The Artist's Memoir

A brief history, from Benvenuto Cellini to Frida Kahlo and Yayoi Kusama

The artist’s memoir is among the most eccentric, perplexing and anarchic literary genres in existence. Memory is, after all, a hall of mirrors and it requires a daring, mischievous mind to make sense of it. Yet, few other schools of writing would permit such looseness with facts — sometimes there’s only a persona, artfully choreographed, upon the page. Confessional fireworks, the blearily verbatim transcript of this or that epochal moment, and the accounts of inertia in which the desire to work escapes like a mysterious bird all appear frequently. Certain veils of bewilderment that previously shrouded an artist’s work for you might be removed by the memoir. The opposite might occur, too: Andy Warhol’s art seems less familiar and more delicately unsettling each time I read The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again) (1975). The memoir is a kind of teacher, a guide to the proper behaviour of the melancholic and the malcontent. Coiled inside its immediate seduction is often an education in aesthetics: it can illuminate a way of inhabiting the world. The memoirist typically adumbrates the making of art itself as an obscure process of repeated failure sometimes happily interrupted by luck, unnamable urges and the sudden flutter of an unfamiliar thought. ‘Explanations’ for a work of art are frequently mundane or reflective of profound bafflement.

The genre also has its own weird formal joys: the unschooled strangeness of certain artists’ prose, the tendency for sentences to fall provocatively between aphorism and riddle and the compulsive infidelity towards the diary’s belief in linear time, usually replaced by a delirious montage of dreams, flickering memories, pure inventions, sketches and questions. Indeed, the primal excitement of the artist’s memoir comes from its refusal to behave correctly: this is a form that often disturbs your thoughts about what exactly a book might be. The greatest works are the wildly intemperate, perverse expressions of the artist’s mind, which play with personal demonology and trauma in ways that other forms would never risk. (Childhood is often returned to as a source of wonder or anguish.)

Hidden within these personal stories there’s a deep historical stratum which traces the transformation of the artist from a craftsman whose curious task is to make objects that suggest the splendour of an empire into a dandyish, vaguely sinister figure, always connected to logic beyond wakeful life. (They carry something mysterious within themselves and let it escape.) But precisely how an artist should be is just as elusive as any fixed idea of the memoir.

1. Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini (1558–63)
The memoir of this 16th century Italian sculptor, painter and goldsmith is a libertine testament to furious egotism and wild pleasure. Seduced by his own legend, between tales of murder Cellini tells us: ‘I was the wonder of everyone.’ It’s difficult to square the fey, melancholic figure in his self-portraits with the presence radiating from the page, half ageing narcissist and half lusty bull. His crazed wanderings, satyric mischief and shaggy meditations on art are recorded by a sickly adolescent assistant and, happily, transcription catches him full of mirth, stories tumbling from him like money from a drunk. During a spell in prison, he hallucinates a consort of angels and commences drawing them on the wall of his cell with some scavenged charcoal. He declares his (now lost) Jupiter cast in silver ‘the most beautiful work in France’; he confesses to many ‘devilish crimes’. A teenage girl falls under his spell as he hits middle age and bears him a child – ‘my first son’, he idly notes, ‘to my knowledge’. Often it’s like reading the recollections of a tyrant in hiding and yet the intoxicating tug of his voice indicates that Cellini knows the supreme importance of the artist’s myth: being a sinner brings glory after death. With wicked glee, he recalls watching his Perseus with the Head of Medusa (1545) being cast: ‘Then, when it was licked by those terrible flames, you should have seen that curdled metal glow and sparkle!’ Some of that macabre joy is always coursing through him.

2. The Journal of Eugène Delacroix (1822 – 63)
In 1864, the year after the death of the painter Delacroix, a small fraternity of writers and artists convened in Paris to honour their master. The gathering is commemorated in Henri Fantin-Latour’s painting Hommage à Delacroix (1864): ten men are arrayed around his portrait, like sons paying their respects to a dead father. Charles Baudelaire, James McNeill Whistler and Édouard Manet are among the mourners. There’s a mood of reverence and glamorous hauteur. You feel like you’ve trespassed on some private ritual: Baudelaire, unkempt, fixes us with a flinty stare. We’re looking at what you’d now call an artist’s cult following.

