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Do artists’ lives get in the way of their work?

26 May 2017

The current exhibition of Eric Gill’s work at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft raises questions about how far we can separate art from life. To what extent should biography shape our understanding of an artist’s work?

Nathaniel Hepburn

I have an additional column on the loans spreadsheet for ‘Eric Gill: The Body’, currently on display at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft (until 3 September). Within this document, which normally brings together information such as lenders’ details, insurance values, and packing requirements, is a column recording the entry from Gill’s diary around the time he made each of the 80 works in the exhibition: ‘I slept with MEG [his wife] & fucked her gloriously’ reads one entry from 1923. Sitting in the Tate Archive that day, scrolling through page after page of their microfiche copies of Eric Gill’s diaries, I felt very far away from the sculptures, wood-engravings and drawings which my co-curator Cathie Pilkington and I had selected for the exhibition. I wanted to be very open with our visitors to ‘Eric Gill: The Body’ about whether our knowledge of the artist’s biography, particularly his sexual abuse of his daughters, affected our enjoyment, understanding, and appreciation of his work. But was it relevant what he did to whom in bed every night?

Art isn’t made in a vacuum; what you read, where you visit, who you talk to and, yes, who you make love to, all affect who you are and therefore the work you make. My research into Barbara Hepworth’s hospital drawings, and on the friendship and artistic influence of Cedric Morris and Christopher Wood, were both stories of how relationships led to the creation of art. But recording in my notebook the date when Gill’s wife took his penis in her mouth? Surely this had gone too far and the biography was getting in the way of the art. But there were benefits to this information. It was interesting that Gill notes his symbol for sex in the margins of his diary alongside recording that he spent ‘all day’ carving Divine Lovers, a poignant and highly charged work of spiritual and physical intimacy. I was relieved that on the day when he cut the wood-engraving of his daughter Petra combing her hair there were no such symbols. But does it really matter – the works are bursting with Gill’s delight in the human body. Did it really make any difference if he acted out on this desire on any particular day?

Eric Gill writes in his autobiography that he made his first stone carving when his wife was heavily pregnant: ‘my first erotic drawing was not on the back of an envelope but a week or so’s work on a decent piece of hard stone…But there it was; it was a carving of a naked young woman and if I hadn’t very much wanted a naked young woman, I don’t think I should ever have done it.’ And it is in this sentence that is the crux of why, with Gill, it isn’t a simple question of can bad people make great art. Gill’s sexual abuse of his daughters is one of the most horrific crimes imaginable. The art that Gill created is some of the most exquisite, skilful, and sublime that this country has produced. But the art that Gill made – depictions of the body, love, sex – is so closely linked to the crimes that he committed, and his obsession with the body is palpable throughout the exhibition. It was a preoccupation that fired his creativity and gave the works of art a power which continues to awe audiences a century later.

‘Life and work and love and the bringing up of a family…should all be in the soup together,’ Gill wrote, and this is how he lived his life. I know that some people will resent being reminded of the disturbing biographical context within which Gill made his work but I want to be honest about information which might affect how visitors will understand and enjoy a work of art. I know that Gill’s working drawing for his wood-engraving of a nude in the bath is dated within days of the diary entry for his sexual abuse of his daughters. The work of art hasn’t changed with this knowledge, it is still a beautifully composed and crafted object that transcends any suggestion of portraiture. But I for one cannot view this with a purely aesthetic eye knowing that Gill’s sexual desire may have, at least in part, informed the act of creation, and that the nude in the bath is his daughter.

Nathaniel Hepburn is director of the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft.

Martin Gayford

In 1968 the Tate Gallery requested Balthus to send some biographical information for the catalogue of his retrospective exhibition. The painter replied by telegram. ‘NO BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS. BEGIN: BALTHUS IS A PAINTER OF WHOM NOTHING IS KNOWN. NOW LET US LOOK AT THE PICTURES. REGARDS. B.’ But is this state of ignorance about an artist’s biography really what we want?

Of course, as an artist whose favourite subjects were often teenage girls, Balthus probably had good reason to take the line he did. I once spent an Alice-in-Wonderland-style afternoon interviewing him in his 18th-century Swiss chalet, during which we had a Mad Hatter’s tea party with the artist wearing Japanese robes while his 14-year-old model remained totally silent. From what Balthus said – and almost as much from what he didn’t say – a good deal could be gleaned.

David Sylvester once remarked that all art historians should get to know artists, if only to discover how artists don’t think. That’s good advice. After all, there are so many crucial figures about whom it would be most useful to discover more: about their habits, their feelings, and their aversions.

From watching Lucian Freud at work and talking to him, hour after hour, I discovered far more about his pictures than I could possibly have done by simply looking at them. Who would turn down the opportunity to do the same with Jan van Eyck, for example: one of the many crucial figures in the history of art about whom we know nothing, or close to nothing? The date of his death, but not of his birth, a few details of his financial arrangements with the Duke of Burgundy, the fact that he once went to Portugal: that’s about it. From what you might call the Balthus point of view this cloud of unknowing is satisfactory. Nonetheless, if a bundle of correspondence from Van Eyck were to be discovered in some Belgian archive documenting his feelings, experiences, and opinions, then there would be wild excitement – and rightly so.

Of course, some data may be a distraction. It is tempting for biographers to zoom in on colourful incidents – love affairs, crimes and drunken quarrels – overlooking the fact that such phenomena belong to leisure time and it is the hours in the studio that really count.

Caravaggio is an example of an Old Master whose personality and opinions are documented largely by hostile biographers – and court reports (most of us would appear shifty and disingenuous under cross-examination on the witness stand). The antidote, however, is not less information but more.

Even the most unpromising shard of evidence can be helpful. It may not tell us much about Van Eyck that he happened to visit Portugal. However, the reason for his journey – to paint a picture of a Portuguese princess whom the Duke of Burgundy was considering marrying – is revealing. It tells us how much the accuracy of his images was valued.

Van Eyck probably didn’t have much to learn from the painters of Lisbon, but Albrecht Dürer’s sojourns in Venice had an impact both on his own art and on the local scene. So it’s a stroke of luck that we really do have a sheaf of his letters home to Nuremburg. It would be wonderful to have more: to be able to read, say, Dürer’s account of a conversation with Giorgione.

It isn’t possible to disconnect our understanding of art from our knowledge of the people who made it. Western art history from the Renaissance onwards doesn’t make much sense without understanding individual styles: that is, what makes artists different from each other (and, if you believe in value judgements, better or worse).

Looking at Giorgione’s paintings involves trying to work out what he actually painted, when he did so – and also what was in his mind while he was doing it. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough evidence to give firm answers to any of these questions. Giorgione is a painter of whom very little is known, and as a result we’re not even sure which pictures to look at. That’s one reason why Balthus’s telegram was disingenuous; and conversely why Vasari was not wrong to write the Lives of the Artists.

Martin Gayford’s latest book is A History of Pictures, co-authored with David Hockney.

From the June 2017 issue of Apollo. Subscribe here.