Artwives: Eva Švankmajerová, Dorothea Tanning & Lee Krasner

As I’ve been working on the new paintings for last few weeks, I have been reminded of what it is like to be a stereotypical artist – the one whose mood swings, bursts of anger and despair are barely sufferable for anyone in the vicinity. Somehow painting is a much more intense type of work for me than drawing or writing, and I often feel emotionally and physically exhausted at the end of the day. I repeatedly say to myself though how lucky I am to be with a man who not only tolerates the spectrum of my emotional states but also genuinely supports me and offers invaluable feedback which helps if I get stuck. He himself makes music but that seems to be happening in a much saner and peaceful way than anything I do. And then I wonder – what about couples where both people are full-time artists?  A scary vision of piles of unwashed plates and escalating tantrums comes to mind. But those couples do exist and as a matter of fact, there have been quite a few famous duos.

Having recently watched for the second time a superb film by the Czech surrealist master, Jan Švankmajer, The Conspirators of Pleasure, I then went on to reading fragments of his journal from 1999. The following bit made me smile:

Eva [the director’s late wife] spends whole days painting. She is finishing a large series of alchemistical paintings Mutus liber. I consider it to be one of her pivotal works. She doesn’t go out, and her whole time is divided between creative euphoria which she experiences next to her ladder and falling into despair in which everything around her, including herself, is repudiated and condemned. In her “lighter” moments, she yearns for revenge.

I didn’t know much about Eva, apart from the fact that I always saw her name in the end credits. All I knew was that she was a set designer and often worked on her husband’s films. I decided to find out more, and also to look up some other wives of famous artists, whom I’ve labelled artwives.

Eva Švankmajerová (née Dvorakova) was a painter, ceramic and puppetry artist, and a writer, author of Baradla Cave which recently got translated into English. Having grown up in a socialist Czechoslovakia plastered with images of female tractor drivers and other symbols of communism, from early on Eva tackled the issue of gender stereotypes in her art. In Christopher Masters’ obituary in 2005, we can read that her “Emancipation Cycle parodied such paintings as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe by replacing the female characters with men;” later in the 1980s “she constructed a grotesque head from propaganda photographs of female labourers.” She was part of the Czech Surrealist group (one critic later said that she was one of the most widely known Surrealist painters of our time) and many of her paintings and sculptures were laden with eroticism and Freudian symbolism. She and Jan met in 1961 at the experimental Semafor Theatre, where they had their first joint exhibition. Three years later Eva became an art director in his first film, The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzewalde and Mr Edgar. In 1981 the couple bought a derelict château in Horní Stankov, Bohemia, which became home to various puppets from their films, and got turned into a Surrealist palace.

Eva’s input in Svankmajer’s films was invaluable. She was responsible for art direction and created animation and puppets for films like The Lesson of Faust (1994), Conspirators of Pleasure (1996) and Little Otik (2000). In an interview with Jason Wood for the Kamera, Svankmajer emphasized how much he relied on her work: “Eva provides an authentic touch; this was very much in evidence with the puppets she helped create in Conspirators of Pleasure.” She confessed that she wouldn’t want to work with any other director despite the fact that he “made her slog.”

I can very much relate to what she also said in that interview: “The only downside of our working together of course is that Jan gets to see things when I am still in the process of making them and not strictly speaking when they are ready for his inspection.” Working from home (currently in a living room) means that I cannot hide my paintings before they’re finished. It was initially quite a challenge for me, as I don’t usually present unfinished work to people but I’ve learned that engaging Colin in the process helps me evaluate things better. Painting is often like trying different fragrances. After a while your nose is no longer able to assess whether it likes a particular smell or not, and likewise, after a few hours of staring at a painting, I often cannot tell whether I’m pleased with the progress of whether I want to tear the canvas apart.

