I’m in a tricky situation writing today’s blog as I want to talk to you about something, but it’s so complicated I’m not sure where to start. OK, here we go…
A couple of years ago, the Walker family went to the Isle of Man, and the book Mr Walker took with him was a biography of Eric Gill, by the lovely Fiona MacCarthy. Mr Walker has to look after some odd Gill drawings as part of his work and wanted to know more about the artist. Now I wish we knew a lot less.
|Ironically, Gill didn't know when to say when...|
All I knew at that point was that Gill was a bit eccentric and did nice fonts, used by many official bodies in Britain. I love his graphic work, I find it evocative of the thirties, it’s graceful and elegant. What I don’t like is all the incest and dog-fiddling and general horrific perversions that accompanied his artistic output. So, should I shun all of Gill’s work because I find him morally repugnant?
This blog is the result of a very interesting conversation I had on Facebook with some Pre-Raphaelite ladies about Ruskin. While Ruskin didn’t break any laws (as far as I know, although Fiona might have something to tell me on that score too) his behaviour towards women was unpleasant and damn right perverse. Balancing that are some acts of unbelievable sensitivity and forward-thinking support of women in the art. Is there a point when we have to dismiss the work of an artist as they hurt society more than they benefit it? Should there be such a tipping point, or should we separate creation from creator?
My gut reaction is that my enjoyment of a work of art is entirely separate from my endorsement or otherwise of the behaviour of the artist. Furthermore, I manage an uneasy relationship between one work and another by the same person. For example, I love Alice in Wonderland with an utter passion, but when I saw the an image of his in an exhibition on the Victorian Nude, I lost the plot…
|Portrait of Alice Liddel|
Oh, the above image of Alice Liddel is not the picture I'm talking about. I am too much of a coward to post the image, for fear of getting done for kiddie porn. The image is of a little girl of about six, nude and flat on her back, echoing Cabanel's Birth of Venus. I fretted about showing the image with blacked out areas, but to be honest it is just a picture of a little girl with no clothes on. I have a little girl of six who frequently runs around the house with no clothes on, so by blacking out areas of what is arguably an innocent image I felt I was making it just what I feared it was. Today has been a complicated place in Mrs Walker's head...
Why? Why should this bother me? Before I saw the image, I was aware that Carroll took pictures of little girls that were weird and questionable and I thought it was just something that Victorians did which is now seen as unacceptable, but this particular image made me swear out loud. It was in a section of an exhibition that was for over 18s only, acknowledging that modern viewers feel this is wrong. So, should I not read Alice in Wonderland as I think Lewis Carroll harboured paedophilic feelings? The mother of the little girl in the picture was present at the time of the photo and agreed to the image being taken, which winds me up even more. Could it be that there are things, such as photographing little girls as temptresses and goddesses, that were just clichés with no further or depraved thought given to it?
I know of people who won’t touch Carroll with a barge pole because of his photos and weird relationship with little girls, but as far as we know he did not commit a criminal act. So, should the line be drawn if an artist harms another person? OK, then what about Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal? He neglected her at best and was a proactive part of her suicide at worst. Looking at Beata Beatrix (left) I feel no doubt that Rossetti thinks he is to blame for her death, so should I reject his work because (on his own evidence) he mentally tortured a woman into taking her own life?
Richard Dadd’s Fairy-Fellers Master-Stroke (right) is one of my favourite pictures because it is so insanely detailed, in all senses of the phrase (also, it’s one of my favourite Queen songs). I find it interesting the character that is a portrait of his father is in the pathway of the axe, possibly reflecting his father’s murder. It’s horrible, but Dadd was insane and any judgement I feel towards him is entirely tempered, if not totally negated, by my sympathy towards a sufferer of a severe mental illness. However, my understanding liberal position is no comfort to his dad, I’m sure. Do I not judge or blame Dadd and his work because he was insane? Surely people who commit acts of cruelty and perversion can claim a mental imbalance that causes them to go against the well being of others? Is it right that I am willing to overlook murder, but uncomfortable with a man who photographed children?
My further worry is this. It has been hinted to me by someone whose knowledge on these matters I respect, that there are some very dark secrets as yet unpublished about a painter I love. If I understand them rightly, it’s terrible and it would affect the way I see their art because it puts things in a whole new context. It might be that one day soon this stuff is published and we have to deal with it, but should it be? If the criminal acts happened, it was over a hundred years ago and all those affected are dead; is it selfish of me to say I don’t want to know, I want to enjoy the pretty pictures without my brain saying ‘But, of course, you know what he did….’?
I would like to sum up nice and neatly, but I’m not sure that I can today. I can just tell you what I think and would very much like to hear what you feel. I have it narrowed down to the following in my own head:
If a piece of information is already in the public domain, then maybe it can help me understand their work in a different way. The complexity of Carroll’s love for Alice does add something to his work, a sadness, maybe even a jealousy for the lack of care that little girls have. I can rationalise it as a-sexual, and I choose to interpret it as that until someone cares to prove me wrong.
As for artists who misdeeds are as yet unknown, I think I would rather not know. As a fellow human, of course I want to know, the side of me that is interested in people always wants to know everything. However, part of me doesn’t want to know about the dark misdeeds of a beloved artist as I don’t think it adds anything to my appreciation of his art to know his dark secret.
If it isn’t apparent from his art instinctively, then I think it’s none of my business.
I’ve argued myself into a corner as in the case of The Unnamed Artist, I had already guessed his secret after viewing a retrospective of his paintings about a decade or so ago. Urgh, people are revolting…