Not the End of Solitude

I recently read a great blog article about solitude by artist Deborah Barlow, written in response to an article by critic William Deresiewicz (entitled “The End of Solitude”), who claims that the young people of today (i.e. my generation) are both solitude- and intimacy-phobic due to the prevalence of social media. Read Barlow’s article (and get the link to Deresiewicz’s article) here.

I think Deresiewicz would consider me one of those anomalies he briefly mentioned, as I’m in my mid-20s and require a large amount of actual solitude each day to be both happy and productive. Unlike the young people Deresiewicz referred to, I write alone and hardly keep my phone near enough to type 100 texts a day. My husband (a photographer, graphic designer and musician) and I aren’t afraid of turning off the computers, cell phones and TV, and we value the time we spend camping and hiking in the woods. And, like Thoreau, we tend to stand alone. But I don’t think we’re more anomalous in our generation than artists and writers of the past.

A large component of an artist’s or writer’s personality has always been the need to be heard; it’s why we exhibit and sell our work. Most of us don’t create in order to keep it to ourselves; even Thoreau wrote to be published. It’s just that the need to be heard takes a removed form for the creative person — that is, we’re more comfortable expressing ourselves in writing or art than schmoozing at parties. Social media, like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, provide that same opportunity: to connect indirectly, to communicate within solitude. I don’t think the general proliferation of voices via social networking sites makes us more vapidly social or less solitude-loving as artists and writers of this generation than in previous generations. And it’s always been the small-numbered strangers — spiritual ascetics, writers, artists — who have been the solitude-seekers. Even Deresiewicz admitted that solitude “has undoubtedly never been the province of more than a few.” So yes, we are few who seek out solitude, who don’t hide from “Thoreau’s darkness,” but I doubt that’s a new development owing to the general population’s greater access to venues where our voices can be heard.

But what do you think? Has social networking created a phobia of silence and solitude?

The Shared Loneliness of Edward Hopper

It’s been a while since I’ve written here, but I’ve spent the past month preparing for my last residency and then attending the residency, and now I can say with pride that I have received my MFA in Creative Writing (not without literal blood, sweat and tears, mind). After a chaotic week of traveling, writing, revising, and holding/attending seminars and readings, this first post — written in my lingering post-MFA stupor — will return to an old series on visual art and look at the work of Edward Hopper.

In the past, I’ve written about other favorites of mine (Munch, Friedrich, Bacon, and Turner) and showcased particular paintings that inspire and inform my own work in fiction — not (just) their subject matter, but the ways in which they treat their subjects. Visual art (in attempting it myself and in viewing actual artists’ work) helps me to see and — more importantly — feel the world in new ways. What one learns in studying paintings is that two-dimensional color and form are not stationary things — they move and breathe. They pulse, even in stillness.

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is one of the best known artists of the Ashcan School, a group of painters that sought, above all, not to romanticize their subjects, but to paint life as they knew it (gritty, rough, chaotic) in New York City in the early 19th century. As Robert Henri said, “Forget about art!…and paint pictures of what interests you in life.” The goal wasn’t to strive for perfection or beauty, but to get at the heart of the bleak, gritty spirit of city life they felt all around them.

Hopper’s work diverges slightly from the others in that it focuses on quiet, ordinary, usually solitary moments (as opposed to other Ashcan painters’ scenes of rushing street traffic, portraits and boxing matches). His most famous piece, Automat, is of a woman at a cafe table with a cup of coffee. It’s something that could (and, with a change of clothing, still can) be seen anywhere. But the way in which Hopper paints his subjects — heavily, darkly and in some form of isolation — expresses a somber, resigned solitude. Even when there are two or more human subjects, there’s a palpable loneliness. His paintings are so saturated and smoothly stroked that they look almost flat, but upon closer inspection — especially of the human subject’s skin — one finds a subtle, visual rippling (as in Morning in a City). It’s that sense of isolation and the juxtaposition of flat heaviness and richly undulating sensuality that gives the paintings a strange, voyeuristic intimacy. It’s as if the viewer is peering through a window at night, watching people in their houses and apartments or in public places, catching them in their most private, most vulnerable, and most true moments.

That’s what I love about Hopper’s work: the heavy vulnerability, the shared loneliness. Those characteristics are defining quirks of humanity,  I think, and to see them displayed so honestly, without the polite softening of the averted gaze, is to be pulled outward, to find core aspects of oneself in others and yet to recognize that, in spite of that sympathy and sensitivity, there are barriers that can never be crossed; we are essentially alone in our experience of life, but together in it.

At least, that’s the truth I find in his work. Take a good, long look at each of the following Hopper images and, in the comment box below, tell me what you see.

Automat - 1927

Room in New York - 1932

Morning in a City - 1944

Summer Evening - 1947

For more information about Edward Hopper and his work, check out this great site by the National Gallery of Art.

The Infinite Scream of Nature: The Art of Edvard Munch

Continuing my series of posts on my favorite artists, I’ve decided today to focus on Edvard Munch (1863-1944). A Norwegian Symbolist painter, Munch — like other Symbolists — rejected the naturalistic and realistic in art in favor of presenting the imagination, dreams, visual emotion. Like Romantic painters Turner and Friedrich, Symbolists sought not to portray the visual world as it is, but to manipulate familiar objects into tools to communicate meaning. For Munch, this often meant infusing objects and scenes with anxiety, isolation, terror, and deep, agonizing love.

