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July 24, 2006

Lilian Pizzichini considers the artist as rebel and martyr - Rebels & Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century at the National Gallery

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Rebels & Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century
National Gallery, London
28th June - 28th August 2006
Daily 10am - 6pm (Wednesdays until 9pm)

Do you remember a picture (for indeed it is a picture!) written by the most powerful pen of this age and entitled The Man of the Crowd? Sitting in a cafe, and looking through the shop window, a convalescent is enjoying the sight of the passing crowd, and identifying himself in thought with all the thoughts that are moving around him. He has only recently come back from the shades of death and breathes in with delight all the spores and odours of life; as he has been on the point of forgetting everything, he remembers and passionately wants to remember everything. In the end he rushes out into the crowd in search of a man unknown to him whose face, which he had caught sight of, had in a flash fascinated him. Curiosity had become a compelling, irresistible passion. Now imagine an artist perpetually in the spiritual condition of the convalescent, and you will have the key to the character of [The Man of the Crowd].

Baudelaire, from The Painter of Modern Life

An exhibition of artists posing as rebels and martyrs only really gets going when the French and an Austrian get in on the act. Neither of them are rebels or martyrs, but they hail from the tradition of artist as outsider. Instead of suffering for their apartness, they celebrate it.

The Austrian is Egon Schiele - tortured, vulnerable, and definitely asking for it - one of the most complex and challenging self-portraitists of the 20th century. The French include Manet and the poet Baudelaire whose thoughts on the processes of the Modern Artist are quoted above. Manet's Music in Tuileries Gardens (1862) shows himself and Baudelaire standing in the sidelines of a summer concert in a public park, observing a scene of urban gaiety. Paris's public spaces came about as a result of the new Paris being built by Baron Haussmann. Broad, clean avenues replaced the intricate web of tiny streets, linking the great train stations with the wide avenues. The new bourgeois class wanted to live, work and play in the centre of the city, to enjoy the privileges of theatres, museums, libraries and department stores. Haussmann gave them what they wanted. Baudelaire, who called Manet "the Painter of Modern Life", wrote about the city crowds, and the artist who painted them:

This will be the painter, the true painter who will show us how great and poetic we are, in our cravats and shiny boots.
Artists show us ourselves but they cannot resist showing themselves, too. So Artist as Dandy/Flaneur, a stylized version of ourselves, but one who has recovered from the anxiety of his own insight, is how the modern artists portrayed themselves. They weren't alone in recognizing that state of having returned from the dead. Virginia Woolf once wrote on the subject of convalescence, as did Charles Lamb. Artists whose guiding spirit, their creative energy, often drove them insane knew about this curious state of outward passivity and mute absorption. It is not only themselves they are ingesting, it is all of us. The pressure goes to their heads.

It is that moment of inspiration, that headrush of excited focus and intent attention that separates the artist's frenzy of enlightenment from ratiocination. The Enlightenment, with its graceful, measured prose, gave way to Romantic whooshes of insight, in turn propelled by the fast-moving events of industrialization.

Back to the beginning and Room One shows us Sir Joseph Reynolds in a Self-Portrait c. 1779-80, looking like Rembrandt. He wears a beret, and the rich colouring of his gown, the deep shadows from which he emerges echo Rembrandt's vision of himself. Next to him is a bust of Michelangelo. Reynolds is neither rebel nor martyr, he is Establishment, quoting the Great Masters, whose line he follows, and dressed in the robes of a Doctor of Civil Law.

It takes James Barry, in his Self-Portrait, c. 1780, to set himself apart from that Establishment. He painted this while working on a cycle of history paintings for the Great Room of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in London. He depicts his grey skin, baggy eyes, unkempt hair and shabby jacket, with all the poignancy of a man who cannot pay his bills. The disillusionment and fatigue are there - this is a man who has suffered for his art. He wasn't paid for his cycle of history paintings, though the reviews were good.

Gustave Courbet ups the tempo with his Self-Portrait ("The Desperate Man") c. 1843. The agony is there to such an extent, the effect is almost comic. The torment of creative genius is shown in wild eyes, marble skin, a foxy beard and rouged cheeks. The hands that grip his hair, though, are real, the veins bulging with adrenalin. Fuseli, more subtly, in Self-Portrait Study, c. 1780-90, explores the world of his own unconscious, making no reference to status (as did Reynolds) or trade but focuses on his internal resources, hands hugging his face, with a troubled gaze and downcast mouth. His attitude is that of Melancholy, a humour associated with creativity. This is self-scrutiny, not self-consciousness.

Delacroix places this mood in a classical context. Ovid among the Scythians (1859) is an allegorial representation of the artist creating great works among uncomprehending peoples. This feeling of being unappreciated had been going on for centuries. He reinforces it with Tasso in the Hospital of St Anne, Ferrara, 1824. A lone, sane figure is surrounded by uncomprehending lunatics.

As the public appetite caught up with the Romantic artist's posturing, bohemia became a selling point. And so we're back with the French - whose depictions of themselves as martyrs, rebels, dandies, etc, are legion. But some artists still didn't fit in. Aubrey Beardsley, in Portrait of Himself in Bed, 1894, was a dandy but he shows himself hiding under the proverbial duvet, a tiny figure dwarfed by his quilt and a big-breasted satyress dangling from the bed frame. It was part of Beardsley's pose to baffle the world. He is a kind of precursor to the conceptual artist. In effect, he was hiding from the world - that sense of apartness again, one which the French contended with so gracefully. As with all the dandies who love to confound the rest of us, Beardsley displayed his angst in his appearance as well as in his work.

The agony for Egon Schiele was not just that of being an artist, but that of being human. Any human being who relentlessly exposes his or her self to intense scrutiny will undergo some kind of journey into the dark. Artists come back and tell us about it. Sometimes, we don't want to hear about it. The outsider is a threat to society. The exhibition ends with Schiele's Self-Portrait as a Nude, 1912. He is vulnerable, exposed, but asserting his sexuality. His outstretched arms (and there have been plenty of artists in this show being Christ-like - Van Gogh does it the best, because he is horrified at his own self-pity) invite the viewer to indulge in voyeuristic prurience. He shows with his nakedness (no robes, no allegories, not a paint brush or a city crowd in sight) that line between vulnerability and posturing that has been trod by so many artists.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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