DDuring a psychotic episode, the artist picks up his knife and cuts off his ear, the blood spills on to the canvas and blooms into a bunch of beautiful sunflowers. As Plato said, “All of the good poets are not in their right mind when they make their beautiful songs.” They are mere receptacles through which suffering flows and translates itself into art. This is, of course, absurd. The image of the tortured artist has evolved and become increasingly entrenched, romanticized in order to paint a neat picture of the link between suffering and art.
The truth is far more complex. Very often artists do great work in spite of their suffering. Many others are unable to work at all. Imagine a gallery full of the great works of art made if we could have prevented the hardships that were insurmountable obstacles to so many. Grayson Perry suggested the economic impacts of Covid could be a good thing, clearing out the “dead wood”. The neoliberal lie of the individual, the creative genius able to flourish however awful the conditions.
In my new book, Wreck: Géricault’s Raft and the Art of Being Lost at Sea, I explore various forms of suffering. Géricault’s, survivors of the raft, my friend Ali’s experiences of blindness and war, and my own buried traumas. I wanted to pull back the curtain, to get inside the complex network of processes that see suffering translated into art. But also to move beyond the spectacle of it all, to think how art might help, might offer a light in darkness – as these books do.
1. The Iceberg by Marion Coutts
Coutts is a celebrated visual artist, and her husband, Tom Lubbock, was a renowned art critic. The Iceberg meticulously charts the journey from his diagnosis of him with a terminal brain tumor, through to his death. As Lubbock’s words are stolen, their children learn to speak. The surgical precision with which Coutts uses language to recall this is a deeply affecting counterpoint. Always searching for and finding the right words, because in that search, through all the pain, it is a portrait of, and hymn to, love.
2. The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter
Set in the final days of the artist as he lies in a convent hospital bed in Madrid, Porter looks to enter Bacon’s mind, life and body, and the paintings he made. He uses language like paint, or a surgeon’s blade. It is visceral, messy stuff, words chucked and smeared like body fluids spilling over the page in wild imagistic flurries. Porter really gets Bacon, he really understands that under all that noise there is always beauty, that the truth beneath is a deep well of mourning and melancholy.
3. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing
In this meditation on loneliness, Laing finds herself caught in the paradox of city life, the teeming masses only exacerbating her feelings of alienation. She moves fluidly from Edward Hopper’s iconic, theatrical scenes of urban isolation, through to Andy Warhol’s lifelong presentation and performance of mechanistic separation and connection. Her portrait of outsider artist Henry Darger is moving and original, recontextualizing his violent, beautiful, unsettling eroticism not as a certified signifier of a disturbed mind but as an indicator of the damage caused by a society that forces people into the margins. Laing’s book, like Darger’s work, is a call to be heard and seen.
4. Red Comet by Heather Clark
With its focus on new research materials Clark manages to bring a fresh line of inquiry to Sylvia Plath’s life and work. So often Plath’s extraordinary poetry of her is overshadowed by her preoccupation with her suicide, her troubled relationship with Ted Hughes and her mental health. The suffering is never ignored here, but it does n’t ever overwhelm or seek to lazily imply it is the root of Plath’s genius in her. Instead, we are left to reveal in a mind capable of occupying an unlimited number of lives, experiences and feelings.
5. What the Water Gave Me by Pascale Petit
A collection of poems inspired by the paintings and life of Frida Kahlo. It is a life full of suffering and the poems never shy away from this: they are suffused with feeling, sensation and Jungian explorations of the subconscious. Yet it is the paintings, conjured by the poems, which offer the most compelling portrait of an artist, words acting like threads in a tapestry of staggering complexity and beauty. This is a collection which never shies from the wounds, which demonstrates the healing that can happen when trauma is transformed into paint, and then again into words.
6. Artemisia by Anna Banti
Banti saw her home destroyed by German bombs in Italy, taking with it the first draft of her novel. The resulting rewrite is not an act of replication, but seems suffused with the connection that Banti felt through this loss. At points, the novel is dreamlike in its retelling of the life and work of the baroque painter and trailblazer Artemisia Gentileschi. Gentileschi suffered a litany of abuses, but her rape of her and the subsequent trial of her threatened to be life defining. It is through her work de ella, and through this reimagining of a life by Banti, that this is not allowed to happen.
7. Bright Stars: Great Artists Who Died Too Young by Kate Bryan
A stunningly produced book, covering the work and lives of 30 artists who died before they were 40. Each text is accompanied by a vibrant portrait of each artist by illustrator Anna Higgie, and examples of their key work. Yet Bryan intelligently challenges the often simplistic links between biographical suffering and the work produced. The resulting texts are full of nuance and sensitive analysis. The book’s real strength is its focus on artists such as Francesca Woodman, Khadija Saye and Helen Chadwick, managing to not shy away from the suffering they experienced by keeping the lens focused on the power of their work.
8. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Rankine’s book-length lyric poem/essay about race relations in the US moves fluidly between discussion of everyday racism through to the explicit and structural. The entire fabric of society meets her gaze at her, from the artwork of JMW Turner to the writings of James Baldwin and Robert Lowell, anecdotes of microaggressions, analysis of the media around police shootings, the YouTube performances of Hennessy Youngman and her collaboration with John Luke.
9. Maus by Art Spiegelman
A graphic novel in which the Nazis are cats and the Jews are mice, an extraordinary oral history of Vladek Spiegelman’s life. A metatext in which his son by him, Art, tries to come to terms with his father’s past and their subsequently difficult relationship. The graphic novel format enables Maus to artfully move between the unimaginable suffering of the Holocaust, survivor’s guilt and the more mundane suffering of old age, petty familial and domestic arguments. Its focus on the specific and the personal are what make it capable of tackling metaphysical and existential questions around human cruelty and the nature of suffering.
10. Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno
A book that collages fragments of memory, mourning and essayistic engagements with art, photography and text. Mainly about Zambreno’s experience of grief following the death of her mother de ella, but becoming a wider meditation on time, and on writing as a form of reparation. The book takes its form and feeling from Louise Bourgeois’ cell sculptures, offering up the possibility that the screams and silences of pain might be assembled and circled, but never circumscribed. It writes into and around absences, a sacred secular prayer to the past.
Wreck: Gericault’s Raft and the Art of Being Lost at Sea by Tom de Freston is published by Granta. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.