The quintessential, and most famous, example of this is Munch’s Scream, which so pulses with horror that even the most casual observer is impacted by it. Of the inspiration for the painting, Munch said, “I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.” Moments of intense feeling like this were what Munch strived to capture in his work — not the scene, but the collision of emotional cause and effect, the essence of what it means to be a deeply feeling human being. Munch wrote of his goals as an artist: “My art is really a voluntary confession and an attempt to explain to myself my relationship with life—it is, therefore, actually a sort of egoism, but I am constantly hoping that through this I can help others achieve clarity.”

This is exactly what I seek in my own work, which is perhaps more difficult in writing because it isn’t a medium that communicates through direct sensory experience. Still, it’s possible for the writer who is capable of seeing the world so particularly and intimately through the character’s eyes — as Munch does through his own eyes as an artist — that everything, every spoon and valance and torn page and sprout of mold, is inseparably linked with the character’s emotions. Such a story (whether a short story or a novel or some other form of narrative along the continuum) becomes not just a portrayal of a series of events in an imagined life, but a rendering of raw emotion, of life itself.

The Scream - 1893

Madonna - 1894-95

Love and Pain (also called, mistakenly, Vampire) - 1893-94

Puberty - 1895

For more work by Edvard Munch, as well as biographical information about the artist himself, check out Edvard Munch: The Dance of Life.

Nightmares in Oil: The Art of Francis Bacon

I first found out about Francis Bacon in an oil painting class during my sophomore year of undergrad. Around midterm, the professor gave us a list of artists’ names and told us to pick one, study that person’s work, choose one piece to recreate and then do an original painting in the style of that artist. I went home that day and Googled each artist; I remember Lucian Freud — another great Modern painter and friend of Bacon — was on that list as well, but I can’t remember the others. Bacon’s work both terrified and thrilled me (it seems that Burke was right about the sublime, yes?), so I signed up next to his name on the roster.

A little background info on Bacon: Born in Dublin to parents of British descent, Bacon (1909-1992) was, from childhood, both asthmatic and effeminate — two seemingly trivial traits that shaped his life. His father, a racehorse trainer and veteran captain of the Boer War, sought to turn Francis into the British masculine ideal, forcing him to go hunting in spite of Francis’ violent allergies to both dogs and horses. Father and son struggled with each other throughout their lives; the elder Bacon was often enraged by his son’s effeminacy and affection for dressing up, and ultimately disowned him — exiling him from the family estate — after catching Francis admiring himself in front of a mirror, wearing his mother’s underclothes. Over the years, Bacon lived in varying levels of poverty, relying when he could on the support of older, richer men (even working for a time as a “gentleman’s companion”), as well as whatever menial work he could find, until garnering success as an interior designer and decorator. He didn’t begin painting regularly until he was in his 30s.

It seems to me that it’s precisely those beginning 30 or so years of pain and struggle that gave his work, as the Wikipedia article about him puts it, that “bold, austere, graphic and emotionally raw” quality. Bacon was fascinated by disease, the Crucifixion, and hanging meat, and was a firm Existentialist, having spent much of his 20s reading Nietzsche. He sought to represent in his work the violence of life and yet described himself as “optimistic about nothing” — that is, optimistic about everything, particularly the little things in life that are often taken for granted, that are considered “nothing.” Wikipedia makes a very perceptive connection: “[Bacon’s] case of asthma can give reason to the constant ‘optimistic about nothing’ ethos… unlike most, he valued entirely such a seemingly trivial thing as breathing.” It’s that passion for life — all of it, every moment — paired with his images’ haunting, dreamy horror that draws me to his work again and again. It appeals to the raw, emotionally violent part of me, which I think resides in all of us, however small and hidden in the darkest recesses of our subconsciouses. The following are some of my favorite Bacon works. (In the interest of space, I’ve made the images small and have not captioned their titles. Scroll over the images for their titles and click on them for larger views.)

And, for the curious, my humble tribute done in oil painting class:

For snippets from a great interview with Bacon, check out this page. And for more work by Bacon, click on this link.

Dreamy and Torrential: The Art of JMW Turner

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking of doing a series of posts about my favorite visual artists, those who alter my perceptions of light and shape and color and so influence my writing. After some deliberation, I’ve decided to go ahead and begin with English Romantic painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, who crafted dreamy, torrential images in watercolor and oils. Born in 1775 and finding success as early as 1790 — when his work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London — Turner found inspiration in the sea and the sky, both of which served as channels for depicting his own emotional turbulence. Dubbed “the painter of light,” Turner embraced Edmund Burke’s theory of the sublime, which claimed that:

“Mere light is too common a thing to make a strong impression on the mind, and without a strong impression nothing can be sublime. But such a light as that of the sun, immediately exerted on the eye, as it overpowers the sense, is a very great idea… But darkness is more productive of the sublime ideas than light… [However,] Extreme light, by overcoming organs of sight, obliterates all objects, so as in its effect exactly to resemble darkness… Thus two ideas as opposite as can be imagined [are] reconciled in the extremes of both; and both in spite of their opposite nature [are] brought to concur in producing the sublime… The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all motions are suspended, with some degree of horror…” (Burke, qtd. in “JMW Turner and the Sublime,” Turner Museum website).

Thus, Turner sought to convey these most extreme passions — astonishment and horror — through the swirls of light and darkness cast about in storms on land and sea, nearly obliterating the shapes of common objects in the process. While he’s painted fairly concrete pieces, I prefer his more abstract, impressionistic work; the chaotic power of his style is (to me) more profound without the anchor of easily distinguishable figures. The following are some of my favorites.

"Rain, Steam, and Speed: The Great Western Railway" - 1844

"Snow Storm: Steamboat Off A Harbor's Mouth" - 1842

"Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge" - 1843

"The Slave Ship" - 1840

For more information on JMW Turner and his work, check out The Turner Museum website.