Can Artists Ever Truly Be Modest?

Eric Gibson | Posted on 01/01/06

Among the virtues commonly attributed to artists, modesty, it can confidently be said, is not to be found. In their professional capacity, painters and sculptors may be described as “visionary,” “innovative,” and the like. As human beings, however, they are almost always spoken of in pejorative terms. As Rudolf and Margot Wittkower observe in their 1963 book, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists, “There is an almost unanimous belief among [laymen] that artists are, and always have been, egocentric, temperamental, neurotic, rebellious, unreliable, licentious, extravagant, obsessed by their work, and altogether difficult to live with.”

They might have added “vain.” Through the ages artists have honored modesty more in the breach than the observance. The Wittkowers point to the example of the architect of the Pisa Cathedral, who identified himself as the builder (in a Latin inscription on the wall of the cathedral) in no uncertain terms: “Rainaldo, the skillful workman and master builder, executed this wonderful, costly work, and did so with amazing skill and ingenuity.”

Peter Paul Rubens, though widely considered one of the few true gentlemen in the history of art, was not immune to displays of ego. Like all artists-in-training until the twentieth century, he served his apprenticeship by copying the masters. But instead of striving to create a meticulous reproduction, Rubens would sometimes go one better, by taking it on himself to improve on the work of an artistic forebear.

This became clear in a superb exhibition in 2005 of Rubens drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The show included Rubens’s 1601 copy of Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – that famously muscled woman seen with her back exposed to us as she turns to lift a large book off a shelf in the background. Most young artists – Rubens was in his early thirties – would have been properly cowed by the prospect of matching their skills against so august a personage, and may have dared no more than a respectable line-for-line facsimile. Not Rubens. He adjusts the Sibyl’s pose, making her lean forward more and giving a more pronounced tilt to her head.

Minor details perhaps. But those two small changes transform the image. In Michelangelo’s painting, the Sibyl seems lost in reverie, somewhat absent-mindedly picking up her heavy tome. Rubens’s adjustments sharpen and clarify the action. In his hands the Sibyl becomes charged with greater energy, more mentally and physically engaged in her task.

Contemporary painter Julian Schnabel, one of the Young Turks who helped define the 1980s art scene in New York, once blithely told an interviewer that he believed his peers to be “Duccio, Giotto, and van Gogh.” The jury is still out on that one.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by such displays of immodesty. Artists are in the business of drawing attention to themselves. Their work is intended for public exhibition; they record their likenesses for posterity – sometimes, like Rembrandt, van Gogh, and Picasso, many times over. And, lest we confuse their achievements with someone else’s, they affix their names to their work, always prominently, occasionally ostentatiously. In “The Arnolfini Wedding,” for example, an interior scene of a couple holding hands, the artist’s signature on the rear wall is in script so large and florid that it threatens to upstage the actors in the scene: “Jan van Eyck was here, 1434.”

A robust ego is necessary to a successful artist. Until the end of the Middle Ages, artists belonged to guilds, or unions. In the social pecking order, they were simple laborers, no different from bricklayers, carpenters, and silversmiths, generally guaranteed steady work. This changed during the Renaissance when society began to recognize artists as creative individuals in their own right. This new status brought with it a new set of challenges that had to be overcome if they were to be able to earn a living. It fell to artists to secure commissions and sell their work, cultivating patrons in the church and aristocracy and, after the nineteenth century, among private individuals, corporations, and governments.

The onset of the modern era created new difficulties, as art’s forms and subjects ceased to be grounded in ideas and values common to society at large and instead were invented by the artist to express subjective values. The artist now faced the more difficult task of persuading an often hostile and uncomprehending public of the seriousness and merit of his work. Finally, of course, there is the challenge faced by the artist since the beginning of time, of giving visible form to the elusive mental image. Small wonder that success, when it comes, occasions Rainaldo-like displays of self-praise.

But if artists tend not to be modest in the conventional sense – in their day-to-day relations with other human beings – it does not mean that we cannot speak of them as modest in some respects. Artists lead two lives, one outside the studio, and one in it. And it is in the life within what one writer describes as “imagination’s chamber” – with the blank canvas, the bucket of cold clay, or the virgin block of stone – that ego falls away.

Consider Michelangelo. The great sculptor, painter, architect, and poet was not a man unduly afflicted with modesty. He claimed he was self-taught and in debt to no one for his magnificent skills. So upset was he when, in 1550, Giorgio Vasari wrote in The Lives of the Artists that the young Michelangelo had served as an apprentice to a pupil of Donatello’s as well as to the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, that he published a ghostwritten autobiography restating the Virgin-birth theory of his artistic development.

