The mythical artist, heroic and rebellious, isolated and suffering, is the creation of late-18th-century Romanticism. Throughout the 19th century this powerful myth influenced the way people thought and wrote about artists and, more importantly, the way artists thought about––and depicted––themselves. Covering the period from the French Revolution to World War I, from RomanThe mythical artist, heroic and rebellious, isolated and suffering, is the creation of late-18th-century Romanticism. Throughout the 19th century this powerful myth influenced the way people thought and wrote about artists and, more importantly, the way artists thought about––and depicted––themselves. Covering the period from the French Revolution to World War I, from Romanticism to the avant-garde, this catalogue considers how artists responded to this myth. The focus is on key artists and groups who self-consciously forged distinctive identities: the Nazarenes, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, the Nabis, and Schiele. The book includes an introduction, a chronology, and an overview of the myth of the artist in literature, as well as a beautifully illustrated catalogue section arranged according to such themes as Bohemia; Dandy and Flâneur; Priest, Seer, Martyr, Christ; and Creativity and Sexuality....more
Paperback, 192 pages
September 18th 2006
by Yale University Press
[4.5] The idea of the mask, of disguise or assumed identity, runs like a leitmotiv through the art of the nineteenth century; this was the period in which the myth of the artist or inspired rebel, battling against a hostile, philistine society, took hold of the popular imagination.
It's taken me a long time to read this short book, which accompanied a National Gallery exhibition in 2006, subtitled 'the image of the artist in the nineteenth century'. I've been overwhelmed by some of it: so many shi[4.5] The idea of the mask, of disguise or assumed identity, runs like a leitmotiv through the art of the nineteenth century; this was the period in which the myth of the artist or inspired rebel, battling against a hostile, philistine society, took hold of the popular imagination.
It's taken me a long time to read this short book, which accompanied a National Gallery exhibition in 2006, subtitled 'the image of the artist in the nineteenth century'. I've been overwhelmed by some of it: so many shivers down my spine it kept short circuiting, sort of thing. Whilst it points out how enduring and pervasive the Romantic idea of the arts and artists is, favoured or at least understood by a wider range of people, more than other nineteenth century European values - and I was hardly unaware of its impact on my lovelife - it made me realise how pervasive it has been elsewhere in my life too. Feeling stuck in a long-term fairly hopeless situation, I turn to the idea of the doomed, impoverished, sickly artist or artist manqué to give things some kind of glamour rather than mere awfulness. This I absorbed, mostly unspoken, from friends who were economically poor but culturally more than middle-class. (It is not the wallowing that detractors of Romanticism love to assume; I've noticed how, mercenary-like, I can switch in days or weeks to a ruthless bootstraps attitude if faced with some hope, and I'm not the only one.) Example of one of its many uses: to console myself about spending less ... wished I'd thought this way earlier … Yet the myth was there earlier too, when I spent too much when I was younger: how much of that was linked with ideas of beauty and adventure and helping others which in one way or another can be tied into Romanticism; feeling a duty to buy music and films rather than “freetarding”... so as to support artists – although among the most creatively brilliant people I've met were also the greatest and most brazen downloaders. Esteem for the dandy's finery and similar opulence can lead to consumerism one might otherwise disdain. Almost opposite in one way, yet also allied is the starving-in-a-cold-garret subtype, which can be a comfort and inspiration in enforced minimalism; nowadays one could get one's retro decorating ideas, if bothering at all, from old films and charity shops. For someone who hasn't actually worked in the arts (albeit for a while in a couple of places that were full of resting actors, musicians hoping to get signed, etc – and the various people who've assumed on meeting me that I am some sort of artist -a nice compliment) it's absurd quite how much the Romantic artist concept is part of my air, my biome, like a fish in water. I do not know how to think entirely outside it. And actually, I'm happy with that. It works for me, even if realising how dependant I am on this particular set of ideas does make me feel smaller, perhaps less able to understand other times and cultures than I sometimes thought I was. Absurdly for someone who's never sent a book to a publisher, or made a record, I feel like I'm made of this stuff, and when I think about anyone new 'I really like this person', platonically or small-r romantically, I nearly always see something of it in them.
