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10 Artists Working In Unexpected Mediums
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10 Artists Working In Unexpected Mediums

Picture of Matthew Keyte
Updated: 13 December 2015
The Museum of Modern Art in New York is currently showcasing the oft-neglected sculptural works of Picasso. Like countless other artists he worked across artistic mediums with plenty of success, even if he’s best known these days as a ground-breaking painter. Here’s a list of ten painters, composers, and poets who achieved distinction in a medium or genre beyond what they’re most famous for.

Pablo Picasso – Set Designer

One of the greatest of modern artists, Picasso worked in paint, ceramics, and, as the current exhibition highlights, sculpture. He even got into poetry in his later life, leaving hundreds of poems by the end of his life. What’s little known is that Picasso even had a period working as a set designer for the Ballets Russes. It was the French writer Jean Cocteau who introduced Picasso to the impresario of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev. He worked originally on the 1917 ballet Parade – his designs are pictured – creating costumes and set designs. Picasso married one of the dancers, Olga Khoklova, in 1918 and travelled to South America and London with the ballet company, working on Le Tricorne, Pulcinella, Le Train Bleu and Cuardo Flamenco in the early 1920s. At the time Picasso’s bohemian artist friends believed he had abandoned them for the snobbish world of ballet.

Sir Edwin Landseer – Sculptor

Sir Edwin Landseer was the most popular painter of the Victorian age, the favorite of the Queen and the man you went to for a portrait of your best gundog or horse if you were an aristocratic gentleman. Landseer specialized in servicing the Victorian taste for country pursuits amongst the wealthy, and for the craze for all things Scottish that followed the royal family starting to holiday at Balmoral in the 1850s. His work Monarch of the Glen became one of the most famous images of the age. Less well-known is that Landseer was also the man behind the bronze lions in Trafalgar Square. It was his first commission in sculpture and it took Landseer from 1858 until 1866 before the lions were finally installed. He spent years working on the designs by sitting in the zoo in Regent’s Park studying the lions in repose.

Arnold Schoenberg – Painter

The Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg was one of the key figures in avant-garde music in the first half of the 20th century. He saw himself as the Einstein of music, on the cusp of new ideas and philosophies. And he taught the likes of John Cage, Leon Kirchner and Earl Kim. Schoenberg was a gifted painter too, good enough to have his works included along with the works of Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc in the Der Blaue Reiter exhibition in Munich in 1912. His style was influenced by the likes of Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, the great Viennese Expressionists of the pre-WWI period. And it was in Vienna that Schoenberg’s paintings were first exhibited in 1910.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Composer

Rousseau is best-known as a philosopher and novelist. He was the man largely responsible for the cult of sensibility in the middle of the 18th century in his novels like Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise and Emile, ou de l’éducation and a major influence on Romanticism. And as a political thinker he was responsible for many of the theories that inspired the French Revolution. What’s little known today is that Rousseau was a composer of note, too. He composed operas, wrote librettos and even came up with his own system of musical notation. His most famous opera was The Village Soothsayer of 1753; Beethoven took the song ‘Non, Colette n’est point trompeuse’ from the opera and re-worked it. Rousseau also wrote the musical entries for the Encyclopedié for the Academie Francaise.

John Constable – Portrait Painter

We all know Constable as the master of landscape painting at the end of the 18th century. His images of his native Suffolk like The Hay Wain (pictured) are famous the world over. But they didn’t pay the bills for Constable. In fact, landscape painting at the time was regarded as a much lesser genre than historical or portrait painting. Constable never relished having to work as a jobbing portraitist, and it took until 2009 for the National Portrait Gallery in London to devote an exhibition to his portrait works. But their quality can’t be denied – Lucian Freud cited them as one of the main influences on his own work. Mostly Constable relied upon his family networks and local connections for commissions, painting middle-class figures like merchants, rectors and local gentry.

Edward Lear – Painter

Edward Lear is one of the fathers of nonsense verse along with Lewis Carroll. He popularized the limerick and gave us whimsical masterpieces like The Owl and the Pussycat, The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy Bo, and the unfinished Scroobious Pip. But Lear always regarded himself as a painter first and foremost. He originally worked as a draughtsman for the Zoological Society providing accurate drawings of animals, before moving into landscape painting that reflected the amount of time he spent traveling away from Britain. Lear painted in the Mediterranean, Indian, Sri Lanka, and in the Levant. There’s a BBC gallery of works in British galleries like the Ashmolean and the Government Art Collection here. Typically he chose sites with some historical or antiquarian interest.

William Burroughs – Painter

Burroughs was one of the central writers of the Beat Generation and a pioneer of the cut-up technique in literature. His novels like Junkie and Naked Lunch were informed by his life as a heroin addict traveling through Europe, Southern America and North Africa. Later in life Burroughs spent more time working with paint, using strange techniques like painting with magic mushrooms dipped in paint and working with his eyes closed to channel his inner visions. He also used a shotgun to blast cans of spray paint so that the pressurized contents would randomly fire over a canvas or wooden panel. You can watch him doing it here. Burroughs had a checkered history with guns, though; he killed his wife trying to show off and shoot a drink off her head.

John Cage – Visual Artist

John Cage was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, and the most famous of post-war avant-garde composers. He’s known especially for his piece 4’33”, a composition that requires musicians to turn up and sit in silence. It’s much beloved of those who decry the pretensions and excesses of modern art. But before he devoted himself to music Cage was interested in becoming a visual artist – and he returned to visual forms later in his life, creating printed images using all sorts of materials like Plexiglas, foam, hot teapots and stones. Cage worked with the Crown Point Press of San Francisco every year from the late 1970s up till his death in 1992 on hundreds of abstract prints, all of them governed by the same principle of chance that informed his musical compositions.

Michelangelo – Poet

These days Leonardo da Vinci seems to get more attention as the ultimate Renaissance polymath. But it was Michelangelo who achieved much more artistically, as the sculptor of the Pieta in St Peter’s and of the statue of David in Florence, and the painter of the Sistine Chapel pictured. What gets forgotten these days is that Michelangelo was also a prolific poet, writing well over 300 sonnets, songs and epigrams. Many of them, like Shakespeare’s sonnets, deal with homoerotic themes and are addressed to boys who modeled for Michelangelo. And for this reason they were suppressed; Michelangelo’s own grandnephew published the poems in 1623 with the pronouns shifted from ‘he’ to ‘she.’ It was only in 1878 with the edition and translation of John Addington Symonds that the works were published in their original form.

Paul Gauguin – Wood Carver

Gauguin is famous today for his travels in Tahiti and across French Polynesia, his primitivist paintings and his influence on the artists who came after him. Fauvism and Cubism owe much to Gauguin and his bold colors. But as well as paint Gauguin was a master of the wood carving. He took inspiration from traditional Breton carvings along with Polynesian sculptures when working with wood to create scenes on panels in bas-relief and sculpted masks and statues. Gauguin used materials like pua wood, lime tree and mahogany to create Tahitian scenes and figures, and allegorical carvings. Amongst Gauguin’s works in wood are the relief panels Soyez amouresues vous serez heureuses and Soyez mysterieuses, the Head of a Tahitian Woman, and the carved doors of his Maison du Jouir on Hiva Oa Island.