Film is one of my favorite arts which is why I spend so much money and time streaming movies. This morning I watched Personal Shopper—in her re-invented career, Kristen Stewart is starring in French films and is as remarkable as always portraying haunted characters. There was a reference in the film to an artist I knew nothing of, and in finding out more about her, I noticed a similarity with some others.
This artist has something in common with two others I will name here; women who toiled for years at their different works in secret. Their fame came to them post-mortum because they hid their treasured productions from view. These women remained single; while two were not reclusive, one was. They were not contemporaries. One worked in the mid 19th century, another during the turn of the 20th century, and the third in mid 20th century.
Hilma af Klint (1862 – 1944) was born and lived her life in Sweden. A rare working female painter, she made her living painting landscapes and portraits in oils and aquarelle. But she had a private mission. Deeply involved in seances with other women artists, she painted 193 paintings at the behest of an entity named Amaliel. She thought of these works as the Paintings of the Temple; she did not claim responsibility for them and said she didn’t know what they meant; she was compelled. She hid these works away, believing that they would not be accepted by the theosophists, and after her death she stipulated that the stored works not be revealed until 20 years later. The public never saw them until 1986.
Vivian Maier (1926 – 2009) was a nanny. She produced “100,000 to 150,000 negatives, more than 3,000 vintage prints, hundreds of rolls of film, home movies” throughout her lifetime, and kept this astronomical output hidden until 2007 when a writer bought the contents of her storage locker at auction. The writer, John Maloof, was unable to identify who “Vivian” was until he Googled her death notice in 2009. Not a recluse, she was certainly eccentric, as shown in the fascinating documentary, Finding Vivian Maier. Never married, she lived a nomadic life and was fiercely protective of her space—pad-locked—from her many employers.
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830 – 1886) lived a disappointed life. Enveloped in Amherst intellectual society, she felt that as a woman she would be given no opportunities to exercise her own intellect. She shunned 19th century New England manners, except for gardening. She yearned to become a poet – not realizing she already was. Only a handful of her poems were published before her death; her family discovered hand-sewn books filled with 1800 poems, and published a collection some years later. However her complete works did not hit the shelves until 1955, nearly 70 years later.
There are more examples of hidden artists, and it’s interesting to consider the ones building portfolios and pages in secret even now, only to be discovered too late for their own notoriety. Maybe notoriety is not what they want. They work in the darkness, for countless personal reasons. Wanting to express oneself artistically is derived, I think, from emotion. It is important to translate feeling into the physical, whether it’s to a canvas or via quill pen or chemically-treated paper. It was important for Klint, Maier and Dickinson. It’s important to me, too.