The cosmic link between childhood and artistic genius is something that a lot of artists like to speak about. The theory goes something like this: while engaged in creating art, the artist “regresses” (shouldn’t it be “progresses”, though?) to a child-like state of uninhibited abandon, wherein he taps into something inscrutable inside him, something that years of education and conditioning failed to suppress or normalise. Indeed, Baudelaire said, “Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recaptured at will.” So the enemy here is adulthood, but not the lagoon of confused sanity we all take a dip in intermittently; what we’re up against is a veritable Styx, a black river of boredom and income tax returns. Life holds us by the ankles and plunges us nice and deep, till the fight is snuffed out of us, never to return.
This, at any rate, is what they say about being an artist.
In 2013, the British comics artist Karrie Fransman, along with four of her Leeds University buddies, went to “an isolated cottage on the misty moors of the Peak District” for a week-long reunion of sorts with an agenda: to create a collaborative graphic novel with the theme “death of the artist”. Two years later, we have with us the intended graphic novel of the same name, featuring illustrations, digital art, photography, watercolour paintings and prose poetry.
The book reinforces some stereotypes about “these artist types” while shattering some others. For the most part, it manages to avoid trite generalisations while engaging seriously with its subject matter.
Karrie and each of her four friends — Manuel, the painter/poet, Helena the photographer, Jackson the graphic design whiz and Vincent the avant-garde ‘zine maker and cartoonist — interprets the group’s dynamics and incorporates it in his or her own way.
Manuel’s portion begins the story, partly because he chooses to tell the story of how the five friends met at a party, 10 years before the getaway week in Peak Districts. This is a complex story, rendered gorgeously but also well-thought out at the linguistic level. Manuel’s watercolours and his prose poetry both operate on the level of dream logic. Plus, a latter section of the book (Jackson’s sleek, photorealism-inspired digital art story of the actual week in Peak Districts) helpfully tells us that this was the first time he was on ecstasy. Perhaps emboldened by the buzz, he and Karrie discover an instant sexual chemistry between them.
“At Karrie’s house the smell of greasepaints filled the air and the colours seeped through my skin and into the cracks of my brain. My mind was clear but behind my eyelids lay spirals of throbbing patterns. We stared into each other’s eyes with pupils so black we swore we could see into each other’s souls. I felt a rush from between my eyes straight to the tip of my cock and possessed by a new confidence I took her hand and led her to the bedroom.”
Everybody in this story has a bee in his or her bonnet: Manuel feels bogged down by the impending arrival of his baby, Jackson has “sold out” by sticking to a corporate job, Karrie struggles with self-doubt about her ability to make a living as a comics artist and Helena has found a rich husband while still harbouring feelings for Vincent. It’s Vincent, however, who is running out of time: his drug-fuelled lifestyle is taking a toll on his health. Beneath his boisterous exterior, an artist is dying, unable to accept the sobering realities, the downers, the buzz-kills. He draws the penultimate section of the book, in a gruesomely pretty Robert-Crumb-meets-Kim-Deitch style that would have been all the rage in the ’70s, during the heyday of the underground “comix” movement.
To be sure, this is a lovely, cyclical experiment that the group has pulled off in style. Ultimately, the wildly different trajectories, styles and perspectives of the five tell us that there is no one way of looking at an artist or his/her life. There is a tendency, for instance, to separate art from discipline, which I, for one, find to be very dangerous indeed. We love to depict artists in a way that makes them look lazy and supine until the lightning bolt of inspiration strikes them. Well, look at the mathematics of lightning striking you in your lifetime and you’ll realise that this is bollocks. Art, like most other callings, requires time and patience and bloody hard work and yes, discipline as well. Marriage or parenthood does not kill the artist inside you.
Zadie Smith has two young children. The overwhelming majority of us will live to 180 and never write a sentence to match one of hers. David Warner, lynchpin of the world-beating Australian cricket team, drove opposition bowlers to distraction, scoring an avalanche of centuries after the birth of his first child. Andy Murray famously wrote “marriage works” on the camera after defeating the more fancied (and single) Rafael Nadal.
There’s more than one way to kill the artist within, but childish pining for an impossible future (or past) is the surest way, and Death of the Artist illustrates this wonderfully.