So, How Should an Artist Be?

I’ve been thinking of individuals whose work became known posthumously. I saw “Finding Vivian Maier” this week. It’s an interesting story, although the documentary itself
is not even half as remarkable as story of how Maier’s photographs were discovered and gained recognition.

What a life she had. A hidden life. Being a nanny allowed her to have the freedom to explore the city and capture images of all kinds of people. Her photography is very much of a social commentary – one would have to think that this was intentional. She also liked to take selfies that reflected her hidden observer persona. The photographs are intriguing – although the art community is divided as to their merit – they imply an awareness of the subjects as members of a community or on the outside, isolated by their poverty or misfortune.

We don’t find out that much from the documentary who Vivian Maier was. Clearly she was private, somewhat eccentric, probably mentally unwell. She had OCD. She was very much alone, despite living with the families she worked for.

Her camera was the main thing in her life, everything else was just sustenance. She didn’t print her photographs. Maybe the act of taking them was more important to her. Did she think of herself as an artist? We don’t know, but maybe that is not essential to how we look at her photographs.

She made me think of Charlotte Salomon. Salomon made over 700 autobiographical paintings in te early 1940’s, while in hiding from the Nazis in the south of France. She entitled her work “Life? Or Theater?” Charlotte also struggled with mental illness. Her work was shown many years after her death (she didn’t survive the Holocaust) and although she hasn’t been recognized as a major painter, the story of her life as depicted in the paintings is an important historical commentary on life in Berlin before the war. It’s also a rumination on art. Salomon studied painting, so she thought of herself as an artist. She was less of a mystery than Vivian Maier. We know more about her personal and family life. The common thread is a certain sly humour in Salomon’s and Maier’s work, an understanding of life even if not completely engaged in the thick of it.

Remember “The Suitcase”? I got another book by Sergei Dovlatov. It’s called “Pushkin Hills”. Written in 1983, now translated by Dovlatov’s daughter Katherine Dovlatov, it has an afterword by James Wood. It’s a thin book, like The Suitcase, and autobiographical, but disguised as fiction. Haven’t started it yet. I’m more of a Moviewarrior these days. It’s less work than being a Bookwarrior.


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