Miércoles 9 de Agosto de 2006, Ip nº 165

When Anguish Among Artists Became Both Respected and Expected
Por ALAN RIDING

When exactly did artists decide that they were different from ordinary mortals, that in all likelihood they were superior to the rest of us? Or, viewed differently, when were they granted such a privileged status? When did Western societies start venerating them as sensitive, misunderstood geniuses?

For a long time, it seems, being a great artist — a “skilled manual worker,” as Samuel Johnson put it — was enough. For Bach and Mozart, for Rembrandt and Titian, even for Shakespeare, their art was their job. Their output was valued, but in a social order dominated by church, royal court and wealthy patrons, their standing was not high.

Then came the Romantic movement, and with it, artists turned from pleasing the world to indulging themselves: they rebelled against conventions, proclaimed their uniqueness, disdained the bourgeoisie as philistine, savored their own melancholy and formed cliques. Many also chose a bohemian lifestyle to exhibit their otherness.

How this change came about is explored in “Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the 19th Century,” an entertaining exhibition at the National Gallery in London through Aug. 28. It addresses only painters (as well as Rodin), but the shadow of Byron, Goethe, Baudelaire and other writers is never far away. And, perhaps most intriguingly, it shows how the Romantic artist still influences the image of the artist today. “In our oh-so-civilized society, it is necessary for me to lead the life of a savage,” Gustave Courbet, the 19th-century French painter, noted theatrically. “To do that, I have just set out on the great, independent, vagabond life of the bohemian.”

But there is also anguish. “The more I am spent, ill, a broken pitcher,” Vincent van Gogh, the quintessential suffering artist, wrote, “so much more am I an artist, a creative artist.”

“In our culture, the artist is usually expected to be a genius and an individualist apparently untroubled by day-to-day practicalities,” Charles Saumarez Smith, the museum’s director, writes in a foreword to the show’s catalog. “So powerful is this archetype that it has dominated the popular perception of creative individuals for some 200 years.”

The Romantic movement was born of radical intellectual and political change, notably the disintegration of the idealism of the Enlightenment in the face of the wars and unrest that convulsed Europe in the quarter-century after the 1789 French Revolution. Suddenly, the 18th-century artist’s yearning for academic and social respectability was replaced by a need for self-knowledge, communion with nature and rejection of society.

“Rebels and Martyrs” opens with a telling self-portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, who in 1768 led the Royal Academy of Arts in London to raise the social standing of artists. And to judge from this 1779-80 self-portrait, in which he stands beside a bust of Michelangelo, wearing a Rembrandt-style beret and the gowns of an honorary doctor from Oxford, he was still desperate to impress the establishment.

Yet within a few years, artists seemed more interested in portraying themselves as intense, reflective, lonely, even unhappy individuals. Georg Friedrich Kersting captures the great Caspar David Friedrich standing alone in his studio, examining what is presumably another of his “solitary-man-in-nature” oils. The message: Genius, too, is a solitary business.

One iconic image of the early Romantic era is Victor Emil Janssen’s 1828 “Self-Portrait at the Easel.” Janssen, a handsome 21-year-old artist, is shown stripped to his waist, as if for no other purpose than to display his puny chest, being consumed by the bone disease that would later kill him. Was Janssen engaging in self-pity or is self-destruction the price of great art?

Certainly early death did wonders for the Romantic artist’s image. Goethe’s 1774 novella, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” set the tone for self-inflicted death over love, while Byron, Shelley and Keats, albeit not suicides, died tragically young. Does that sound familiar? Weren’t the World War I poets Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brook enhanced by early death? And what about Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, John Lennon?

Still, in painting, it is hard to beat Henry Wallis’s 1855-6 oil of the precocious late 18th-century poet Thomas Chatterton. Through the open window of a garret, dawn breaks behind St. Paul’s Cathedral, while Chatterton, just 17, lies inert on his bed after taking arsenic, Wallis perpetuating the beloved myth of the starving, unrecognized artist who poisons himself in despair.

In truth, this was already such a cliché that around 1839 a mischievous Spanish artist, Leonardo Alenza y Nieto, painted his “Satire on Romantic Death,” which portrays a crazed-looking artist as he leaps from a cliff, dagger in hand, leaving behind his sword, writings and a poet’s laurel on a cross. In the background, two other artists have already committed suicide, one by hanging, another by gunshot.

Other painters in the exhibition sought to inflate the stature of artists by glorifying past masters: Ingres with his “Death of Leonardo da Vinci,” Gustave Moreau with “Giotto” and Delacroix with “Michelangelo in His Studio.” Courbet went further by glorifying himself in “The Meeting (‘Bonjour Monsieur Courbet!’),” in which he shows his patron doffing his hat to Courbet himself.

More common, though, was the bohemian artist and, no less than in Puccini’s later opera, “La Bohème,” the studio stove was a symbol of the struggling painter. The pipe, too, was a favored accessory: Manet, Degas, Jan Toorop and even Picasso in his splendid 1903 “Portrait of Angel Fernández de Soto” all parade the artist and his pipe.

But by the late 19th century, while some artists like Manet, Whistler and Audrey Beardsley showed off their importance by dressing as dandies, others were consumed by the sheer martyrdom of being an artist. And here this show has some excellent examples of parallels drawn between Jesus’ odyssey and that of artists.

Most dramatically, in van Gogh’s “Pietà (After Delacroix)” and Gauguin’s “Agony in the Garden,” Jesus is portrayed with each artist’s features. And around the same time, James Ensor, Richard Gerstl, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka all did self-portraits evoking Jesus’ final sacrifice.

Now, a century later, while individual artists still have to struggle, the artist’s status is secure. Yet, to this day, there remains the expectation that the artist — and that covers music, literature and cinema — will be obsessive, moody, insecure, nonconformist. And if he (and, now, also she) behaves badly, forgiveness is assured.

The fact is that, whether they are shocking or self-important, antisocial or entertaining, even if they prefer to be celebrities over rebels and martyrs, we still want our artists to be different. We want to believe they are blessed with some mystical gift. And for that enviable state of grace, they can thank their Romantic forebears.


  26/07/2006. The New York Times.