Romanticism and rebellion

Posted by Helen Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Unfortunately the National Gallery exhibition, Rebels and Martyrs – The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century closed yesterday and Tory Historian, preoccupied with other matters, did not manage to see it until the last day.

The verdict: so-so. Some very nice pictures that we do not get to see very often, such as paintings by the Nabis group (though nothing by the Pre-Raphaelites who, though active later, had somewhat similar ideas) and a certain amount of information.

It is the information I have issues with. It was inadequate and unoriginal. Something like this: up to the second half of the eighteenth century artists were perceived to be little more than craftsmen and spent most of their time trying to rise in society. At that point, partly under the influence of the French Revolution and partly of new romantic ideas the concept of the artist and, particularly, the poet as a solitary genius outside society and misunderstood by it, was born. The artist no longer had ambitions within society but beyond it. This developed through the nineteenth century, taking different forms, such as the bohemian and the dandy, eventually acquiring the strange, almost mad attributes of the surrealist, the Secessionist and other ists of the twentieth century. Throughout all this, the artist was also seen as the martyr, tortured by the uncomprehending bourgeois society that also held the purse strings and the narrow-minded critic. Naturally, this artistic angst was linked to rebellion and left-wing politics.

That is a reasonable summary but leaves out rather a lot. For instance, what happened to irony? Is it not ironic that artists should profess to have ambitions beyond society and yet suffer so acutely when society misunderstood? The irony deepened with those artists who became quite successful. Some analysis along those lines would have been very welcome.

Then there is the question of politics. Undoubtedly, some artists, like Gustave Courbet became involved in left-wing politics, particularly the various French revolutions that culminated in the Paris Commune of 1870. But romanticism, as such, the precursor of all this rebellion and martyrdom was not necessarily on the left. Quite the opposite.

The romantics of the early nineteenth century in Europe were rebels against the ideas of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Bonapartist regime. Though Napoleon himself became the idol of a number of them, the ideology he represented was alien.

Romanticism is individualistic; it emphasises individual people and nations – the precise opposite of the Enlightenment and of the French Revolutionary ideology that saw all development as one and all individuals as necessarily submissive to the Will of the People.

It is not coincidental that Romanticism placed so much emphasis on history with many of the artists, far from being forward looking and left-wing, turning their backs on the modern world. Even those who did not, looked at national history, at the differences between nations, at the need to keep those differences going. A very backward, conservative idea.

The left-wing aspect of Romanticism developed partially later on, as a response to the Treaty of Vienna and the European order established in the years after it. The nationalists of the 1830s and 1840s may have seemed radical but were, in fact, often harking back to an older order when their countries were independent and they had rights that had been destroyed by greater powers.

In other words, the concept of the Romantic Artist is a deal more complicated than the straightforward summary that the exhibition tried to convey. As it happens, Tory Historian also managed to see one of Sir Carol Reed’s superlative films made during the Second World War: “The Young Mr Pitt”. Robert Donat, acting with his usual under-stated sincerity, made William Pitt the Younger into a romantic hero, who sacrifices first his chance of happiness, then, effectively, his life for his country and the ideal of liberty.

The film itself purveyed another concept of Romanticism – liberty. The country that was fighting for it under Pitt and under Churchill, when the film was made, was Britain. What an irony for all those Continental Romantics.


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