When I was a student, one of my classmates told us that, according to him, if one is an artist, it’s because one have experienced a trauma that pushes him/her to create. I didn’t know what to think about that. However, this raised some rather interesting questions including this one : was it necessary to have lived trauma in order to create (the famous notion of the cursed artist)? Hard to say.
Above all, I really thought that there was no link between what I was doing and who I was / what I was experiencing. It was as if I’d been kidding myself by always separating, during many years, what I was experiencing from what I was creating.
Of course, what we experience, what we see, what we are, inspire us, but I think there are certain degrees of perceptibility in our creations. There are works where the impact of events is more vivid or even raw than in other ones.
This is, for example, the case in Tracey Emin’s works where she speaks, in a very direct way, of dramatic events that happened in her life such as the rape she suffered as a teenager, a depression following a love break-up (My Bed, 1998), the humiliations she experienced (Why I Never Became a Dancer, 1995), abortion (How It Feels, 1996) or more recently the death of her mother (I Was Too Young To Be Carrying Your Ashes, 2017–2018).
Ian Curtis, cult singer of the band Joy Division, killed himself in 1980. He was really depressed, epileptic, unhappy in love because torn between his wife and his mistress,…and all these elements seem to be more or less present in Joy Division’s lyrics.
How can we not think of his impossible desire to have emerged from the chaos in which he is, by listening to the lyrics of the song “Disorder” (album “Unknown Pleasures”, 1979)? “I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand / Could these sensations make me feel the pleasures of a normal man? / These sensations barely interest me for another day /I’ve got the spirit, lose the feeling, take the shock away”. And this kind of almost confessed giving-up in “Passover” (song from the album “Closer”, 1980, an album released two months after the singer’s death): “Can I go on with this train of events ? / Disturbing and purging my mind / Back out of my duties, when all’s said and done / I know that I’ll lose every time.”
Such dark words for a man who was barely in his early 20s. But of course, anyone can interpret these words as they want to.
If we stay in the written words, we can also think of Delphine De Vigan’s books, notably “Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit” (2011) where she talks about her mother’s bipolarity and suicide (how it moved me!) and, even if it seems to be more fiction than reality, her book “D’après une histoire vraie” (2015) where she talks very well about the blank page syndrome and the anguish it causes.
All these works have in common the fact that they can be easily linked to their authors and their lives, because they say so themselves.
I searched a lot for artists that I could present to you as a counterexample and where it would be much less easy to detect a relationship between their creations and their lives, and it took me a really long time to find one.
Moreover, there are still many debates with the one I am going to talk to you about : Amedeo Modigliani. Certainly his portraits were, by period, portraits of his relatives (and his way of perceiving them was marvellously shown), so on the one hand, it cannot be denied that he relied on the world around him to create (and also on the influence of his art collectors & merchants).
But on the other hand, it’s pretty sure that these portraits didn’t talk about the existence of their creator. Many have spoken of Amedeo Modigliani as a cursed artist because, in addition to a fragile health from a very young age (he died in 1920 of tubercular meningitis when he was only 35 years old), he was an alcoholic, drug addict and was also very poor. Apart from the fact that he was unable to continue sculpting because of his health, his other problems do not seem to have interfered with his work in any way. Indeed, if we didn’t know all of this about him, we could hardly guess it through his works. Looking at his Self Portrait, which dates from 1919, a year before his death, we probably see a sick and poor man (the scarf seems to be there to protect him from the cold) accompanied by his palette and brushes. The clues are actually rare, we can’t know more about him.
Although I’m not on the same level as these artists (and I would never think the contrary), I’ll talk about my case. I know now that the influence of my life and of what surrounds me is omnipresent in my series but it’s definitely perceptible in different degrees.
I started practicing photography almost 15 years ago, in high school, and without really realizing it, during my studies at the Beaux-Arts, I started working on the notion of deceptive appearances.
I always liked to stage myself, create doubles…and create barriers with real life. After several years of practice, I wondered what this could reveal about me. On the one hand, yes, I’m fascinated by the way we (I include myself in the “we”) stage our lives on social networks. I talked about it in my previous article. We spend our time revealing supposedly perfect moments that are actually staged. And…we never talk about the bad moments we’re going through, as if it’s frowned upon.
