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August 14, 2006

Christopher Peachment ask, why do people - when they start to describe themselves as artists - have to start behaving as egomaniacal emotional vampires? - Rebels & Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century at the National Gallery

Posted by Christopher Peachment

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)

The main reason for seeing this exhibition at the National would be for the large number of previously unseen pictures from lesser-known artists, which have been ferreted out from museums around Europe. Many are from Germany, and German art has been poorly represented in this country.

One example is the most striking painting of the show. I had not come across the painter Richard Gerstl before, and little of his work survives. But his self-portrait (1904) has a startling power of arrest which stops you dead in your tracks and insists upon careful scrutiny. He stands four-square to the viewer, naked but for a towel wrapped round his waist, and painfully thin. He is still very young, perhaps in his early 20s, and the painting reveals various technical faults which must be the result of lack of experience. His handling of paint is still tentative. The head is too small for his frame, malnourished though it is. The background is no more than a daubed field of green, though in appealing variations of tone, which provide a halo effect around the body. The hands are skimpy.

It is the intensity of gaze which pulls you up short. He stands there in mute interrogation, and while it is difficult to read exactly what that expression is saying, still he seems to be demanding a response. The exhibition notes suggest that he is representing himself as a suffering Christ figure. But, as the National Gallery's website reveals, the man was Jewish. To suggest that he identified with Christ, because of the anti-Semitism prevalent in Vienna at the time, seems unlikely.

In iconographic terms the figure recalls nothing from the history of Christ's poses in art. The one picture of Christ it does remind me of is Piero Della Francesca's famous Resurrection, but only for the stark gaze of the man. Piero's Christ is posed triumphantly risen, one foot raised and planted firmly on the tomb, and, like most resurrected Christs in art, one hand clutching a flag pole. Gerstl's pose is too simple to be Christ-like. Although he wouldn't be the first artist to see himself as God.

Elsewhere in the show is an amusing send-up of the Romantic pose of the artist as misunderstood outsider. Painted in 1840, at the height of bohemian life in Paris later depicted in Puccini's La Boheme, Leonardo Alenza y Nieto's picture shows an artist poised high on a crag, leaning at a vertiginous angle over the edge. The painting is plainly influenced by Goya, both in its style and in the horrors that it guys. Round the artist's neck is a noose, tightly held. His other hand holds a knife, poised to plunge into his chest. He is in other words committing suicide in three different ways at once. In the background is a hanged man, and another on the ground who seems to have blown his brains out. It is very funny, and one can't help but wonder whether Gerstl had ever seen it.

Because in 1908, he killed himself in front of a mirror with a butcher's knife, and a noose tight around his neck. He had never achieved recognition and had destroyed most of his work. He epitomises the type, which the show delineates, of the young tortured genius, driven to death by an uncaring philistine bourgeoisie.

Chatterton the boy poet would be another classic example of this type, here represented, in the famous painting by Henry Wallis, dying unfed and unloved in his garret. But, unlike Chatterton, Gerstl had talent.

Elsewhere, there is plenty to enjoy. Courbet's self-portrait in the famous Bonjour Monsieur Courbet looks more like a happy hill-walker than a man marked by angst and neglect. Indeed, far from showing himself as tormented, he has portrayed himself in a puffed-up promotion for the artist as the only true man of substance. As critics at the time pointed out, of the three figures he is the only man worthy of a shadow. The other two men, art dealer and servant, are bowed in gestures of obeisance. Even the dealer's dog looks at Courbet as if he were the master.

He did portray a more bohemian despair in his self-portrait in The Desperate Man in which he is clutching at his hair, his face wide-eyed with horror, staring wildly at the viewer from what, by clever distortion, looks like an inch from your nose. You get the same uncomfortable feeling as when a drunk thrusts his face into yours.

There is Pissaro's portrait of the unkempt Cezanne. There are works by Degas, Delacroix, Beardsley and all the other usual suspects. But what proved the chief delight of the show were the many lesser works from the likes of Pujol, Janssen, Lovis Corinth, and Thomas Couture, which were a pleasure to encounter for the first time. Couture, who also sends up the whole concept of romantic agony with The Realist, shows the artist in his studio, ignoring a classical bust of Apollo by sitting on it, and drawing instead a severed pig's head.

Lovis Corinth, far from being destitute, thwarted, or misunderstood, portrays himself like a rock star, standing proud, with a naked young woman attached like a limpet to his chest. Not much torment or abstinence there.

Nor in Rodin's startling torso of Balzac - which sports a fine erection, which its owner is handling. Balzac was proud of his fierce sexuality and, like many painters and writers, thought it related to his artistic fecundity.

All of which gives rise to further reflections on just what it is that drives artists to consider themselves as special, in the self-centred way that they still do to this day. I have known many visual artists, four female ones quite closely, and every single one of them demanded the sort of treatment which one would normally reserve only for the very young or the very old. A demand for unconditional acceptance, a denial of any responsibility towards others, a refusal to do anything as bourgeois as wash, clean or cook, were just some of their characteristics.

It took a little while to realise that far worse than any of this was the emotional vampirism. As far as that goes, it is always take and no give from artists. It's not hard to spot an artist. Just look for the trail of damaged partners and family behind them. And all of this is justified by their being an artist. Or rather by them calling themselves "artists". Not whether they were any good as an artist, or whether their work was recognised as art, or whether they had ever finished any work at all. Just "being an artist", as if this occupation had been singled by God as the only occupation to which no rules of adult behaviour apply.

Nowadays they have also woken up to the fact that being an unheard-of outsider, starving alone in a studio in Hoxton, will not get them the attention they need. In our celebrity culture, it is now necessary to network.

Bad potters get personal columns in newspapers, in which they discuss their cross-dressing habits. Bad installation artists also get columns in which they talk of the amount they drank the night before, and whether they recently had sex, as if this was of undying interest.

I remember once attending a book launch at the Polish Club, after which I caught a taxi, which had returned to the Club after dropping off a previous reveller. The taxi driver asked me:

What is a serious novelist?
I responded:
I'm not sure what you mean.
The taxi driver, naming a former Booker winner, said:
Well, I just had this bloke in the back, and I asked him what he did and he said "I'm a writer of serious novels". So what are "serious" novels then?
The question was a good one. I stumbled around trying to explain something about thrillers and sci-fi, and then something about what some people might call "serious fiction". What I should have said was that the man was being insufferable, and what he had told the driver was pretentious and self-important. Moreover his "serious" books were unreadable.

So finally, a word to artists everywhere. Stop it, stop it the lot of you. Stop behaving as if mooning around all day long agonising over something that you haven't yet begun and will never finish qualifies you as an artist. Stop proclaiming that your picture or book just invented the wheel. The best advice I ever got about writing was from Simon Raven. He said:

Find the right words and put them in the right order. And let others be the judge of whether it is art or not.
His books were often sexually lurid, in age before this became fashionable, and this counted against him with some critics who wouldn't elevate him to the realms of "serious" literature. But his prose, thanks to a Classical education, had an elegance and exactness that you won't find in any fiction writer of a later generation.

There is only one way to be a good artist. Study technique long and hard, and submit to greater wisdom, not from art schools or universities, but from previous artists. Slavishly copy your favourite writer or painter, before throwing them away. After that, behave like a grown-up, and not a whining five-year-old bore, and you might just make reasonable company. Which is more than can be said for most of the egomaniacs on display in this excellent exhibition. Very well painted egomaniacs though, and that is more than you can say for most modern egomaniacs.

Christopher Peachment is the author of Caravaggio: A Novel (Picador, 2002) and The Green and The Gold (Picador, 2003). He has been Film Editor at Time Out and Arts and Books Editor at The Times.

To read Lilian Pizzichini's take on this exhibition see: Lilian Pizzichini considers the artist as rebel and martyr - Rebels & Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century at the National Gallery.

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