I had an interesting conversation the other day prompted by the famous Spanish artist Pablo Picasso and one of his most iconic works, the mural sized 1937 oil painting “Guernica”. Pablo Picasso it was said demonstrated classical symptoms of narcissism. Art lovers of course will recognize his famous quote, ‘God is really an artist, like me…I am God, I am God, I am God.’
Despite the fact that Picasso's romantic relationships provided inspiration for his masterpiece paintings and sculptures, such as, "Head of a Woman" (inspired by Fernande Olivier), "Olga in the Armchair" (inspired by Olga Khokhlova), "The Dream" (inspired by Marie-Thérèse Walter), "The Weeping Woman" (inspired by Dora Maar), and so on, he actually drove many of his lovers to despair with the classical narcissistic relationship stages of; (a) the love phase; (b) the devaluing phase and finally (c) the discarding phase (not forgetting their frequent run-ins with the law). As one of Picasso's lovers, Françoise Gilot, recalled, Picasso said ‘Nobody has any real importance to me. As far as I'm concerned, other people are like those little grains of dust floating in the sunlight. It takes only a push of the broom and out they go.’ So, okay girls, a relationship with a narcissist is definitely not a prize you want to win!
The term ‘Narcissism’ is from Metamorphoses, written by the Roman poet Ovid in 8 CE, which tells the story of Narcissus, a beautiful character in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection. Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) display a grandiose sense of self, they not only believe themselves to be superior to those around them, but also expect others to acknowledge them as such (DSM-V 2013).4. They believe that they are deserving of special treatment and are ‘preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love’ (DSM-V 2013). Within psychology, ‘people with narcissistic personality disorder exhibit an exaggerated sense of self-importance and uniqueness, arrogance, an unreasonable sense of entitlement, exploitative tendencies, empathy deficits, and a need for excessive admiration’.
Yi Zhou, a Florida State University professor recently (2014) conducted a study examining the correlation between an artist’s narcissistic tendencies and their success. So what method did she use for her research? She honed in on a particular manifestation of an artist’s ego, the size of their signature. After establishing an area-per-letter measure and correlating that with the score on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory scale, Zhou measured the dimensions of artist signatures sampled from Oxford Art Online. She then compared them to the market success of the artists as determined by auction data from Artinfo and Artprice.com, and websites of various auction houses.
Turns out what they say about artists with big signatures is true that literally writing your name bigger correlates with becoming a bigger name yourself. Therefore the study determined that the artworks of more narcissistic artists have higher market prices, higher estimates from auction houses, and higher out performance compared to the art market index. In support of this narcissistic view of the market performance of art works, it was found that the higher recognition by art experts lead to more narcissistic artists having a greater number of solo and group exhibitions, more museum and gallery holdings, and higher art history rankings. More narcissistic artists also tend to make larger paintings and date their works more frequently. It should also be noted that Zhou’s findings, found a stronger correlation between narcissism and success in modern art as opposed to contemporary art, or post-war art. While a standard deviation of narcissism yields a 25 percent market price increase for modern art, contemporary art only saw an increase of 13 percent.
So there you have it, a message for artists everywhere. Keep at it with the big signatures, self-portraits and self-congratulatory language. You’ll be on your way to TATE in no time!