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Betty Ann Brown


“From the moment when the artist made his appearance in historical records, certain stereotyped notions were linked with his work and his person.”
--Ernst Kris & Otto Kunz,
Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist

Leonardo da Vinci,
"Self Portrait", drawing.

Still from "Blue Gardenia",
1953, directed by Fritz Lang.
It is Thursday, January 20. I am at home with a winter cold, filling the “down” time by reading and watching TV.

I peruse the Sunday LA Times, which had been packed in its plastic for days, and come across A. Richard Tunner’s review of two new books on Leonardo da Vinci. Tunner notes that “The Great Italian artist and scientist was acknowledged by his peers and rulers of the time as a multitalented man whose intellect placed him among the most exalted of sages.” Servant and companion of the ruling elite, Leonardo enjoyed a reputation of heroic proportions.[i]

Later in the afternoon, I turn on the television and go to a classic movies channel. They are showing “Bluebeard,” a 1944 film with John Carradine as a turn-of-the-century Parisian artist who brutally strangles the women who model for him. The next film that day is “Blue Gardenia,” a 1953 Fritz Lang noir that features Raymond Burr as a modern painter who drugs women, then rapes them.

I am struck by the contrast between the description of Leonardo as exalted sage and these popular media depictions of artists as psychopaths. What does this remarkable shift tell us about the image of the visual artist in contemporary society?

In his review of the Leonardo books, Tunner observes that in the past, “writers motivated by concerns as varied as aesthetics and revolutionary politics created their own Leonardos.” In other words, history is not a fixed absolute; there are few, if any, Historical Truths. Instead, what we receive as history are the stories constructed by writers with varied, sometimes contradictory agendas; indeed, their agendas may not even be conscious or deliberate. The same could be said about the stories created by Hollywood screen writers.

So perhaps the question I am raising is, what do stories about artists--whether these stories are presented as fact or fiction--tell us about the historical moments of their storytellers?

During the Renaissance, leading artists like Leonardo and Michelangelo were widely regarded as cultural heroes (Tunner analyzes this image in his own book, “Inventing Leonardo”). During the Baroque period, Gianlorenzo Bernini, Peter Paul Rubens, and Diego Velazquez--all of whom enjoyed the company and patronage of kings and popes--were also celebrated as heroes. For example, when Bernini traveled to Paris in 1665, at the invitation of Louis XIV, cheering crowds lined the streets in each city along the way. His reception in Paris was as triumphant as that of a newly crowned sports championship team today (Can you even imagine one of today’s visual artists being lauded like that?).

In the nineteenth century, however, a different image of the artist arose: as alienated, isolated, crazed, and starving in his garret. Numerous studies have analyzed this Romantic myth of the artist, notable among them Nathalie Heinrich’s “The Glory of Van Gogh, An Anthropology of Admiration.” And the mass media have echoed this construction in films about noted nineteenth century artists such as Van Gogh and Gauguin. Think of Vicente Minnelli’s “Lust for Life” on Van Gogh (taken from Irving Stone’s popular novel of the same title), or “Wolf at the Door,” starring Donald Sutherland as Gauguin.

But by the middle of the twentieth century, the artist was often constructed as a psychopath. The two films I happened to see that rainy January day are by no means unique in this regard. Robert Siodmak’s classic noir “Phantom Lady” (1944) presents a sculptor as crazed serial killer. When he confesses to his multiple murders, a reproduction of Van Gogh’s self-portrait with bandaged ear hangs on the wall behind him (Is there a more familiar icon of the artist as crazy?!).

“Lust for Life” starring Kirk Douglas
as Vincent Van Gogh, movie poster.

“Color Me Blood Red," movie poster,
2002, directed by P.J. Posner .

“White Oleander," 2002, directed
by Peter Kosminsky, movie poster.

The 1960s gave us “Color Me Blood Red” (1965, directed by gore specialist Hershell Gordon Lewis), in which a successful painter realizes that blood provides the best color for his images. He kills lovely young women again and again to get his preferred pigment. “In Color of Night” (1994, directed by Richard Rush), Bruce Willis plays a psychologist in pursuit of a crazed painter-killer (Much of this film was shot in the artists’ complex known as The Brewery in downtown L.A.). The 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder”--re-titled “A Perfect Murder”--featured Michael Douglas as a corporate mogul who plots revenge on his unfaithful wife by hiring her lover--an artist--to kill her. More recently, Peter Kosminsky directed Michelle Pfeiffer as an artist who kills her lover--and exhibits at Bergamot Station (“White Oleander,” 2002). That same year, The French film known to English speakers as “He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not” presented Audrey Tautou as an art student who stalks, then attacks and cripples a handsome doctor. She makes relief portraits of him, first from the refuse she collects out of his trash, then from the pills she doesn’t take while interred in an insane asylum.

