Artists in literature – the perils of success

The advice of the teacher starts with a sharp “don’t get carried away by the elegance of your line” and ends to a “don’t submit to time wasting activities like making money”; being elegant and submissive are however the demanded skills (even if sketched differently) with poverty the other side of the coin; speaking of artists. The story is been told myriads of times practically unchangeable. As I find comfort in the Russian classics, especially when times get tough, I could not but stumble upon this top short story about the perils of success. Written in the first half of the 19th century, it still keeps its urgency; this is a short excerpt:

… He seized a brush and approached his canvas. One thought possessed him wholly, one desire consumed him; he strove to depict a fallen angel. This idea was most in harmony with his frame of mind. The perspiration started out upon his face with his efforts; but, alas! his figures, attitudes, groups, thoughts, arranged themselves stiffly, disconnectedly. His hand and his imagination had been too long confined to one groove; and the fruitless effort to escape from the bonds and fetters which he had imposed upon himself, showed itself in irregularities and errors. He had despised the long, wearisome ladder to knowledge, and the first fundamental law of the future great man, hard work. He gave vent to his vexation. He ordered all his later productions to be taken out of his studio, all the fashionable, lifeless pictures, all the portraits of hussars, ladies, and councillors of state.

He shut himself up alone in his room, would order no food, and devoted himself entirely to his work. He sat toiling like a scholar. But how pitifully wretched was all which proceeded from his hand! He was stopped at every step by his ignorance of the very first principles: simple ignorance of the mechanical part of his art chilled all inspiration and formed an impassable barrier to his imagination. His brush returned involuntarily to hackneyed forms: hands folded themselves in a set attitude; heads dared not make any unusual turn; the very garments turned out commonplace, and would not drape themselves to any unaccustomed posture of the body. And he felt and saw this all himself.

“But had I really any talent?” he said at length: “did not I deceive myself?” Uttering these words, he turned to the early works which he had painted so purely, so unselfishly, in former days, in his wretched cabin yonder in lonely Vasilievsky Ostroff. He began attentively to examine them all; and all the misery of his former life came back to him. “Yes,” he cried despairingly, “I had talent: the signs and traces of it are everywhere visible–” …

Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Mysterious Portrait” can be read on line here

P.S. Nikolai Gogol was Ukrainian but wrote mainly in Russian; because of the political history of the area he was always considered a Russian writer.

"Assimilated information 1/6", acrylic on wood, 2009
“Assimilated information 1/6”, acrylic on wood, 2009, S.Kapnissi

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