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Lives of the Painters

Born Under Saturn

by Rudolf Wittkower, by Margot Wittkower
Random House, 344, 89 illus. pp., $7.50

In popular opinion and to the psychoanalyst artists are a special class of human beings with psychological peculiarities connected with their calling. Have they become artists because of these traits or have they acquired these traits from their practice of art? Are these peculiarities universal or do they arise from modern circumstances, from the aims of art in our society and the recently developed social situation? Is the current conception of The Artist perhaps only a stereotype based on a few painters whose strange lives have impressed public imagination? Or does it represent an ideology created by the artists, a self-picture that sets them apart and justifies certain liberties and demands?

These are some of the questions that the authors of Born Under Saturn try to answer. Their book differs from most approaches to these problems by their historical method. They have read the old texts about Western artists and have extracted from the enormous mass of evidence an enthralling story of the changing behavior, fortunes, and ideas of artists through the centuries, and in a sober critical spirit have tested the common notions about artists in the light of these documents.

Whatever the value of their conclusions, the book is fascinating to read because of the abundant quotations which bring to life so many remarkable individuals. Ever since the fifteenth century the painters, sculptors, and architects have attracted the attention of observers who have left us accounts of artists of extraordinary character. And the artists themselves have, in letters and diaries, exposed directly their intimate thoughts and feelings. Some of the material comes from the records of the Italian courts—the testimony concerning artist-defendants in lawsuits or criminal trials. Stories of violence, murder, rape, theft, jealousy, madness, and suicide; anecdotes of the most bizarre eccentricity; convincing praise of angelic personalities of a rare serenity and noble nature; profound reflections by artists on the problems of their art—these are reproduced here from the surviving texts in vigorous translations.

I shall cite one example of the kind of revelation frequent in this book. The authors quote from a life of Andrea Sacchi, a Baroque master in Rome, that

…he worked with an uneasy mind; knowing perfectly well the difference between the good and the better, he was never content.

When some friends of his reproached him for his laziness and asked the reason for his being so slow in his work, he answered. “Because Raphael and Annibale Caracci frighten me and make me lose heart.” And he added that it was the great misfortune of his time not to have friends with whom he could discuss the difficulties inherent in the painter’s profession and that this was due to one of two reasons: men were either unaware of these difficulties or, being aware, did not wish to talk about them.

From another source we learn that “although he spent whole days without touching a brush, he kept on working until the very end of his days.”

At the risk of simplifying, I shall summarize the more important conclusions drawn by the Wittkowers from their study of the records.

For the Greeks and Romans and in the Middle Ages the artist was, with few exceptions, an artisan and, as a member of the lower classes, was not respected even though his work was admired. During the fifteenth century, when he became something of a scientist and a scholar, his situation changed. To realize his new conceptions he had to know anatomy, geometry, and perspective as well as classical literature and art. Armed with this knowledge and aspiring to a noble ideal of beauty and truth, he came to be regarded as a free creative mind working from inspiration like the poet. Ideas, moods, and ways of life connected with the primacy of the imagination were cultivated then by painters and sculptors. Until the fifteenth century the artist had been classified by the astrologers with the highly practical persons born under the sign of Mercury—the artisans, innkeepers and thieves; during the Renaissance he was placed with the poets and philosophers under the sign of Saturn and characterized by the melancholic temperament typical for creative spirits. His new status as an intellectual brought many conflicts with the guilds to which he had belonged and which had once regulated his relations with patrons; he was increasingly a free man and therefore exposed to the insecurities of his independent position. We hear much then of his obsessiveness, his “creative idleness,” solitude, and introspection, and the uncertainties of work in contrast to the organized busy life of a guild craftsman. No longer protected by a guild and not yet admitted to the upper classes, the artist was a homeless individual in the emerging competitive society. His unsatisfied longing for an honorable place led to rebelliousness and a defensive attitude, to eccentricities of conduct and a bohemian disorder. These helped to form the image of the artist in the public mind that has lasted until today. But the character-type of the artist has changed from period to period with changes in his tasks and patronage. So in the seventeenth century the model of the aristocratic worldly artist, at home in the royal courts (Bernini, Rubens, Van Dyck), replaced the preceding type of the refractory and often neurotic painter. But the many stories of crime do not distinguish the artist as a type; when considered with respect to their time and place, they are no less common in other groups. Similarly, the records of artists’ suicides fail to confirm the idea that self-destruction is especially frequent among them; in fact, fewer suicides are reported among artists than in other professions.

The Wittkowers give much attention to the belief that the personalities of artists may be discerned in their works. While admitting that every work is personal, they deny that one can infer the personality from the art. There are paintings and sculptures by mad or neurotic artists which seem perfectly sane, and by supposedly atheist artists which look sincerely devout. They distinguish therefore between what they call the “generic character” of the artists of a time—the qualities they have acquired in functioning as artists in their time and place, like the familiar character types of the courtier, priest, merchant, lawyer, and scientist—and the individual personality which includes traits that find no direct expression in the art.

