Who amongst us hasn’t started an angsty diary? Maybe this only lasted a few weeks when you were 13, or maybe you’re a dedicated diarist. Whether they’re written to help you write your autobiography further down the line, write your crush’ name over and over and over again in, or vent your workplace frustrations – diaries are a brilliant self-care and development exercise.
The world is very lucky that some of the world’s most brilliant people have kept diaries that we have had access to today. Diaries of the past have helped to inform our ideas about the past, plus the complexities of the heroes, heroines, and villains of history.
We’ve been rumaging around in the library to find the best examples of artists who’ve kept juicy diaries. Maybe this’ll inspire you to use your next diary for longer that the first time you make a spelling mistake…
“Feet, what do I need you for, if I have wings to fly?”
Kahlo’s diary was full of emotional outpourings and brilliant drawings. She wrote in a mired of colours and her sketches in her wonderfully loose and fluid. She wrote about her relationship with Diego, her experiences with chronic pain, and her love for her culture. You can actually buy a copy of the artist’s diary, kept for the last decade of her life.
“Every time I come to Europe I think I’m going to live forever.”
Keith Haring kept a sporadic diary rather than a consistent one. The entries track Haring’s busy life as an early-career artist, who he was networking with towards the peak of his fame, where he was driving to, and emotional musings just before his death from AIDS in 1990. You can read over 400 pages of Haring’s journaling on Tumblr!
“Back to my painting – exhausting myself – sweating, crying + cursing the very ground I walk on and enjoying every minute of it!”
Abstract artist Jack Whitten wrote about his creative process for over 50 years in his “studio notes”. His detailed and lengthy commentaries give us wonderfully detailed insights into how he created his works and the vision he was trying to achieve. Sadly many of his fears about how black and POC artists are tokenised and set at a disadvantage, which he wrote about in the mid 70s, still ring true today.
Leonardo da Vinci
“Lying about in bed never bought anyone fame. You got the get up and work.”
Da Vinci’s ‘notebook’ is in fact several thousand pages of separate notes and loose papers gathered together posthumously. It is thought that the polymath may have produced up to 28,000 pages of sketches and notes in his lifetime. The papers cover all sorts of topics – just like da Vinci’s career – including illustrations of his mechanical inventions, notes about vision and optics, philosophy, flight, astronomy, geography, and mathematics. The manuscript is written in the “mirror writing” of da Vinci, using his left hand and writing from the right side of the page to the left.
“Finished chores and rested in Grand Central waiting room until church time – election at looking up at celestial blue heavens and gold constellations on the ceiling.”
Just like his box artworks, Cornell’s diaries and letters are filled with a myriad of topics and thoughts. The artist was known for his withdrawn and peculiar personality, and his writing dives deep into the intense corners of his mind and unusual associations. Cornell’s diaries are in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution and have been edited into the book ‘Joseph Cornell’s Dreams’ by Catherine Corman.
“Something has happened, Theo, which most of the people here know or suspect nothing about – nor may ever know, so keep as silent as the grave about it – but which is terrible. Miss Begemann has taken poison.”
Not a diary per-say, but we do have access to many of the intriguing, scandalous, and emotional letters by the Dutch master. Van Gogh wrote over 2000 letters in his lifetime, and many are archived including those to his brother Theo, Paul Gaugin, and other friends of the artist. Writing multiple times a day, means we have enough information to piece together an idea of what the artist’s life way like every day during his artistic career. His letters also often included sketches of his WIP paintings.
“I do think it possible that someday someone I love who loves me will read my journals + feel even closer to me?”
Essayist, critical thinker, and activist Susan Sontag – while not an artist herself – wrote extensively about art and aesthetics, so we felt it was appropriate to include her in this list. Her journals provide an insight into Sontag’s personal life – including her closeted homosexual relationships – career, and takes on unfurling political scenarios, beginning from the age of 15. Sontag’s son David Rieff has edited his mother’s diaries into three books covering different periods in her life.
Author: Verity Babbs