The Romantics themselves; ostensibly contradictory sensitive attic recluses and cynical dandy-flaneurs ultimately just different wings of the same bohemia; the late nineteenth century aesthetes, decadents, and poètes maudits and a dash of occultism; the intense love of both nature and the urban environment (but not the small town); the Roaring Twenties (and its hangover… that out-of-print Stephen Tennant book I'd love to read but which makes me sneeze); kitchen sink drama; the Sixties and Seventies; the rock 'n' roll myth (the great later-twentieth century incarnation of the Romantic artist) and in particular its bedsit-glam 1990s-ish aspect (I've got 'The Beautiful Ones' by Suede stuck in my head at the moment)… these are most of my favourite cultural moments and tendencies and they are also most of the points at which Romanticism was strongest. With the popular forties and fifties frocks, housewifey, officey nostalgia, for instance, I could never get quite comfortable in the idea of a world in which I'd always end up speaking out of turn eventually. (Which is why I liked The Hour more than any of the other series set around that time.) The Romantic artist concept is there in many writers I've listed as favourites here, bar a few very popular ones: some kind of struggle and suffering; irregularity in the appearance of new work, perhaps a sense of mischief – not so much the workmanlike, steadily efficient Trollope type – and a relative reclusiveness: not so many who tart themselves all over Twitter, blogs and newspaper columns ad infinitum.
So spooky, too, to see this book highlight Romanticist artists' identification with the suffering Christ (and to extent the egotism of this in a religious society – though it also became simply another meme and convention). I had thought I'd added that into the melange of these ideas myself, because of stories of saints I'd read when I was a kid. But in a way it was there already. (Perhaps the authors of those stories had also absorbed aspects of Romanticism… but then people had been saying saints were too sensitive for this world hundreds of years before Gaugin felt he was, or Morrissey or emo kids or 'The Past is a Grotesque Animal'.) It turns out that the picture of the beautiful pop singer lit so a halo shone off his hair came from a 150 year tradition that made it less than accidental. The idea of being both damaged in some ways and powerful in others is all very well for the artist as an individual, one can see its appeal even if identifying with Christ oneself seems a little cringeworthily OTT, the sort of thing where a mental block is good. But it is very silly - it took me too many years to realise - to assume unconsciously that people who are in that much of a fix are actually going to heal anyone else and the most that can reasonably expected along those lines is a mutual commiseration society.
Many of these ideas of art and the artist are now regarded as so mainstream they are themselves supposed to be rebelled against – though I think it depends on age, culture, upbringing and those of one's parents. A discussion I've seen many times online over the last two or three years is that the image of the rebellious [male / badboy] artist is just another instance of privilege or aping it etc etc (one of the less annoying critiques being this) ... everybody always needs to be super nice and tick all the right ethical boxes in every utterance, that only the politics of art counts. You probably know the sort of thing. It doesn't look very deep: it sees demographic categories rather than overall tendencies towards freedom and expression and a refusal to know one's place, which are still overwhelmingly relevant in most countries, and perhaps more so if fundamentalist religion and economic ruthlessness are on the rise. In an age that championed utility, practicality and efficiency, Beardsley's dandyism, and that of his fellow decadents, with its wilful emphasis on the useless, the unproductive and the artificial was calculated, in concert with his art, to outrage and antagonise. So double-edged in its relevance to modern life: read it whilst thinking of Iain Duncan-Smith or similar ruthlessly utilitarian politician, and see how it is still a rebellion. Read it whilst thinking of the amount of useless pretty things bought that will end up in landfill in a year or two… oh god, is this the world this philosophy made? (Environmentalism is *the* significant dimension missing from the aestheticism / utility spectrum IMO, because it wasn't around when these philosophies arose – it's possibly the newest major strand of human philosophy. And it ends up pulled around and moulded towards one or the other side, depending who's talking.)
