The artist looks us in the eyes, or is he looking at himself? I am inclined to think both, especially after rereading Rudolf and Margot Wittkower’s book about the character and conduct of artists. Born Under Saturn (1969) is packed with anecdotes about artists from ancient times to the late 18th century, and it reads like a summer bestseller. The authors describe how the world has looked at artists and how artists have viewed their own behaviour.The picture they present is complex, but there are a few constants that still clearly apply today. For instance, artists surprisingly often take, and are granted, great social liberties, whether that means odd clothing, eccentric behaviour, or Messianic tendencies. Of course, to get away with this, the artist in question must possess talent. Traditionally, it is considered more impressive when the signs of talent manifest early and compulsively, refusing to be suppressed. In the Renaissance, artists were admired when the furore dell’arte was visible in their work. The notion of the artist as a genius developed during that period; Albrecht Dürer called artistic activity 'gleichförmig Geschöpf nach Gott', thus comparing himself to God creating the first man. And what are we to think of El Greco, who is said to have broken an arm off a crucifix and used it as a brush so that his painting would have extraordinary power? The artist astounds his audience, is greater than his audience, is a driven man, privy to a higher order of things unfamiliar to us, and he exerts his power through his work, which earns him a special place in society.
We are still influenced by many of these old stereotypes, and it pleases us to think that misunderstood geniuses will come to be appreciated in the end, but we also admire artists who are men of business, who know how to establish an empire and turn their work into a successful brand. But when artists truly touch us, it is by showing us the world in an unfamiliar light, just as a scientist teaches us unfamiliar facts.
Artists are still looking at us and still looking at themselves. Today's artists, like those of the past, want to share their insights with us. Whether they impress us with their humility or dazzle us with their bravura, they always show us sides of life that we did not think were possible. Art is an inexhaustible source of insight, and one that constantly renews itself. To be sure, pride still goes before a fall, but I feel incredibly blessed that there are artists who dare to move beyond the limits and confront us with their unprecedented visions.
Evert van Straaten
(Image left: Scipione Pulzone (il Gaetano), 1542 – 1598, right: Charley Toorop, 1891 - 1955)