Artist as Other Artist

Saul Bellow’s son, a writer too, once explained how over the years he had incorporated aspects of his late father’s being into himself: “ways of thinking, particular expressions, a certain way of looking at the world.” Now that he was dead, he wrote, “my father, though absent, is deeply, unpredictably, stubbornly present in me.”1 Poetic painters feel the same way about earlier masters whose work they have studied so intently that the other artist’s characteristics, brushstrokes, subject matter and ways of thinking are deeply embedded in themselves. This means that Giorgio Vasari’s account of how the soul of one Renaissance artist was kept alive in the next is not a mere literary flourish (as generally explained) but a very accurate description of how one artist feels about another. This deep sense of identification with their earlier peers can be seen in art from many periods and many countries.

When Matisse and Picasso discussed the issue in old age, they both agreed that it was important to keep earlier artists “alive in their minds.”2 Indeed Picasso, on being shown some Paleolithic cave art, wondered whether he might not even have been that cave-painter, “the same little man” reborn time and again as a great artist until he became Picasso. Awareness of this theme and of its importance to poets will help you recognize such references in the most unlikely places. Indeed the ways in which artists weave this meaning are varied, with some of the more common ones demonstrated below. Become familiar with them because the more often you see them (as with any theme here), the more often and easily you will recognize them elsewhere.   

1. Adam Bellow, “Missing My Father”, New York Times, June 10th 2005, p. A21

2. Françoise Gilot, Matisse and Picasso: A Friendship in Art (New York: Doubleday) 1990, p.90

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