THE PERSON BEHIND THE STAGE ARTIST
“Marilyn Monroe – The Woman behind the Icon” is the name of an exhibition now on show at the Historisches Museum der Pfalz in Speyer. It brings to light another Marilyn Monroe, one that many people even today still don't know – a sensitive thoughtful person, an emancipated woman, a woman on a quest for self-fulfilment. This was a side of her that I first discovered many years ago in a well-researched and extremely moving biopic – and recently again when I came across some poetry she’d written. On both these occasions I met a person whose real “me” was simply light years away from the image of the dumb blond, so consistently and relentlessly exploited and propagated for commercial imperatives. With the insights that it offers, this exhibition invites you to think not just about Marilyn Monroe but about iconic artists in general and their lives off stage. About the person behind the clichés.
Art without a storm shelter
Popularity and your name written large in glittering lights is a dream many artists dream about, as long as they’re unknown and relatively unsuccessful. Yet if one of them should become a superstar, or even achieve iconic status, then they often find that such popularity becomes a burden, as it makes it practically impossible for them to lead a “normal” private life, constantly besieged as they are by hysterical fans and hounded by raving paparazzi. Well, this is just the price of fame, you might think, the price to be paid for living a life of luxury with no other worries.
But this isn’t my view. Many artists are driven by what the media and their fans expect of them. How do you deal with such expectations and still remain human? How can you steer and control them or, even more difficult, how can you ignore them and continue calm, collected and free to pursue your own way? Such visions of life are beyond the grasp of many artists and they fail in their attempts to achieve them – think of stars like Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson, groomed from earliest childhood to be a performing figure on a stage. They were both mega-famous, objects of boundless adulation now enshrined in the collective memory of people across the whole world. Yet were they truly happy during their lives?
Happiness might be possible in the limelight of the stage or under the spotlights of the movie set. After, all these are the privileged places of art where the division of roles is clear. Yet what happens when artists leave these bunkers and are left to their own devices? Or when they can (no longer) meet the expectations of the masses?
Many are broken by this as success is no meal ticket for finding human happiness. When success means achieving a certain level of fame, the price to pay is very high indeed.
Trapped in the public eye
For artists, art, the stage and the studio are first and foremost home ground, places where they profoundly belong. But also places they can escape to. Places where they can express just what they are. Places where they can be sure that in the process of its creation art is invulnerable. Artists only become vulnerable when they turn to the public and expose their works.
Good art reveals our most hidden feeling and thus is always deeply personal. This is why artistic creation causes anxiety and costs much energy. But when the general public comes into play, it tries to turn the persons behind the work into something they might well not be.
Some artists are broken by this, others develop resilience. Or they are securely embedded in a protective family environment – like a storm-proof boat steering them across the choppy waters of public attention and publicity.
My absolute number one favourite artist – and also as an unyielding strong-willed personality – was always and still is Bob Dylan. I’ve been going to his concerts for years. In 1966 when he first accompanied his latest composition “Like a Rolling Stone” with electric guitar and organ on stage, he was roundly booed and vilified as a “traitor” by his fans who only saw in him the folk singer and political rebel. For him, this new sound was a discovery and a broadening of the possibilities of his art yet these were perspectives for which his self-righteous (blinkered??) fans had nothing but contempt. What they wanted was for him to conform to the image they had made of him, and they made it very clear that Bob Dylan as an artist and Bob Dylan as a man wasn’t of the slightest interest to them.
Only Dylan himself can know what he felt at that time. Yet it’s now common knowledge that he remained impervious to such blatant disapproval and has continued in his own dogged way to do only what he thinks is good and right – even “against all odd”. In his concerts, he’ll change his songs just as he feels right, like singing “Blowin´ in the Wind” in waltz rhythm if the mood takes him. The first time I saw him perform, I couldn’t instantly recognise a single one of the songs he was singing. I’ve never experienced anything similar before or since with any other artist. Yet astonishingly, this lack of instant recognition didn’t lead to any disappointment on the part of the audience. On the contrary, he soon had the whole arena firmly in his grasp, following the sound and the rhythms with everyone – myself included – having a marvellous unforgettable evening.
What Bob Dylan wants to make known of himself is expressed in his lyrics and his music. Interviews with him are pretty thin on the ground. To me, this all seems extraordinarily consistent on his part, strong and honest and – with its inevitable downsides – also highly successful. Let’s just call it serendipity. The man and the artist are at unity, a fact that the fans have long accepted. He’s made his own way, proven his own point and they respect him for it and respect his personality too.
Their attitude mirrors my own feeling about people in general – and about my relationship with OUBEY.
OUBEY – the man in the artist
Famous or not – I always see the person in the artist.
This is why I never found it difficult to accept OUBEY just as he was. He too was a brilliant artist with a strong and resolute character, a man who always strode out on his own way. He needed a great deal of free space for his thoughts and his work just as he needed the loving support of another being – both of which I gave to him gladly.
I love the artist and honour him, yet at the same time I always see a man who deserved empathy and respect, a man whose freedom would have been limited by pushy overbearing attempts to gain his intimacy. A man who didn’t take kindly to strangers trying to gatecrash his life. This makes it all the more wonderful that OUBEY actually invited me into his life and let me share in his work.
Photo credit: wikimedia/creative commons