Sydney Morning Herald Column


Published May 15, 2020
Georges de La Tour, 'Magdalen with the Smoking Flame' (c.1640)

A successful artist needs more than talent. There has to be a taste – perhaps a need – for solitude. The movies portray artists as great Bohemians who carouse in bars and cafés, have fierce arguments about art and embark on passionate, doomed love affairs, but this is only what they do in their spare time. No matter how romantic a temperament or how vast a capacity for dissipation, what’s most important for any artist is the time he or she spends alone.

The artists who never escaped the bars and bordellos are the ones who never made it into the history books and the museums. Even the greatest bar-flies, from Frans Hals to Toulouse-Lautrec to Francis Bacon, spent long periods alone in the studio working through the difficulties that paintings imposed on them. They may be known for disorderly private lives but their claims to immortality rest on solutions to aesthetic problems.

One might define an artist as “a creative person who is comfortable with his or her own company”. There are plenty of people who like the idea of being an artist, who master the postures and jargon, but can never get used to spending long periods working in solitude. They stare at a blank canvas waiting for the phone to ring, and snatch at the first opportunity to get away.

Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Monk by the Sea’ (180-10). Too abstract for comfort

The coronavirus lockdown has forced many of us to reflect deeply on how we respond to solitude, although today, with constant access to telephone, television, radio and Internet we’re never fully cut off from the rest of the world. Silence has become such a scarce commodity that many people become uneasy without an undercurrent of noise. Some need to have the radio or TV constantly blaring at home. Worse still are those who sit on buses playing music or watching action movies on their mobile phones, oblivious to the discomfort they cause others.


For an artist the relationship between solitude and silence is not so simple. I’ve met artists who can only work in silence, others who need to have music playing in the background; still others who listen to talk shows or current affairs. Brett Whiteley would have multiple TV sets set to different channels – I’m tempted to say it shows in the superficiality of many of his pictures.

As the mind seems to be tuned differently for each of us  there are are no hard-and-fast rules. Nevertheless there’s a difference between a writer wracking his or her brain for a phrase and a painter simply filling in a flat area on a canvas. With most works of visual art there are moments of inspiration and periods of repetitive labour. It’s the ideas behind a work of art, and the unexpected transformations that occur in the process of creation, that seem to require solitude.

Johannes Vermeer, ‘Girl reading a letter at an open window’ (c. 1659)

An artist told me that after being filmed working on a painting for a documentary he had to destroy the picture, as he couldn’t bear anything he produced with a camera peering over his shoulder. There are very few artists who can make a work as a kind of public performance, as Picasso does in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s documentary, Le Mystère Picasso (1953). Even in this instance the maestro’s virtuosity may be dazzling but by his standards the images are routine.

Edward Gibbon, author of a multi-volume history of the Roman Empire, wrote: “Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius; and the uniformity of a work denotes the hand of a single artist.”  In 1988, the psychologist, Anthony Storr would use the phrase “The School of Genius” as the title for a book in which he argued that a predilection for solitude should not necessarily be viewed as a problem, reeling off a list of famous solitaries, from Descartes to Newton to Wittgenstein.

When Gibbon talks about “the uniformity of a work”, we might prefer to say “the orginality of a work”, as a distinctive style evolves or a breakthrough is made.

The need for solitude is explored in works of art down the centuries, from images of St. Jerome in the wilderness to the Buddha sitting in serene meditation. There are interior and exteriors versions of this theme. In Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (1808-10) a lone figure is set against the vastness of Nature. The painting proved controversial when first shown because Friedrich had dispensed with the conventional framing devices that led the viewer’s eye into a landscape in the manner popularised by Claude Lorrain. To its detractors the work seemed incredibly bare, almost abstract.

Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin, ‘Boy with a Spinning-Top’ (1738)

While most paintings of this time attempt to charm the viewer, to draw him or her into an imaginary world, Friedrich’s monk turns his back on us. He is in solitary communion with God. The gesture acts as a challenge to us to display the same intensity of faith, the same indifference to earthly things.

In paintings such as Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1657-59), or Chardin’s Boy with a Spinning-Top (c.1735), we are shown figures completely absorbed in an activity. We can’t help but wonder what Vermeer’s heroine is reading with such concentration but we’ll never know, even though it’s generally presumed to be a love letter. Chardin’s little boy has pushed aside his lessons and fixed his attention on the top. It’s play, not schoolwork that holds him rivetted.

Vilhelm Hammershøi, ‘Interior’ (1899)

The solitary figure is a recurrent motif in the work of Vilhelm Hammershøi, most notably in numerous images of his wife with her back turned. It is as if we’re sneaking up on Ida Hammershøi while she reads or looks out of a window, or stands lost in thought. Every aspect of these paintings serves to increase the sense of interiorisation – the subdued palette of pale cream and grey, the bareness of the rooms, the sense that the subject of the painting is unaware she is being observed.

There’s a similar feeling in Edward Hopper’s pictures of figures alone in a room, although in Hopper’s case it is just as likely to be a hotel room, an impersonal space designed for an age of mass travel. This makes Hopper’s figures seem not merely alone, but lonely, as if cut off  from everything comforting and familiar. And yet we can never actually say what these figures are thinking and feeling – the mystery of Hopper’s hotel rooms is the mystery of the inner life.

Edward Hopper, ‘Morning Sun’ (1952)

In an earlier era, the symbolism of a work was often more transparent. In Georges de La Tour’s Magdalene with the smoking flame (c.1640), for instance, Mary Magdalene sits staring at a candle in the darkness, holding a skull on her lap. Her bare shoulders and legs hint at a sinful life, but now her thoughts are turning to mortality and repentance.

De La Tour’s Mary Magdalene is meditating on her own redemption, but the people in Hopper’s hotel rooms might be thinking of anything at all, from the state of their souls to the state of the lunch menu. The modern artist has no overarching message for the viewer, no code of morality that shapes our reading of a work. As solitude has become socially unacceptable, even pathologised as a ‘problem’, we tend to view a person alone in a room as an image of alienation. We arrive at this interpretation from force of habit but it’s not necessarily true. For an artist, time spent alone can be a matter of pleasure rather than pain. It’s entirely possible that a solitary figure in a work of art might not be a sign of existential despair but a symbol of bliss.



Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 23 May, 2020