Nonetheless, his Pietà reveals a somewhat different attitude to self. Michelangelo carved the statue, a life-size sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ across her lap, in 1499. It won instant acclaim when it was unveiled in St. Peter’s Basilica the following year. Over the centuries, of course, it has established itself as one of the preeminent artworks of all time.

But the artist himself wasn’t so sure of its worth. On the band that runs diagonally across the Virgin’s robed torso, where it could not be missed, he chiseled the words: “Michael Angelus Bonarotus Florent Facieba” (Michelangeo Buonarroti of Florence Created This). As James Hall tells us in his recent book, Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body, the inscription is grammatically incorrect, but intentionally so. “The incomplete ‘facieba[t]’ writes Mr. Hall, “was a revival of an ancient method of signing artworks. By saying that the artist ‘was making,’ rather than ‘made’ the artwork, it suggested he had stopped before the work was finished. This demonstrated the humility of the artist (‘my work is imperfect and so it cannot be regarded as finished’) as well as the enormity of the task.”

Such forthright public acknowledgment by an artist of his limitations is the exception rather than the rule, however. Normally such knowledge comes to us indirectly, through biographers, memoirists, intimates, and other privileged witnesses to the creative process, and even then only in passing, in a sentence or two snatched from a letter or conversation. Thus we know from a late letter to the symbolist painter Emile Bernard that Cézanne considered himself merely “the primitive of the way which I’ve discovered”; we learn from a comment made to amanuensis Hélène Parmelin that Picasso equated painting with “death in the [bull] ring”; from biographer Hilary Spurling we find that Matisse regarded the act of painting as “a rape,” and, from a poem Michelangelo wrote while working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, we find this thought: “I am not ... a painter.”

A slender volume published forty years ago by the Museum of Modern Art gives us an in-depth look at an artist’s modesty. In A Giacometti Portrait, a diary kept by American expatriate James Lord, the author’s own observations are combined with direct quotes from Giacometti himself, making this the nearest thing we have to a first-person account by an artist about his work.

Giacometti had originally planned “a quick portrait sketch” of Lord, the work of an afternoon. But the project lasted almost three weeks. At the time Giacometti was in his mid-sixties. Renowned the world over for his sculpted and painted portraits, he was eagerly sought out by collectors, the media, and hangers-on. Major museums around the world displayed his work. In spite of all this, his worldly station was the last thing on his mind when it came to the task of creating. Throughout Lord’s book, Giacometti is depicted as invariably unhappy with what he has done, feeling that his work is falling short – almost as a matter of destiny – of what he wants it to be. A passage from his first session with Lord sets the tone:

A number of times he remarked that he was hungry, as he hadn’t had anything but coffee since getting up several hours before. Again I suggested that we stop, but he refused.

“We can’t stop now. I thought I’d stop when it was going well. But now it’s going very badly. It’s too late. We can’t stop now.”

Finally, though, he admitted that he was tired. His back ached. He had been working then for a little more than two hours. “That’s enough,” he said. Taking the canvas from the easel, he placed it at the back of the studio .... After studying the picture for several minutes, he said, “The head isn’t too bad. It has volume. This is a beginning, at least.”

“A beginning?” I asked. “But I thought we were going to work only once.’”

“It’s too late for that now,” he said. “It’s gone too far and at the same time not far enough. We can’t stop now .... If only I could accomplish something in drawing or painting or sculpture, it wouldn’t be so bad. If I could just do a head, one head, just once, then maybe I’d have a chance of doing the rest, a landscape, a still life. But it’s impossible.”

I argued that what seemed impossible to him might seem to other people not only to have been possible – since, after all, it had been done – but fine and satisfying as well. That, however, was no consolation to him. The opinions of other people concerning his work, though of interest to him, are naturally unrelated to his own feelings.

“It’s impossible to paint a portrait,” he said.

Giacometti’s remark, “But it’s going very badly .... We can’t stop now,” hints at a deeper dimension of artistic modesty than simple humility before the task at hand. It’s not uncommon for artists, once at work, to unquestioningly follow in whatever direction their art may lead them, however mysterious or absurd, and no matter what price they have to pay in terms of public acceptance or material well-being. This posture of self-abnegation and suppression of the ego is a unique expression of modesty. Once again, the example of Giacometti is instructive.

