Secret Lives of the Great Artists by Elizabeth Lunday
Complete with factoids including zodiac signs and their possible implications, this quirky collection of profiles makes for a fun, no-nonsense take on individuals who are often considered to be 'serious' artists.
Secret Lives of the Great ArtistsPublisher: Quirk
Author: Elizabeth Lunday
US publication date: 2008-10
Elizabeth Lunday’s The Secret Lives of Great Artists spans from Rembrandt’s time all the way to the “Factory” days of Andy Warhol. This quirky collection of artist profiles makes for a fun, no-nonsense take on individuals who we may have considered as serious artists. Even more, most of the visual arts masters covered in the book seem to have led normal lives before undertaking grandiose dreams and travels. From modest childhoods to run-of-the-mill marriages, their backgrounds seem quite dull compared to their celebrated outlet: art!
The title of the book, though, disagrees with the reality of modern-day painters such as Warhol and O’Keefe. Their lives were not secret at all. The media of their time had become savvy to the tumultuous lives of these figures. It was no surprise that the artists received a lot of coverage in papers, radio and television. After all it was Warhol who eerily said in the late ‘60s, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” What he didn’t know was that the future is now.
For being a paperback about artists, this volume lacks images of the significant artworks discussed. Individuals who may be art novices will find it difficult to recall some of the pieces mentioned. The opportunity of engaging this type of audience, if the book intended to, is lost on this oversight. For someone like me who does remember what these visual artworks look like, it still would be nice to refer back when the text discusses what the artists were doing or thinking of at the time of the creation. It would be interesting to be able to look at the masterpiece’s details for clues or hidden undertones.
Still, the illustrator did a nice job of re-creating the artists engaged in bad behavior or in compromising situations. For instance, the cover has Frida Kahlo and her Communist lover Leon Trotsky in an embrace. Their frivolity, in small part, helped paved the way for future tabloid stars.
The one page overview at the beginning of each artists’ chapter is highly enjoyable, giving a capsule-like description of their lives. Listed on that sheet were their major masterpiece, zodiac sign, active years, and more factoids.
Long have zodiac signs been thought to explain people’s behaviors in love, life and health. For instance, van Gogh was an Aries. Aries are thought to be childish, adventurous, pioneering, and impulsive. This sure explains a lot about van Gogh’s tumultuous love life and his bitter end.
Regardless of how the stars aligned on certain birth dates, it appears it was the norm for these artists to have had several lovers, failed marriages, bisexual tendencies and so on. If alive today, I do believe that they would be amidst tabloid pages. It seems like artists today have taken their role as that of responsible citizens and want to be taken seriously. Not to say that the modern figures in this book did not want credit, they just seem to have been fighting more demons and struggling among other professions for recognition. Back then, saying “I want to be an artist” prompted the response “So, you want to throw your life away?” Nowadays, it is more accepted and celebrated not only by peers, but among business professionals and other sectors.
Lunday’s book does a good job of highlighting artists simply known by their surname. Still, missing are abstract revolutionaries such as Mark Rothko and Lee Krasner. For instance, Lee is mentioned only in passing as Jackson Pollack’s muse and comrade. The always-rocky love affair with Jackson alone should have granted Lee a section of her own. Reading more about Rothko and his troubled marriage due to impotence would have been entertaining.
Rothko’s rowdy clique would have also been good to include. His peers, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman, often met and discussed art with people like Mondrian. They began to consider themselves part of the chic, European avant-garde. Also around this time, surrealists like Joan Miró took New York by storm.
Along the same period, there was Dadaist Man Ray. How about his tabloid-esque life? This book would have been more complete with the telling of Ray’s affair with Lee Miller -- his photography assistant and lover. I’m sure there would also be some juicy details on his crazy days with friend Dali, too. Even with all this lacking, The Secret Lives of Great Artists is definitely a good read for just about anyone, even the more experienced art connoisseurs.