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The artist is a bully, or worse… Should we separate the art from the artist?

artist personnality
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The artist is a bully, or worse… Should we separate the art from the artist?

Paul Gauguin exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum

I recently went to the Seattle Art museum to see the Paul Gauguin exhibition, it was a great experience to see for real paintings I had so admired in books.

Autoportrait avec portrait de Bernard, 'Les Misérables'
Paul Gauguin : Autoportrait avec portrait de Bernard, ‘Les Misérables’

Before going to the exhibition we did a bit of research on Gauguin’s life and his art as it makes the experience of going to the exhibition only more interesting.
The problem with Paul Gauguin is the more I know about his life the less I like him as a person. And well… there is a lot not to like about the infamous Paul Gauguin… The fact that he left his wife and 5 children to pursue his art career following what we would call today a huge mid-life crisis. Apparently he was very self satisfactory and a bully to his entourage. Then there is the inclination to marry or take as companion very young girls ( 14 or 15 years old) once he was in Polynesia, after contracting syphilis in brothels. Pain made him heavily self medicating with morphine and alcohol at the end of his life.

I also dislike the way he would ignore the complexity of Polynesian culture and reduce it all to a fantasy with a paradise populated by “bon sauvages” living a simple and easy life, such a colonialist view of a foreign culture… Polynesian culture is very complex and there are lots of codes and traditions, the opposite of a care free life on the beach.

There is even a theory out there that will make him directly responsible for cutting Van Gogh ‘s hear!

Tahitian Women on the Beach, (1891)
Tahitian Women on the Beach, (1891)

Then there is the art, the art that speaks for itself. I always was drawn to his paintings, the lush colors, the beautiful woman, the accentuation of edges that makes surfaces appear flat. He is not obsessed with reality, the exact quality of the light as most impressionist were, there is some fantasy and imagination in his work, sometimes he would even make up symbols like a secret language. His way of applying color with small touches is what still links him strongly to the Impressionists, but his approach is way bolder, there is something wild in there.

Vision After the Sermon (Jacob wrestling with the angel), (1888)

So all this to me begs the question: “Does the personality of the artist matter when we are looking at his work”, is what he did or not in his life relevant to the way we should appreciate his art? In a way can a bad person make good art or a good person make bad art? The answer seems to be yes, but does it matter?
We had a few striking examples in France, I am thinking about the critically acclaimed writer “Louis Ferdinand Celine” but also known for his antisemitism. I am also thinking about Bertrant Cantat, found guilty of beating his girlfriend actress Marie Trintignant to death, he went to jail and did his time but there is an uneasy controversy in France, should he still be allowed to play his music and be featured in the media? Or should he by respect to the victim family be as discreet as possible and stop doing what is his work, sharing his music with the public. He was supposed to perform in a play in Quebec recently at the Theatre du Nouveau Monde for The three Sophocles plays, directed by Wajdi Mouaw, but after much controversy the Canadian government decided to deny him entry to the country.

Do you think we should consider the artist personality and his work as a whole or is it irrelevant?

On the same subject:

Comments (27)

  1. Ideally, yes, we separate the artist from the art. To do otherwise means cancelling some potentially great work. Were Leonardo or Michelangelo pedophiles? Would it matter to our appreciation of David or the Mona Lisa? I realize that art is always influenced by “context,” nonetheless, aesthetics is a form of transcendence and exists out of any particular time.

  2. Xanthippia

    Old or not, this post arrived in my email newsletter today, and I have strong opinions about character and Art. I, like so many others, believe that Art is a reflection of the inner self’s view of the surrounding world, regardless of the medium (dance, sculpture, music, painting, writing, cinema or so on). The only rule the artist has is that he or she must evoke something in the audience or viewers that came directly from within him or herself. In the case of works created by nasty or bad people (Gaugin is but one example of a decidedly flawed man who had an unquestionable gift for painting, regardless of how he lived his daily life), the person who approaches the work has an obligation to see it in the context of the artist’s entire œuvre, which of course includes any biographical information we happen to know about the artist.

    It’s really up to the person on the receiving end of the work to decide for himself as to whether or not the artist’s actions and ideas are to be conflated with the artistic output. I personally find it uncomfortable to watch films by certain directors, or with certain actors in roles, because there is less aesthetic distance between the person and his artistic output than with painting or drawing. So, for me it’s always a question of whether or not they break through the “fourth wall,” injecting my consciousness with their bad acts or antisocial pasts. Frankly, there are plenty of books to read, paintings and sculptures to look at, and music to listen to than, for me to spend my time on those that carry the germ of evil in their origins and insist on pushing it at me.

    Thanks for sending your post out again today!

    1. Thanks for your comments Xanthippia 🙂

  3. Anna

    Another interesting post, Sandrine, albeit a couple of years old!

    I suspect the answer lies with the perspective of the individual viewer. In the case of art or even actions from prior eras, I tend to withhold judgment. In the larger scheme, great hubris is displayed when applying current social morals and mores on past events. It makes no sense. On the other hand, when reading of the mysoginistic behavior of some celebrated artists, skepticism is bound to color ones viewpoint.

    In the case of current events, if one is a murderer or a pedophile, et al., then I say heaps of scorn rather than admiring media and academic attention should be the order of the day. If that were only the case.

  4. Honoree

    Hi Sandrine,

    I know this is an old post, but I just came upon it and wanted to compliment your writing… Along with the other replies, your post got me thinking… I knew Picasso was a meanie (lol), but honestly always thought us “artistic” types just had colorful personalities! I never thought about the artist and their actual personal life… Know I will always wonder!

