In her ambitious new book, Artists in Love, Nashville writer Veronica Kavass explores the romances that helped steer the lives and work of some of the most influential artists of the 20th century. The result is a perceptive, thought-provoking exploration of love’s impact on creativity and how it has, by extension, helped to shape art history. “Would we have seen Max Ernst’s deserts, his full spectrum settings, without [Dorothea] Tanning by his side, enthusiastic to live and paint out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by skulls?” Kavass asks.
From Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter to Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, the 29 stories range from heartening affirmations of enduring love and artistic collaboration to outright Shakespearean-esque tragedy. But as Artists in Love demonstrates, inspiredworks of art were conceived no matter the arc of the love story, and many are beautifully displayed throughout the book alongside intriguing photographs of the artist-couples.
The book is already getting some notable, well-deserved attention. It is Vanity Fair’s “Hot Type” pick for November, and The Huffington Post put up a slide show from it to mark its publication.
Kavass recently answered questions:
Compiling a comprehensive collection of stories about famous artists and the love stories that helped shape them — especially one that includes an anthology of related artwork—is no small feat. What inspired such an undertaking?
This is something that had been brewing in the editor’s mind for years. I had worked with her on another, quite different book [The Last Good War: The Faces and Voices of World War II, with photographs by Thomas Sanders]. When she presented me with the challenge of this subject, I was intrigued.
Why these 29 couples and no more, no less?
I did, in fact, write forty-eight stories. But image permissions, layout, and other logistics resulted in editing that list. The list grew and then shrank. Like a lot of considerably exciting things in life.
Were you intimidated by retelling the love stories of living artists, such as Bruce Nauman and Susan Rothenberg, who can and most likely will read your book?
I was. I had to do a mental exercise where I would remind myself that I’d probably never talk to someone like Nauman about the story. It was intimidating but not paralyzing.
Which essay cost you the most sleep?
I had the hardest time writing about the well-known couples. Pollock and Krasner, Kahlo and Rivera. They have been Hollywoodized, and thus I was dealing with trampled ground.
You don’t tell only the tales of “tortured” artists and tragic relationships. You also honor the stories of artists who were, for lack of a better phrase, well-adjusted and content. Was this decision deliberate?
There were partnerships and collaborations that worked very well, [and] those partnerships present the ideal bond, one that was crucial for artists who worked together as a single unit. That said, there is a major draw to the stories about the clashing of egos, the heartbreak, all of that. Although I am also attracted to those stories, I don’t receive much satisfaction in relishing it. For example, I could have painted de Kooning out to be way more of an asshole, but I didn’t feel like beating that dead horse for the sake of a juicy read. I mean, this book is far too large to be a beach book anyway.
Did you find that you looked at your own life differently while steeped in the research and writing of a particular story?
Sometimes. When I read excerpts of Eva Hesse’s journals, I felt an eerie connection to the way she thought. She reminded me so much of myself. Turns out we have the same exact birthday, but that probably doesn’t mean anything. (Sorry to all you astrology fans!) More than anything, I thought about how much I love collaboration. A different energy and strength evolves, one that is more fun and conducive to adventure than working as a lone soldier.
What insights about being an artist and/or being in love did you glean?
Working on this project made me feel more comfortable with all the aspects that disturb me about love and art. That sounds weird — being more comfortable with being disturbed by something. But the advantage is that it gives me to courage to keep exploring both realms.
Any visions of another book dancing in your head?
Yes! It is one that hits much closer to home. In fact, the idea of “home” is intrinsic to it. It involves a few different settings, Nashville being a major one. One thing I know for a fact is that it will be much, much smaller in size and lighter in weight than Artists in Love.
To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.