Transnational Perspectives on the Writing of Artists’ Lives, 19th-21st centuries.
An Interdisciplinary Workshop
25-26 January 2018, University of Amsterdam
Some writers are so fascinated by other artists that they study their biographies and tell their life stories, in fictional or non-fictional form. Whereas artist’s lives have been written throughout the ages, they have become increasingly popular since the romantic period, with the rise of the artist-hero in the Künstlerroman. Many romantic and post-romantic writers portrayed an artist from their home country as iconic of the nation, thus establishing or consolidating a national cultural tradition. However, there are numerous examples of authors who wrote the life stories of writers, painters or musicians from countries other than their own:
Alexander Pushkin tells about the rivalry between two famous composers in his theatre play Mozart and Salieri(1830) ; André Maurois narrates the life story of Shelley in Ariel ou la vie de Shelley (1923); The Moon and Sixpence (1919) is a fictional biography of Paul Gauguin written by Somerset Maugham and Symphonie Pathétique (1935) is Klaus Mann’s biographical novel of Tchaikovsky. More recent examples are the literary biography of Jane Austen written by the Canadian novelist Carol Shields in 2001; Caryl Phillips’ Radio Play A Kind of Home: James Baldwin in Paris (2004) and Julian Barnes’s novel The Noise of Time (2016) in which he examines the biography of Shostakovich.
All these examples show literary writers who, in many different ways, construct their subject’s life stories in order to reflect on life and art and to define their own aesthetic position. Whether they criticize their ‘hero’ or identify with him/her as a formative model and make it their own, they establish a trans-national relation with this particular artist.
We will further investigate the dynamics of such transnational relations and appropriations in a two-day international workshop on artists’ biographies in the 19th-21st centuries. We will focus on the lives of artists, written by artists, such as literary biographies, biographical novels and operas or theatre plays that clearly rely on biographical elements.
We aim to examine four central issues:
- the various forms and usages of artist’s biographies. How and why do writers engage with the lives of other artists? Which elements are foregrounded and which elements are ignored in the life narrative they construct?
- the truth and fiction about an artists’ life. To what effect do writers fictionalize certain biographical elements? What kind of ‘truth’ do they convey through literary writing?
- the historical development of the artist-hero in modern literature, literary biography and portraiture. Should we consider the romantic period as ‘tipping point’; a period in which artists begin to write about artists? Are there similar tipping or turning points in the twentieth century in the writing of artists’ lives?
- the transnational dynamics of identity formation. What is the importance of studying ‘foreign’ artist’s lives in the formation of artistic identities? To what extent does this contribute to the sense of belonging to a (trans)national, European or cosmopolitan artistic community? How do politics come into play here?