today. A mythical glitter is added to the biographies of western European and American artists by virtue of their being born in eastern Europe or Russia. As an example of this and how facts can be made to be slippery, let us look at the biography of Mark Rothko. The following excerpts are taken from the Internet where the raw data found being disseminated there provides a fertile terrain for the growth of folklore. The sources we have chosen are, however, among the more trustworthy ones (i. e. net-encyclopaedia and websites of galleries): 1. The artist was born in Dvinsk, Russia [—] As a student of Josef Albers, Rothko’s work may seem at first glance much like that of his mentor. « 2. «American Abstract Expressionist painter, born at Dvinsk in Russia. [—] Studied the liberal arts at Yale University 1921-3. Moved in 1925 to New York and studied for a short time at the Art Students League under Max Weber, then began to paint on his own. » 3. «born Sept. 25, 1903, Dvinsk, Russia … American painter [—] In 1913 Rothko’s family emigrated from Russia to the U. S. , where they settled in Portland, Ore. During his youth he was preoccupied with politics and social issues.
He entered Yale University in 1921, intending to become a labour leader, but dropped out after two years and wandered about the U. S. In 1925 he settled in New York City and took up painting. 4. «Mark Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia (today Daugavpils, Latvia), on September 25, 1903 … Rothko and his family immigrated to the United States when he was ten years old, and settled in Portland, Oregon. Rothko attended Yale University in 1921, where he studied English, French, European history, elementary mathematics, physics, biology, and economics, the history of philosophy, and general sychology. His initial intention was to become an engineer or an attorney. Rothko gave up his studies in the fall of 1923 and moved to New York City. »1 If we set aside the fact of Dvinsk and Russia, which tends to offend the Baltic amour-propre (similar sorts of examples can be culled from the biographies of Estonian and Baltic Germans in Dorpat), the most curious fact seems to be the one making Rothko out to be one of Josef Albers’ students. But Albers immigrated to America only in 1933 after the closing of Bauhaus and he was the director of Yale’s design department between 1950-1960.
Thus, we see in addition to emphasizing his Russian origin (even though Rothko was actually a Latvian Jew, the necessary irrationality emanated from Russia) it was also important to find a familiar teacher and leader for him. It is natural that in the post world War II biographies of artists there is going to be a shift in emphasis as compared to the renaissance. Among American artist there are many who died young (for example Arshile Gorky’s suicide, Jackson Pollock’s car accident) or drank and took drugs.
These same shifts have occurred in pop culture and literature, but the significance lies elsewhere – the symbolic elements have shifted from birth to death and in the direction of tragic signs (sickness, childhood abuse, the death of someone dear etc. ). If previously birth had been the prelude to life, then in the second half of the 20th century, life itself had become a prelude to death. It is true that in previous centuries there were many artists who had short lives but their premature death had never been fetishized to the extent it is now.
By way of comparison, we can look at the sicknesses and deaths inspired by romanticism. This is, to be sure, more prevalent in literature. In the world of art the best-known example of it would be the life of van Gogh. Two examples from the beginning of the introductory materials for an exposition in the Washington National Gallery are sufficient to demonstrate the above: «Rothko, who committed suicide at age sixty-six, was born in Dvinsk, Russia, and immigrated to the United States at age ten. After two years of liberal arts study at Yale University, he moved to New York, … the introduction to Jackson Pollock begins with the announcement of his death, which appeared 20 August 1956 in Time Magazine. 2 To summarize the basic points of the heroic artist’s biography: – the hero demonstrates talent at an early age – often poor from a lower social class – undergoes a turning point through meeting a helper, advisor, teacher (this provides a bipolarity to the biography whereby the artist’s personality is allowed to rise out of his humble beginnings and the raising up is carried out by the helper) – premonitions and the helper/guide is present at the beginning of all biographies.
It is through these elements that we are convinced that the artist is not like other ordinary people, and, after all, the artist in any society can allow himself something more than others can. In this way the hero motif is connected to the artist myth. The birth of Michelangelo assumes truly mythic proportions in the biography by Vasari: At that time, while the diligent and chosen spirits, helped by that enlightenment which Giotto and his followers had created, hoped to demonstrate those talents to the world with which auspicious stars and their own equilibrate nature had provided them … he great Heavenly lawgiver looked down and upon seeing the vain and fruitless exertions and arrogant opinions of men which verily were further from truth than light is from dankness, decided in order to free them of these faults to send a genius equal in all arts into the world. God equipped him with a just and moral philosophy and a pleasing poetic disposition so that the whole world would be enchanted with the outstanding and uniqueness of his life and work and all his achievements and that they would seem rather divine in origin than arthly. Tuscany has always been at the forefront of the painting, sculpting and architectural arts and Firenze was the Italian city, more than any other, for her crowning achievements, worthy of being the birthplace of such a citizen. And so in the year 1474 the honourable and virtuous wife of Ludovico di Lionardo Buonarrotti Simone gave birth to a son under most auspicious stars. This son of whom I speak was born on Sunday the sixth of March around eight of the clock in the evening.
He was give in the name Michelangelo as was suitable for a creature of divine nature since Mercury and Venus were in the house of Jupiter at the moment of his birth signifying that his works of art would be prodigious. » (Vasari 1927: IV, 108. ) Enn Kasak has depicted the birth of Navitrolla in an interesting Vasari-like key: From the Beginning till the End, Harmony and Chaos wrestle in the world of humans. Each of us will choose a side suitable for ourselves. It is easy to burn our time vindicating ourselves and enjoying life. This is the way of the many.
Seldom one finds people who, through hard work, create islets of order and clarity amidst slackness and decay. [—] 1970 years after Christ, on the 10th of August in Voru (a little province which is the capital of Southern Estonia) a boychild is born, who, according to the documents, is a human unit with the name Heiki Trolla. But according to his deeds, a person with the name Navitrolla. His Voro descendants were peasants and his parents have become peasants again. In his very early years Navitrolla was seriously ill many times, but he recovered despite free medical care and enthusiastic doctors. I remember well how this little boy always starts to scream desperately when seeing white overalls his first cognizant experience of color. ) (Kasak 1995: 20). We can find lots of stories about Estonian artist who grew up in poverty and tended herds as children. The situation in Estonia even at the beginning of the twentieth century made this the only possible path for the most part. Even if the herder motif appears less often, almost obligatory is the finding of a helper/guide. We need but recall the debate only just recently on the occasion of Ado Vabbe’s 100th birthday to decide whether he had met and been influence by Kandinsky or not.
The person most responsible for establishing this myth was the Baltic-German art critic von Stryk who named Vabbe as Kandinsky’s favourite pupil (Stryk 1918). The source of myths for the 50’s generation of Estonian artists is usually their artistic life during the Soviet period or their under-ground activities. These in retrospect cannot be substantiated and they live on as oral commemorates. The most mythical of this generation of artists are e. g. Raul Meel, Leonhard Lapin and Matti Milius, who is active in art circles. Over this backdrop hover the shadows of Albert Trapeezh and Matti Moguchi.