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Spring 2017

Not All Artists Are Jerks

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Javier Marías

A few days ago, I caught a movie on television about Picasso, played by a good actor (Anthony Hopkins) and directed by a sensible director (James Ivory). And so I tried to watch it despite the ghastly dubbing (only now do we appreciate how good the old dubbing actors were), but after a quarter of an hour, I ran out of patience when I realized, yet again, that there are no films about artists in which the artist does not emerge as a cretin, a bore, a nincompoop, or an utter bastard, and often all of those things at once. I have often asked myself: are artists—we—the unbearable creatures who appear on the screen, or is this an unfair portrayal of them—us—intended to discredit them/us? Because it makes no difference whether it’s a painter or a novelist, a composer or a movie director, a sculptor or a poet, an actress or a playwright, a dancer or a singer, a choreographer or a pianist or a conductor, or even, by extension, a scientist, a philosopher, or Dr. Freud himself. In these portraits of their lives, they all appear to have been either thoroughly unpleasant individuals or just plain tedious, and had we known them, we would never have read a single page they had written or looked at a single painting, or listened to a single note of music, or watched even one pirouette, because they were such irritating, idiotic jerks.

The few minutes I spent watching that version of Picasso made me hate the man: an arrogant, empty imbecile, a fairground iconoclast, a dim, fatuous buffoon, a loud-mouthed, sententious fellow, a “force of nature” (a category of people I particularly loathe), an aging and far from subtle satyr, a professional “fascinator” who failed to realize that no one found him fascinating. In short, a fool, someone to run a mile from the moment you spotted him in the distance, and whose empty brain could never have produced an intelligent brushstroke. And he is just one of many: I remember a tearful, hysterical Tchaikovsky played by Dr. Kildare; a brawny, bad-tempered Michelangelo played by Ben Hur; an incandescent Zola—ablaze with indignation—played by the man who was Al Capone, the great Paul Muni; a very sulky, violent Van Gogh with the dimpled Viking or Spartacan chin of Kirk Douglas covered by a beard, accompanied by a Gauguin played by Zorba the Greek (Minnelli’s movie was, nonetheless, magnificent); a limp, irksome Scott Fitzgerald played by Van Johnson, a part that fitted him rather as a glove might fit a hoof; a Gaudier played by an actor who never really made it, but who had clearly studied drama at a center for epileptics; an Isak Dinesen with the accent of someone with her mouth full of cupcake; a dim, flabby Schumann, a rather grumpy, doltish Brahms, a flaccid, tearful Schubert, a Thomas More with the face of a jail-bird (which, after all, he was), and that poor Mozart called Amadeus, a long American nightmare—copied, moreover, from poor Pushkin—who, to add to his facial contortions, really should have been chewing gum; various cloying, not to say effeminate Chopins, some irascible, stupid Goyas, poolside Casanovas (although Casanova had more luck, being played magnificently by Mastroianni and Sutherland), a terrified Diaghilev and a demented Nijinsky, a Lorca like a flamenco palmero, proud or melancholy depending on his mood, a Hans Christian Andersen identical to Danny Kaye… In short, you felt like slapping them round the face right at the start of the movie, just to see if they would calm down and stop shouting. (To be fair, though, I do remember an excellent Toulouse-Lautrec played by José Ferrer.)

I know that many artists are or were unbearable. Some were mad (but no more than the members of any other trade, it’s just that shoemakers tend not to be in the spotlight) and quite a few committed suicide. I know of one contemporary Italian novelist who gets up in the middle of a meal and flounces off, exclaiming, “I’m going to create.” And I did once write about the very busy and overpopulated souls of artists, which, according to what they themselves say, contain creases, wrinkles, crannies, geographies, landscapes, abysses, precipices, children, rebels, stage sets, anarchists, ghosts, demons, and so many other things that I wonder how they all fit in or how they avoid colliding. I don’t honestly know what to make of it. I can assure you that I don’t tend to scream or succumb to hysterics, I don’t suffer unspeakably (not even when I’m “creating”) nor do I beat anyone up or attempt to pervert them, I don’t make scenes or lie tossing and turning until dawn, nor do I insult my readers or those close to me. And given that movie directors are also artists and would not, one assumes, wish to denigrate themselves, I can only infer that I am simply not a proper artist.

(Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa)

Javier Marías, Spain's foremost contemporary novelist, has had his work translated into more than forty languages; his most recent novel, Thus Bad Begins, was published to great acclaim at the end of 2016. Margaret Jull Costa has been his translator since 1992.

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