Another formidable artist-wife was Dorothea Tanning, whose striking paintings from her “prism” period were once called “the Sistine Chapel painted over by Francis Bacon” and whose sculptures were labelled ”some of the creepiest of the 20th century.” Tanning was a painter, sculptor, memoirist, novelist and poet, and – the fourth wife of Max Ernst whom she outlived (she died at the age of 101). The couple met in the late 1942 when Max Ernst was asked to find work for a forthcoming show called Thirty Women, curated by his wife Peggy Guggenheim at her Art of this Century gallery. Having seen Tanning’s unfinished and untitled self-portrait, he named it Birthday and asked her to include in the show, whose name got changed into Thirty One Women. Shortly afterwards, Ernst split up with Guggenheim and moved in with Tanning.

Despite her impressive work, in the eyes of the public Dorothea was always in the shadow of the husband. In The Telegraph obituary, we read that she was

understandably irritated that many interviewers seemed to be interested only in her relationship with Ernst. She once wrote (referring to herself in the third person): “Her existence as an artist was dramatically compromised by her existence as Max’s wife” — though as an afterthought she added: “love triumphs over all”. In a later poem she recalled how “Many years ago today/ I took a husband tenderly/ This simple human gentle act/ Seen as a hard decisive fact/ By all who dote on category/ Did stain my work indelibly/ I don’t know why that is/ For it has not stained his.”

After the death of Ernst in 1976, Dorothea moved from art to writing. She published two volumes of autobiography, two volumes of poetry and her first novel, Chasm, which got described by one critic as “the story of a little girl, a lion and a mysterious fetishistic stash of body parts.”

According to the same obituary, Tanning and Ernst didn’t talk about art, and instead “just had fun. Unlike some critics, Ernst always allowed her independence, never referring to her as ‘my wife’ but always as Dorothea Tanning.” It seems to me that throughout their marriage she managed to preserve her sovereignty and because the couple worked separately, her work didn’t get swept into his.

The third artwife I’m presenting here, Lee Krasner, is probably more well-known than both Švankmajerova and Tanning thanks to Ed Harris’ excellent biographical film Pollock (2000). I am personally not especially fond of either his or her paintings, but I find the couple to be an interesting example of “two artists under one roof”. During her marriage to Pollock, who died tragically in 1956, Krasner was more dedicated to her role as his manager, PR specialist, his “facilitator in the world,” as biographer Gail Levin puts it, than to her own work. Despite the fact that she was far more established in the avant-garde circle when she met Pollock, critics were giving him a lot more attention. Krasner was invisible as a female artist and often treated with ignorance or hostility. The couple’s close friend, Clement Greenberg, would have long intellectual debates with her as opposed to her diffident husband but he always wrote about Pollock’s work, completely ignoring Krasner. After her husband’s death, Krasner started creating large-scale paintings which later finally brought her widespread acclaim. Although closely connected to the Abstract Expressionism movement which Pollock became a champion of, she experimented with a number of different styles and scales, and developed her own style. In the New York Times obituary from 1984, we read that the curator Barbara who organized Krasner’s retrospective exhibition (1983) and the Krasner/Pollock: A Working Relationship exhibition (1981), praised Lee’s work massively: “She was a fabulous draftsman and had an incredible color sense. She did not follow any color rules, and she is one of the very few women who has really expressed violence and aggression in her work.” John Bernard Myers, author of the book Tracking the Marvelous, which includes a section about Krasner, said that “she had a brain like a laser.

So there we have, three different artistic relationships: An intense and successful collaboration in the chateau des Švankmajers with the spotlight shining on Jan; two independent artists having fun in the case of Tanning/Ernst, and a devoted painter wife nurturing a dysfunctional painter husband in the Krasner/Pollock marriage.

There are no rules of what might work and what might not. A relationship between two artists is most certainly a challenge, while a relationship between an artist and a civilian can work only if the latter is prepared for a roller-coaster of emotions and occasional stacks of dirty plates in the sink. Which I do my best to avoid.