The creative urge is seen as something that can’t be ignored, and yet over the years a number of hugely talented writers and artists have walked away from writing, poetry or the art world. Some cited disillusionment, others fatigue, while a few never explained their reasoning at all. Below are a number of writers and artists who quit:
Bad boy French poet Arthur Rimbaud had a difficult relationship with his mother and railed against convention, three times running away from home as a child and travelling to Paris. Aged 17 he left home and moved into the Paris residence of poet Paul Verlaine, embarking on a tumultuous affair with the older man (much to Verlaine’s wife’s dismay).
Rimbaud’s poetry was ground-breaking. His modernist take on life and his play with language and orthodox verse had a huge impact on the literary scene, making him something of a poster boy for the Surrealist and Symbolist movements.
Rimbaud wrote his two hugely influential collections of poetry A Season in Hell and Illuminations by the age of 21 and thereafter wrote no more. The reasons for this are somewhat of a mystery. He set off travelling, working and enlisting in the army before moving to Ethiopia (then known as Aden) where he was one of the first European traders in the area. He lived and worked there, trading coffee and firearms until his death from cancer aged 37 in 1891.
Scholars have pored through Rimbaud’s later letters for any glimpse or references to poetry, but they are nearly all solely concerned with business, as if his previous incarnation as the enfant terrible of the French literary scene had never happened at all.
Marcel Duchamp shocked the art world with his surrealist work, most famously with his urinal-based work Fountain (1917) which presented and reframed a manufactured urinal as a piece of art. Duchamp however expressed disregard for painting and the avant-garde scene (which he famously derided as ‘a basket of crabs’) and from 1918 began retreating from the art world and devoting his energies to chess. For twenty-five years Duchamp played chess professionally, even competing for the French national team, seemingly content to leave his previous life as an artist and provocateur in the past.
However Duchamp’s retreat from the art world was not quite as complete as would seem, despite no longer publicly participating in art he continued to work in secret on a single work, Étant donnés, which took him 20 years to complete. This unusual assemblage has been on show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1969 and invites visitors to approach a ramshackle wooden door with peep holes cut into it. On peering through visitors can glimpse a tableau featuring a nude woman holding a gas lamp.
Lee Lozano gained fame in the 1960s for her subversive art featuring machinery, genitalia and cartoonish facial features but she soon became disillusioned with, and increasingly critical of, the New York art scene. In protest she began documenting her retreat from the art world as a work in itself.
In General Strike (1969) she listed a countdown of her final art-related appearances and in her final work Dropout Piece (1972) she wrapped up her studio and withdrew forever. Unfortunately her grand gesture was ahead of its time and led her to be largely forgotten. Only recently, in part in thanks to the attentions of critic Lucy Lippard, has interest in her subversive work been revived.
J D Salinger
J D Salinger published a number of short stories and novellas before hitting the big time with Catcher in the Rye (1951). His writing had been much admired in literary circles but his insistence that editors not change a single word of his compositions made him difficult to work with – his first contract for Catcher in the Rye with Harcourt Brace was broken off by Sallinger after the publisher ordered some rewrites and it was finally published by Little, Brown who agreed to leave the text alone.
Salinger abhorred the limelight and the greater the book’s success the more he shrank from publicity. He refused requests to use an author photograph on the book’s cover and eschewed all interview requests, save one with a local high school newspaper The Claremont Daily Eagle. Salinger effectively became a recluse, saying ‘It is my rather subversive opinion that a writer’s feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years.’ He subsequently published a smattering of short stories and novellas but never again wrote another novel before his death in 2010.
Charlotte Posenenske was a German Jewish artist who grew up during the Second World War. Family friends hid her from the Nazis after her father committed suicide. Posenenske developed into an influential modernist artist, moving from painting to sculpture, for which she is today best known.
Her sculptural works of corrugated cardboard and steel are almost industrial in shape and ultimately, she felt, could be assembled by anyone – her presence at exhibitions or even ownership of the pieces becoming increasingly irrelevant to her. Posenenske felt art had become futile and did little to actively address social injustice, as a result in 1968 she stopped working as an artist entirely and devoted the rest of her career to working as a sociologist.
Posenenske’s work was not shown again until after her death in 1985 as she had refused to take part in any exhibitions, but today her art is back on display showing her important place in the history of Modernism.
The success of Gone with the Wind (1936), Margaret Mitchell’s only novel was a phenomenon – it sold over 50,000 copies in one day and ultimately went on to sell over 30 million copies worldwide. The book had been a long time in writing for Mitchell, she wrote it in bits and pieces over 9 years while working as a journalist. Once picked up for publication it began a roller coaster that Mitchell was not prepared for.
The massive success that Gone with the Wind enjoyed took Mitchell by surprise, turning her life upside down. She refused to do promotional activities and rarely signed copies of the book, finding the limelight too much to bear. The attention was further increased by the scramble to buy the film rights and the subsequent success of the film. Mitchell had had enough and vowed never to write another book, her time now taken up with replying to the thousands of fan letters she received.
By the late 1940s the initial whirl of attention had begun to wane and Mitchell began to think about writing again. Unfortunately on 11 August 1949 she was hit by a car and later died of her injuries, robbing the world of a great writer and any potential that she might take up her pen again.
If you enjoyed this article check out my other book-related posts such as 10 Best-selling Books Written in less Than Two Months, Literary Orphans of Note or What Happened when Charlotte Bronte met Thackeray.