How Does This Happen?

June 25, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

I was thinking about Emily Dickinson, Eugene Atget, and Vincent van Gogh.  All three are truly celebrated as great artists.  All were unknown as artists during their own lifetimes.

Emily Dickinson wrote over 1800 hundred poems during her lifetime and less than a dozen were published.  The ones that were published were greatly altered by the publishers because they were so different.  Her poems, as originally written, were truly unique for their time.  She later became a recluse, but continued to write poetry and many, many letters.  She died in 1899.  She had instructed her sister to burn all her poetry.  As her sister burned them, she recognized the greatness of the work and saved the rest.  After they were published, the quality of the work slowly began to be recognized.  She is now known as a major American poet.  During her lifetime, she knew very little fame.  Her genius was not recognized until years later.

In the late 1800's and early 1900's Eugene Atget was actually selling his work.  He sold photographs of flowers and landscapes to other artists from which they made paintings.  However, at night, he documented old Paris.  He photographed lanes and stairways, stores and alleys.  He photographed misty nights and lonely streets.  During the last two years of his life, his Paris work was recognized by younger, cutting edge artists, but not by the general public.  He died as a relatively unknown photographer with a huge portfolio of wonderful photographs of old Paris.  An American photographer, Bernice Abbott championed his work, especially after his death.  He is now recognized as a pioneer in photography.  His genius was recognized mainly after his death.

Vincent van Gogh's life is known by many.  His art is known by millions of people.  Early in life, he struggled to find a calling.  His life was difficult and was beset by loneliness, poverty, depression, and mental illnesses.  His drawings and paintings were mainly ignored during his lifetime.  He sold very little work.  His paintings were usually considered crude and rough.  After he passed away, and time went on, his work was recognized as being groundbreaking.  It is considered by many as a pathway to modern art.  His paintings now cost millions of dollars.  His genius was recognized only after his death.

How does this  happen?  Are we afraid of something new?  Is art better if it looks like something we already know?  How can we grow as artists if we don't change?  Is the creative process reliant on history?   

When an artist is so far ahead of his or her own time, it sometimes takes years of growth for society to catch up with them.  It's a shame.


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