Giacometti had begun his career as a surrealist. Starting in the mid-1920s, he made quasi-abstract, erotically charged figures and objects whose forms were drawn entirely from his imagination and dreams. He made a respectable living and a considerable reputation with these sculptures. Then, in the mid-1930s, believing such works were becoming glib and superficial, he began working from nature, primarily from live models. He was after something more elusive than a faithful record of a person’s physical attributes. He wanted to explore how we see and understand reality – reality in this case being defined as the appearance of a person within his spatial environment in a moment of perception.

It should have been a simple matter. After all, artists had been working from nature for millennia. Indeed, so fundamental was the idea of “I paint what I see” that, in art circles in Paris in the 1930s, it was deemed passé. As a result, the art world regarded Giacometti (as they did Matisse) as a burned-out case at best and at worst a traitor, someone who had turned his back on the ideals of advanced art in favor of the comforting certainties of conventional representation. Photography, the argument went, had eliminated the need to replicate nature, so the artist was now free to articulate deeper levels of reality through his own invented language of forms. Indeed, if he was to be considered truly “modern,” he was required to. To do otherwise was to be a bourgeois reactionary.

Giacometti’s challenge to this idea would ultimately yield the tall, slender, scabrous bronze figures for which he is primarily known today. Not surprisingly, the process of their creation was fraught with difficulty. It wasn’t just that the form itself was hard to bring forth, it was that he quickly lost control of the process. Then he resorted to the paradoxical strategy of surrendering himself completely to the work in an attempt to regain control over it and bring it to fruition. Art, not the artist, was to be the master.

In the biography he published twenty years after A Giacometti Portrait, James Lord vividly describes the quandary Giacometti now found himself in:

Working directly in plaster [Giacometti] started with a figure about eighteen inches high, representing a nude woman standing with her arms at her sides. As he worked, he found to his amazement, and to his consternation, that the sculpture grew smaller and smaller. The smaller it grew, the more troubled he became; yet he could not keep it from shrinking. The sculpture itself seemed to have determined in advance its appropriate size, would accept no other, and compelled the sculptor to comply .... Bewildered, alarmed, he began again with a figure the same size as the first. Again it shrank while he worked on it, growing smaller and smaller despite his reluctance and distaste, finally ending as tiny as the first. Again he began. Again the outcome was the same .... Sometimes the figure grew so minuscule that the last touch of the sculptor’s knife would send it crumbling into dust.

With the outbreak of the Second World War and the occupation of Paris, Giacometti moved to Geneva, living in a hotel. There he continued his quest, with similarly frustrating results. Lord observed, “Change of scene had not changed the sculptor’s predicament. His figures kept on shrinking.”

A measure of what this cost Giacometti personally, and of his determination to press on regardless, can be seen from an incident that took place before his flight to Geneva. In 1939, his brother Bruno, an architect, had secured an invitation for Alberto, whose career was now in a rut, to show one of his sculptures at an outdoor trade fair in Zurich. Lord describes what happened next:

The artist arrived in Zurich well in advance of the opening of the exhibition. A man in charge of installations told him that a truck was ready to go to the railway station to fetch his sculpture. Alberto said, “There’s no need. I have it with me.” From one of his pockets he produced a largish matchbox and took from it a tiny plaster figurine not more than two inches high. The architects, including Bruno, were surprised – unpleasantly. They argued that a sculpture so small on a large pedestal in the center of a large courtyard made no sense visually, since it would be virtually invisible .... Alberto insisted that the sculpture should remain. The architects insisted that it must not .... The architects had their way.

Yet Giacometti persisted. It was not until the war ended and he returned to Paris that the importance of this work was recognized. In the meantime, in Geneva, he continued working in the face of a greater humiliation than that which he had experienced in Zurich, greater because it was intensely personal and ongoing.

With no work to sell and no other means of support, Giacometti had to turn to his mother Annetta for money – a man in early middle age dependent on his aged mother for support. Annetta didn’t make it easy for him. She considered her son self-indulgent and adrift, and she registered her disapproval of his choice not by withholding money, but by a more psychologically potent method – rationing. As Lord describes it, she “gave only a little at a time, compelling him constantly to appeal for more, to acknowledge his dependence while at the same time asserting his will, but showing his gratitude and even, perhaps, in the labyrinthine tangle of contradictory emotions, making a kind of tacit admission that she was right because he could not do without her.” Giacometti surely had not envisioned this future for his art, yet when it presented itself he surrendered to it, sacrificing everything, including his own ego, on the altar of his creative impulse.

