There exists a long-considered belief that great art comes from great pain, and perhaps this is best understood in the archetype of the tortured artist. As though their existence lies in an equilibrium of creative stimuli and sorrow, the notion of the tortured artist has survived centuries and is perhaps one of humanities most enduring cultural myths.
Many believe however, that the ‘tortured artist’ is simply a baseless falsehood perpetuated by romantic tales of sorrow, nevertheless humanity has been graced with an abundance of artists who have created magnificent works of art from pain and pleasure. Yet we must not reduce creativity to such simplifications as creativity is an innate gift. So, whilst we must be careful to not crush such an incredibly perplexing concept, we must celebrate creativity in all its forms!
In light of the Barbican’s latest exhibition Basquiat: Boom For Real, a focus on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s extraordinary breadth of influences, we felt compelled to look at the artists which have not only revolutionised the art world but like Basquiat, lived a short lived life…
Keith Haring (1958 – 1990)
Making his art wherever he felt compelled to, Keith Haring was a street artist known for bridging the gap between the Art World and graffiti culture which flourished in New York’s Lower East Side during the 1980’s.
Fully of vitality and extremely potent, the surface of Haring’s imagery can appear whimsical and cartoonish, but his breadth of work was highly saturated with dark undertones. Haring’s imagery was often extremely political and expressed universal concepts about birth, death, love sexuality, and war. Dedicated to grassroots activism, Haring used his work as part of campaigning for protests such as the ending of nuclear proliferation or apartheid.
Having been diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, Haring established the Keith Haring Foundation in 1989 to provide funding and imagery to AIDS organisations and children’s programs. Haring died a year later at the age of 31 from complications with AIDS, his work has since been exhibited internationally and is part of collections in museums around the world.
Ren Hang (1987 – 2017)
Chinese photographer and poet Ren Hang was known for his provocative photographic portraits of his friends. By offering the public intimate and unfiltered portraiture, Hang’s work quickly became significant in representing sexuality within a heavily censored society.
Bound by traditional and conservative attitudes to sexuality and the body, there exists strict laws on pornography in China, so it of course comes as no surprise that Hang was arrested by the authorities on several occasions. Despite insisting that is work was not political, Hang’s overt erotic undertones caused outraged with his work often being defaced at exhibitions, or confiscated by officials.
Suffering with severe depression, Hang took his own life at the age of 29 in February 2017. Although he was terribly young, Hang had firmly established himself as an intrepid creative who was arguably one of the most radical photographers of the 21st Century.
Henri di Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 – 1901)
Long associated with Montmarte, the once bohemian core of Paris which has since turned into a tourist haven, Henri di Toulouse-Lautrec famously depicted the provocative life in Paris during the late 19th century.
Despite a relatively short career, Toulouse-Lautrec produced an astonishing breadth of work. From watercolours to canvas paintings, drawings, prints and posters, his depictions of those working amidst the working environments of bohemian Paris stripped the glamour away to present theatrical representations of heart-wrenching loneliness and depraved intimacy.
Mocked for his short stature and physical appearance, Toulouse-Lautrec often drowned his sorrows in alcohol and frequented prostitutes. Fascinated by their lifestyle he often incorporated the characters he met into his paintings and at the age of 36, died from alcoholism and syphilis.
Yves Klein (1928 – 1962)
With an intriguing yet spirited aim to revolutionise the way in which we experienced art, it comes as no surprise that Yves Klein’s international impact influenced minimal, conceptual and performance art.
Colour was extremely prevalent in Klein’s work, conceived using ultramarine pigment suspended in a synthetic resin, Klein’s patented colour International Klein Blue (IKB) retained its radiance and on his canvases and quickly became a startling sensation. Opting for distancing techniques by using rollers, sponges and even women swathed in IKB to cover his momentous canvases.
Once releasing one thousand and one helium balloons into the sky as part of his Paris exhibition in 1957, Klein’s oeuvre radiates with excitement and proves he had a flair for dramatics. From offering empty spaces of the city with authenticity certificate for gold, to throwing the sold gold into the river Seine if the buyer agreed to set fire to the certificate to restore the ‘natural order’.
Although Klein was young when he passed, 34 from heart failure, he is still very much considered one of the most innovative and experimental artists of post-war European art.
Piero Manzoni (1933 – 1963)
Renowned for his ironic approach to avant-garde art, Piero Manzoni’s work is widely seen as a critique of Italy’s Post WWII consumerism and the waste it creates.
Manzoni was obsessed with the limits of physicality and the satirising of the art world’s fixation with permanence. One of Manzoi’s most remembered works Fiato d’Artista consisted of a series of red, white, and blue balloons, the artist had inflated and attached to a wooden base which was inscribed “Piero Manzoni – Artist’s Breath” provided his audience with a poignant Memento Mori.
Manzoni died at the age of 29 of myocardial infarction in his studio in Milan on February 6, 1963. Although he was incredibly young he left behind a legacy which not only parodied but also looked beyond the depth of the Art World.
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988)
Transmitting a cartoonish yet engrossing quality and booming with fragments of bold capitalised text, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work is uniquely raw but vibrant. Before his breakthrough career as an artist began, Basquiat was part of the political-poetical graffiti duo under the name of ‘SAMO’ during the late 1970’s which adored Manhattan’s Lower East Side with inscribed messages.
By appropriating text, painting, and abstraction led by historical information mixed with contemporary critique, it is no wonder that Basquiat’s emergence as an untrained artist quickly turned into instant international recognition.
A year and a half after his good friend and collaborator Andy Warhol died in 1988, Basquiat died of heroin overdose in his studio at the age of 27. Despite a sadly brief career, Basquiat’s artistic significance has continued only to flourish and is still relevant as ever.
Curated by the Barbican and organised in collaboration with the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Basquiat: Boom for Real is the first large-scale retrospective of the artist in the UK. The exhibition captures the range and dynamism of Basquiat’s practice over the years with over 100 works and heavily focuses on Basquiat’s relationship to music, writing, performance, film, and television, placing him within the wider cultural context of his time.