Chapter 7: “The Public Self: Careers, Contacts, Reputations”

by chunte4

Each artist carefully constructed a public self as part of their invented mythology but, as with their paintings, each of these construction reflected some essential truth in their own lives that, for better or worse, became part of the public’s interpretation of them. Carr who throughout her career exhibited a fierce protectiveness towards her public persona, wrote a great deal of autobiographical journals which allowed her, to a certain extent, to maintain control over her identity. In her writings she often described herself as a resolute pioneer of nature and an outcast from modern society. Carr always had an appreciation for nature, one which she expressed through her adoption of various pets and living spaces in wild, largely isolated spaces. Thus the pioneer aspect of her self-description is unsurprising though overstated. Her status as an outsider however served a more practical purpose. As Udall describes it “Carr’s self-imposed alienation was becoming a vital component of her artistic will. To realize a unique artistic identity, she needed to feel different from others.” (pg. 282) Carr used her writings to create an alternate persona, and used this persona to bolster her own sense of individuality which would, in turn, allow her to feel more secure in her identity. Once she felt assured in herself, I imagine painting became much easier and much more enjoyable. Thus for Carr, her public self did not only function as a buffer between herself and an outside world that may not have understood her, but also as a means of giving herself the confidence to paint with purpose and conviction.

By contrast O’Keef did not find words nearly as useful as she never could express herself accurately without incorporating images in some way. I often struggle with this myself and as result I don’t often write creatively in my free time. For this reason I was impressed with O’Keef’s solution which involved  rearranging the layout, grammatical structure, and generally using each of her letters to form one of her landscapes.  O’Keef did not use writing to help build her identity, rather she forced writing itself to accommodate her way of thinking. In her writing O’Keef imposed her personality onto paper and breached the boundary between literary and visual art.

Like Carr, Khalo used writing as an expression of the self, but instead of creating an identity with writing, she used it as a means of recording her experiences, thoughts, and desires. Writings from her youth reveal her as unflinching in her descriptions of her most painful moments. In one entry she describes the surgical process by which her cast was made, in which she writes that “I feel suffocated, my lungs, my and my whole back hurt terribly; I can’t even touch my leg. I can hardly walk, let alone sleep.” (pg. 286) Khalo’s journals may have had a cathartic effect for her, especially during her bedridden day when painting, drawing and writing were her only avenues of escape from the intense physical pain. None of the three artists relied on writing in the same way they did painting but their journals and letters nevertheless contain significant insights into their personalities and the unique ways by which they faced down various trials in their lives.