Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Artist Biographies

Charles Nicholl
Leonardo Da Vinci: Flights of the Mind
Viking 623 pages $48.00

Meryle Secrest
Duveen: A Life in Art
Knopf 517 pages $50.00

Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe
Norton 629 pages $51.00

Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
De Kooning: An American Master
Knopf 732 pages $50.00

There is a misconception in the publishing world that biographies of famous people are educational tools. Nothing could be further from the truth. The only reason to take time out of your own life to read about the life of someone you’ve never met – artist, queen, politician, pastry chef – is high quality gossip.

For instance, I can learn all I want about Aleister Crowley’s mystical musings by actually reading Aleister Crowley’s mystical musings. But it wasn’t until I read a tasty biography of Crowley that I learned he was into birching, inter-generational sex and rough sodomy, or that he had a pretty but stunned daughter named Zsa Zsa - information I consider priceless. Stuff the monographs and start shovelling.

With this entertain-me-or-be-tossed attitude, I ploughed my way through three new, very hefty biographies of famous artists (plus one collector), hoping to turn up some gold with the sod. The results were decidedly mucky, just the way I like it.


Charles Nicholl’s lively life of Leonardo Da Vinci (not that the world needed another book about Leonardo Da Vinci, but there is that novel about his code that seems to be selling …) is full of choice tidbits. Da Vinci was an enthusiastic dissector of corpses, sometimes taking chunks of fresh cadaver home with him (perhaps the lighting was better). Da Vinci’s many male apprentices – lovers? - bitched and clawed for the Master’s affections like an Italian nobility version of Elimidate. Everyone knows that Da Vinci was gay, but did you know he was once arrested by the Officers of the Night for sodomy? Or that he liked to draw cartoons of penises dancing a jig? What a fun guy!

Entertaining and informative, Nicholl’s book strikes the right balance between scholarly detail and salacious whisperings. But don’t bother hunting down Nicholl’s hundreds of references to lesser Italian artists and minor political leaders, or you’ll still be reading this book by next Christmas.


Joseph Duveen, a British art dealer who generated considerable tittering during his life, gets the full warts and Windsors treatment in Meryle Secrest’s absorbing biography – much of which is gleaned from heretofore unavailable documents.

Duveen built his career selling Old Masters poached from crumbling British manors to Gilded Age American robber barons, and thus instigated the shift in art world power from Europe to the United States. If only we’d had a Duveen in this country.

A flamboyant public figure who spent half his adulthood embroiled in one arcane lawsuit after the next – each nicely chronicled by Secrest – and who climbed to remarkable social heights for a Jew living amongst uptight British nobility, Duveen was nevertheless extremely private about his domestic life. So don’t expect any truly revelatory dirt.

What Secrest does find, however, is a Duveen few people knew, a sentimental and emotive man living (and thriving) in a cut throat world. If that’s not enough for you, the side bars about bad behaviour by London’s art mad aristocrats will scald the corners of your black heart. It’s a wonder the Mafia hasn’t dropped porn and drugs for art.


Before I read Hunter Drohojowska-Philp’s breezy biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, I figured I’d heard enough about the grand old gynocologist of the desert. I keenly remember the second wave of O’Keeffe mania in the 80’s, when you couldn’t buy a paper plate that didn’t invite you to experience O’Keeffe’s gauzy meditations on the flowery petals of womanhood.

But now that I know about the O’Keeffe who enjoyed fooling around with all sorts of partners, who frequently lied to the media (for fun), who was chronically neurotic about food preparation (she once wrote “There is a bit of bitch in every good cook”), and who, generally, was a fiercely competitive and often nasty ass kicker, I am less inclined to see her as a wholesome, idealized earth mother caricature, a table top feminism one liner.

Drohojowska-Philp has rescued O’Keeffe’s reputation from the Mother Theresa treatment under which it has suffered for decades, giving us back the flawed human being underneath the icon. Can a bio-pic be far off? I’d cast Glenn Close as O’Keeffe, or Christopher Walken.


If you really want to hunt for the Kurtz in American art’s heart of darkness, you don’t need to look much further than Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s biography of Willem de Kooning. Celebrated today for his startling abstract paintings, de Kooning had everything against him – poverty, a childhood in an abusive home, immigration to New York during the Depression, a fondness for large amounts of alcohol, and an almost insatiable appetite for ladies.

Any one of these hurdles would have felled a lesser artist, but as Stevens and Swan amply demonstrate, de Kooning was possessed of both luck and charm, and he became, at his height, the art world equivalent of a pop star (with all the attendant bad habits).

Recent scholarship on de Kooning has over-emphasized his allegedly misogynistic attitude toward women, as evidenced (again, allegedly) in his supposedly violent portraits of female subjects. Swan and Stevens, however, show us a more complicated artist, a lover of women who also suffered from a blinding fear of permanence and commitment. This revelation leads the reader to wonder if the pulled-apart women in his paintings are meant to be viewed as people in mid-transition, in flux - as mirrors to de Kooning’s own instability.

My only critique of this book is that I wanted to learn more about the social world de Kooning inhabited, the New York of the last century. The reader is told that de Kooning was a man about town, but where did he hang out? What did his haunts look like? Who else was there? Just how sleazy were the man’s tastes?

Call me shallow, but I like my psychologizing peppered with salty tales.