Diaries. Leonardo da Vinci famously kept one, filled with a flurry of text and 15th century illustrations. During the 1800s Vincent van Gogh buried himself in a journal too, one that scholars have pored over in an attempt to understand the mysterious late bloomer. Fast forward to the late 20th century and Keith Haring used graph paper to record his thoughts, consistently scrawled on the right-hand side of his diary.
Artists have long understood the beauty of handwriting and doodles. A new exhibition at the Smithsonian is taking advantage of that fact, with its ongoing show "Day in the Life: Artists’ Diaries from the Archives of American Art." Covering a span of nearly 150 years, from 1865 to the dawn of the 21st century, it will showcase the analog musings of 35 artists. From Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney to Janice Ann Lowry, the show -- a history nerd's dream -- dives into the archives to bring art admirers inside the brains of painters and illustrators past.
Janice Lowry’s journals are evidence of her passion for assemblage. In each she combines verbal and visual expression with a variety of techniques and material—ink pens, colored pencils, collage materials, stamps, and watercolors—to create highly personal documents that embody her lifelong commitment to the everyday. On September 11, 2001, Lowry commented on terrorist attacks as they unfolded. She concluded that, THE ONLY SOLUTION IS FOR ME TO DO ORDINARY THINGS, JUST REGULAR THINGS. (Janice Lowry’s collaged entry on 9-11-2001. Janice Lowry papers, 1957-2009. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)
The pieces on view are not only famous for their authors, they illuminate familiar, sometimes tragic events like 9/11, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. or the death of Abraham Lincoln. Daily logs written in first person accounts mingle with etched figures and landscapes, appearing as wonderfully historic as cave drawings. After all, the 21st century art admirer is much less inclined to immerse herself in a diary. She has an app for that. But for an artist overwhelmed by the chaotic nature of searching for creative sparks online, "Day in the Life" is a meditative experience.
Besides the pure archival wonder of these "artifacts," the journal pages offer bits of advice, inspiration and, well, strange quips. "I will not paint sweet and idyllic, as others do the humid soft atmosphere and delicate sky, making ladies sigh and poofs dream. That is done by all," a rather crass Oscar Bluemner, the German-born American modernist painter, wrote in 1911. "I begin to wonder about these pages," Jack Tworkov scribbled in 1954. "What are they for? Why do I write these entries? Partly they satisfy my love of records -- a manifestation of ego. Partly they constitute an effort... to discover my true emotions. Partly they are a literary effort... not without a desire that they sometime in the future be read, if only by those who know me."
Take a peek at the Smithsonian exhibition, on view at the Archives of American Art until February 28, 2015, here. Let us know your thoughts on the show in the comments.
Oscar Bluemner, German American painter
(Oscar Bluemner’s painting diary, June 12, 1911 to January 30, 1912. Oscar Bluemner papers, 1886-1939. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)
Helen Torr Dov and Arthur Dove, American artists
The daily activities of Arthur Dove were typically recorded by his wife, Helen Torr Dove. But in 1936, Helen had to abruptly leave the family farm in Geneva, New York, to help her ailing mother. Dove assumed diary duties in her absence. He often recorded the temperature and barometric pressure in notes on the day’s weather. For a span of three months, he sketched enigmatic circles. Perhaps the multi-colored shadings were Dove’s system for tracking the phases of the moon. Shortly after the diary ended, Dove depicted the moon in two paintings, The Moon Was Laughing at Me and Me and the Moon. (Arthur Dove’s illustrated Diary, September 30 to October 1, 1936. Arthur and Helen Torr Dove papers, 1905-1974. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)
Joseph Cornell, American sculptor
In his diary, as in his art, Cornell struggled to hold on to life’s evanescence. He wrote on scraps of paper—the backs of envelopes, magazine clippings, wrapping papers—recording his impressions of music, art, ballet, his boxes, and the intertwined sensations of seeing, feeling, and remembering. On the night of May 17, 1946, Cornell wrote: DREAMS RECENTLY JUST AS INTENSE IN EMOTION AND BEAUTY (AND EVEN MORE PROLONGED AND ELABORATE THAN FRAGMENTS FORMERLY RECORDED) BUT HARDER TO GET A HOLD OF AT ANY POINT TO RECORD. MANY WONDERFUL VISIONS OF THE NIGHT HAVE SLIPPED AWAY SEEMINGLY CASUAL BUT ACTUAL AS INTENSE AS ABOVE. In the margin he added, FRIDAY SUCCESSION OF IMAGES, WARM, COMFORTING, FRIENDLY. (Joseph Cornell’s diary entry on a loose page of paper, May 17, 1946. Joseph Cornell papers, 1804-1986. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)
F. Luis Mora, Hispanic American figural painter
(F. Luis Mora’s 242 monthly pocket diaries, 1899-1922. F. Luis Mora papers, 1895-1969. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)
Ruben Peales, American artist
Peale was 81 when he recorded the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865. On April 23, Peale stood in line for most of the morning attempting to view Lincoln’s body in Philadelphia, but pressing crowds forced him to give up. That evening he and his daughter Mary were allowed to enter a back door: A FINE OPPORTUNITY OF VIEWING THE CORPSE AND DECORATIONS OF THE HALL, WHICH WAS TOTALLY COVERED WITH BLACK CLOTH EXCEPT THE STATUE & PORTRAITS OF GENERAL WASHINGTON & WIFE. I STAID [SIC] ONE HOUR AND LEFT MARY GAZING ON THE CORPSE, SHE INTENDING TO PAINT A PORTRAIT OF HIM. (Ruben Peales’s account of viewing Abraham Lincoln’s body lying in state in Philadelphia in April, 1865. Rubens Peale diaries, 1855-1865. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, American sculptor
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was born into wealth and privilege. As a teenager, she began keeping diaries, a habit she maintained well into her 60s. In 1890 she traveled to Paris, where she visited numerous museums and the newly opened Eiffel Tower and tried her first “gin lime” (also known as a gimlet). On May 30, Whitney confessed that she had not wanted to visit the famous Louvre: I DID NOT MUCH LIKE THE IDEA OF GOING TO THE LOUVRE, I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE STUPID FOR ME, BUT INDEED IT WAS NOT; NO FAR FROM THAT; I ENJOYED IT VERY MUCH. In 1928, Whitney founded the Whitney Studio Club, an art gallery that eventually became the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931. (Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's trip to Paris in 1890 when she was 15. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney papers, 1851-1975. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)
Reuben Tam, American painter
(Reuben Tam’s sketches and descriptions of Hawaiian landscapes, May 8, 1939. Reuben Tam papers, 1931-2006. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)
William Christopher, American artist
(William Christopher’s recollections of visiting Montgomery and Selma, Alabama in March, 1965, to support Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights movement. William Christopher papers, 1946-1972. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)