It goes without saying that we have been increasingly feeling the repercussions of living in such a turbulent and strange time as we continue to battle the pandemic in solitary confinement. As isolation keeps prolonging with no end in sight, most of us are struggling to find meaning, purpose, motivation, and ways to turn our miseries into something substantial and productive. While there are no two ways of coping during difficult times, we could learn a thing or two from artists who thrived in solitude and fortuitously produced their magnum opuses.
Artists Who Thrived in Solitude
There’s a common perception that artists are lone wolves who voluntarily isolate themselves from the world to ignite their imagination and foster their creative drive. Let’s take a closer look at the thought processes, inspiration, and story behind some of the most notable works of art, literature, and cinema that became a huge part of our lives today.
The world’s greatest poet, playwright, and dramatist, William Shakespeare, was forced to be in isolation in his home in Stratford-upon-Avon as the death toll rose and theatres closed due to the bubonic plague that wreaked havoc in London during the 1600s. Navigating through this perilous period-inspired Shakespeare to write three of the most significant tragedies ever penned in literature in 1606 such as King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. What’s interesting about these masterworks is Shakespeare’s subtle (or lack thereof) depiction of the plague.
Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most extraordinary artists that needs no introduction. The artist responsible for the world’s renowned masterpieces had an unfortunate struggle with mental illness. After mutilating his ear, he lived in the asylum in the outskirts of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole and turned his back from the world for months. On good days, Van Gogh was allowed to spend time with nature in the confines of the asylum where he mostly painted the nature and landscapes of Provence. While Van Gogh described isolation in his letter as “sometimes as hard to bear as exile” but absolutely necessary if we want to work. As he fought through the push and pull of life, he found a renewed sense of purpose and inspiration by expressing his emotions through art, which led him to create some of his greatest paintings such as Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889), The Starry Night (1889), and Self-portrait (1889) along with other 150 paintings during his time there.
Frida Kahlo is a gifted Mexican painter and a feminist icon known for her self-portraits and works of art that tackled social issues of class and race, identity, and post-colonialism in Mexico. Confronted with a life-altering bus accident that fractured her spine and pelvis at the age of 18, Kahlo was crippled and bedridden for almost a year. To cope with the trauma of her life’s adversities, she resorted to art and began painting in the comfort of her makeshift bed-easel and ceiling mirror so she could easily paint portraits as she laid down in bed. Some of her notable works that beautifully conveyed her emotions, experiences, and take on the deterioration of the human body while in recovery include Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress (1926), The Bus (1929), Henry Ford Hospital (1932), What the Water Gave Me (1938), and The Two Fridas (1939).
Mary Shelley redefined the thriller and horror genre in the 1800s. The destructive eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in 1816 brought a year bereft of sunlight across North America and Europe causing the worst famine of the 19th century. The cold, bleak, and wet summer at Lake Geneva compelled Shelly along with her family and friends to stay indoors, collectively reading German ghost stories to pass the time. As soon as they ran out of books to read, an acquaintance challenged the group to write their own stories to share. After having a vivid dream about human reanimation, Shelley had an idea for a short story that was oftentimes regarded as the first science fiction novel, which later on became a timeless bestselling piece entitled Frankenstein (1818).
Hailed as the Princess of Polka Dots, 91-year old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama transformed the landscape of modern art into a transcendental experience. Kusama’s artistic style is an expression of her inner battle with obsessive-compulsive neuroses and hallucinations rooted in her childhood, triggering her to take up residence in a psychiatric asylum in Tokyo since 1977. Her eccentric and fantastical art installations such as No. F (1959), Infinity Nets Yellow (1960), Infinity Mirror Room (1965), and Dots Obsession (2003) regularly harbor hundreds and thousands of people to flock to museums across the globe, enduring days of waiting in line to immerse themselves in her elaborate sculptures and paintings. She continues to paint in her studio across the psychiatric center up to this day, proving that creativity has no boundaries or age limit.
Award-winning filmmaker, Martin Scorsese, didn’t let the past two months in lockdown brought forth by COVID-19 go to waste. The Hollywood veteran let his creative juices flow by making a short film for BBC Two’s Lockdown Culture with Mary Beard. Through the help of his iPhone, Scorsese gave us a front-row seat to his own experiences and ruminations as he navigated through uncertainty and isolation. He also gave an insight as to how we could learn from classic films like The Killers (1946) and Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956) to understand our reality. While this pandemic has eternally altered our lives, Scorsese expressed that “It is essential. The people you love. Being able to take care of them and be with them as much as you can.”
Being drastically pulled out of our routine and forced into self-isolation has mentally and emotionally disturbed our peace. Even as an artist who has always thrived in isolation when it comes to creating art, I have occasionally struggled to find inspiration since we were put on lockdown. But what kept me afloat and gave me solace during this difficult time were books, art, music, films and TV. If art is the cure, then we have a duty as artists, storytellers, and as a society to keep creating and sharing it. Not only do we possess the capability to speak up, uphold the truth, and instill courage, but also the gift to change history as well as restore hope and faith in humanity through the art we create.