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A persistent myth

Genius has a way of calling attention to itself. But then that's only natural , considering its rarity and the dramatic manner in which it often manifests itself.

We do not, however, always recognize it for what it is and frequently prefer to dismiss its more startling and extreme manifestations as heresy or antisocial behavior - or even as a touch of madness. One of our most persistent cultural myths, in fact, states that artistic genius generally remains unrecognized until well after those who possess it have departed this earth.

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Like most myths, this one contains both truth and fiction. It stems partly from the 19th century's highly romanticized perceptions of the artist as a wonderfully free but tragically misunderstood individual. And partly from the facts of the careers of such artists as van Gogh and Gauguin.

Van Gogh's life story, in itself, gives considerable credibility to this myth. And there are several other important painters and sculptors whose worth remained largely or totally unacknowledged during their lifetimes. Even so, this notion of alienated genius remains largely unfounded - especially in this century, which devotes so much of its energies to ferreting out every hint of genius, no matter how novel its point of origin, or strange or unusual its form.

We may not fully understand or like what our geniuses produce, but we do at least acknowledge its importance. If anything, we tend to be awed by genius and forgiving of its shortcomings. Picasso's slightest doodles, for instance, are highly sought after mainly because of his reputation. And the same, I suspect, applies to the lesser aspects of what Einstein, Stravinsky, and Joyce produced.

We are so eager to uncover artistic genius that we increasingly acclaim its presence on the basis of intention rather than accomplishment. If an artist begins to move into uncharted territory, we too often assume that genius is the motivation. (It may very well be, but then it could also be ambition to succeed through novelty, an inability to cope with existing styles, or merely an urge to try something different.)

We also are so enamored of the notion that artistic importance derives primarily from doing something first that we tend to overlook the fact that it also derives from doing something best. There are at least a dozen largely unknown but excellent artists of superb quality in this country, and at least that many quite famous raw beginners whose main asset is the novelty of their approach to art.

The frantic scramble for fame, or at least for notoriety, continues to accelerate, producing an increasing assault upon our sensibilities that makes considered artistic judgment difficult. Art too often is absorbed as uncritically as the air we breathe, and is forced to make way for what is even newer and more insistent before it has a chance to be fully assimilated.

It's all very confusing, especially since there is so much talent on view today. A great deal of the art in our galleries is accomplished and professional. And yet, oddly enough, genius has never been in shorter supply. For the first time in my memory, the so-called visual arts cannot claim one single living artist of genius.

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In genius's place, we have great energy, imagination, and discipline. Artists of all stylistic persuasions are producing remarkably high-quality work, and a few are fashioning some of the best art of the century. Major talents are producing major work, but, good as it is, such art lacks that overwhelming sense of wholeness, brilliance, and audacity that characterizes the work of genius.

No one in recent years has tried as hard as Julian Schnabel, for instance, to push talent into the realm of genius. That he has so far failed is not altogether his fault. He is, after all, heir to a peculiarly ''macho'' tradition in American art that equates bigness, power, and bluntness with importance, and that has led several of our major artists astray. And yet, there is a kind of nobility in their effort to create significant art that sets such artists apart. They at least have a vision of what they think art should be, and refuse to compromise merely because they lack the genius of a Picasso or Michelangelo.

But, if we lack genius at this moment, the late 19th and early 20th centuries certainly did not. From Manet, Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Rodin, van Gogh, and Seurat to Picasso, Brancusi, Matisse, and the early de Chirico, that period was as rich as any in the production of artists of genius. And, of them all, none topped Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec for the sheer brilliance of his gifts.

Like Picasso, Lautrec was a child prodigy, and, again like Picasso, he was a brilliant painter before he was 20. There is a small oil sketch of a man saddling a horse painted at the age of 15 that would do credit to Gericault at the height of his powers, and an oil portrait of his mother executed four years later that is a work of youthful genius if ever there was one.

By his mid-20s he was producing such masterpieces as ''Ball at the Moulin de la Galette'' and ''Ball at the Moulin Rouge,'' both of which stand at the very pinnacle of late 19th-century art. And every year from then until his passing in 1901 at the age of 37, he turned out an extraordinary number of first-rate paintings and prints.

Lautrec stands out as one of the world's greatest draftsmen, a virtuoso performer with crayon and brush. He drew at high speed, and with the freedom and precision of a champion figure skater. His hand skimmed the paper, darting in and out to emphasize a form or accent a detail, leaving behind stunning linear patterns as evidence of what he had seen and felt.

But it is in his lithographs that I believe his genius most clearly manifested itself. Lautrec, quite simply, altered the course of printmaking by making it more lively, informal, colorful, and decorative. His influence in this area was decisive and permanent, and opened the way for much of the printmaking we have today.

Among his most brilliant prints are those of theatrical, racing, and circus subjects. Some of these are in color, but most are in black and white. Outstanding are the lithographs ''Yvette Guilbert,'' ''Seated Clowness,'' ''La Goulue,'' ''Mademoiselle Marcel Lender,'' and ''Le Jockey.'' All are stunning prints, and all are superb examples of lithography at its best. But most important, they all represent, purely and simply, what artistic genius can do, and what it is all about.

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