Arts Illustrated

October 7, 2020

Legend of the Loner Artist

Artists thrive best in solitude or is it that solitude thrives best in company?

Meera Rajagopalan

There is one more movie about a loner artist: Mother! That’s how it’s written; it’s not a comment on the movie, which would feature six more letters. In the movie, a poet and his wife move to a home in the midst of nowhere. Odd occurrences aside, there was one thing that I took back with me after the movie: artists must want solitude.

I rejoiced, for I had recently decided I would disclose my profession to [certain deserving] people, confidently stating, ‘I am a writer’ rather than the self-effacing ‘I dabble in fiction’ as if it were a whimsical pursuit unworthy of serious consideration. By the way, you apparently only have to declare yourself one, to be considered a writer. Thank God this does not apply to [real] professions, or imagine how doctored we would be. We already are over-engineered, tso that’s OK.

With my newfound status as a bonafide creative artist, I now often consider being by myself, and, well, create. I have myriad precedents – Picasso is supposed to have said, ‘Without great solitude, no serious work is possible’. In my case, I am not sure if the need for solitude is entirely creative craving. It could involve a couple of other factors: my kids. I am not sure what happens when one is alone: do the words just appear in one’s mind? Maybe (and I desperately hope) there is a creative fairy who drops paintings, or novels, or sculptures by the creative artist’s pillow at night.

Illustrations by Mansi Misra

I am certain I cannot stand my company for more than a week, but then, I am no Van Gogh, Freud, or Thoreau. Nor do I have access to a water body a la Walden Pond. I barely have access to water.

A cursory glance at artists’ lives reveals that they might have retreated to their lonely towers often, but most of them returned to society either to peddle their wares or to connect with others. Picasso, for instance, was known for his appearances at salons and his friendship with Matisse, claims of his disregard for society notwithstanding. Virginia Woolf, too, was part of the Bloomsbury Group, and is known to have been, at times the life of a party.

Who is to say which part of their lives nurtured their art? Perhaps it was society, from which artists freely drew inspiration, and simply formalised it in solitude. Or, perhaps, solitude was their haven and their appearances at salons only for marketing purposes, like those irregular Facebook posts on upcoming book launches that you notice from authors who are otherwise silent on social media. And no one talks about this, but let me put it out there: perhaps Freud and Picasso needed to come in to the city to stock up on alcohol and cigars.

Today, artists frown upon the appearances they have to put in at art events, but they seem to be at ease at the events. Now, unless they are terrific actors, they actually like company. It might well be that they are simply trying to conform to the Legend of the Loner Artist, a legend that may have outlived its utility in today’s world where even a whisper is broadcast and nothing, not even existence, is private.

With times-a-changing, the Legend of the Loner Artist is no longer heartfelt- Ed. (It’s an anagram, one I’m mighty proud of, even if it’s powered by Google, a.k.a Sauron). Exploding population, tourism and connectivity, and bombed demonetisation have meant one thing for artists in India: solitude is impossible. It comes at a hot premium (which reminds me, artists, please consider insuring your work).

The only way artists can even hope for any solitude today is to live within [their means, but that’s irrelevant here]. They can look inward, and in themselves, one can only hope, they will find the emptiness and solitude they seek.

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