I notice the book mentions how male the Romantic myth of the artist was considered, yet I'd never noticed that myself as I absorbed it when younger – perhaps because much of how I did so was via its later twentieth century manifestation, the rock star myth… no surprise that Orpheus, the most ancient image of the tragic semi-divine rock star, puts in an appearance among these paintings. (As I write this post, I keep feeling I'm about to slide into lines from mystical-Britpop comic Phonogram, here more than ever.) In my teens there were many spiky female characters around in music: PJ Harvey, Björk, Justine Frischmann, Courtney Love, Louise Wener – besides which no-one (until people on the internet, by which time I was in my thirties and didn't much care) had ever said I wasn't supposed to identify with men as well. I've noticed in retrospect that a couple of men, exes who were very strong examples of this Romanticist type, probably didn't see me as quite the same type of creature as them, in the way that I felt I was. (It took reading Alan Hollinghurst, by showing its absence for his characters, to make me notice how much conventionally gendered rubbish is present with some people, even if you don't think it is at first or second glance, and even if they are not particularly conforming themselves.) The authors of Rebels and Martyrs – I'm actually going to talk about the book for a bit – state that in the late nineteenth century, the association of artistic genius with men increased, in response to the New Women seeing independence and education outside the home. (Though – not mentioned here - one could, as Gertrude Stein did slightly later, see oneself as not, or not entirely, a woman and thereby feel allowed in this club. The authors cite the Goncourts: “there are no women of genius; the women of genius are men”.) There are a few self-portraits by female artists in the book, and their interpretation – or the gap between interpretation and intention – is far more fascinatingly layered than of those by male artists. It's pretty damn obvious what most of those guys mean, because it's congruent with so much since, not least with a good few examples of rock photography. The Blue Room by Suzanne Valadon is to contemporary eyes packed with class-related associations of obesity, smoking and being seen in public in pyjamas; she could also be a character from a comedy, or, given her intent gaze, a humorous ad for a pay TV service. The luxurious bedding fabrics and awnings suggest that subgenre of sitcom scene or dream sequence in which a female character is waited on by stereotypically hunky, oiled young men during an expensive holiday. Yet none of these associations would have been there in 1923: with the layers stripped away, she is satirising the poses of slim, pretty artists' models in famous paintings (pre-Lucien Freud); smoking then coded as masculine, not to mention the trousers; pyjamas were still cool and daring. It continues to be challenging as an image of An Artist – simply in different ways. Paula Modersohn-Becker wrote of herself in her letters in modes then primarily associated with men ('my Sturm und Drang period' &c, taking herself just as seriously as male artists did themselves) – the sort of thing which twentysomethings writing on twenty-first century US literary websites for some reason still seem to think are difficult for women to do, although not a few did so in the twentieth century with less consciousness of gender than these youngsters. (Presumably just not anyone they read…) Modersohn-Becker created this self-portrait with inspiration from a long history of semi-nude self portraits by wild young male artists. But even as someone who understands that mode of thinking and creating, seeing where she's coming from as soon as it's explained in words, who can easily imagine the thought process that gets one there - I still must admit it's far from the first thing I think of when seeing the picture sans commentary. I would have assumed it was a male artist's wife: of I could imagine women painting pictures, but I didn't think of them painting anything other than house interior walls whilst pregnant. (She also wasn't pregnant when she painted it: the pregnancy actually symbolises a physical embodiment of creativity, in parallel to the way quite a few male writers and artists regarded sperm as 'creative juice' with mystical properties.) Contemporary associations are female celebrities posing for magazines whilst pregnant, the question of whether a leftfield female performer is dumbing down by getting her kit off, or a row of 'real women' in a magazine feature - themselves mostly a part of a visual conversation about body image and soft porn, almost never connected with any aesthetic idea about male nudes. (Though male toplessness also now has a much greater association with body image concerns, advertising and porn that than once it did.) There is another Modersohn-Becker self-portrait on the cover of the NYRB Classics edition of Skylark; for a few years I'd thought of that picture as the epitome of all I dislike in the messy post-impressionist jackets typical of NYRB; whilst I still don't much like the style, I think I like the artist as a person: the cover now reads a portrait unfairly repurposed to represent a meek character very different from the personality of its creator-subject.
I can see, intellectually, that the artist as Romantic hero was an idea that began in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and that before that art was predominantly an endeavour in the service of aristocratic patrons - but I simply can't understand or feel how to look at the world without it. I can't help remembering earlier figures who fit the myth, like François Villon, or thinking about the idea of 'compromising an artistic vision'… I don't have the books around to check to what extent this was relevant in the Renaissance; I'd have known once, have forgotten, but might interpret differently now anyway. We see it in old folk tales about lovers – but those were viewed differently once, it's said. But by everyone? Wasn't it more complicated than that? In saying this meme arose in Europe in the nineteenth century, and that things were different before, the commentators don't put enough into that discussion for my satisfaction, only: as has long been demonstrated, the idea of the artist as a melancholic outsider has distant origins. This is after all an exhibition catalogue, not a study of Romanticism and/or the idea of the artist through European history. It's not what they set out to do, though it is what I want to know. Perhaps the magnitude of the thought-experiment I attempted in trying to imagine a world without any of these ideas in it was too great, because perhaps a lot of them actually were present to a lesser degree. It's just that they weren't mainstream – the idea that most artists should be independent and non-materialistic, or that you had to be that way to be a 'proper' artist. And perhaps the artist was not such a compelling figure: there aren't, so far as I know, slews of 350+ year old tales and ballads about girls running off with poor yet brilliant minstrels (that sounds like recently composed historical fiction), nor painters as lead characters in Renaissance and Jacobean plays. I'd need to read something else to find this out… about this the book tantalised me....more