It has seemed to me that we're living in particularly tumultuous times. Aside from the crazy art world climate it's not an easy thing to be an artist and stay relevant while the world is falling apart. It began for me with the Vietnam War and continues today with the latest terrorist incident, Israel, Darfur, Iraq and Afghanistan. You name it. Usually all bad news. I've often wondered how my parents dealt with the uncertainties of living through the Depression and the Second World War while leading productive lives. Unfortunately they're no longer around to tell me their secrets.
Recently I came across two books by Ross King, which have helped put things in perspective for me. The first one, The Judgement of Paris, basically contrasts the careers of the modern leaning Edouard Manet with a defender of the status quo, a fellow I'd never heard mentioned in any art history class before but who was amazingly extremely famous and influential at the time, Ernest Messonier. Ever hear of him? King tracks both their careers as more modern approaches to painting like Impressionism begin to prevail. But unlike other art history books I've read describing the rise of modernism, King gives a fuller picture of the times. War and conflict was pervasive in Europe and especially in France. Even Paris was for a time under siege. Famine and disease made life difficult obviously, yet these artists continued to work, produce, thrive, and essentially change the face of the art world.
In the second King book, Michelangelo and The Pope's Ceiling, King describes the relationship between Pope Julius II and Michelangelo which resulted in the creation of Michelangelo's fresco for the Sistine Chapel. King likes to contrast both artists and the times they lived in with their work. In this book he adds another artist, Raphael, who was painting frescoes for the Pope's private apartments. But again what struck me most was how King enriched the narrative with his descriptions of the scary and unstable times in which they lived. Italy, a conglomeration of city states was continually at war, and this Pope was more warrior than religious leader, winning and losing battles while endangering thousands up and down the peninsula. Between the regularity of malaria, plague and war, life wasn't easy.
At the very least, I'm seeing life as an artist in here in Maine in a whole new light.