Leaping back in time, here’s Delacroix as a young man writing in his journal, elegantly encapsulating the Romantic stance on art: ‘The primary merit of a painting is to be a feast for the eye’. Morality and naturalism can happily rot: what Delacroix wants is opulence, energy, the sensual exhilaration of a more vivid world. For much of the Journal’s mammoth span, he remains on a mad pursuit of ‘the exquisite’, a hazily defined but all-consuming aesthetic value. Across that time, he also becomes an astonishing painter of states of rapture, anguish and pensive gloom. (Nobody has ever looked so frail or so modishly despairing as his many versions of Hamlet.) In an essay on Delacroix, Baudelaire wrote: ‘In his paintings, one seems to be attending the celebration of some grievous mystery.’

The Death of Sardanapalus (1827) is exemplary: murder veiled in opium smoke, with subversive insistence that an act of violence might be as beautiful as a ballet. Something so awesome, which must have come from immense labour, doesn’t rouse a sentence from Delacroix. The making of his art leaves him monosyllabic and bewildered. But there is always the return to the mapping of his aesthetic mission. His mind is endlessly agitated over the question of what a Modern artist’s task should be. In a fit of doomed heroism (or unspeakable hubris), he decides: ‘I want to paint my century.’ (Like all diaries, these furious assertions of purpose commingle, in an accidentally comic arrangement, with domestic details: ‘Found two beautiful hawk feathers.’)

Delacroix’s writing is as brightly lyrical and as moodily bruised as you’d wish from a Romantic hero. Returning to Paris in summer, he finds ‘the sun made young again’. Dwelling on his joy at the completion of a certain painting, he writes: ‘It is like the delicious pouting of one’s sweetheart: one knows that it will not last.’ The Journal ends with a sigh, full of scorn: ‘The eyes of many people are dull or false; they see objects literally, of the exquisite they see nothing.’ These final words seem defeatist, testifying to a sensualist’s revulsion with the outside world, at once tragic, arrogant and shot through with lunatic demands, but they are also, perhaps unconsciously, a manifesto. Delacroix’s lament marks the emergence of a visionary sensibility which others would, in the same obsessive spirit, continue.

3. The Diaries of Paul Klee (1898 – 1918)
According to the shadowy figure in Jorge Luis Borges’s tale ‘The Other’ (1968): ‘We must accept the dream as we accept the world.’ I was scared I would grow old and never know how to think about Klee’s art, which has filled me with empty-headed joy since I was small, but Borges’s motto, perhaps, provides a key.

Few artists have mapped the anarchy of the dreaming mind with Klee’s cartographic exactitude. The thresholds between his art and his unconscious, wakeful life and dreamtime, become eerily imperceptible, as if he’s able to drift in and out of them on a whim. A certain glyphic figure ‘steps out of the frame [of a painting] wearing a top hat’, luring him to a ballroom dance. Goya’s paintings are studied but vividly remade by the draughtsmanship of Klee’s imagination: their horror recedes, replaced by a fascination with ‘the flesh tones like delicate roses and the ravishing sonorities from grey to black’. The especial gorgeousness of Klee’s reflections comes from that woozy interweaving of the senses: the colours of the painting sing to him.

Klee’s account of his early life is like a Freudian case study, full of visions and impish sexual urges. As a small boy he finds ‘grotesques’ in the marbled surfaces of the restaurant tables owned by his uncle and sketches their spiderweb shapes. Laconically, he recalls how, as a child, ‘evil spirits I drew came to life’ and he ran to his mother in fright. He gambols into adulthood, brimming with mad lust like ‘Pan among the reeds’. The Diaries don’t record the slow accumulation of time so much as Klee’s intoxicated wanderings in the phantasmagoria of his own head. A decade or so before he’s mastered anything, he visits an aquarium and watches intently as a ‘gelatinous angelic little creature, transparent and spiritual’ drifts to the depths of its tank. That description would apply to many of the misty, talismanic forms he painted later. For many years, Klee was able to conjure his art much more elegantly in writing than in painting.

Slowly, that art emerges and its mysterious language teases you, at once slyly recondite and unsettlingly transparent. Luminous and playful, Klee’s art is evocative of many things — early animation, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), Cubism, childhood scribblings — without quite belonging to any of them. Klee, who understood his art so deeply, also knew to keep its meaning secret.

