A couple of weeks ago I went to see the new Gauguin exhibition at Tate Modern with the inimitable Sam Crossley. It’s a great exhibition, which has been put together in a really thoughtful way, and I’m still pondering lots of what was on display. But the first room in the exhibition probably got me thinking the most…
The first room was called “Identity and Self-Mythology”. Gauguin carefully crafted his identity, and the self-portraits in the first room were key in this. There’s a definite progression from the romantic idea of the penniless artist, through the well-travelled adventurer, and ending with a slightly pitiful portrait of him looking weary and ill.
Gauguin had a reputation for controversy – he spent time in Martinique and Tahiti, where he lived a ‘dramatic’ life. He claimed to be leaving behind the decadence of Paris, but in Tahiti he married 3 children and infected them and many others with syphilis. Although these accusations might have ultimately harmed his reputation, his controversial reputation and the wild primitive art he primitive art he produced fit together well. In fact, so well that it was hard to see where the artist ended and the art began…
Which got me thinking about the link between an artist and the art they create. Can we really consider art separately from the artist who created it? If we see art as merely a commodity to be consumed (and which essentially all about us, the consumers), then we probably can. But if art is actually communication, then surely the artist and their art should be inseperable?
Some other artists have done this masterfully. Two which spring immediately to mind are Andy Warhol and Lady Gaga (hear me out…!)
Andy Warhol crafted an iconic image, which was mysterious and recognisable at the same time. Even down to the company he kept and the wig he wore, his public image was as much a work of art as anything he made. And his name on its own immediately adds something to what is created (as TDK obviously realised).
And I’ve talked about Lady Gaga’s image before. She has also carefully fashioned an image and a reputation which is completely intertwined with her music. Her music isn’t separate from who she is – both go together as a whole package.
I guess a cynical mind could easily assume that the controversy is just a way of selling art – and maybe it could be. But I think it goes deeper than that. And maybe it even shows more integrity, as the artist immerses himself or herself in what they are trying to communicate?
I think it also raises interesting questions about where we find our identity. Can we really create and control it, especially if we then want to communicate truthfully with the rest of the world? And if our identity can be created just like a piece of art, then who are we really?