By: Jonathon Keats
One day Leonardo Da Vinci acquired a peculiar lizard, for which he made a pair of wings by flaying several similar creatures. He filled the wings with quicksilver, causing them to quiver whenever the lizard walked and, having tamed it, proceeded to terrify everyone he met.
We are told this story by Giorgio Vasari, whose 16th-century Lives of the Most Eminent Architects, Painters and Sculptors of Italy established a literary tradition that fundamentally changed the way we look at art. Laden with as much personal anecdote as technical description, Vasari’s Lives took the first decisive step away from the notion that the artist crafts the work and toward the idea that the work creates the artist. In this respect, Vasari might have been even more visionary than the ingenious Leonardo: We are indebted to Lives not only for formulating our collective memory of historic painters from Cimabue to Michelangelo but also for priming our collective imagination for the achievements of artistic giants of the present, including Maurizio Cattelan, Matthew Barney, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, all recent biographical subjects of our own era’s Vasari—New Yorker staff writer Calvin Tomkins.
Of course, Vasari was no Charles Saatchi. His interest in Lives was essentially retrospective. As he explained it, he was motivated by “generous indignation that so much talent should remain concealed for so long a time, and still continue buried.” As a painter and architect in his own right—most remembered today for designing the Uffizi—Vasari was well versed in the ancient practice of emulation, and on one level Lives belongs to that history, bestowing upon the future an entire pantheon of past masters to follow. Especially in the case of Michelangelo, Vasari’s own first master, he made this purpose overt. “Strive to imitate Michelangelo in all things,” he wrote, providing detailed descriptions of the artist’s work, from David to The Last Judgment.
Yet Vasari’s account of Michelangelo’s life, like that of Leonardo, contains plenty of information that is irrelevant in terms of artistic training or craftsmanship. For instance, we’re given this vivid physical description: “His face was round, the brow square and ample, with seven direct lines in it; the temples projected much beyond the ears, which were somewhat large, and stood a little off from his cheeks; the nose was rather flattened, having been broken with a blow of the fist by Torrigiano.” This last detail refers back to an incident early in Michelangelo’s life, in which, according to Vasari, the artist Pietro Torrigiano punched Michelangelo in a fit of envy and was duly banished from Florence. Perhaps there is a useful lesson in this: Don’t hit prodigies; or if you are one, learn jujitsu. But, as in the case of Leonardo’s lizard, Michelangelo’s nose break belongs more to the tradition of hagiography, akin to the colorful lore found in the Legenda Aurea.
Michelangelo was on to this, perhaps, when he praised Vasari as “the restorer to life of dead men.” And how was this resurrection accomplished? By providing the anecdotal, incidental details that make the reader feel as if he or she were in the artist’s presence. In other words, the artist is paradoxically rendered both miraculous and familiar.
Crucially, Vasari believed that he was writing about the art when he wrote about the man. For instance we’re told that Fra Angelico “never … painted a crucifix without tears streaming from his eyes,” which Vasari presented as “proof of (Fra Angelico’s) sincerity, his goodness and the depth of his devotion to the religion of Christ”—qualities that ostensibly allowed the good monk to paint such spiritually moving pictures. There is validity in this, though it’s easy to deduce more than is actually there. Most infamously, Vasari explained the power of Andrea del Castagno’s figures and the harshness of his coloring by casting him as the murderer of the kindly painter Domenico Veneziano, who in fact outlived him by four years. Nevertheless, Vasari’s recognition of the artist as human rather than automaton—his belief that art is an expression of character—was in keeping with Renaissance ideals. In a sense, all modern art is a legacy of 16th-century creative independence. Yet the sheer density of characterization in Vasari makes it difficult to discern whether the life serves to elucidate the art or the art serves to illustrate the life.
A similar ambiguity animates the prose of the Vasariesque Tomkins. Since joiningThe New Yorker in 1960, Tomkins has profiled practically as many eminent artists as Vasari himself; the list includes Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frank Stella, Cindy Sherman and Richard Serra. Several of these, including his profiles of Duchamp and Rauschenberg, have been the basis of book-length biographies, and even his interview notes have been enshrined in the Museum of Modern Art.
Tomkins’ latest collection, comprising 10 profiles from the past decade, is titledLives of the Artists (Henry Holt), and begins with a preface that makes his sympathy for Vasari explicit: “Formalist art critics used to say that the life of an artist was irrelevant to an understanding of his or her work. This may be so for certain critics, but ever since 1550, when Giorgio Vasari published the first edition of his Lives of the Most Eminent Architects, Painters and Sculptors of Italy (the title I shamelessly swipe here), biography has informed our understanding of art. In my experience the lives of contemporary artists are so integral to what they make that the two cannot be considered in isolation. If the work is interesting, the life probably is too.”
Like Vasari, Tomkins is accomplished at finding the telling anecdotes that capture the artist’s personality and that provide a way of appreciating the work. In the case of Serra, he relates a childhood story in which the artist’s father disciplined him “by having him move sand piles from one part of the backyard to the other.” While Tomkins doesn’t spell out the connection, this punishment helps us to grasp the underlying principle of Serra’s massive sculpture, which is “the viewer’s experience in walking through or around it,” Tomkins writes. “What (Serra) is doing is not creating static objects but shaping space.”
Still, Serra fits into the heroic modernist tradition, a descendant of Michelangelo with an equally prickly temperament. Where Tomkins’ writing goes farthest is in his lives of artists such as Rauschenberg (reprinted in his 1965 book The Bride and the Bachelors) or Cattelan (reprinted in his newest collection).
In the latter case, we are told of a story in which Cattelan dropped out of school and couldn’t keep a job, even as an assistant at the local morgue, and of the spare life he now lives, so austere that he refers to his bicycle as “my girlfriend.” “Few artists have used their self-doubt so fearlessly,” Tomkins claims. “Unable to come up with an idea for a 1992 group show in Milan, (Cattelan) went to the police station, filled out a report on a stolen artwork, and exhibited a framed report. A few months later, he was invited to be in another group show at the contemporary art center Castello di Rivara, near Turin. On the night before the opening, he knotted white sheets together and hung them from the window of the empty third-floor room that had been allotted to him.” While the police report might have been conceptually clever, and the knotted sheets might have been formally cute, what makes these works poetic, unforgettably, is their relationship to the artist’s insecurity. He used the sheets to escape the building and was gone when people came to see the show, yet the show was secondary to the anecdote of his getaway. Issuing from the artist’s character, the art reflects on the personality. The art is the biography.
When Vasari described a similar bed sheet escapade by Fra Filippo Lippi, who fled the palace of Cosimo de’ Medici for a night on the town sometime in the middle of the 15th century, he was not, of course, describing an artwork but rather attempting to establish the lapsed monk’s “addiction to the pleasures of sense,” which perhaps allowed Lippi “to express clearly the affections and emotions of characters represented.” There’s little in common between Lippi and Cattelan; however, once broached, the bridge between artist and artwork can and will be traveled in both directions.
In fact, just as Vasari suggested a path to Cattelan, Tomkins provides a route back to Leonardo. For many contemporary artists, Tomkins writes, art is “an approach to the problem of living.” A lizard-splitting enigma in his own day who attempted almost everything and completed practically nothing, Leonardo resonates for us as our first contemporary, a figure whose art was an act of self-examination.