BEHIND THE DUST
The artist and the comet’s tail.
A text by Mika Mario Minetti
Keep your soul pure, that is basically what she said.
When Nobel laureate Doris Lessing wrote her acceptance speech for the Literature Prize, she addressed young writers: “Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold onto it, don’t let it go.”
It is hard to imagine a more eloquent way to defend the private space of an artist – the mystery of art, in other words. The artists – writers, painters, composers – leave a cue of themselves in their body of work, yet vague and unapproachable. Thus we might get a glimpse into their mindset, detecting it in passing like a comet tail carrying dust and gases: perhaps to lure us, or to confuse us.
The comet becomes visible when entering the inner Solar System where it is illuminated by the Sun; the art glows and radiates when entering public space, museums, state or private institutions, galleries and collections, yet the makers – if still among us – often appear like fictional characters dressed in disguise when encountering their followers (one does not need to be Banksy to remain a mystery throughout one’s career).
There and then, in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin or at Tate Modern in London, we stand in front of art and fool ourselves into believing that we understand where it is coming from. Instead, we inevitably interpret Lucas Cranach’s “Fountain of Youth” (1546) or Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917) – or name any other classic piece, including a fountain or not – within the confines of our contemporary cultural realities or fragments of information gathered through the peephole between the wooden frames, so to speak.
Take Pablo Picasso’s portraits of his mistresses and wives, for instance. Was he an admirer of female beauty, or are the paintings with twisted facial features and distorted silhouettes merely an echo of the artist’s fantasies about violence against women, as some scholars claim? How do we relate to Andy Warhol if we keep in mind that virtually no work by women was included in his private art collection that was auctioned at Sotheby’s after his death? Was Salvator Mundi (c. 1500), the world’s most expensive painting sold for 450 million dollars in 2017, actually painted by Leonardo da Vinci’s pupil?
It is the mystery of art that thrills us. If you want to know your artists, dig deeper and look for unexpected sources. Start by reading “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk” (1924): the last short story ever written by Franz Kafka is one of the most captivating accounts on the relationship between an artist and his or her audience. A clever play of illusion, talent and solitude – you will never really find out whether the singer called Josephine is truly singing, or just whistling her way to stardom and demise. For the Mouse Folk she remains a comet’s tail.