The Hand of the Artist

May 1, 2022 / Ella Rous

The attempt to see art as an extension of the artist transforms us from audience to voyeur. We lose the experience of looking inward and deny ourselves true connection with the work. 

The voyeur looks up from their coffee, careful not to disturb the delicate white foam. Minimalist poetry moves lucidly across the page under the voyeur’s fingers.

It’s incredible, they might say with a little laugh. She’s been through so much, but she makes it sound so beautiful.

This is a very old story.

In the golden French countryside, a spurned Vincent Van Gogh rushes through a downpour towards his best friend. Out of his mind with violent passion, he grips a knife with bleeding hands slashed with streaks of paint. Hours later, that same knife spins in the dull lamplight, silver light swimming before distant eyes.

Some reports claimed he only took off the lobe. The police, holding a severed ear wrapped in sodden newspaper with their fingertips, begged to differ.

The voyeur holds the discarded ear to their head with half-closed eyes, and imagines that they can hear the faint echoes of paintbrushes swishing from within it.

As the blood dribbles down the side of Van Gogh’s face, his hands rise, guided by forces outside of his control. He smears the gore on a towel and begins to paint once more. The aching colors emerge as if blossoming from blood spattered against the clean canvas.

The museum-goers murmur, imagining that the ochre landscapes are a window to the day Vincent Van Gogh lost it for good. See how the beauty fragments into his pain, they say to each other. The hush of thei

r voices disappears into the white arch of the gallery.

Elsewhere, a pulsing red glow washes dusty floorboards. The voyeur comes to stand at the foot of a bed, ghostlike and predatory, pen and paper hovering above the threadbare sheets.

Sylvia Plath lies awake with vacant eyes. The flat is freezing, the kids are crying, the money is running out, and the city couldn’t give less of a damn. The bruises left by her cheating husband are slow to heal, mottling her skin into a perfect lens through which the torment underneath is made visible.

Slowly, as if compelled by the hand of God, she rises to her feet. As she moves to the kitchen, words bob and weave in her wake, coalescing into something wild with pain. When she barricades the doors and turns up the heat in the oven, the ashes of old manuscripts and half-scribbled poems, of bleak metaphors and shocking turns of phrase, leak from the room, wreathing her final seconds in beauty.

After Plath’s suicide, her husband discovers her final masterpiece: a series of poems that almost seemed to come into existence as if they were fumes rising from her melting hair. Once published, Ariel hits liquor-soaked communes and Parisian salons with the unyielding force of a bombshell.

Tell me how Ariel reveals Plath’s instability, the professor says to his half-asleep first-year class. Tell me how it represents the tragedy of her life.

The eyes may be the window to the soul, but the artwork is the soul, he might add with a sudden surge of poetic sentiment, tapping an Expo marker against the table.

This is a very old story.

This is not a story about artists and art, beauty and pain. This isn’t a story about what the light means.

This is a story about you.

You, the museum-goer and the professor, the audience and the adoring fan. The eternal voyeur, which becomes you also: the fear of the inexplicable and the question of how an unsteady human hand could inspire such divinity. Who enters each time as the story repeats and can’t resist the attempt to peel away brushstrokes until the tortured artist beneath looks back.

The interviews and think-pieces, “Mitski reads tweets about herself” and Genius Presents’ “‘Nobody’ Lyrics & Meaning Verified” seem to float up before your eyes as you settle the headphones over your ears and enter the story one final time.

Mitski lies on the floor of a hotel room in Malaysia, wracked with a violent emptiness. Uncertain light filters through floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating the planes of her face and pooling onto the floor. When she opens her mouth, music pours from her like an open wound weeping, like tears puddling around a body, like moonlight, like, like, like…

Or maybe, you think, she’s in the bathtub with all her clothes on. Maybe she’s standing motionless by the window, one hand placed delicately on the glass, watching the streets of Kuala Lumpur bubble over with people who speak a language she cannot enter.

The door of the hotel room opens. You take the first step into the art, towards the music pouring from the singer’s prone body. Nobody, nobody, nobody, it wails.

You study the pose of the body and sink to the floor, careful to collapse with the same flare at the ankle and splay of the hands. The two heartbeats begin to pulse in harmony. Invited into the work, you see it now, more clearly than you ever have before: Mitski’s consciousness, her being and body of memory, have been pressed into each key change like flowers drying between sheets of music.

See how the beauty fragments into her pain?

How art, unerringly, is the artist?

You tilt your head to the side and are pierced with shock. The body fixes its glassy stare on you, an unyielding force within which fresh heartbreak unfurls from a single stem. The tide of sound ebbs before surging; the music bares glossy fangs and sinks into your chest. With a sudden clarity, what you see in the woman, you see in yourself. The desolation resounds through the figures as they double, dovetail, and become one.

See how the art reveals?

How the beauty fragments into your pain?’

Somewhere in Nashville, Mitsuki Miyawaki lifts a white button-down from the laundry basket, the early morning rays of October light passing through her. As one of her cats leaps onto the pile of laundry, kneading it with tawny paws, the date on her phone catches her eye. It's her birthday. Her shoulders begin to shake as she sheds a few tears of relief for her 20s, finally dead behind her.

Sylvia Plath sits at her desk. Her handwriting jerks uselessly, rejecting every attempt at beauty. She thinks, This pain refuses to move from the body to the page. The hand stills, the writing becomes clumsy, personal, and bare. A story about a sad woman is not so romantic when it concerns unwashed dishes, an unwashed body, and the little sobs of children. A white glow blankets her quiet fugue.

Vincent Van Gogh moves to Arles, France to recover from smoker’s cough, alcoholism, and burgeoning insanity. He spends long days in sunlit fields under lazuli skies, the sleepy rural atmosphere soothing over his fragility. At long last, he flourishes: almost a third of nearly one thousand paintings created over his lifetime are completed in two years at Arles.

Close your eyes.

Are you listening now? ■

By: Ella Rous

Photography: Peyton SIms

Layout: Charlotte Rovelli

Stylists: Julia Garrett & Katherine Tang

Lane Rice

Mikaela Medina

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.
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