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Art

Five curious obsessions from the world of art

@SamWKemp

Look at the world’s greatest artists and you’ll soon realise that they are all united by one thing: obsession. Historically, this term has been used to describe people on the edge of madness, individuals who are losing their grip on reality. The Latin root of ‘obsessed’ is besieged, implying that this uncontrollable fascination is somehow inherently dangerous, posing a threat to sanity and respectability.

It’s no wonder, then, that art and obsession are so frequently treated as two sides of the same coin: both disrupt our understanding of normal human behaviour and both unsettle our understanding of what the human mind is capable of. Througout the centuries, artists have positively embraced their obsessions as a way of inspiring the aesthetics of their practice – transforming their fascinations and fears into beautiful, innovative, and sometimes unnerving works.

Below, you will find a list of five of the most curious obsessions in the world of art. Some are founded on logic, others on impulse. All, however, seem to be rooted in childhood. Subsequently, the obsessions of our favourite artists might offer us an insight not only into their inner life but into the impulses behind their creative pursuits. From Salvador Dalí to Yayoi Kusama, these are art’s most curious obsessions.

Art’s most curious obsessions:

Salvador Dalí – Eggs

If you visit the surrealist artist Salvador Dalí’s house in Portilligat, Catalonia, you will notice countless egg sculptures nestled in tactical locations around the labyrinthine estate. Tha’s because Mr Dalí, a famed eccentric, who kept an anteater as a pet, was obsessed with the symbolic power of the egg.

The egg is one of the most prominent Dalinaian themes. For Dalí, it was interlaced with emblematic power – owing to the duality of its hard exterior and soft interior. In Eggs on the Plate Without a Plate (1932), for example, Dalí uses the symbol to explore the “intra-uterine memories” he experienced before birth: “The fried eggs on the plate without the plate which I saw before my birth were grandiose, phosphorescent, and very detailed in all the folds of their faintly bluish whites”. He even seems to have formed a connection between the egg and the erotic. In describing his wife, for example, Dalí said: “Gala and I incarnate the sublime myth of the Dioscuri, hatched from one of Leda’s two divine eggs”.

(Credit: Roger Higgins)

Damien Hirst – Taxidermy

One of the collections the Barbican included in its Magnificant Obsessions exhibit back in 2015 was Damien Hirst’s collection of stuffed animals and animal skulls. Like Dalí’s egg obsession, taxidermy features heavily in Hirst’s own work, so it’s not surprising that he collected a pretty dizzying number of deceased wildlife specimens – many of which appeared alongside bottles of Raid and other everyday household items at the exhibition.

Hirst’s obsession with taxidermy animals started when he was a child, but as he grew older he began to realise their artistic potential: “They inhabit a space between life and death that says so much about who we are as humans, and who we might want to be,” he said in 2015. For obvious reasons, Hirst’s obsession has garnered him a lot of criticism from animal rights activists over the years, many of whom regard his assertion that Taxidermy reveals a “complex relationships between nature and science, myth and reality, art and beauty and life and death,” as an excuse to indulge what they believe is little more than a sadistic hobby.

(Credit: Andrew Russeth)

Arnold Schoenberg – the number 13

The Austrian composer and theorist Arnold Schoenberg is perhaps one of the most influential classical composers of the 21st century. In his lifetime, Schoenberg developed the twelve-tone technique, an era-defining method of manipulating an ordered series of all twelve notes in the chromatic scale to create dissonant yet highly logical musical works. It’s only fitting, then, that Schoenberg should have suffered from triskaidekaphobia, a fear of the number 13.

Schoenberg did everything in his power to avoid the number 13, going so far as to deliberately misspell the name of his opera Moses und Aron, as the correct spelling would have resulted in the title being 13 letters long. But the strangeness of Schoenberg’s obsession is nothing compared to the strangeness of his death. Towards the end of his life, Shoenberg predicted that the day of his death would fall on Friday 13th, July 1951. As his wife Gertrude recalled, he spent the whole day in a state of anxiety: “About a quarter to twelve I looked at the clock and said to myself: another quarter of an hour and then the worst is over. Then the doctor called me. Arnold’s throat rattled twice, his heart gave a powerful beat and that was the end”. A coincidence? Maybe, but what about the fact that if you add up the digits of Shoenberg’s age when he died, (76) you’re left with – you guessed it – 13.

Arnold Schoenberg at bar with friends in Berlin. (Credit: Alamy)

Andy Warhol – Hollywood stardom

As a sickly and reclusive child, Andy Warhol pored over glamour magazines, cutting out pictures of Hollywood starlets for his movie star scrapbook. He even went so far as to send letters to Hollywood casting studios to ask for pictures that he couldn’t get anywhere else. The obsession is understandable. Compared to the industrial sprawl of 1930s Pittsburgh, I imagine the sunshine and tragic glamour of Hollywood’s golden age was incredibly attractive.

Warhol’s fascination with Hollywood fame continued into adulthood, inspiring everything from his mass-produced prints of Marilyn Monroe to his portrayal of feminine beauty in his photographic work, and when Hollywood studios emptied their vaults in the 1970s, Andy Warhol made sure to attend the auction, purchasing a huge number of photographic treasures and pieces of golden-age memorabilia.

(Credit: Alamy)

Yayoi Kusama – Polka dots

Yayoi Kusama’s mind-boggling exhibits draw huge crowds in every city they appear. But before she became one of the most influential artists in the art world, Kusama was afflicted with various neuropsychiatric disorders which led to a range of obsessive behaviours. Art served as both an escape and a way for her to control these behaviours and hallucinations. As a child, these hallucinations became so powerful that they began making their way into her artwork. Eventually, the boundaries between the real and unreal ceased to matter.

In an attempt to share her experience, In an attempt to share her experiences, she set about creating immersive installations in which the participant is surrounded by an infinite landscape of dots and geomorphic shapes, the same that populated her dreams and nightmares growing up.