The discipline of solitude

If you want to make any progress as an artist, keep the door firmly shut.

Victoria Street, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

Shelter-in-place has, perversely, not given me lots of alone time. My adult children have, in various combinations, come to quarantine themselves at our house, and who can blame them? Tiny apartments may be smart options for young working professionals, but they’re challenging to be stuck in. That’s especially true when one or both partners are working from home.

There are things about lockdown that are trying my artist peers’ patience, starting with economic dislocation. For those in my age group, the most terrible consequence is not being able to see their elderly parents. But I’ve noticed that none of my artist friends are complaining about the alone time.

Fallow pasturage, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

Ingmar Bergman ran through his first sixty years of life as an enfant terrible, admiring Hitler and impregnating eight women with nine children. In 1976, he was arrested in his native Sweden on tax evasion charges, which led to self-imposed exile in Munich. In 1978, Bergman returned to Sweden and moved to the island of Fårö. He stayed there for the last 29 years of his life. There he pursued a radically-different lifestyle, married to one woman and spending his days working, walking, and watching movies.

“Our social relationships are limited, most of the time, to gossip and criticizing people’s behavior. This observation slowly pushed me to isolate from the so-called social life. My days pass by in solitude,” he wrote.

Autumn farm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

Bergman managed to embrace the two radically-different impulses in the artist’s life into one memorable lifespan. There’s the lure of chaos, where ideas and inspiration are shaken up and fizz into new forms. That has to be balanced with the discipline of solitude, or the artist gets nothing done.

Of course, most of us go from ferment to discipline as we age. Part of that is embracing solitude. We progress from coffee-shop conversations about art to the difficult business of producing it alone, in our studios. We may love talking about art, but the creative disciplines are not a great career choice for the naturally-gregarious.

Paul Cézanne spent most of his career in obscurity. (It helped that he had a banker father and no financial worries.) His critical success didn’t happen until later in his life, meaning he had the solitude to work out his ideas in paint. Would Cézanne have been able to create the bridge between Impressionism and modern art if he’d needed popularity? It’s doubtful.

Wood pile, Hope, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

One could say that CĂ©zanne died of aloneness. He developed severe depression in the last decade of his life and was sadly alienated from much of his social circle. Painting alone, he was drenched in a storm and collapsed. He was taken home by a passerby, and his housekeeper nursed him back to consciousness. The next day, he got up and attempted to paint from a model. He collapsed again and was put to bed; he never rose again.

That’s a terrible death, but a good attitude towards work. The problem with company is that dialog mutes your own thoughts, and they’re what’s necessary for the business of creation. If you want to make any progress during lockdown, keep the door firmly shut.