Thursday, July 24, 2008

The madness of the artists

{Photo by rocketlass from the House on the Rock.}

Is it even humanly possible to resist a book with chapter titles like these:
Eccentric Behaviour and Noble Manners

Genius Madness, and Melancholy

Suicides of Artists

Celibacy, Love, and Licentiousness

Misers and Wastrels
They're from Born Under Saturn (1963), an anecdote-laden study of the relationship of art and madness by Margot and Rudolf Wittkower. Just republished by those strenuous supporters of melancholy, the New York Review of Books, I can tell after mere minutes that it's going to offer many a great line to share. Like this, from the section in "Genius, Madness, and Melancholy" called, "Was Franz Xaver Messerschmidt Insane?":
Even the most extravagant beliefs can hardle be quoted as proof of an individual's insanity, if they are shared by many thousands for hundreds of years.
Or this, from "Artists and the Law":
It must be recalled that lawbreakers infested every country and every class of society. Unrestrained passions, violence and felonies of all kinds were not confined to a "criminal class." Kings and popes, members of the aristocracy and clergy burghers, craftsmen and peasants were all capable of crimes which now, as a rule, are the reserve of specialized professionals or maniacs.
Elsewhere, they relate the story of an artist who slashes the face of a rival, but, through the peculiar justice of the early Renaissance,
at the last moment the penalty was commuted to service on one of the papal galleys, "in consideration of his being innocent of most of the accusations except the sin of face-slashing--if sin it is."
No question that you'll be hearing more from this one in the coming months.

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