In a chapter on “Genius, Madness and Melancholy,” the authors examine from this point of view, supported by close reading of the documents, the late Ernst Kris’s study on the psychotic sculptor, Messerschmidt, and find it defective in essential details. They criticize, too, the essay on Andrea del Sarto by Ernest Jones and the books on Leonardo by Freud and Kurt Eissler. In several instances the psychoanalyst has interpreted as purely personal some element of the artist’s work or behavior which is typical in his milieu. Without criticizing Freud’s theory as such, they recommend the control of psychological explanations of art and artists by a fuller knowledge of history and especially of the “generic character-types” of each period.

I agree with certain of these criticisms, but not with all the arguments that the authors bring in support—for example, their categorical statement that in “the artifacts of psychotics…(the) structure invariably falls to pieces.” I do not share their skepticism about the possible contribution of psychoanalysis to the knowledge of art—they go so far as to say that psychoanalytic study “obscures more than it clarifies historical situations.” The general problem is more complex than they seem to recognize and psychoanalysis is hardly disposed of by pointing to these failures. In the application of Freud’s ideas to the arts and to history, much depends on the range of the available facts as well as on the culture and personality of the analyst. I have found little in psychoanalytic literature on the method and logic of these studies of art. Perhaps a new impulse to self-criticism in this field will come from the thoughtful essay by Brian Farrell, published as an introduction to the new Pelican edition of Freud’s Leonardo—a reprinting of the classic work with detailed editorial notes that allow the reader to acquaint himself with Freud’s errors of fact and above all with that crucial mistake about the “vulture” that was caught by an historian of art in 1923 and was strangely ignored by Freud and his followers until the 1905’s.

The concept of “generic character-types” which, the Wittkowers suppose, correspond to style-periods like Renaissance, Mannerism, and Baroque, is not incompatible with psychoanalytic theory, at least in some formulations, even if these daring masters of free association with history sometimes confuse the personal and the cultural in behavior. The concept leaves unexplained, however, the part of exceptional individuals in the creation of new norms. What the authors describe as the generic type has been constructed from the biographies of a few artists and will hardly fit many others of the same time. In asserting that in our day “psychoanalysis has produced a new type of artist-personality with distinct characteristics of its own,” they offer as evidence some statements by painters as different as Picasso, Chagall, Baziotes, and Rothko on the subconscious or indeterminate source of their art. Conceived in such broad and ideal terms and limited to a few traits, their notion of character-type does not permit us to grasp what is distinctive in either the art or the personality of an individual. (From the examples of Rubens, Bernini, and Van Dyck, how shall one understand the quoted text about their contemporary, Sacchi?) One will grant that there is no “timeless constitutional type of artist,” and that the work of art is not “a mirror image of its creator” (what psychologist has maintained that it is?), but there remains an important if naive assumption about the correspondences of art and personality which the Wittkowers themselves do not hesitate to apply in their remarks about an artist like Pontormo and which they seem to admit in principle when they write: “Every work of art bears, of course, the personal stamp of its maker.” It is not clear to what extent they will allow inference from the characteristics of a period style to the “generic character-type” of the artists of that period.

There remains also, for both the psychologist and the historian, the question whether there are not special aptitudes of form-construction, imagination, and expression, which appear in the works of artists at all times, whatever the typical style of the age, and which have been recognized even when artists had the social status of manual workers. In tracing the passage from the pre-Renaissance craftsman-artist to the post-Renaissance genius-artist, the authors have assumed—too readily, I believe—that artists in the earlier period, because of their inferior social class, were rarely seen as creative personalities different from artisans. Before Ghiberti, they say, the artist was not “conscious of his intellectual and creative powers.” Not only was Giotto recognized during his lifetime as a great artist of sovereign versatility, but the architects of the French cathedrals, whose effigies were sculptured in their imposing constructions and inscribed with their names and praises beside the tombs of bishops and kings, were surely regarded as original artists in the modern sense and were paid more than ordinary craftsmen. In judging the culture of artists before the Renaissance, it is worth recalling that the designers of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, between classic antiquity and the Middle Ages, have also a place in the history of science as writers on mathematics and physics. The phrase of Horace that painters like poets have the audendi potestas—the power to dare—(hardly applicable to artisans) was quoted in the Middle Ages. Since early times, I’m willing to believe, some artists were thought to possess an uncanny gift beyond that of mechanical skills and akin to that of poets and thinkers, although the literary expression of this view does not appear until recently, and the description of the artist’s powers changes with the character of his art and the prevailing ideas about human nature.

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