Art & Isolation
a look and art and artists dealing with isolation through the years
compiled and written by MEGHNA ANIL NAIR
Isolation is perhaps not unprecedented to artists. Several notable creators have historically curated environments of self-imposed solitude as a way of nurturing their art form in the absence of disturbance. Frida Kahlo, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Georgia O’Keeffe are well known for being secluded and for fitting into the often badly portrayed and stereotypical character of The Reclusive Artist. However, the distinction that needs to be made is that these artists - and certainly many before and after them, dating from the 1300s to present day - revel in the tiny, secluded spaces they create, whether a studio, a room of their own, or simply their own beds. The respite from the constant humdrum of society has proved for many to be the missing ingredient for the inception of a masterpiece - something that the current lockdown has made several of us enjoy and dislike in varying proportions. Here we look into artists whose works feature narratives of seclusion that is not unlike the kind we're experiencing today.
Sanam Khatibi - Days and days without love
A Belgian artist born in Tehran whose work Days and days without love captures the ambience of isolation to perfection, an element of surrealism is the essence of Khatibi’s work, interlocuting with animalia and pastel hues. We talked to her and asked her what her process has been during this period of lockdown.
Oil and pencil on canvas
78 7/10 × 98 2/5 in
200 × 250 cm
Eric Zener - Across the Divide
The solitary object against the endless blue: the quintessential Zener piece. While most of his work has a milieu of a water body, Across the Divide (2019) is an exception, but bears striking resemblance to his signature style and palette.
Xiao Zheluo - World in front of Grandma
Self-imposed isolation is unprecedented - but what of the inevitability of old age? In World in front of Grandma (2010), the haunting dark strokes of oil on wood are only half the story. Encapsulating the isolating experience of infirmity, disability and loss of agency that comes with growing old, this striking painting by Chinese artist Zheluo lingers, and lingers, and lingers.
Oil on Wood
15 7/10 × 8 3/10 in
40 × 21 cm
“It means nothing to me.
Whether the world believes
me dead. I can hardly say
anything to refute it. For truly,
I am no longer a part of
- Hanya Yanagihara
A masterful collection of contemporary figurative art, Han’s paintings breathe with lush brush-strokes and earthy tones. With an almost poetic expression of human suffering, loneliness and solitude, not only is Han’s work beautiful to behold, but subtly evocative and delicate in their message.
Ben McLaughlin - 02:22
I sit in my sorrow a-weary, alone;
I have nothing sweet to hope or remember,
For the spring o’ th’ year and of life has flown;
’Tis the wildest night o’ the wild December,
And dark in my spirit and dark in my chamber.
- A Window Just Over the Street, Alice Carey
One of McLaughlin's many paintings from his timestamp series, each more ambient than the next, the lone figure in the window of a dimly lit room evokes a sense of sameness, of days during lockdown with nobody but oneself for company.
Katie O'Hagan - Suspension
Taking contemporary photorealism to new heights, Scottish artist O'Hagan creates emotionally expressive and vivid images with her arsenal of deep blue strokes. Well known for adopting imagery not dissimilar to the likes of Salvador Dali, the artist mingles the extraordinary with the every day - the spider's web of connection, and the loneliness of being home.
Brett Amory - Waiting
Meant to convey the isolation of anonymous commuters he comes across on his daily travels, American artist Amory highlights this seclusion with layers of colour, setting the focus on the man behind the counter.
Waiting #234, 2015
Oil on wood panel
20 × 20 in
50.8 × 50.8 cm
Vincent van Gogh - Corridor in the Asylum
To give van Gogh an introduction would be a disservice to his fabled story. Although his work was perpetually analysed through the lens of mental illness and depression, the general consensus of Vincent as a tortured soul gives more bearing to the negative connotations of being mentally ill. Very rarely is he praised for creating such memorable, vivid, and culturally indelible works of art despite his harrowing experience with his illness. "Corridor in the Asylum" was completed in 1889, a depiction of the asylum in St. Remy, where the artist spent the last of his years, producing a mood of solitude in the endless hallways.
“A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke.”
― Vincent Van Gogh
One of the artists at the forefront of the post-impressionist movement, Munch is no stranger to art lovers and novices alike. While his oils like Despair and Melancholy are telling perhaps of his emotional turmoil, there are lesser known drypoint prints that effuse a similar mood, complemented by the monotones of roulette steel against the matrix.
These have been disconcerting times for many of us, and it is always heartening to look back at artists old and new and see that despite these extraordinary circumstances, our seemingly unprecedented emotions have held roots for decades before us. Scrolling through a newsfeed in bed alone with the lights off, when one can feel so fractured and distant from reality inside of one’s home, perhaps it will do us good fortune to remember the likes of Van Gogh and Xheluo and Munch and Han. Like all things, we get through it all together. In the mean time, we have art, we have words, we have music and a starry, starry night.
These have been disconcerting times for many of us, and it is always heartening to look back at artists old and new and see that despite these extraordinary circumstances, our seemingly unprecedented emotions have held roots for decades before us. Scrolling through a newsfeed in bed alone with the lights off, when one can feel so fractured and distant from reality inside of one’s home, perhaps it will do us good fortune to remember the likes of Van Gogh and Xheluo and Munch and Han. Like all things, we get through it all together.