‘Rebels and Martyrs’ at the National Gallery

I went to Rebels and Martyrs at the National today. Note to curators: white writing on mid-grey walls is just fucking annoying. I started wishing I’d picked up one of the folders with large-print writing for the poorly sighted because I was having to squint to read the info next to the paintings.

Having vented that particular annoyance: I’m afraid I can’t get very excited about the exhibition itself, either. To quote the NG:

The artist as a rebel battling against society, a tortured and misunderstood genius, has a powerful hold on our collective imagination.

This exhibition traces the development of this idea, from the birth of Romanticism through to the early 20th century and the avant-garde.

Bringing together works by many of the great artists of the period, including Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Rodin, Picasso and Schiele, it explores how they responded to Romantic ideas about creativity and deliberately cast themselves as outsiders and visionaries.

So it was basically a parade of artists portraying themselves and their friends as visionaries, tortured souls, bohemians, dandies, flâneurs, martyrs and prophets. The trouble with grouping together paintings whose common theme is the vanity and posturing of the artists is that all the pictures seem lessened by the context. There were some very fine pieces in the show, but somehow the theming discouraged you from seeing them as individual paintings; instead they all seemed like symptoms.

The portrayal of artists in C19th art should be an interesting and worthy subject for an exhibition, but it just felt like a focussing-in on an unattractive aspect of the artistic culture. Even though it was theoretically putting the individual works in a broader cultural context, somehow it just felt reductive.

On a more positive note, their next exhibition is Velasquez, which I’m really looking forward to. And since I’ve been on a Rembrandt kick lately, after looking at all those C19th poseurs, I popped round to see the NG’s Rembrandts again. Fuck me, they’re good.


It’s not that I think the artists were less admirable because they occasionally produced rather self-serving work. These [self]portraits are only a small part of their output, and not generally the most important part. That’s the problem with the exhibition; not that the observations it makes are untrue, but that the selectiveness is unfair on the artists as individuals. It demonstrates the ways in which the caricature is true without touching on all the ways that it is partial.


The caricature is at the expense of everything that makes the artists interesting. Perhaps it’s the antithesis of what makes them interesting.

3 replies on “‘Rebels and Martyrs’ at the National Gallery”

tortured artists – gah!

hypothetical question:
what would happen if an artist deliberately casts himself as a sensible, well-adjusted, happy individual who just happens to be uncannily wise about human nature and the ways of the world?

I don’t think they even need to be uncannily wise about anything other than how to apply paint to canvas. And if they are uncannily wise about that, I’ll forgive them any amount of posturing.

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