The Artist As A Troubled Soul

Two weeks ago, I rushed to book tickets to ‘Loving Vincent’ – the world’s first fully oil painted feature film. I was scared that the movie will only play for a week (it’s not exactly a pot boiler, if you know what I mean) and I didn’t want to miss it. The film brings the paintings of Vincent van Gogh to life to tell his remarkable story. Every one of the 65,000 frames of the film is an oil-painting hand-painted by 125 professional oil-painters, including two ladies from India who travelled from all across the world to the Loving Vincent studios in Poland and Greece to be a part of the production. As remarkable as Vincent’s brilliant paintings, is his passionate and ill-fated life, and mysterious death.

Take a quick look into any one of the hundreds (thousands?) of years of art history and you’ll find that, plenty of great art was made by troubled souls.

My plan was to never get married. (But, that’s also because I was having trouble finding ‘The One’) I was going to be an art genius instead. Women almost never become art geniuses because art geniuses only concern themselves with art, never mundane things like making tea or folding towels. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

We’re all complex human beings. And we’re all troubled souls, to a certain degree. If I didn’t believe that I could be a little better in my art than I am in my life , that my best self is found in the art, what would really be the point? But it’s still crushing when someone who’s made art that I love has led such a troubled life. And to make matters worse, Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime.

What is heartening, I think, is that the cultural celebration of the Artistic Genius/ Troubled Soul is fading, and the myth that being an absent parent, a cheater, an abuser, an addict, an asshole, a pervert, a man etc. is somehow a prerequisite for — or is somehow excused by — great work is slowly being torn down. And if making great art ever let you off the hook for your failures as a human being, those days are going away, too. (Good riddance.) I mean just look at the Weinstein/Spacey/Cosby/Louis CK stories. No getting away from that, is there?

Director Steven Soderbergh was asked if he believed that an artist has to be disturbed in some way to make memorable art. “Not at all,” he said.

It takes a lot of energy to be an asshole. The people I admire most just aren’t interested in things that take away from their ability to make stuff. The people I really respect, and that I’ve met who fit this definition, have a sense of grace about them, because they know that there is no evolving and there is no wisdom without humility.

Earlier in the interview, Soderbergh said that when he speaks to a film class, he spends the last 1/4 of the talk “discussing personal character, how to behave, and… how you treat people.”

That’s the kind of talk that helped me as a young artist. I remember hearing about KK Hebbar from my aunt, he is a legend but also how he managed to be a decent artist and a decent family man. How he and his graceful artist daughter Rekha Rao showed me that it’s not impossible, you don’t need to be a troubled soul, in fact, being a decent human being will only make your art better.

‘Loving Vincent’ is still showing in Bangalore, so catch it while you can. And don’t blame me if you start looking for Van Gogh reproductions soon after.