A skeptic might argue that artists’ modesty before the task of making art is no more than garden-variety anxiety, the same faced by people in other walks of life – athletes, actors, film directors, writers – who have to produce a succession of one-of-a-kind creations or performances. Their predicament is summed up by the phrase, “You’re only as good as your last [insert name of endeavor here].”

This may be true, but it only takes us so far. In fact, the modesty that artists display about their work derives from something deeper and more powerful, from what T.S. Eliot, in his celebrated essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” called “the historical sense.” Eliot defined this as “a perception, not only of the pastness of the past but of its presence.” Eliot was speaking of poets, but his words apply equally to artists: “The historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”

It is here, in relation to the past and their sense of their place in the history of art, that artists exhibit modesty in the truest sense of the term. It’s not uncommon to see, on an artist’s studio wall, a small gallery of reproductions of favorite works of art. One might expect these galleries to be exact mirrors of the artist’s own aesthetic sense – that an abstract painter would have only reproductions of works by Mondrian, Malevich, Pollock and others on his wall. On the contrary, not only are they always startlingly eclectic in terms of style, period, date, and civilization, but they often contain examples of the very type of art the artist has repudiated in his own work – a narrative painting on a biblical subject by an Old Master in the studio of a contemporary abstract painter, for example.

These aren’t just souvenirs or decorations; they’re a pantheon, a partial catalogue of the artists and objects he admires and against which he wants his work to measure up. The rest of the catalogue might be in the artist’s head, in his library, and, if he is fortunate, on the walls of his home. “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone,” writes Eliot. “His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”

Artists know this instinctively. Because art history tends to dwell on the influence older artists have on younger ones in the early stages of their development, we assume that once an artist has reached maturity – formulated a distinctive personal style, in other words – the art of the past ceases to be an important consideration. In fact, artists are engaged in a constant dialogue with the past. It is the only standard that really matters to them. This is the point of James Lord’s observation: “The opinions of other people concerning his work, though of interest to him, are naturally unrelated to his own feelings.”

The British sculptor Henry Moore was both a prolific draftsman and a student of drawing. Among other artists, he cited Seurat as an important influence on his work in two dimensions. Among the books Moore owned was Otto Benesch’s six-volume catalog of Rembrandt’s drawings, published in the 1950s. According to the detailed inventory of his library published by the Henry Moore Foundation in the 1990s, Moore lavished a good deal of attention on this set, signing his full name (something he rarely did), inserting page-markers and – most significant of all – inserting six of his own drawings into the volumes. Alas, we don’t know which drawings he chose to insert, nor where. But we can be fairly certain that the purpose was to have a conversation with a revered predecessor, juxtaposing examples of his work against Rembrandt reproductions and comparing the two.

Perhaps the most vivid and moving example of an artist’s “historical sense” comes from an unlikely source: Pablo Picasso. Picasso was famously arrogant and egotistical in his dealings with fellow artists, never missing an opportunity to deliver a backhanded compliment or, more often, an out-and-out putdown – anything, that is, to make certain other artists understood who was superior.

But in his relation to the past there was a lingering anxiety that played itself out in an incident recorded by Pierre Cabanne, one of Picasso’s many biographers. In the early 1950s Picasso gave a number of paintings to Paris’s Musée National d’Art Moderne (now part of the Pompidou Center). He asked if they could be placed next to some of the Louvre’s masterpieces. No other artist would be allowed such a privilege (and few would dare request it). But Picasso being Picasso, he got his wish:

Pablo got there with Françoise [Gilot, his common-law wife] at 11:00 a.m., an unusually early hour for him. [Museum official Georges] Salles tells of taking him to where his paintings were and how the guards then carried them down to the various halls. “Put them near some Zurburans,” said Picasso, in a voice trembling with emotion. Several were set up near St. Bonaventure on His Bier, one of the Spanish golden-century works that meant most to Don Pablo. Nearby were the Velázquezes, the Murillos, the Goyas. He looked them all over, silently, while those present tried to divine the reaction in his intensely impressive eyes. Finally, in a quiet, as if pacified voice, he said, “See, they’re the same thing.” And repeated, “The very same thing.”

For Picasso, the past was the only altar before which he would bow in humility.

“The rich are different,” goes the saying. So are artists. On the surface they may swagger and show off. But in their innermost selves, perhaps buried in some part of their DNA, is a deeply felt modesty that informs their work. Would that we could say the same about the rest of society.