February, surely, is the damp squib of the year. It’s the tail end of winter with just enough rotten weather, poor lighting and on the wrong side of spring. February is 50 shades of grey without the orgasm.
It’s little wonder we allow the hallmark industry to blast our lives in red as they festoon our world with hearts and nauseating, anthropomorphic animals embracing. Valentine’s Day seems designed to make single people miserable, couples dissatisfied and generally piss off everyone who isn’t a giddy 13 year old. Yet, we need its colour and drama to get us through to March.
Still, the stereotypes surrounding love need to be shaken. It’s time to pack up those ‘Stepford’ couples inside their 1970’s Black Magic chocolate box.
Human beings are a social animal but apparently, we all are retreating ever further into isolated bubbles spurning physical contact for virtual. However, this need to form relationships is still as strong as ever and social media is the new “mean girl” arbiter of popularity. Your status is embroiled in the nefarious world of “likes”, which are the new currency. And like every other currency it can crash in a fickle social stock market.
Added to this pressure for popularity is the common belief that we must find a soul mate to survive life happily: someone to grow old with; be our ally through the turmoils of life; and, herein lies the flaw, that this person must be our sexual partner. However, the human experience is far more complex than Hollywood’s romance machine would have us believe. If you leave sex out of the equation (not for long I promise), our social needs are met by family, friends and even chance encounters on the number 83 bus. Our soul mate is not always the one we have sex with and perhaps we are allowed more than one?
It’s a common cliché that nothing lives in isolation but it is a cliché because it is true. Even the most reclusive hermits still construct their identity in relation to the world around them. They are aware of everyone else but consciously exclude them. Post Big bang there is simply no vacuum. To some degree we all need someone even if that someone is only you.
Nevertheless, the idea that only solitary genius can create great art is, again, a crude stereotype. Many major art movements were the result of collaborations between lovers, muses, siblings, parents, friends and so on. To name just two examples: Surrealism sprouted from the friendship of Dali and Bunel while Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol took Pop Art to another level and beyond.
The Inuit are renowned for having several words for all the varieties of snow. Likewise the ancient Greeks used many words to encapsulate different concepts of love, articulated by Aristotle and Plato’s philosophies. Art history has produced some of the greatest hissy fits, melodramas and, occasional, happy ever afters of the emotional world. It’s a perfect prism through which to look at ancient Greece’s take on love.
Eros is sexual passion, lust and desire. It is the orgasmic love dragon we all chase. The Greek philosophers believed it was a form of dangerous madness. In their mythology, Cupid’s arrow is a weapon that awakes the crazy, bunny boiling receptors in our brain. Eros is not the stuff of long-lasting relationships and peaceful harmony yet this type of passion is typically what most of us look for in a soul mate. Craving the erotic butterflies of early relationships has led to many a disastrous affair and separation. Eros is the crack cocaine of the emotional spectrum. It feels so good but can descend quickly into a Shakespearian tragedy. Nothing quite feeds the creative imagination like a couple who have fallen victim to Eros’s worst excesses so it’s no surprise how many great artists have fallen to the depraved cherub’s arrow.
Rodin’s devastating affair with Camille Claudel may have produced some of their greatest work but the ‘Eros’ nature of their affair led to despair. In a wearyingly familiar tale, the famous sculptor Auguste Rodin met Camille in the early 1880s when she was 18 and he was 40 as her mentor. They began a passionate affair of heart and mind but he refused to leave his partner Rose Beuret despite his promises to Claudel. How terribly original of him. What was unique was the bizarre contract Rodin signed when Camille looked like she had finally had enough; In it, he promised fidelity to her, not as her lover, but that she would be his only pupil. Perhaps to his mind and ego, the artistic mentor to pupil relationship he offered was greater than that of marriage. She agreed and it seems they poured the passion of their relationship into intensely erotic themes.
Many believe that some of Rodin’s greatest pieces were primarily Camille’s vision and, at the very least, made with both their hands. Undoubtedly, they both inspired each other to greater heights yet Rodin received the most acclaim. Claudel was never going to be allowed entry to the boy’s club, first, as a female sculptor and secondly one who dared to create such sexual imagery. When the affair fell apart, she believed Rodin was deliberately preventing her from achieving artistic success. Evidence suggests this was untrue – he promoted her from afar and insisted she be given permanent exhibition space in his museum. Accounts claim he walked away because he found her increasingly aggressive and temperamental. Certainly, she produced some deeply hostile caricatures of Rodin and Rose. However, the popular history that claims her affair led to paranoid madness culminating in being committed to a psychiatric hospital in 1913 by her brother seems to have many holes. Considering the propensity and ease with which families could commit unwelcome female relatives and the attitudes towards female artists during that period, many have questioned Claudel’s insanity and the motivations of her brother (an unsavoury character). Equally, the tendency to box Rodin into an over-sexualised cheating stereotype, forgiven because he was a genius, may also need revising. Their love affair certainly bears hallmarks of Eros – passion, lust, bursts of irrationality and a cataclysmic end (for Claudel who was committed to her death in 1942.) but perhaps they were both victims of their time and their characters both maligned. In a different era, maybe their Eros could have developed into the second Greek definition called Philia.
Philia is considered to be the love that derives from friendship. Friendship often stands the test of time far better than romantic liaisons. Plato believed the ultimate relationship is when Eros develops into Philia and we achieve the nirvana of both.
