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August 1, 2011 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Four Artists’ Brushes with the Law

There’s a whole school that would look at art as a great historical counter-narrative of poor bohemians strutting the truth in the face of societal and judicial oppression.

Read enough about certain artists and one might believe jail time more essential to the artist than an easel and brushes.

Our love affair with Banksy the Bristol-born (we think) British graffiti artist, epitomises society’s love for bohemian art on the fringe. Without getting into a painful graffiti/art debate, my favourite of Banksy’s hijinks was his 2005 ‘cave painting’ that found its way into the British Museum. Titled, ‘ Early Man Goes to Market’, it’s basically a scribbling of a man with a spear and a shopping trolley. Far from being miffed at this blunt snub at the integrity of their collection, the curators at the British Museum had the painting added to their permanent collection as soon as it was authenticated.

Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin were the absinthe-chugging Tweedledee and Tweedledum of the post-impressionist movement. Van Gogh had a rather creepy infatuation with Gauguin’s work, which crops up more than its fair share in van Gogh’s prolific, and often incoherent, writings. Of course, it’s impossible not to see Gauguin’s influence on van Gogh; his erratic juxtaposition of intense colour belying the ever lurking melancholy, loneliness and mood swings that haunted both artists. Unfortunately, Gauguin didn’t exactly return van Gogh’s affection and it is now believed that the pair engaged in an undoubtedly absinthe-fuelled duel in 1888. van Gogh came out minus an earlobe which eventually found its way into the hands of a Provençale prostitute. Gauguin is reported to have pleaded with van Gogh to keep the episode hush hush and van Gogh, infatuated with Gauguin (still?!) or unable to hear quite so well with his one remaining ear, agreed and the issue went away. Justice, huh?

Still, van Gogh got off light at the hands of Gauguin, compared to what Ranuccio Tomassoni suffered at the hands of that other maestro of colour Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. At age 30 he went on a rampage allegedly shouting at some well-to-do people that he would cut their balls off and fry them in oil. He was later convicted of libel and thrown in prison (the victim, one Giovanni Baglione). But it was on a summer night in 1606 that Caravaggio really crossed the line when he challenged the pimp Ranuccio Tomassoni to a duel outside a Roman tennis court. Tomassoni came off worse and bled to death at home, while Caravaggio was banished from Rome for murder. Can we excuse the great artist? Not really. But when you look at Caravaggio’s paintings and see the incendiary raw flesh emerging out of the bitumen-dark Roman side streets, you know you’re looking at the work of a man whose unparalleled understanding of light came from a life lived in the shadows and we are the luckier for it.

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