Television often presents the same trope. The old “Perry Mason” courtroom drama series had several episodes with artist killers. In “The Case of the Reluctant Model,” the artist creates forgeries of Gauguins, then kills his patron. Costumed in beard, mustache and “hip” clothes, he is the stereotypical 1950’s beatnik. In “The Case of the Absent Artist,” the artist has two identities, one as a “serious” painter, the other as a financially successful cartoonist. He kills to preserve the “dirty secret” of his commercial work and thereby maintain his artistic integrity. An October 2004 episode of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” presented a crazed photographer who killed women in order to turn them into totally controlled artistic subjects. In January 2005, a “CSI” episode (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grissom”) featured an artist who trapped and killed numerous college co-eds.

Left: Walter Sickert, 19th century
photographic portrait.
Right: Cover of Patricia Cornwell's
book, "Portrait of a Killer: Jack
the Ripper, Case Closed".

General Idea, “Shut the Fuck Up,”
1995, video in video case, 8 x 5 x 1”.

Marcel Duchamp, “Nude Descending a
Staircase, No. 2,” 1912, oil on canvas.
Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Chris Eigman as artist Geoffrey
Buonardi in "The Next Big Thing",
2002, directed by P.J. Posner.
Popular fiction also participates in constructing the artist as murderous psychopath. For example, in 2002, murder-mystery maven Patricia Cornwell published a run-away bestseller in which she suggested that Jack the Ripper was in fact famed British painter Walter Sickert (“Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed”).

Although analysis of the connections between artist and serial killer is beyond the purview of this article, it seems clear to me that a parallel can be drawn between the old fear that portrait images--particularly photographic portrait images--robbed the sitter of their soul, and the reality of murdered victims being robbed of their lives. If you’re interested in this parallel, you might want to re-visit Susan Sontag’s classic “On Photography.” Read her discussion of the relationship between photography and aggression. Indeed, we talk about “shooting" photographs. And is the artist’s paintbrush not only phallic but also equally threatening?

I have thus far traced three roughly chronological images of the artist: 1. Hero of the Renaissance and Baroque; 2. Crazed, misunderstood Romantic; 3. Murderous Psychopath. But there is a fourth component--the artist as fraud--that needs to be included alongside the other three. My favorite mass media example of the image of the artist as fraud is an episode from the “Batman” television series in which several absurd characters competed in a Gotham City art contest. The Joker won with a totally blank canvas that he called “Death of a Mauve Bat,” and he explains it in a humorous parody of modern “artspeak” (The “Batman” episode was excerpted in General Idea’s “Shut the Fuck Up” video from 1979. Much of this Canadian art trio’s work, in fact addresses the media’s failure to deal realistically with the modern artist; their work is the subject of a current survey exhibition at Cal State L.A.’s Luckman Gallery). Another television image of the artist as fraud comes from BBC’s “Inspector Morse” series. In the episode “Who Killed Harry Field?” father and son painters create fakes to compensate for their lack of “real” talent. One film example is “The Next Big Thing” (2002, directed by P.J. Posner), in which a failed artist joins with a thief to con the art world by inventing elusive artistic personality Geoffrey Buonardi, who becomes so “hot” that he is asked to do an Absolut ad, then is featured in the Whitney Biennial.

So how did this idea of artist as fraud come about?

As early as the mid-nineteenth century, when avant-garde artists like Edouard Manet began to oppose the Academic standards that had dominated artistic production since the time of Louis XIV, the public responded with mockery and derision. While the Academy had privileged a kind of technical precision that resulted in what we might describe as photographically real, Manet--and after him Monet, the other Impressionists, the Post Impressionists, the Fauves, etc.--presented what appeared to be relatively crude “anti-art.” An 1877 editorial cartoon appearing in “Le Charivari” depicted French troops using Impressionist paintings as weapons to terrify enemy soldiers illustrates the scorn with which the movement was first met. Indeed, it was “Le Charivari” critic Louis Leroy who three years earlier had coined the term “Impressionism” in a spirit of contempt. The general public simply couldn’t understand avant-garde art; they feared the artists were trying to “con” them. Impressionism may be wildly popular today, but subsequent avant-garde art has often n been subjected to adamantly negative “That’s not art!” reaction. Marcel Duchamp’s 1913 cubo-futurist painting of a woman in motion, “Nude Descending a Staircase,” was famously jokingly compared to an explosion in a shingles factory. The Russian people’s rejection of Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist reductions is notorious. And everyone has heard--or invoked--the “My five-year-old could do that!” quip in response to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. It is common, if not typical, that even now people outside the art world regard the work of artists such as Duchamp, Malevich, or Pollock as having perpetrated a fraud.[ii]

Eduard Manet, "Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe,"
1963, oil on canvas,81 x 101 cm.
Collection of the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France

Der Führer "enjoys" the Nazi
produced "Degenerate Art" exhibition.