4. The Diary of Frida Kahlo (1944 – 54)
The writings and drawings in Kahlo’s diary (‘her inky worlds’ as she called them) seem to come out of her mind ablaze, without the corruption of logic. There are precious few biographical fingerprints and almost no intrusions from fact and history beyond the compulsive neon inscription on half a dozen pages of ‘Long live Stalin! Long live Marx!’ In this oblique document, her personal traumas only appear in visionary scenes, transfused with the air of an exorcism. Her writing is cryptic, starkly denuded of everyday detail and frequently crosses over into a private language of submerged meaning. ‘Silk girl wind father pirate’ runs one unpunctuated line, as if the words flowed from her head like tears. Words and drawings frequently bleed into each other, their ink emitting a lurid chemical glow. (Her pages bear a beguiling resemblance to the illustrated plates of William Blake’s poetry.) ‘I’ll sing from now on our magic love!’ she ecstatically announces, inaugurating the diary’s most vivid theme: her obsessive involvement with Diego Rivera. Kahlo’s fascination with him manifests itself in a moonstruck, woozily erotic code in which the two of them are transformed into soft, delicate creatures — Rivera is by turns ‘Diego, my little boy’ and ‘Diego, my mother’.

Kahlo’s surrender to her imagination was at once in accordance with her Surrealist principles and a practical necessity, which somehow tranquilized her physical suffering. When she was 18, she boarded a bus which collided with a tram. The injuries she sustained plagued her for the rest of her life and left her frequently in agony. Images of sickness and bodily frailty recur throughout her diary. Much of their content is undated but, in 1953, the year before her death, she draws a portrait of herself as an angel. Naked, she emerges from the flames of a green fire; scribbled at the page’s edge is a painful little dialogue: ‘Are you leaving?’ ‘No, broken wings.’

She fixes us with the traditional, totemic stare of her other self-portraits, but the diary makes Kahlo suddenly vulnerable, as if she always wished to escape.

5. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again) (1975)
No other book illuminates Warhol’s spectral oddity as fully as his Philosophy. The posthumously published Diaries (1989) are peculiar, too: 1,000 pages of unwavering inertia whose cumulative effect is akin to his film Sleep (1963), a five-hour observation of a slumbering boy, if it had drifted on for 11 years. But the Philosophy is much more playful and oblique, collecting Warhol’s thoughts into a compendium of voguish elegance, which only deepens their disconcerting blankness. One-liners, odd conceptual daydreams, bemusing infatuations (‘my favourite kind of atmosphere is the airport atmosphere’) and memories appear with a teasing lack of elaboration. There’s a gloomy pathos to his recollections of childhood: ‘I had three nervous breakdowns when I was a child, spaced a year apart […] the attacks always started on the first day of summer vacation.’ Warhol’s sentences, unspooled from hours of conversation, are drowsily circular, slithering things, full of unexpected echoes. He can sound like a camp suburban sensualist in an etiquette manual (‘the lighter things in life are the more important things’) or a master thief in a 1940s film noir (‘I like low light and trick mirrors’) and the ghost of Gertrude Stein (‘what makes a painting beautiful is the way the paint’s on’). That spooky play of cadences indicates the jesting elusiveness of the book. Warhol’s thoughts parade their vacancy, yet remain deeply seductive. As a self-portrait, it’s exemplary of Warhol’s art, superficially intimate and yet avowedly alien: ‘Every day is a new day because I don’t remember the day before. I have no memory.’

6. Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz (1991)
This is a book that seems to go through the kaleidoscope of feverish hallucination as it unfolds. Wojnarowicz returns from long nights roaming New York seething, haunted and full of malignant knowledge. (He had wandered the city alone since early adolescence). He died from an aids-related illness the year after this book’s publication and he attempts to confront the full horror of the virus through his own terrifying, deeply private monologue. Sentences unfurl with a nightmarish vividness: ‘He loves the way my skeleton moves under my skin.’ The book seems to go into the shadows beyond prose towards a form that is as messily associative as psychosis — splenetic, incantatory and weirdly lyrical. He finds sinister magic in certain lines: a house contains ‘silence like a blood-filled egg’, the sky is broken up by ‘dusty photographs of lightning’. The book often turns towards Ronald Reagan’s vision of the USA (decidedly straight, blindly homophobic) to find a proper object for its howling rage, and buried inside that is the monstrously vivid spectre of Wojnarowicz’s violent father.

