“It is through art and art only that we can realize our perfection; through art and art only that we an shield ourselves from the sordid perils of existence.” —Oscar Wilde
Why are artists driven to create? It’s a question as old as humanity, with as many answers as there are commentators. The famous mountaineering dictum, “because it’s there,” while pointing to the possibly unanswerable existential nature of the question, nevertheless leaves us groping and unsatisfied. Probably one of the greatest attempts to “answer” the conundrum was created by Canadian author Gabrielle Roy in her astonishing novel The Hidden Mountain, originally published in 1961.
Its masterful use of language to evoke the Canadian landscape, its direct yet probing insights into an artist’s interior landscape, and its powerfully poetic prose has seldom been equaled in Canadian literature. I would go so far as to say that few living CanLit authors could equal Roy’s feat of literary skill and imagination, which ranks with Tolstoy for its sheer range of mastery and with Thomas Hardy for its ability to achieve that most difficult of all writer’s tasks – evoking vivid images of a countryside.
Roy’s protagonist Pierre – we only learn his last name late in the book – is a fitting if distinctively Canadian prototype of the artist. In Pierre’s thoughts is summed up what is perhaps the fundamental urge that drives all creators of art: “Who has not dreamed, on a single canvas, within a single book, to include once for all the whole object, the whole subject; one’s all, all one’s experience, all one’s love, and thus fulfill the infinite hope, the infinite expectation, of men!”
It’s this urge that both supplies the artist’s self-regenerating motivation and at the same time a constant source of discouragement that can drive one into despair and even self-destruction. After all, who can reproduce nature? To even capture a shard of its glory can be supremely difficult even for the most masterful artist. Yet one is haunted by it, driven endlessly to try and often deeply self-critical of the results. The harrowing question that can consume the artist is summed up when Pierre asks himself, “Has this ever been painted? Shall I ever succeed in capturing a thousandth part of the dream?” Roy likens this inner motivation to a bird that is held captive within the artist’s chest, and that “he was himself that imprisoned bird. And, at times, while painting the light or running water, or some image of freedom, the captive within him would, for a few brief moments, break free and briefly try its wings. …Pierre glimpsed the fact that every man has such a bird held captive in his breast, to cause him pain. But, thought Pierre, whenever he himself set himself free, did he not, by that very fact, also set other men free, set free their imprisoned thought, their suffering spirit?”
The uniquely Canadian aspect of Roy’s artist is that he is an experienced woodsman traveling by canoe in northern Canada, the Mackenzie River country. What’s uncanny about this character is that Pierre had his real-life counterpart in expert canoeist and fine artist Bill Mason, a truly legendary Canadian. (Mason is wonderfully captured in the documentary Water Walker, with an appropriately haunting soundtrack by Bruce Cockburn.) While more non-artistic sojourners into the wild may be driven by the sheer physicality of the experience and the chance to connect more deeply with nature, artists like Mason and Roy’s character are driven to discover the singular place in nature that will enable them to create its reflection as faithfully as possible.
Pierre is constantly creating sketches of the pristine rivers and muskeg forests he discovers but it’s only when he stumbles upon that certain special mountain in all its breathtaking radiance that he feels he has found the ideal model for his art. Fittingly, he dubs this mountain “The Resplendent One.” Metaphorically it stands for the entire life pursuit of the artist. Having reached the mountain late in the season, Pierre pushes himself to render it in paintings and sketches dangerously late in the fall, with winter threatening to close in. He risks starvation and death to accomplish his self-appointed task, nearly dying on his way to a frontier settlement to wait out the bitter cold. Probably the most harrowing hunting scene I have ever witnessed in my mind’s eye is written here, when Pierre must kill an elderly caribou in order to survive. The entire sequence is an expertly crafted metaphor for the artist’s experience, the limits to which a truly dedicated artist is prepared to go in fulfillment of their mission.
Pierre begins his journey as somewhat of a naïf, a self-taught artist cultured in the ways of the frontier far more than the history of art. He is helped by a tough but kindly frontier clergyman who offers to arrange exhibitions for his work in Montreal. This leads to Pierre’s first public success as an artist, including a commission that enables him to travel to the great European capital of painting – Paris. While there Pierre befriends another artist who is studying at the famous French Beaux Arts school in the Académie Meyrand, and manages to introduce him to his master as a promising protégé. Initially overcome by the breadth and depth of magnificence he sees among the European masters in the Louvre, Pierre recovers enough to undertake the rigorous training Meyrand imposes. While the discipline is good for his craft, Pierre’s intuitive approach to art gives him a natural aversion to art theory. “In art he would have preferred that action take the place of talk. Was not art a little bit like love? When you are in love you cannot at the same time continue a true lover and analyze what love means. Only those who have emerged from it… were qualified to examine the phenomenon; those who were in the fire burned, and that was all.” Spoken like a bona fide artist. Let the art critics suck that one up.
In the end this creative fire can become so intense it literally burns up the artist. As mentioned earlier, the urge to come as close as possible to “the face of God” in nature – whether a mountain or a human face – can be utterly unsparing. As Roy writes in The Hidden Mountain, the “pursued and the pursuer” become one, though often unable to be at peace with one another. It may be that artists carry a particular strain of perfectionism that is unique to their vocation, yet also potentially self-destructive. As an example Pierre cites Hans Christian Andersen, who, “at the very moment when he was writing his immortal fairy tales, was eating his heart out, they tell us, because he could not write a great play.” Even Michelangelo, upon putting the final touches on his masterpiece David, may have gone away vaguely unsatisfied, certain there was something not quite right with it.
Wilde was right that one function of art is to “realize our perfection,” or at least strive to that end. But in the end what is most life-affirming about the artist’s pursuit is the very fact of its imperfection in the face of the perfection of the universe. That we can create at all, that we can act as a lens – our accumulated memories, knowledge, biases, skill, emotions and unique background – through which the universe can be reflected in a never-before-seen image, is an act of supreme achievement given the forces working against us and our own limitations. When the Eskimo hunter Orok sees Pierre’s art, he is transported precisely because of this fact. “The mountain (was) a prodigy of God, and what he saw on cardboard, a prodigy of man. The latter, all in all, perhaps a greater prodigy than the work of God, Orok thought, when you consider that God possesses all means and man but few.”
Amen to that.