    Hope you have a great weekend, Honoree… ❤️

    1. Thanks Honorée, I am glad you liked my writing! As English is my second language I am always a bit insecure about it 🙂

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  9. […] Pingback: The artist is a bully, or worse… Does it matter? « Sandrine Pelissier's Blog […]

  10. This is an excellent post, Sandrine. I have asked the same question many times. I like a work of art because I like it, not because of who created it. There are many actors who I think phenomenal but whose personal lives are a total mess. I view musicians, writers, and artists the same way. However, I am an avid reader of biographies and like to know something of the person behind the work and I think it is just because I am interested in the human condition and lives of my brothers, so to speak. We are not Gods but individuals working and creating and leaving something behind. Why not discover the person behind the art?

  11. frankie

    To go even further…remember all the fuss with the Ted Bundy paintings affair….

  12. elizabeth

    This man’s behavior and treatment of women and children far outweighs any talent he might have. They (W&C) were/are far more important. Tripping over the humans he’s trampled down and left in his wake to look at his ‘art’ causes me to stumble because I too have then trampled over them.

  13. Reblogged this on whatevertheyaint and commented:
    The following post was written by Sandra Pelissier’s and I’ve been trying to get it to reblog properly for three days now. Please drop by and pay her blog a visit and check out the watercolor paintings she creates along with step-by-step intructions of the creative process.

  14. I think we do tend to overlook the eccentrics and behavoir of artist for the sake of the art…or at least I do. On another note, do you provide the option to reblog? I would really like to reblog this post–with due and proper credit to you and your site of course.

    1. Hello whatevertheyaint,
      Yes I think we tolerate more from artists in terms of behavior because there is a stereotype of the tortured artist that will misbehave to some extend, although this tolerance also has its limits.
      I like being reblogged as long as there is proper credit to my blog, and thanks for asking 🙂

      1. Kathy

        Sandrine, Unfortunately our culture permits this type of ugly behavior today with our movie stars, athletes, polticians, etcs. This is a hard call about judging the value of an artist based on his/her personal life. I do agree that his work is extraordinary! Kathy

  15. Great post! People’s art is an extension of their personality and i think it plays a part in how we feel about the art. Picasso is by far one of my very favourite artists but what a big meanie! I still appreciate his art, cannot rave about it enough in fact but I probably wouldn’t want him as a chum. People can sometimes suck, sometimes art sucks. Both just inspire me to keep trying to be a better person and a better artist. You’re a great painter btw, i love it!

  16. Hi Sandrine

    An interesting question that I have asked myself many times in my discipline of Writing. I loved and adored the poetry of Dylan Thomas until I read a biography about him and was disgusted at the man he was … especially the husband he was. I think it both matters and doesn’t matter …it has to depend on how the individual viewing or reading feels … how much the ART becomes the PERSON for them. I ended up being seduced all over again with the beauty of Thomas’s words and decided that at least they showed a kind of inner beauty that he was too ‘disabled’ to show in his relationships with real people. However, if I knew an artist to have been a rapist or child molester or similar I would baulk at having anything to do with that persons writing or art. If for example each time you look at Gauguin NOW your head says ‘Cultural abuser, man who selfishly spread his sexual disease to young girls … frequenter of brothels … ‘ Then I guess you have answered your own question. There is no need to be objective about such things … the subjective allows for the full play of ethics and emotions and so it should. Cheers, Lorese

  17. I guess we forgive artists for behaviours that we wouldn’t condone in others, because we love their art. Their personality is far from irrelevant, as it shapes their art, but in the end it is our perception of their work that wins the day. Especially when time lends distance. I think of Caravaggio as proof!

  18. Hi – Interesting article Sandrine. I’ve got to say the personality of the artist is integral to the artists style of painting. I am running a tutorial this weekend about developing your own painting style – so this is a topic that interests me deeply. I feel that we all express some part of ourselves in our art. Gaugain wouldn’t have painted the way he did if he hadn’t been the person he was – warts and all. As to the aspects of publicity for the negative aspects of an artists life – well that’s the media. Beautiful art isn’t necessarily made by a “good” person. If we vetted our art work based on the artist’s personal life (putting aside our own feelings about it ) wouldn’t we perhaps be the poorer for it?

  19. LBagneres

    Sandrine – great post and bullying is a very current issue! I knew a bit about Gaugin’s personal life but I didn’t know just to what extent….it is so true that when you look at his work it’s hard to process this because of his incredible sensitivity to colour, and understanding of subject matter. I believe that the true meaning of art is not just about what an artist sees….but about what he/she make others see ( a quote by Degas)…Gaugin truly had an amazing gift to do just this and what prevails in his paintings transcends perhaps his actions.

  20. Wow. What an incredible post! It brought tears to my eyes, as I had just been discussing with a friend the subject of tormented personalities and their swath of emotional damage they leave behind. Sometimes the bad negates their good traits, because the bad is so tainted with evil.
    I claimed today to have a gift for being neutral, but can one recognize genius while knowledge of their dark side is branded in memory? One would have to recognize genius and be reminded that some of the most brilliant souls deal with an equally-tormented side. By knowing them or knowing of them, we remember to be thankful that our wiring is more direct and positive.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Z

  21. Enjoyed reading your post, Sandrine! Now, for my opinion: if you are evaluating art in itself, I’m pretty sure the personality of the artist is irrelevant (unless the artist is using themselves in the art in some direct way)…However, when the artist becomes a public figure, their personality (or at least their perceived personality) becomes a part of the art.

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