This horror is juxtaposed with a luminous melancholy. Wojnarowicz’s sentences can turn suddenly frail, almost wistful. ‘Survival’, he confides, ‘is a such a lovely thing.’ Writing repeatedly leads him like a sleepwalker into the dim corners of childhood to find the ghosts waiting there. In a few elliptical pages, he recalls escaping to the woods beyond his childhood home to make a replacement family out of mud. What’s conjured here is uncannily fateful: Wojnarowicz’s obsessions with haunted landscapes, filth and lost boys come into focus through the fog of memory. 

These isolated moments recall the mysterious expressions of sorrow found in his photograph of buffalo tumbling into a canyon, Untitled (Buffalo) (1988–89), or the ghoulish collection of tableaux, Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978–79), in which Wojnarowicz plays the demon poet, masked and lonely, haunting beaches and derelict buildings. Close to the Knives deeply wishes to be the inheritor of Rimbaud’s visionary confessional prose poem A Season in Hell (1873), though Wojnarowicz is ultimately too wounded to become a proper heir. Scenes move in ‘a kind of memory slow motion’, decaying as they’re described. A certain section is so hazy it seems to have uncoiled straight from his sleeping mind. Wojnarowicz is staggering through the lonely American nowhere of the desert. ‘These images’, he writes in a strung-out incantation, ‘were old before you came upon them.’ As night falls, he wishes he was ‘weightless like death’.

7. Infinity Net by Yayoi Kusama (2004)
In the pages of this book, you can pinpoint the precise moment when the artist climbed out of reality and into a hallucinatory world. She recalls it with spooky clarity; she wasn’t safely into her adolescence yet. ‘During the dark days of the war, the scenery of the riverbed behind our house where I spent much of my disconsolate childhood became the miraculous source of a vision: the hundreds of millions of white pebbles, each individually verifiable, really “existed” there, drenched in the midsummer sun.’ Perhaps part of Kusama has never quite left that riverbank and remains there in her mind, completely bewitched by this precious illumination of nature. Gazing into the riverbed, it’s as if she’s staring at the surface of one of her own paintings, the pebbles returning in their endless constellations of white dots which still radiate the same numinous power for her decades later.

When she began painting the ‘toneless net’ of tiny dots on canvas in the 1950s, it crawled on and into the skin of her hands. She writes: ‘I was dragged body and soul into unexplored worlds.’ Though Kusama’s paintings lack the frightening amperage of much art dredged from a damaged mind, she describes their emergence from the depths of psychosis with remarkable lucidity.

Images must be ‘expelled’ through repetition until their threat disappears. Kusama’s art is a symptom of her psychosis and its own peculiar kind of treatment: a luscious and sinister flowering of the illness she has somehow befriended. Late in the book she describes her wish ‘to record the images before they vanish’, but you always sense the opposite: the solipsistic artist long ago vanished into them.

Kusama’s book gathers together the biographical and formal hallmarks of the artist’s memoir with uncanny neatness — damaged childhood, hallucinatory prose, a certain fondness for private revelation — all symptoms of this peculiar tradition.

Generally speaking, what’s most fascinating about the artist’s memoir is its desire to redefine what the memoir itself might mean, to play games with the surrounding tradition. All memoirs look inward but almost never as do these books, which accommodate the mystery of their writer’s imagination and sometimes seem to emanate from its depths.

The artist’s memoir is often not an account of the life but a transcription of the mind. In his 1987 essay ‘Not-Knowing’, Donald Barthelme recalls a peculiar artistic experience: ‘Once, when I was in Elaine De Kooning’s studio on Broadway, at a time when the metal sculptor Herbert Ferber occupied the studio immediately above, there came through the floor a most horrible crashing and banging. “What in the world is that?” I asked, and Elaine said, “Oh, that’s Herbert thinking.”’ That’s what you find in these books: the noise of an artist’s thought.

Issue 3

First published in Issue 3

October 2014

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