WRITING IN the nineteenth century, British art critic John Ruskin argued that an artist’s work is invariably shaded by his moral fitness. Ruskin was no fan of Caravaggio or his art, regarding as moot any distinction between the behavior of the hot-tempered Italian libertine and the moody atmosphere of his dramatic canvases. “There is in all works of such men a taint and a stain and jarring discord,” Ruskin wrote, “darker and louder exactly in proportion to the moral deficiency.”
Ruskin’s clear-cut dismissal of an artist whose vaunted stature within the history of human culture now seems totally assured speaks to the fraught role that biography can play in assessing works of art. The life stories of artists have been fundamental to art history and criticism since Giorgio Vasari published Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in 1550. That compendium helped established a modern notion of artists as complex individuals whose personal struggles inform their work. It also exemplified how conducive artists’ biographies could be to mythmaking. Vasari airbrushed the flaws of the artists he admired, fawning over accomplishments that he sometimes exaggerated. Vasari’s tome also harbors a thorny question that remains unresolved today: what happens if the lives of the most excellent artists turn out to be horror stories?
This question has been the subject of wide debate and much introspection recently in the context of the #metoo movement. For example, New York Times film critic A. O. Scott pondered what it meant to watch Woody Allen’s movies while simultaneously reflecting on allegations that the director engaged in predatory behavior. He rejected as overly simplistic the calls for a “separation of the art from the artist,” noting that, “art belongs to life, and anyone—critic, creator or fan—who has devoted his or her life to art knows as much.”
Scott called for a critical reassessment of Allen’s work in relation to details about his life that are now impossible to ignore. But the underlying question left unresolved is less about whether biography matters (of course it does) and more about how it can be used to engage artwork, understand its context, and assess its process of creation. In this issue, Maria H. Loh writes about the slate of exhibitions offered this year in celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of Tintoretto’s birth—an occasion that also prompted us to put the Renaissance master’s work on the cover. Loh points out how Vasari helped establish a persona for the artist as the rebellious son of a dyer who rose through the ranks of Venetian society—a story that has become nearly irresistible to those seeking to understand his spectacular canvases (Tintoretto even gets name checked in one of Allen’s films).
Tintoretto’s myth has become a creative force in its own right, serving as the basis for Romantic dramas and exercises in Existential philosophy. But it is almost certainly a fable, loosely tethered to facts. Still, even if it is possible to identify the real Tintoretto with perfect accuracy, the complexity of authorship remains. Tintoretto recycled his own compositions in new paintings, relied on his workshop staff, and, far from being a renegade, worked with a constant eye toward the expectations of Venetian society. It may be a foolish aim to completely separate art from the artist, but perhaps the link is weaker than it might seem when the real process of creating that art—messy, collaborative—is accounted for.
The relationship between art and biography can also be fruitful. Marek Bartelik considers the life and work of Józef Czapski, a Polish artist and writer whose works are critically enhanced by the context of his life. A recently published biography portrays Czapski as being present during many pivotal moments in twentieth-century European history. An aspiring avant-gardist in Paris, a prisoner of war, an intellectual in exile, Czapski lived through crucial events that do not overwhelm his art so much as illuminate it. As the artist seemed to realize, paintings can function as a kind of diary: he left for posterity a body of work enmeshed in lived experience.