The Fallacy of Bohemian Romance

We will all return to the Bateau-Lavoir. We were never truly happy except there.

Picasso to André Salmon, 1945

Last night was not good. Unable to sleep, I sat up in bed with a stack of my old journals and decided to read myself to sleep. I read my entire 1987 journal, January-December. That calendar year remains undoubtedly the worst year of my life. The details don’t need to be shared. I only write about this because I cannot stop thinking about a book I finished reading months ago that still remains with me almost daily: Miles J. Unger’s Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World. The premise of the book shares with us something I had already heard repeatedly:

Picasso, by this time aged sixty-four, successful and wealthy, was still unsatisfied with life and with his art. He longed for the “bohemian” years spent living at the Bateau-Lavoir, when he felt the tip of his aesthetic and daring spear was sharper than it had become in the mature years of his success. At the Bateau-Lavoir, he suffered hunger and poverty, and the general public snubbed his art. I recall reading Ian Roberts in his book Creative Authenticity where discusses the “Van Gogh syndrome”:

Perhaps we think that to be a real artist we need to endure great suffering and despair.

I reject this romantic attachment to the notion of the “starving artist”, the “misunderstood, tortured genius.” As a student of art history, I failed to find suffering and torture among the likes of Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer and Robert Motherwell. I don’t believe a genuine artist has to pay his/her dues in suffering and rejection. I find it more realistic to admit that the world will do just fine without our artistic creations; the world doesn’t need our offerings. Personally, I take more delight in the process of making my art than the transaction of selling it.

1987. The blackest year of my existence. I graduated with my Ph.D. in the summer of that year. That fall, I resumed my duties as an adjunct instructor at a reputable university for the third consecutive year. I found a place to live and work. I returned to making art, something I had stopped doing eleven years earlier, due to the years of graduate study and demands in another field. Those facts remain the few high points of 1987. But life on the broad scale was unspeakably miserable, and I had no idea what direction my life was going to take.

I found solace in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as his biography. I recognized a tortured soul, and felt he was a kindred spirit. Late at night, alone, poring over his words, I felt as though he were present in the dark, cold garage apartment with me. I painted a tribute to him that meant more to me than anything I owned at the time, and I enjoyed sitting in my dwelling and looking at it. Nietzsche suffered severe migraines since childhood and was extremely nearsighted. By the time he wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he was three-quarters blind. But he loved to write, and would often push himself at the writing table for eighteen hours a day.

Toward the end of 1987, I determined that I would make art regardless of its success or failure; I would make art because it was in me, and if it ever stopped driving me, I would walk away from it. But like the prophet Ezekiel, I have continued to feel the sensation “like a sword in my bones”; I cannot lay down the brush any more than I could lay down a book and stop reading.

1987. In the yard of my Fort Worth garage apartment, proud of my new painting
31 years later, happily reading inside the relic of a Fort Worth historic church

In the fall of 1988, I began teaching full-time, and eventually life improved. I found a new purpose in relating to students on a daily basis. I loved the subjects I was assigned to teach. And I continued to make art and become more prolific. By the year 2010, I was cranking out a minimum of 100 watercolors a year, and have continued in that habit. And yes, life has found purpose, my art has sold successfully, and I look back from time to time to my own bohemian, Bateau-Lavoir existence of 1987. But, unlike Picasso, I don’t miss it one whit. I don’t waste a second pining for a return to such days. I’m grateful to live an existence where I can do as I choose and not ask anyone’s assistance or permission to do so.

Some of my paintings are still dark, but I myself am no longer dark. May the life of 1987 never return,

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

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