There are so many examples of fabulous friendships inspiring some of art’s greatest movements but Norman Rockwell’s friendship with neighbour Anna Moses, known by an adoring American public as Grandma Moses, was significant in its sweetness and simplicity. Her work became popular when she was 78 and she enjoyed nearly 20 years of success living to a ripe old age. She and Norman seemed to have a rare, uncomplicated friendship, both supportive and mutually admiring sharing a passion to depict New England in their own inimitable styles. Far less sedate is Ludus which is all about fickle flirtation, flings, fun and f**k buddies.
Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin were bffs from London and certainly checked Ludus boxes for party, play and pals. They are both known for controversy and rebellious art but in some ways, they typified so many British mates. After Sarah’s one-woman show in 1992, they met at a pub, they got drunk and they laughed a lot followed by a cup of tea at Tracey’s flat a few days later. Possibly that’s where the familiarity ends because amid the fun was a strong streak of enmity. Neither was afraid to hold back, not so much treading on eggshells but stomping and obliterating them resulting in rows as messy as Tracey’s bed. Perhaps a strong streak of passionate Eros ran through their Ludus. Both were fiercely ambitious and fighting for space in the fickle, tiny Young British Artist Movement. Ludus’s lust for hedonistic fun is rarely as strong as that for raw ambition and power.
Agape is described as an unselfish love for all. It is tempting to describe Agape as the love of the do-gooder but as social welfare continues to crumble, cynicism should make way for altruism and we should embrace this Greek idea. Typically people think of parental love as being closest to the concept of agape. Equally, Theo Van Gogh’s affection for his brother Vincent seemed just as giving. Vincent, by all accounts, was not an easy man to love but Theo looked up to his big brother providing emotional, financial and practical help throughout Vincent’s life. Sceptics (who have no place in an Agape world) suggest Theo just wanted to further his art dealing business but there seems little to support this. Unwaveringly, Theo was there for his brother, sending endless letters full of encouragement, painting materials and money. While Theo kept every letter his brother sent him, Vincent was less sentimental and chucked out all of Theo’s missives to many a historian’s despair. Vincent’s regard for Theo seemed more selfish and narcissistic but the affection was there nonetheless. He wrote: “I don’t really have any friends except for you, and when I’m ill you are in my thoughts.”
Even if Vincent gave less than complimentary notice to Theo, his dependence on the younger brother was clear. In fact, some theories suggest it was Theo’s engagement that prompted the infamous ear-cutting episode. Even if an unequal devotion, the bothers ended up buried side by side forever together.
If Eros is the hormonal adolescent love full of angst and emotion, then pragma is the grown-up mature version found among those gorgeous couples still holding hands on their Diamond wedding anniversaries. George Passmore and Gilbert Proesch, contemporary British artists who met at St Martin’s Art School in 1967, are a fabulous example of Pragma. Their relationship, lives and art are completely entwined and a fine example that Pragma need never be boring.
George and Gilbert are the paradoxical social darlings of the art world. They are adored by their public yet they shun the art glitterati and its social scene, preferring to be alone with each other. Their lives are ordered, tidy and routine, attending the same restaurant every day, wearing matching British tweed and looking every inch the gay version of British upper lip respectability. Yet the pair walk hand in hand through “Alice’s Looking Glass” when they create art. Their work is shocking, chaotic and screamingly oppositional. Alongside titles such as their 1969 work “George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit”, they also have used excrement, pubic lice and spunk as art materials. It is mind blowing and very amusing to think that some of the chattering classes whom their work attacks happily hang such pieces, poo and all, in their houses. Their polarities are certainly extreme. Perhaps this is the secret to a long lasting and satisfying relationship. By embracing life’s outrages, you can keep pragma from getting stale and stay delightfully grounded with your soul mate.
While Pragma requires the committed effort of two people, the final Greek definition, Philautia is the idea of self-love. Like Janus with two faces, self-love is either a destructive form of narcissism or an uplifting sense of self-worth. The type of self-esteem touted ad nauseam by modern day health professionals. The former seems all too easy to find in the annals of art history while the latter is depressingly lacking. Just consider Picasso’s famous quote:
“God is really an artist, like me… I am God, I am God, I am God.”
While it would be misleading to label Georgia O’Keeffe a narcissist, there certainly seems to be a strong streak of selfish self-interest running through her relationship with her sister Ida. It was only a few short months ago that her sister finally received her first solo exhibition in Dallas, tellingly entitled: “Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow”. There were seven siblings in Georgia’s family and at least three of them pursued art including Ida and another sister, Catherine. However, it’s Georgia’s controversial vaginal flowers that is imprinted on the public’s imagination, and not just because sex sells.
Georgia’s husband Alfred Stieglitz was a powerful gallerist who many believe was instrumental to Georgia’s career. Or perhaps it was just Ida who believed that since his generosity did not extend to her. The rumour mills claim this is because he sent lewd letters to Ida who also posed naked for his photography. Whether or not Alfred got his leg over, Georgia was sufficiently enraged to deny Ida a leg up. Regardless it seems Georgia did not want to share the spotlight and there was an unhealthy degree of sibling rivalry in the O’Keeffe clan. Until now Ida’s very accomplished work didn’t merely burn dimly in her sister’s shadows but languished in the dark.
Plato and Aristotle were nobody’s fools: so much wisdom without the aid of Google, we’d be fools not to learn from them. So in a world that grows smaller but feels increasingly more lonely, let’s recognise love in all its forms. It may be that despite the dreams you’ve held dear, the soulmate you yearn for is already in your life.