Tuesday, March 29, 2011


The artist Pavel Korin centered his life around one grand ambition: to paint a masterpiece about the impact of the Russian Revolution.

Preliminary study for "Farewell to Rus"
 Korin worked for 42 years in preparation for his painting, developing sub-themes, experimenting with  various compositions and painting detailed sketches.  He researched the science of art conservation to make sure his masterpiece would last for centuries without restoration.  He ordered an immense canvas specially made and installed it on custom built stretchers.  Then he died before he could apply his first brush stroke.

Korin's blank canvas, with preliminary studies
A tough break, but at least fate was more generous to Korin than it was to poor Masaccio, one of the most promising painters of the Renaissance. Vasari described Masaccio as "the best painter of his generation," but after he began work on his famed frescoes at the Branacci Chapel, Massaccio took a side trip to Rome and died unexpectedly at age 26.  He never had a chance to finish his work, and the laurels went to Michelangelo and Raphael instead. 

Many an artist has fallen short of his or her potential by miscalculating how much time they have left to complete their "best" work.  So you have to admire the audacity of artists who gamble on creating one epic work, rather than a lifetime of smaller pieces.  They leave themselves no margin of error; it's all or nothing.

Of course, even if an artist calculates his or her allotted time accurately, they still get no guarantees.  Alexander Ivanov was another artist who built his career around one major painting (The Appearance of Christ Before The People).  Ivanov was called "the master of one work."  He succeeded in completing his painting after twenty years,  but unfortunately the painting turned out to be second rate.  And who could forget artist Bill Pappas who worked methodically for ten years, from 1993 to 2003, on a single pencil drawing of Marilyn Monroe?  Pappas drew every pore on her face in excruciating detail, using 20x magnification lenses.  When he finished his picture on schedule, Pappas had demonstrated a great talent for precision, but little else.

The muse, it turns out, is not always flattered by good time management skills.

Many an artist produces lesser work in order to pay the rent, secretly planning to redeem themselves later.  This requires them to gamble on notoriously fickle actuarial tables. Still, it is impossible to have children and remain insensitive to some of the excellent reasons for compromise.

As philosopher Walter Kaufmann suggested,
One lives better when one expects to die, say, at forty, when one says to oneself long before one is twenty: whatever I may be able to accomplish I should be able to do by then; and what I have not done by then I am unlikely to do ever.  One cannot count on living until one is forty-- or thirty-- but it makes for a better life if one has a rendezvous with death. 

No comments:

Post a Comment