Artists and Eccentricity

WHEN WE TALK OF BOHEMIA, we are referring to a shifting cultural phenomenon that began among the Romantics, came to dissolute bloom in the prosperity of France’s Second Empire and continued, sporadically, through the Twenties and on into the Sixties. From Thomas De Quincey (17-85-1859) to the Beat Generation, thereabouts. But eccentricity has been with us forever. No doubt there were Neanderthals who considered themselves unique and entitled to attentions unearned by their dull, plodding fellows.

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Human history is a kaleidoscope of oddities—but do they belong to the nature of artists? Rudolph Wittkower (1902-1995), preminent architectural historian of his generation, thinks not:

Mutatis mutandis these eccentricities, as varied and crazy as life itself, are to be found in other professional groups throughout history and at many periods. Most artists here mentioned [in Born Under Saturn] were more or less neurotic individuals among the large mass of entirely ‘normal’ artists and—although we have no definite way of proving it—hardly represented an unusually high percentage of the profession even if many more names were added.

Fashions in artists’ behavior existed alongside fashions in clothing. Cultivated behavior—crafted mannerisms and contrarian lifestyles—has long been a kind of identifying costume. Fashion for the nonconforming artist, having waxed and waned over the centuries, was in retreat as early as the mid-sixteenth century. Artists, it was thought, should comport themselves in such ways that they blended in with the social and intellectual elites. Vasari, in his encomium to Raphael, distinguishes him from previous artists who “had something mad and uncouth about them:”

Raphael, by contrast, was shining most brightly with all the rarest virtues of the soul accompanied by so much grace, learning, beauty, modesty, and excellent demeanour, that all this would have sufficed to cover even the worst vice and the greatest defect.

That’s going some! What I like better are the earlier words of Francisco de Hollanda (d. 1585), who ascribed this comment to Michelangelo:

People spread a thousand pernicious lies about famous painters. They are strange, solitary, and unbearable, it is said, while in fact they are not different from other human beings. Only silly people believe that they are fantasticos e fanteoses—eccentric and capricious.

Reaction against the artist-as-eccentric was nicely stated by Giovan Battista Armenini, a painter trained in Rome in the early 1550s:

An awful habit has developed among common folk and even among the educated, to whom it seems natural that a painter of the highest distinction must show signs of some ugly and nefarious vice allied with a capricious and eccentric temperament, springing from his abstruse mind. And the worst is that many ignorant artists believe themselves to be very exceptional by affecting melancholy and eccentricity.

Think of that next time you are at a downtown party—and this is the season for them—where the room is full of people dressed to prove they were Born for Creativity.

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© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey