“A man who takes no interest in politics has no business here at all.”
Pericles (495 – 429 BCE)
Pericles (495 – 429 BCE)
The new documentary about the life of incendiary 1960s blues singer Janis Joplin, by director Amy Berg, has opened in São Paulo this week. Contrary to the classic biography on the singer – Buried Alive, written by Myra Friedman, and first published in 1973 – the documentary chooses to show a less torturous and painful facet of Janis, who comes off in the movie as an intelligent, charismatic and sensitive human being. An extremely talented woman, way ahead of her time, who looks to fame and acclaim to fit in and be loved, Janis’s short and intense life is celebrated, rather than mourned, in this mind-blowing film.
Born on January 19, 1943, into a conservative and suffocating family, who wanted her to become a teacher, Janis grew up an outcast, the target of frequent bullying at school in the backward Texan city of Port Arthur. Unconventional, outspoken and aggressive, Janis broke the mold of what was expected from women in those repressive years of the 1950s and early 60s.
When zitty-faced and overweight Janis found out she would never become one of the curvaceous and cute models who leapt from the covers and pages of the women’s magazines everyone read when she was a teenager, she left home and headed for San Francisco. The neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury welcomed Janis with open arms. She had found her soulmates. She felt totally at home and could finally blossom as a woman and artist.
Janis Joplin belonged on the stage. She would rip herself open in front of an audience. Her performances – many of which feature in the documentary, but can also be found on YouTube– are raw and soul-wrenching. Audiences – both in the live presentations depicted in the film and the one watching it from the comfortable seat of a movie theater – look on enthralled and silent – experiencing a jolt of pleasure, pain and self-realization, through the music emanating from this force of nature.
When I sing, I feel like when you’re first in love. It’s more than sex. It’s that point two people can get to they call love, when you really touch someone for the first time, but it’s gigantic, multiplied by the whole audience. I feel chills, explains the singer.
The movie narrates Janis’s story from her childhood in Port Arthur to her untimely death due to an overdose of heroin at a hotel in Hollywod at age 27, covering in detail all the phases of her meteoric career. Janis struggled with drug abuse from the very first years in San Francisco; the problem only got worse as she became more popular.
The addiction, however, did not stop Janis from exploding to notoriety during the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, when she debuted as a full-fledged blues singer, mesmerizing the audience with a legendary rendition of Ball and Chain (see video on YouTube).
From then on, many doors started to open and Janis never stopped climbing the steps of success and recognition, as one of the best blues singers of all time. Stardom, however, which she had sought for most part of her life, proved elusive and unsatisfactory, after all. On stage I make love to twenty five thousand people; and then I go home alone, complained the lonely diva. She could never shut out her personal ghosts, insecurities and anxieties, unless she was working.
Although, Janis Joplin recorded only 4 albums in her 4-year career: Big Brother and the Holding Company (1967); Cheap Thrills (1968) ; I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (1969) Platinum and Pearl (1971, released posthumously), her fame is enduring and she continues to captivate new fans with songs such as Cry Baby, Summertime, Mercedes Benz, Maybe, and Me and Bobby McGee (her best selling single).
Janis Joplin – Little Girl Blue, the documentary – will surely enlist a new wave of fans. After all, many young people can’t wait to find music which is not as innocuous and washed-out as most pop songs they download from the Internet today.
Vincent van Gogh was born in the village of Groot-Zundert, south of the Netherlands on March 30, 1853, to upper middle class parents. His father was a protestant pastor and the family lived in the parsonage near the border with Belgium. His family: father, mother, and five siblings were very important to the artist all his life. He had a love-and-hate relationship with them, especially his father Dorus, breaking up with him a number of times, but always patching things up and trying to reconcile with them. Reliving the peace and harmony of his childhood days in the Zundert parsonage, when the whole family lived together remained an obsession and an impossibility throughout van Gogh’s life.
Before he launched his career as an artist in 1880, van Gogh worked as an art dealer in the business of richer members of his family (Goupil and Cie), a teacher and an evangelist, never quite managing to succeed in any of these jobs. He was not lucky at love either, having been rejected by a cousin, which caused him, heartbroken, to decide to live with a prostitute, Sien, and her son for a couple of years. He claimed it was his duty to rescue her.
He considered himself a failure for not being able to find a place in society and to follow a proper career, blaming sometimes himself and other times the lack of support and vision of his family and acquaintances for not finding a professional role. His parents were in fact ashamed of his lonesome and difficult eldest son. In spite of all this, he spent most of his life living off the financial support of his father and, then, his brother Theo, 6 years his junior, with whom he developed a strong bond and carried out an extensive written correspondence. It’s through these letters that we know so much about the convoluted life and inner feelings of this artist.
Vincent van Gogh lacked interpersonal skills, was awkward in society, and full of contradictory feelings. Having trouble getting along with people in general was perhaps the main reason he was not able to keep the many jobs he held. He was eccentric, explosive and reclusive. Under the advice of his brother Theo, he finally found his true path as an artist. But, at the beginning he refused to produce anything commercial, so he could not live off his craft and talent. He focused on painting the human figure, especially members of the lower classes. And he didn’t like to use color. His drawings were mostly in black and white, made with pen or charcoal, or paintings in drab colors. He only drew and painted what he wished, never making any concessions to the market’s taste, which made his financial life very hard.
As we mentioned before, his favorite subject at the time was the human figure, and he was always striving to hire models among the common people of the various towns he lived in: peasants, miners, weavers and prostitutes. Most of them found it very hard to work with him, and he was always requiring more money from Theo to be able to hire more professional models in places like Antwerp, where he lived for a while.
Only when he moved to Paris in the late years of his short life, sharing a space with Theo, he started to fully develop as an artist, incorporating in his painting traits of the Impressionists – which were becoming very popular at the time – Japanese art, the social works of Manet and Courbet, features of the English landscapist John Constable, the pointillism of Seurat, among other influences. It was then that he started to use bright colors, leaving the drabness and the gloominess of his previous drawings and paintings behind.
In February 1888, he moved to Arles, in the south of France, to make use in his paintings of the bright colors under the Provence sun. There, he rented and lived in what became the famous Yellow House of his biography, initiating one of the most productive periods of his career, painting from day to night, sometimes finishing 3 works a day. Vincent dreamed of turning the place into a utopian community for modern artists – the Studio of the South – where they could work together, exchange ideas and create something unique, based on the strong influences of the past masters and yet innovating painting radically. He aimed for a new Renaissance.
In October 1888 the French painter Paul Gauguin came to Arles to live and work with van Gogh. They had a very tense and tumultuous relationship, though, which ended up with Gauguin leaving the house a couple of months after his arrival. Vincent was left in such an unstable mental state after the quarrel with Paul that he allegedly cut off part of his ear and sent it to a prostitute. He was committed to mental institutions twice after that.
Despite all the external influences van Gogh incorporated in his work, his paintings and drawings remained true to his deep feelings and notions of art. He developed idiosyncratic traits as an artist and imbued his landscapes, portraits, and still lives with his own very unique style, characterized by the use of bright and sometimes unusual combination of colors, large brushstrokes, and fine draftsmanship, which turned his works into effective channels to express his innermost feelings. The seeds of the XX’s century expressionism have been identified in van Gogh’s final and most famous woks.
His most famous paintings were produced during the last two years before his suicide on July 29t, 1890, at age 37. Out of more than 900 pieces of work he put out throughout his short but productive career, only one painting – The Red Vineyards Near Arles – was sold while he was still alive.
He never foresaw how successful he would become, although he was fully aware of how powerful his work was and never doubted his talent and vision as an artist. Today, his paintings sell for tens of millions of dollars, and he’s one of the most famous and beloved artists of Western culture. Among his most recognized paintings, we can list masterpieces such as The Potato Eaters, The Yellow House and Starry Night.
If you wish to a have a chance to discuss and practice English vocabulary, speaking and writing skills based on some of the invaluable works of this unique artist, please check out our series of supplementary materials TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART, featuring, works not only by van Gogh, but also by Matisse, Picasso, Caravaggio, Monet and Norman Rockwell so far. New materials are scheduled to come out in the near future, watch this space.
Click on the link below to know more about the eBooks: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS
Watch our promo video on the eBook TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: VICENT VAN GOGH:
What’s your favorite artist? Let us know so we can feature him/her in our series.
Find our how much you know about one of the most famous artists of Western Culture.
Check out the video clip on the ebook TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: VINCENT VAN GOGH
If you are interested in TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART, you might want to check out our successful series of eBooks available from the KINDLE STORE. Just click on the picture below for further info: