ART REVIEW Christopher Lloyd
Anyone setting out to see Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century should be aware that the exhibition is at the National Gallery, and not next door at the National Portrait Gallery where it really belongs. The directors of these two institutions should coordinate their programmes better. After all, it was only a short time ago that the National Portrait Gallery organised a not unrelated exhibition of artists’ self-portraits.
That said, Rebels and Martyrs is a fascinating and absorbing display. There are some surprises, too, particularly the remarkable self-portraits by Victor Emil Janssen, Gustave Courbet (subtitled “The Desperate Man”– a late arrival and not included in the catalogue), Alexandre Abel de Pujol and Paula ModersohnBecker.
The subject of the artist in the 19th century is a wide-ranging one. Previous centuries had seen a gradual change in the status of artists from the medieval craftsmen associated with guilds to the Academies of the 17th and 18th centuries. By this time artists had won for themselves a more formal position in society. To a certain extent it was the rigid hierarchy imposed by the Academies that artists reacted against during the 19th century and that resulted in the avant-garde movement.
There is no shortage of material, therefore, for this exhibition. To stand apart from society was to possess the freedom for originality and to create the space in which artistic genius could flourish. Certain artists in history were seen as exemplars – Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo – and the mythologies that clustered around them became subjects for paintings by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Eugène Delacroix among others. There are several examples in the exhibition and they are interesting as representations of association or of iden tification. But the principal characteristic of artists in the 19th century was one of self-absorption, or, to be brutal, outright egoism. This comes across in several ways: the cultivation of bohemianism, the paradoxical desire to be accepted by society and yet at the same time to expect the right to deviate from its standards, and the creation of the myth that artists eschewed quotidian concerns, preferring to concentrate on higher spiritual truths. To assist the visitor the National Gallery has arranged the paintings in seven sections with titles such as Romantic Myths, Bohemia, The Dandy and Flâneur, Creativity and Sexuality. Some of the contrasts between these sections are telling. For example, on entering the exhibition you are confronted by selfportraits of Sir Joshua Reynolds in academic robes and Alexander Roslin bedecked in a royal order, whereas on leaving you contemplate Lovis Corinth as the forceful male artist with a subservient female model and Jacek Malczewski as the angst-ridden artist overwhelmed by a powerful female muse. Similarly, and even more revealingly, Elizabeth VigéeLebrun’s self-portrait beguiles the viewer in the first room in which she shows herself wearing a hat and bedecked in all her finery in contrast with ModersohnBecker’s self-portrait at the end in which she is stripped to the waist and heavily pregnant. Actually, Modersohn-Becker was not in that particular condition at that date and had left her husband. The purpose of the portrait was to symbolise her creative genius.
On a different basis the bare, modest studio of the intensely absorbed Caspar David Friedrich painted by George Friedrich Kersting is far removed from the elegant clutter and nonchalant pose of James Tissot in his studio as recorded by Edgar Degas. The readiness with which artists identified themselves with religious imagery reaches a climax in the l890s. Taking their lead from Albrecht Dürer, painters as varied as Gauguin, Van Gogh, Ensor, Munch and Hodler all saw themselves as martyrs to art – misunderstood geniuses born under Saturn, prone to misanthropy and suicidal tendencies.
Rebels and Martyrs balances out images of self-promotion with those representing the fear of failure. What is intriguing, however, is the degree of artistic self-consciousness in the 19th century – a trend that is still evident in the cavortings of the likes of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin or Grayson Perry today.