And what the public doesn’t get--whether it is too complex, too smart, or simply too unusual--is devalued and rejected. To reprise: with the rise of the avant-garde, a rupture occurred between the public and the artist. At first, the artist was constructed as misunderstood, perhaps crazed. As the divide deepened, the artist was subject to accusations of dishonesty. Soon, this extended to moral depravity, to the social construction in imagery and discourse of the artist as psychopath.
So what do the stories about artist as psychopath tell us about their storytellers and, by extension, about the spirit of the times in which these stories are told--that is, about our own time?

European art of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, as well as the European art produced by the Academies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, reflected the ideology of the dominant social order. Starting in the 1860’s, avant-garde art presented challenges to that order. In the twentieth century, the mass media of film, television and advertising performed just the same role as Academic painting: imaging the world as the dominant culture would have it. In contrast, twentieth century visual artists, ranging from Pablo Picasso to Frida Kahlo to Shirin Neshat, challenge the way prevailing culture sees and understands the world. The popular construction of the artist as a deviant--as crazy, as a psychopath--undermines the potential of the avant-garde assault to force a reconsideration of the dominant order. In doing so, it insulates that order not by reasoned discourse, but by dismissing serious dissent as a mere pathology.

It is well known that in 1937, frustrated painter-turned-dictator Adolf Hitler ordered his staff to organize an exhibition aimed at ridiculing avant-garde art. Huge crowds milled through the “Degenerate Art Show,” laughing at the “perverse distortion” of the avant-garde. Beside the paintings, the Nazis had written satiric wall texts highlighting the perceived offenses of the art. Under Fascism, artists were imprisoned and tortured; artworks were confiscated and destroyed.

Today, Bush administration officials aren’t doing anything as crass and blatant as this, and hopefully never would. Besides, they are too busy overseeing hegemonic international policies, war profiteering, and the torture of Iraqis to be much interested in visual artists. And for the most part, government officials today don’t need to feel threatened by artists. They can rely on the proliferating scions of the mass media to serve up negative stereotypes. These images effectively diminish the impact of any meaningful artistic challenge to their precious, and precariously-held status quo.

(This is not to dismiss the fact that government censorship of art has reared its ugly head several times in the US. In the 1950’s, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt took aim at visual artists--along with writers, actors, producers, etc. There was also Senator Jesse Helms’ late 1980’s assault on the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano; the case of the NEA four; Mayor Rudy Guiliani’s response to the “Sensations” exhibition; and the closure right here in L.A. of Alex Donis’ Watts Towers show immediately after 9/11--all well known examples of official repression of artistic freedom of expression.)

I want to be very clear here. I am not suggesting that the mass media image of the artist as crazy, as a fraud, or as a psychopath leads the general public to worry about being shot by a painter. Nobody watches an episode of “CSI” in which the culprit is an artist and comes away believing that the painter who lives next door might be a serial killer. The effects of mass media images are never so direct. Instead, mass media images affect us cumulatively and largely unconsciously. Images of the artist as fraud and psychopath contribute to a climate in which art and artists are devalued.

Such mass media images serve to dampen the potential impact of avant-garde critique of the status quo. They also construct and sustain a society in which the arts are devalued, widely considered merely as lesser forms of entertainment, and funded in decreasing amounts.[iii]


[i] Marlena Donohue reminds me that even in the Renaissance, the image of artist as hero was never as uncomplicated as Tunner describes. Leonardo, for example, was persecuted for using his left hand (the English word sinister comes from the Italian sinestre, meaning left-handed) and tried for sodomy.
[ii] Ed Harris’ biopic “Pollock”(2000) was a brilliant a piece of filmmaking--but it, too, contributed to the stereotype of artist as deeply troubled, even psychotic.
[iii] I wonder how such images impact the psychological make-up of individual artists in our society. But that’s an issue for therapists who have worked with artists, therapists like the extraordinarily gifted, and recently mourned Ed Wortz. Psychoanalysis is not a consideration of this article, nor an area of expertise for art historians like myself.