You can take photos of the art work at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City. So I posed with Van Gogh’s Starry Night perhaps one of the most famous paintings in the world. The Dutch master painted it while spending time in a sanatorium after a mental breakdown. Van Gogh died at 37 from a gun shot wound. The two women he wanted to marry rejected him and he had an unsuccessful career as a pastor. He only sold one painting in his life time.
I toured the MOMA with some of my former students from Hong Kong who are currently studying art in New York. During their art history courses they have learned about the biographies of many of the artists featured at the MOMA. We discussed whether all great artists have personal lives that are troubling and tempestuous.
Here’s Three Ball 50/50 Tank created by American Jeff Koons. Koons, whose work has been auctioned at prices as high as $25 million definitely qualifies for having a personal life fraught with drama. His first child, conceived when he was very young was put up for adoption. His subsequent marriage to, and divorce from, an Italian pornography star resulted in a nasty custody suit for their son which Koons eventually lost.
This is a self-portrait of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. She had polio and suffered all her life from a variety of injuries sustained in a bus accident. She was married to artist Diego Rivera. Both had numerous extra marital affairs and they were never able to have children. Gold Marilyn Munroe is the work of American artist Andy Warhol. Due to a disease of the nervous system Andy became a hypochondriac as a child. His father died when Andy was 13. When he was forty, a script writer whose manuscript he had misplaced, shot him. Although his life was saved he suffered from related health problems till his death at age 58. This is just a small portion of a three panel mural of Water Lilies by French impressionist artist Claude Monet. Monet’s mother’s died when he was just 17. Monet and his first wife Camille and their son lived in poverty and he was so despondent about their situation Monet attempted suicide. He suffered from self-doubt about his work which led him to burn his paintings. Camille died from complications of a second pregnancy and after her death Monet became involved with a married woman. Another jewel in the MOMA collection is Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso. Picasso and his father argued a lot and Picasso was traumatized by the death of his seven-year old sister from diphtheria. Picasso had two wives and a string of mistresses both before and during his marriages. One of his early mistresses died prematurely when she was only 30 and Picasso was devastated. I was intrigued by this portrayal of American President Lyndon Baines Johnson, shown as a blockhead holding tiny versions of his wife and daughters in his hand. The piece is by Marisol Escobar, who after the death of her mother when she was just sixteen began to engage in harmful acts of religious penance, walking on her knees till they bled, tying tight ropes around her waist and refusing to speak for long periods of time. This is The Storm by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, perhaps most famous for his painting The Scream. Munch spent nearly a year being treated in a clinic for what he called ‘a touch of madness.’ He experienced excessive anxiety and hallucinations made worse by his drinking and brawling. He didn’t want to ever get married so the one woman with whom he had a long-term relationship finally left him for a younger colleague of his.
Salvador Dali’s painting The Persistence of Memory was much smaller than I thought it would be. Dali’s mother died when he was just 16, an event that left him devastated. His father disinherited him when Salvador began a relationship with a married Russian woman ten years his senior. He married her and she was able to accept his numerous affairs with younger women. Dali tried to commit suicide after his wife died.
This is not the blog post I really wanted to write about the MOMA. I saw so much intriguing work there and learned things about that work which I was excited to share with my blog readers. However my comments about Van Gogh’s hard life at the beginning of this post got me off on the wrong foot. It made me recall my conversation with my students about the troubled circumstances of many artists. This led me to explore the personal lives of the artists at the MOMA whose work I had photographed. I discovered unfortunately that most of them had pretty ‘messed up’ lives.
I really do think you can be a great artist and not have a hugely dysfunctional personal life but that just wasn’t the case for the artists above. At a later date I’ll try to do an alternate blog post with other paintings I photographed at the MOMA, paintings whose creators were happy functional people. I’m sure there are some!
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