Sunday, November 05, 2006

Art Review : Rebels and Martyrs - The Image of the Artist in the 19th Century (National Gallery 23/08/06)

The initial premise of this thoughtful, low-key summer exhibition is to show how the self-image of the artist evolved over the course of the 19th Century from that of the highly-skilled artisan in the days before Sir Joshua Reynolds to that of the Romantic hero, the tortured genius and rebel against society, as demonstrated through the self-portraits of the artists themselves.

The title is a slight misnomer - whilst the main focus of the exhibition is of the Artist as Outsider, cut off from decent society by his genius, his poverty or his Bohemian way of living, there is also a section on the artist as Dandy or Flaneur as typified by Fantin-Latour's exquisite portrait of Manet in top-hat and tails. Yet even this was a conscious statement, reflecting the "cult of self" written about by Baudelaire in "The Painter of Modern Life". This self-conscious pose was exemplified by artists such as Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Whistler.

The exhibition rescues the struggling artst from the realms of cliche, and embeds him firmly within the philosophical movements of the 19th Century. For the first time - possibly with the exception of Rembrandt - the artist is representing himself as an individual rather than as an artisan-producer of works on demand for clients. The emergence of this Romantic sense of the Individual is a key theme of the exhibition.

Whilst the works on display are seldom of the highest order, they have been selected for what they show, not how they show it. The result is often unfamiliar, and, in the case of Victor Emil Janssen's "Self-Portrait with Easel", or Paula Modersohn-Becker's "Self-Portrait on her Sixth Wedding Anniversary", exceptionally striking. Overall, they contribute to a low-key but intelligent, well-constructed exhibition.

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