When the author Olivia Laing moved to New York City, a failed relationship in her wake, she was hit by a bout of loneliness. The feeling struck in crowds, with friends and alone on street corners, looking in at brightly lit interiors. To cope, she took to the company of art and found that rather than an ailment, solitude can spur creativity, introspection and connection.
From Edward Hopper to Andy Warhol, Laing discovered loneliness behind the lives and ouvres of great artists. Her book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone charts this, giving us unexpected warmth in the shared chill of solitude. Sometimes, beholding loneliness parsed into fine art, is companionship enough.
In our current circumstance, it is more important than ever to embrace solitude. To guide us through this, we can take Laing’s lead and look to art. With the ability to articulate experience words cannot, let art grace our experience of collective isolation.
Loneliness is a longstanding theme in art. This is in part due to the artist’s life, spent confined to the studio. It is also however, because loneliness is inherent to human existence. From the city to the country, to the boisterous and shy, loneliness does not discriminate.
Charles Blackman understood this well. Despite their whimsy, his work is always undercut by a quiet unease. In ‘The Drama', two figures - perhaps sides of the same soul - merge, reaching but never connecting with one another. Blackman emphasises the sweet alongside the sad, the poetry within loss, the illumination emerging from the shadow.
“Amid those scenes of solitude… the mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things.” —Thomas Cole
In ‘Phone Booth (Collins Street)’, Steve Rosendale pictures Melbourne’s deserted metropolis. The image is almost prophetic. It calls forth the contradictions of modern existence, namely constant connectivity and frequent alienation. To look at it, is to wander the ambiance of an empty cityscape.
Solitude can also help us appreciate what we might otherwise take for granted. As Henry Rollins once sang, it “puts a special burn on sunsets and makes the night air smell better”. Without any dinner parties to attend, you may find yourself captivated by the delights of domesticity. The flick of your cat’s tail, cake batter pillowing in the oven or the view from your kitchen window, once ordinary is now thrilling.
If you’re lacking a view, turn to Sokquon Tran. Painted alone in plein air, he captures the still poetry of an uninhabited landscape. Not only beautiful, this work practices a kind of spiritualism, asking us to look beyond the horizon.
Social distancing can generate unexpected connections. With art by our side, we can not only endure loneliness together, but see it transformed into meaning of the most edifying kind.
“[Art]... does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly.”
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