Here’s an intriguing thought experiment: could Damien Hirst disappear? By that I mean not the 52-year-old artist himself — that would be sensational indeed — but the vast fame, the huge prices, the hectares of newsprint, profiles, reviews and interviews by the thousand. Could all that just fade from our collective memory into a black hole of oblivion?
The answer is: yes, quite easily. Artists vanish all the time. Take the case of Hans Makart (1840–1884). He was a contemporary of Monet, Manet and Degas, but enormously more acclaimed in his lifetime than any of those. A period of Viennese life was dubbed the ‘Makart era’, a fashionable idiom was named the ‘Makartstil’.
One reason for his success was that he was a master of PR. Makart transformed his studio, an old foundry, into a vast stage set crammed with floral displays, sculpture and opulent bric-à-brac. Cosima Wagner described it as a ‘wonder of decorative beauty, a sublime lumber-room’. To a 21st-century eye, old photographs of the space look like installation art.
Makart was able to put on a tremendous performance, too. In 1879 he designed a spectacular parade to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of the Emperor Franz Joseph, with floats, costumes, every detail conceived by the artist — and Makart leading the entire caboodle in person on a white horse. The Viennese liked it so much they carried on repeating the ‘Makart parade’ until the 1960s.
He gave his age what it wanted: masses of voluptuous naked flesh depicted with sub-Rubenesque gusto, mixed with jewels, rich textiles and maybe a spot of blood. But who remembers Makart now? To be fair, a few art historians do — and probably more in Austria than elsewhere. But compared with Cézanne or Sisley — obscure nobodies when he was riding that white horse — his is a very dim name these days.
Makart’s is not an isolated case.