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Great artists, but also scoundrels and cads

Wednesday 29 July 2020 8:22pm


Would you like to be able to look at Whistler’s peaceful painting Nocturne and turn to a companion and say, “did you know, the artist once threw his brother-in-law through the plate-glass window of a Paris café?” If so, the new book Scoundrels, Cads, and Other Great Artists by College of Education Dean Professor Jeff Smith is for you.

The work details the lives of nine great artists — most of whom Smith describes as “reprehensible human beings”— and discusses their amazing artistic creations alongside their often appalling personal behaviour.

“This book is for people who are nervous that they aren’t doing art right, or who feel inadequate, inexperienced, or incompetent when looking at what they understood to be a masterpiece. In ‘Scoundrels’ I wanted to blend art history and connoisseurship with an exposé of lewd, lascivious, and frankly, outrageous behaviour.

“Even if readers are not afflicted with a sense of aesthetic inadequacy, they might still enjoy learning about the nefarious activities and artistic achievements of a group of fascinating artists.”

Why did you undertake research in this area, and the publication project?

I've worked in art museums for over a quarter of a century, and I've always been fascinated by the private lives of the artists whose works are on display. I'm particularly interested in what the artists say about their works, and what they are thinking about while they make them. Given that artists are typically thought of as "free spirits" and often rebels, I began to look more seriously at their lives, and in particular, those artists whose lives are very different from the norm, in particular those whose behaviour is considered unacceptable.

What is it about?

Scoundrels, Cads, and Other Great Artists looks at the deplorable lives and amazing art of nine artists. The artists explored include murderers, polygamists, philanderers, racists, braggarts, and brawlers, although most fit into more than one of these categories. At the same time, I also explore how to look at art in a way to make it personally meaningful, to develop a personal connoisseurship that enhances art viewing at an individual level. And importantly, the journey through these nine lives is an enjoyable one.

The book addresses a central question – “why do we like magnificent art from artists who were awful human beings?” – what are some observations on this from Scoundrels?

I think we like art from awful human beings for several reasons. First, we often do not know about the artist, or if we generally do, we separate that life from the art we are viewing. We do that in many aspects of our lives. If, in preparing to go out for the evening, we turn on a porch light, get into our Ford, and drive to a petrol station to fill up the tank, we don't think about Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, or John D. Rockefeller and their often reprehensible business practices.

In the same way, if I am looking at The Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio, I can immerse myself in the sheer brilliance of this work without considering that its maker once killed a man in a duel while trying to emasculate him. Or, on a separate viewing, I can take into account his sordid life and try to reconcile it with this deeply religious painting.

You explore how to look at art and the separation between art and artist – should we make this distinction, or should we ‘locate’ art in time, space, and understand more about its creators?

American modernist painter Charles Sheeler once said that once he is done with a painting, he is done with it. It is in the hands, and eyes, of the viewer to make sense out of it, and whatever sense they make, he's was fine with. So that might argue for saying that we shouldn't worry about whom the artist was or why he or she made this particular work; however, I have always found that the more I know about a work and about its maker, the more deeply I become engaged. But, the question that one has to come back to is what to do with an artist whose personal behaviour is truly offensive? This is a more difficult issue. As a psychologist, I am less willing to say what I think people ought to do than I am to try to understand what they actually do. But in general, for me, if an artist is dead, and perhaps long dead, I worry less about what his or her life was like from a judgmental perspective, and try to focus on what it meant in developing the work of art that I am currently viewing.

I hope reading this book makes people think about . . .

. . . who they are, who they were, and who they might become. Readers can use this examination of great artists who were nasty individuals as a springboard for exploring what great art can do for us in our lives. They can look at the chaos in a Jackson Pollock drip painting and relate it to the chaos in his personal life, and then wonder about their own lives, and how they might be represented in abstract expressionism. Or they can look at Artemisia Gentileschi's highly dramatic depictions of strong women dispatching evil men with a sword or a tent spike, and think about how she carved out a life of great accomplishment in the midst of great oppression. It's not so much what readers think about, it's more that they simply, think.

You should read this book if . . .

. . . you have ever stood before a work of art and wondered, "Am I doing this right?" This is a book for people who are afraid that they might "fail museum". My goal is to delight readers with stories of the audacious lives of nine artists while at the same time marvelling at their incredible works of art in the 100 colour reproductions of their paintings and prints. I want the reader to be able to look at a peaceful and calming "Nocturne" by Whistler, one that takes the viewer to a London riverside in the gloaming of a misty evening, and then be able to turn to their viewing companion and say, "You know, the artist once threw his brother-in-law through a plate-glass window in a Paris cafe."