On the other hand, I think that this obsession with deceptive appearances is as much about the fact that I’m really myself only when I’m alone. Even the people I’m closest to don’t know everything about me. As I write these lines, here is what I think: there is not one Pauline, but many. The ones that are created according to the people I am with. And that’s what my work reveals.
I have personal problems, like everyone else, but I just don’t talk about them to everyone. And it’s this idea of boundaries which is always present in my work. But I do think that’s it’s not so noticeable.
In early 2014, I was assaulted in the street (I might talk about that in a future article), and some people advised me to “exploit” somehow what happened to me. At the time, I refused. I wanted to move on, do my best to forget what had happened, and I said I didn’t want to fall into pathos (which wasn’t totally wrong).
And five years later, I realized that this aggression still haunted me because I used it for a photograph. I hadn’t forgotten it, I’d been carrying it with me all these years. This photograph is part of a series that I started in 2019 and that I entitled “Nuits Blanches”. This series deals with my insomnias which are actually due to stories I create in my head from the least detail of my existence. These are scenarios — in the form of images in my head — that are unlikely to happen (again) in reality but which have the power to make me feel extremely anxious and prevent me from sleeping. At a certain point, I realized that these scenarios could also inspire me and that’s how it started. Of course, it can help me to move forward, but on the other hand, these scenarios also become vital to my production.
While each image in this series is related to a particular event, I still choose not to go into detail in my artist statement so that viewers can make up their own story when they see my images. Because I’ve noticed that these nocturnal scenarios were quite common and could talk to people.
Even if I don’t talk about my assault and the other events that marked me in the intention note of this series, I still confide my anxieties to the spectators. They are perceptible.
But in the case of my questioning about deceptive appearances, it’s definitely less palpable. My experiences inspire me in any case but it all depends on how I use them and how I evoke them. In 2013, my dog passed away (it may seem stupid to many people but it was really hard for me), then my grandfather suddenly died. I hadn’t seeing him for two years. And everything happened in less than one month.
I cried for days and I couldn’t wait for this bad period to end and six months later I was assaulted. A few months before that, in March 2013 exactly, I had started a series of self-portraits (which I’ve already talked a bit about in this article) in which I took pictures of myself every day in moments of everyday life (like putting on make-up, studying, waiting for the train etc).
They were obviously staged photographs,therefore selected photographs.
The series was still in progress at the time of the deaths and my assault, yet there are no images which show what happened and the impact it had on me. Because I knew that I wanted to show these images to other people and I wanted to keep a distance between what had happened and what these photographs showed.
So maybe my classmate wasn’t wrong, our traumas (even if I don’t like the term) push us to express ourselves and to create. And besides, we can notice that most of the works that we consider to be autobiographical show dark, difficult events. It’s much rarer to find the opposite. Why that ? Certainly because we don’t need to express what makes us happy.
However, while working on this article, I thought about Tracey Emin’s work “To Meet My Past” (2002) which was a kind of positive response to her work “My Bed”: totally opposed to the latter, the bed was clean and had a beautiful presentation. As if the demons had run away and we could finally see something positive.
I also believe that art can influence our lives and make us happy. When I feel productive and create, I experience a completely positive sense of euphoria for a variable amount of time. The whole work process is exhilarating and honestly vital to my well-being. This is probably when art becomes therapeutic for me.
When I inspire myself from my life and then produce, it’s as if the periods alternate and nourish each other.
For many years, I unconsciously denied the link between my productions and my existence. Certainly because I didn’t dare to accept that there was a (big) part of intimacy in my work and that, even if I maintained a certain distance from the viewer, it was indeed a kind of confessions. I also think that I found it hard to assume that my work was about me, because I know that for some people it’s frowned upon (I’ve already heard some very unpleasant remarks, notably this sentence “It’s very narcissistic!” ).
In re-examining the works of the artists mentioned above, I realized that although their works were centered on their lives, they speak to a lot of people. Because we can easily identify with the ideas and thoughts they convey.
As I said before, I would never pretend to put myself on the same level as these artists, but through this article, I somehow wanted to definitively assume and accept that whatever we do and no matter how perceptible it may be, our experience will always have an impact on our creation.