I am a huge fan of reading, and while I usually stick to fiction, I’ve started reading artist biographies. I love having a glimpse into the lives of such creative people, lives that are wild, impetuous and moving. I have compiled a list of some of my favourites-only five of many such books, of course, so if you don’t see your favourite on the list, add it in the comments below.
- Life with Picasso by Françoise Gilot
The focus of this book is Picasso, one of the best-known figures in 20th century art. Though from Spain he spent most of his life adult life in France, where he developed the revolutionary Cubist style. This biography is interesting for fans of Piccaso’s work and private life, but what I found more interesting was the voice of the author, Françoise Gilot, partner of Picasso and an influential artist in her own right. This is Gilot’s story as much as it is Picasso’s. It is the story of a young woman who left her home in the middle of the German occupation in France to become an artist. It is the story of how she met, studied under, and, eventually, became the partner of Picasso. She describes Paris, life during the War, and Picasso’s friends (Henry Matisse, André Breton, Gertrude Stein) in vivid detail, and reveals all the highs and lows of building a life with him. After their separation she went on to become a prolific painter, best-selling author and a designer at the Guggenheim. If you haven’t seen any of her work, I highly recommend that you take a look.
2. Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith
This book is a beautiful glimpse into the life of Vincent Van Gogh, one of my favourite artists. It has clearly been researched in painstaking detail, drawing on Van Gogh’s letters to his brother. The focus on these letters and Van Gogh’s own words is what makes this book special, an inspiring account of his life that will leave you feeling as if he only just walked out the room.
3. The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait, Frida Kahlo
A beautiful facsimile of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s dairy, exploring the last ten years of her life. The emotions in this book are often raw and heavy, and if you’re expecting a traditional diary detailing what she did each day, think again. The diary explores her life in watercolour illustrations, hand-written love letters, memories and poems. The varying mediums come together in beautiful chaos to help you get a little closer to Kahlo’s inner life and art.
4. Virginia Woolf, Alexandra Harris
This is an intriguing book about a vibrant and complex woman. It follows her life from the early days where she would write it the attic while her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, would paint by her side for hours on end, to the final days of her life in the Sussex countryside. It is an inspiring look at Woolf’s inner life, her life-long struggles with depression, her inspirations and the development of her ideas. Harris combines a staggering amount of research with a fresh perspective and thoughtful commentary. This biography is an excellent gateway to Woolf, her work and Bloomsbury.
5. Lee Miller: A Life, Carolyn Burke
This book is both a glorious glimpse into life during the early 20th century and a remarkable portrait of the photographer, model and war correspondent Lee Miller. Burke does not sugar coat or hide any parts of Miller’s story, and at times you will hate, pity and be in awe of her. She lived a spectacularly messy life; she was a model for Vogue, maintained a long standing in the surrealist world, was close to Man Ray and Picasso, reported on the devastating impact of the war and the Nazi death camps (breaking new ground for female journalists), and eventually sunk deep into alcoholism. Both glamour and sadness seep through the pages. It’s all impossible to believe and yet wonderfully true.