Roger Clark: What is an artist?


Lélia Pissarro: Many people see themselves as artists, but there is a difference between artists and “painters”. Some consider it “jazzy” to have a studio, brushes, canvases, paints and call themselves artists.
They look and act in the way they imagine artists would.

They wear the kind of clothes they think artists wear. They go to every exhibition opening and fill their lives with artistic and social events.

They go where they can ‘see and be seen,’ where they can promote their own art. The first question they ask another artist is,“Do you exhibit your art, and where?” The place itself becomes a status symbol.

To me, this kind of life is not that of an artist. The diary of an artist is empty; there are no appointments, no luncheons with friends, no leisurely shopping days. The artist is constantly trying to escape distraction from art. It is like having an illness or being pregnant—there is no way to get away from it. You cannot forget it because you are thinking about your painting constantly.

“”An amateur is an artist who supports himself with outside jobs which enable him to paint. A professional is someone whose wife works to enable him to paint.””
Ben Shahn

When I was younger, I did not fully understand what it meant. I was serious about my painting and always tried to create good works; but I was also a wife, a mother, a friend. During that time, I was not painting for myself, but in order to prepare exhibitions and to meet deadlines.

Now, I paint because feelings and emotions must be exteriorised, expressed. Only now am I really beginning to understand what is required of an artist - the ability to give my work total priority in my life; learning to say ‘no’ to other things that would distract me; learning to measure my energy so that the best part of my efforts goes to my painting.

Some people ask if this is a lonely life or a melancholy existence. It is neither. There is a distinct difference between being lonely and being alone. For an artist, time alone is absolutely essential because it is only then that the creative process can work freely. It is during that time that the artist is happiest. While painting, the artist is in a special world, alone with art and his muses. After work, it takes time to re-adjust into the world of others. Sometimes the transition is painful - a time like that of the first awakening in the morning.

Roger Clark: What does it mean to be an artist with the name of Pissarro?

Lélia Pissarro: People frequently ask if bearing the name ““Pissarro”” adds pressure to my work. The truthful answer is yes.
People often believe that I should belong to a certain category of artists; they expect me to create certain type of works.
As for me, I have no way of knowing what it would be like to be an artist with another name.

If there is some inherited talent in my genes, then I am very grateful. However, like every other artist of worth, I had to learn from scratch. I was very fortunate that my early “scratches” were under the expert eye of my grandfather. By the time I was 10, I had completed six years of art lessons. Subsequently, I studied for several years with my father, an artist and art teacher himself, and, when I was old enough, I studied at Les Beaux- Arts and at other art schools. Just like every other artist before me, I had to learn step by step. The road I had to take was neither shorter nor easier than that of any other artist because of my name.

Odd though it may seem, mistaken perceptions occur most frequently among those involved in the world of art. Academicians, art historians, scholars tell me,“Well, of course, you would paint. You are a Pissarro.” Do they believe that the name gives me some sort of magical amulet? Do they think I “channel” my grandfather Paulémile or my great-grandfather, Camille? If only it were that easy.

It seems to me that, while artists and academicians have some thoughts in common, they approach art in ways which are fundamentally different. It is understandable, since there is a huge difference between creating art and looking at it with a critic’s eye.

It is part of the job of art historians to explain paintings and analyse them within an artist’s oeuvre. The artist may never be given the opportunity to analyse his own painting publically, may never be able to explain why certain choices were made in the creative process, but art historians will take the liberty of doing so after the artist’s death.

By the nature of their profession, art historians work with paintings that are already in the past—even the most contemporary of paintings are completed before the art historian begins his analysis.
By the time the art historian’s eyes are trained on a new work of art, its creator has already moved on. The artist, who is constantly pushing the limits, striving to achieve something never before done, is always working in the future.

Because of his position, the art historian must always measure what he says or does regarding a painting, as his word may affect its monetary value. He must also be careful to maintain his credibility, since his opinion is important to people who use his word as a barometer of which painting to buy or which museum to support. For this reason, art historians are often reluctant to share their knowledge or perspective on artists for fear that it may give someone an unfair advantage.
“The scholar seeks, the artist finds.””
André Gide