The artist as outsider?

    That certainly seems to be the principle on which the Royal Academy is built, and it is also the compelling subtext that meanders like the River Po through Rebels & Martyrs. Fittingly, the opening painting here is a gloriously pompous self-portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the RA, who looks down at us from the pedestal of his own sense of importance while comparing himself with Rembrandt on the one hand and Michelangelo on the other. This he does by sporting a Rembrandty beret over his grumpy face and by leaning against a table on which stands a painted bust of Michelangelo. The plush red robes Reynolds wears are apparently the apparel of a doctor of civil law, an honorary degree bestowed upon him by Oxford University in 1773. As you know, it is rule number one of public life that toadies always accept degrees they have not earned.

    Taking Reynolds’s position as its starting point, Rebels & Martyrs lightly investigates this curious paradox at the heart of the artistic condition: the simultaneous artistic urge to rebel and to belong. One of the show’s strong points, and there are many, is the widening of its net to include various unfamiliar artists from unexpected places. Among the grandest flaunters of honours introduced to us in the first room are the Swedish court painter Alexander Roslin, who, in 1790, plumped for some gorgeously embroidered gold silk to best show off the Swedish Royal Order of the Vasa around his neck; and Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, from Denmark, who paints the sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen in the black robes of the Roman Academy of St Luke, with two showy crosses dangling on his chest, the Danish and Neapolitan orders of chivalry.

    There’s a decent laugh to be had watching, and sensing the self-importance of, these artistic peacocks strutting across the creativity zone at the start of the 19th century. But I’m not sure this exhibition deliberately set out to highlight the desperate appetite for gongs, knighthoods and honorary degrees that afflicts artists at the fashionable top of their profession. Rather, I suspect, the aim here was to indicate from the off what the rebels ahead were rebelling against. To make this point, the show rushes to Germany next, for a hilarious look at some early-19th-century Romantics.

    In the pantheon of artistic self-regard and creative self-pity, no national school can hold a candle to the tremulous German Romantics, particularly those who belonged to that demented brotherhood of religious flat-earthists who called themselves the Nazarenes. The Nazarenes believed that despite it being the 19th century, the Middle Ages were not actually over, and that the look and the spirit of finer and purer German times could and should be revived.

    The National Gallery in Berlin has sent over a portrait of Franz Pforr by Friedrich Overbeck. It’s 1810, but Pforr and Overbeck are pretending it’s 1310. Sitting at a pseudo- medieval parapet with a pseudo-medieval townscape behind him, sporting a pseudo-medieval tunic and a floppy, pseudo-medieval hairstyle, Pforr imagines himself to be a sensitive troubadour from the age of chivalry.

    But Pforr’s isn’t the most ludicrous portrait in the German Romantic corner. That honour belongs to the minor Nazarene Victor Emil Janssen, who has stripped off his shirt, Jesus-style, grown his hair long, Jesus-style, and who shows off his thin and bony body, Jesus-style, while an expression of immense lugubriousness lengthens his face, as if someone has attached weights to his chin. Perhaps his dad was a spaniel? The message is supposed to be that artists suffer mightily for their art. But the real story line here is of a creative class seeking to define itself with the projection of extraordinary amounts of self-pity.

    What’s intriguing, of course, is that all the various members of the Nazarene brotherhood thought of themselves as loners and outcasts. In this sense, in the end, there was little actual difference between being a Nazarene and being a Royal Academician. Both were members’ clubs for artists.

    Once it has made this highly significant point, the exhibition contents itself with the presentation of a mixed bag of examples of artistic self-delusion from the century that follows: dipping into the Romantics, rushing past the impressionists, sidetracking to the Nabis and ending up with the melodramatic spiritual writhings of Rodin, who shows his muse, a naked girl, grabbing him by the privates as she leads him to his calling at the onset of the 20th century.

    In its refusal to settle properly, the show grows mildly annoying as it bounces from date to date and artist to artist. But with a century of story line to cover, the short cuts are unavoidable and, therefore, forgivable. If you give yourself up to the display’s larger mood, as I happily did, it ceases to matter that a Daumier from 1833 finds itself in the same section as a Picasso from 1903, because both artists are seeking to picture that particularly popular cast member in the fantasy under investigation: the bohemian.

    Poor, neglected, starving, cold, misunderstood, lonely and ill, the artist in his garret is such a familiar component of our societal illusion, it’s easy to forget that he didn’t exist before about 1830, and that he had to be invented by the French literary mind. Descended from the French word for gypsy, the imaginary Parisian suburb of Bohemia began life as a book by Henri Murger, a cheery enough selection of scenes from Paris’s margins, which eventually found its prettiest form in Puccini’s opera La bohème. The Bohemia section of Rebels & Martyrs consists of some excellently silly portraits by glum artists hellbent on imagining the difficulty of their calling — I particularly enjoyed Octave Tassaert’s view of a young painter slumped in front of the fire in his studio, peeling a lonely potato. And the bleak still lifes by Delacroix and Cézanne of iron stoves spluttering away in bare rooms that seek, so cunningly, to evoke the coldness and loneliness and exposure of the painter’s calling.

    Why is there such a close relationship between feeling sorry for yourself and being an artist? How did these gigantic reserves of self-pity and alienation come to represent the artistic spirit so fully? It’s a question the show raises but never answers. Clearly, self-harmers and piteous types are drawn to the imagined life of loneliness that being an artist appears to involve. And once they are there, they form gangs of like-minded loners to satisfy their underlying craving for camaraderie and acceptance.

    Late in this show, both Van Gogh and Gauguin cast themselves as Christ, mocked and isolated by a misunderstanding public. But their arithmetic is off, and there’s a flaw in their thinking. While there was only one Christ, our culture is evidently overflowing with huge numbers of glum creatives who imagine they share Christ’s unique isolation.