It ain’t easy being, or trying to be, an artist. Anna Haifisch knows this all too well, and has been delineating that struggle depressingly but lovingly throughout her work on The Artist. Originally a serialized comic for Vice, it was first released in book form in 2016 and its new follow-up is the equally brilliant The Artist: The Circle of Life. Our protagonist is a strange, wiry half-swan, half-crane artist; and while we see the occasional up, it’s mostly about the downs—self-doubt, struggle for recognition, creative block, weird families, love and loss and depression. The usual stuff, just in a deliciously absurdist yet moving way.
What’s beautiful about the work of Haifisch, who’s based in Leipzig, Germany, is that it takes a distinctive, ultimately quite peculiar approach to character design and creates a protagonist with such depth that we empathize with this stick-like bird. When the artist is bummed out, we are too, and much of this, of course, is down to the relatability of the scenarios—be they the painfully bum-clenching nature of “schmoozing”; brief moments of manic egotism; the agony of what to wear for something important (“You want to look crisp… but not too fresh, though. Tasteless watch?”), or “coming out” to family about your creative intentions. Through Haifisch’s non-linear approach to narrative, we see the artist at the age of seven telling his mother “the six fateful words… that would lay out my future… I want to be an artist.”
As well as addressing the personal (the artist character is a sort-of alter-ego for its creator), the book brilliantly sends-up the oft-ridiculousness of the art world—its double standards; nepotism; requests for work with no payment but “exposure”; and the baffling schism between its age-old love affair with the idea of the struggling, hard-drinking creative and the pomposity of big-money, champagne-laden openings and eye-watering wealth. “Collectors like to inhale the bitter taste of poverty,” the artist observes at what he terms a “mating ritual” with an art collector. His advice for such meetings includes, “for the love of god, do not bring your portfolio”; “never make eye contact with the collector’s spouse”; and, “be the first to leave the scene”.
The new book, published by Breakdown Press, also presents the bolstered ego of a night out: we see the artist, buzzing in a strobe-lit club at the prospect of spreading their “charme [sic] and talent”. The music blares: “I am living your dream!” the artist thinks, for one brief comic panel, “until the drugs wear off”. Meanwhile, Haifisch weaves in motifs from art history throughout the book, positioning her protagonist as different figures such as Van Gogh post-ear-detachment, before, in this case, suddenly veering into an “art rap” that manages to weave in diatribes against the “haters” with lines that sound a hell of a lot more like early eighties art punk than anything vaguely hip hop:
I’m down at group show Eldorado
Talking abstract avocado
Lobster sculpture simulation
I don’t do lame installation
We get a sense that Haifisch is probably having a lot of fun at this point. Later, the artist become Matisse, reclining in bed, one assistant passing his wine, a voice from an unseen lover calling out, “Chérie?”
“Like the artist, we all occasionally want to bawl at the universe, screaming ‘Fuck this shit!'”
There are brilliant moments of satire that Haifisch extends online, such as animated vignettes like a lampoon of YouTube drawing tutorials; and a listen of the artist’s closing song, er, Sawdust McQueen. But aside from the satire, what’s so powerful about The Artist is that it’s not hard for most of us, surely, to see more than a little bit of ourselves in its central character. He veers between frantic attempts at self-care (kale smoothies, chia seed face masks, power yoga and the like in preparation for Vienna Gallery Week) and maudlin self-destruction. Most of us weep (at least internally) at the thought that we’ve achieved bugger all, at the injustices of the world, at the sense that we’re nothing. Like the artist, we all occasionally want to bawl at the universe, screaming “Fuck this shit!”
That’s not to say The Artist isn’t funny, especially when Haifisch decides to dedicate a few pages to the stories of other cartoon birds—a “history of shattered dreams” where Peanuts character Woodstock got into heroin, Tweety ruined his reputation by making racist slurs in an appearance on Letterman, and the Kellogg’s rooster wrecked his face with plastic surgery.
We all teeter between doggedly continuing to struggle to pursue a dream in life or work or love that might seem hopeless, and wondering whether we should simply succumb to “comfortable monotony”, and just “give normalcy a try” in an “ordinary mildly happy life”—you know, with things like hobbies, and going to bed early. One minute, often when we’re young, there’s a fleeting moment of thinking we’re “someone special”, as the artist does. Again, just a panel later, “I realized I am not.”