- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

LONDON — From Lord Byron to Sid Vicious, artists have lived fast, sparked outrage and died young.

A new exhibition opening Wednesday at Britain’s National Gallery traces the image of the artist as rebellious loner from its Romantic roots through works by Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Edgar Degas and others.

Co-curator Alexander Sturgis says “Rebels and Martyrs” explores “the romantic myth of the genius suffering artist” that arose in the early 19th century and is still going strong 200 years later.

The unmade bed that bears the corpse of boy-poet Thomas Chatterton — a suicide at 17 — in Henry Wallis’ 19th-century portrait prefigures the messy-bed installation that made Brit art star Tracy Emin famous in the 1990s. The pale skin, disheveled hair and staring eyes in self-portraits by Gustave Courbet and Alexandre Abel de Pujol are echoed in elegantly wasted rock stars from Keith Richards to Pete Doherty.

In art, everyone loves a bad boy — or a wild woman.

The show demonstrates that this was not always the case. The exhibition opens with a room full of solid, sober 18th-century self-portraits by artists who desperately wanted to be part of the establishment and set up self-regulating bodies such as Britain’s Royal Academy to protect their status.

By century’s end, more romantic notions were taking hold. Artists often depicted themselves as lone geniuses, ostracized by society but fired by an inner flame. In one of the show’s most striking self-portraits, French painter Courbet stares at the viewer, wide-eyed and tousled, looking for all the world like an emotional Johnny Depp.

Mr. Sturgis says the works in the show express a belief that “it is the fierce individuality of the artists that is the wellspring of art.”

This notion was partly a reaction against the 18th-century’s Enlightenment philosophy, with its emphasis on rationality and science — replaced, Mr. Sturgis says, by “an emphasis on the spiritual, the intuitive, the internal.”

Partly, he said, the cause was economic. When the growing middle class replaced state and church as the main buyers of art, “artists became much less secure. The poor, struggling artist was an economic reality.”

The show brings together an eclectic collection of more than 70 paintings and sculptures, many of them on loan, that range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Wallis’ iconic picture of Chatterton sits next to a satirical painting by Leonardo Alenza in which a demented artist prepares to hurl himself off a cliff — even in the 19th century, the self-important artist was a ripe source of humor.

As the bohemian image of the artist took root, even the most successful depicted themselves as outsiders, or likened themselves to tormented mythic or historical figures. The gallery’s exhibition includes Camille Pissarro’s portrait of Paul Cezanne, bearded and dressed in peasant coat and hat. Eugene Delacroix’s mammoth “Ovid Among the Scythians” shows “the artist in exile, surrounded by barbarian hordes who don’t understand him.”

The works span the 19th century and nudge the 20th century — there’s a 1903 portrait by the young Pablo Picasso of his friend, Angel Fernandez de Soto.

For some artists, the pressure of being an outsider proved unbearable.

The exhibition contains two works by Paul Gauguin and Van Gogh, painted in the same year, in which each artist likens his own agonies to those of Jesus Christ. Gauguin’s “Agony in the Garden” shows a suffering Christ with the artist’s own features. In Van Gogh’s “Pieta After Delacroix,” the pale, dead figure of Christ has the red hair and beard of the painter.

Van Gogh, with his breakdowns and ear-severing, remains for many the epitome of the tortured artist. But he was far from the last. Mr. Sturgis says the image of the tormented outsider “is fantastically persistent — and now frustratingly difficult to see behind.”

“We can’t look at Rembrandt or Caravaggio except through post-Romantic glasses. Caravaggio was forever trying to get a knighthood, but we see him as this romantic rebel.”

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