= The Crawford Arts Review: London Brings German Renaissance Art into the Light

Thursday, 10 April 2014

London Brings German Renaissance Art into the Light

Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance
Until Sunday 11 May

National Gallery Sainsbury Wing
Daily         10am–6pm (last admission 5.15pm)
Fridays     10am–9pm (last admission 8.15pm)

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Well, yes, but the eye can be and often is influenced by the environment in which an artefact is seen, either at the time of its making or as history unfolds. None perhaps more so than the art of the German-speaking world before and after the First and Second World Wars. With this exhibition, curated jointly by the National Gallery and the University of York, we are able to take a fresh look at paintings, as well as drawings and prints, by artists of the German Renaissance
Holbein the Younger, Baldung Grien, Dürer and Altdorfer as well as Cranach the Elder. To emphasize the point about what was acceptable viewing when the National Gallery was founded in 1824, Room 1 shows a Raphael (Saint Catherine of Alexandria), a van Eyck (The Arnolfini Portrait), a Cuyp (A Hilly River Landscape with Figures) and other paintings of a religious or domestic nature, the first three examples being paintings acquired in the Gallery's inaugural year, a nice touch.

From the Gallery's own collection comes what is, for me, one of the star exhibits, Cranach the Elder's Cupid complaining to Venus. Apart from times when it has been on loan, it has been in the National Gallery since 1963 when it was acquired under the tenure of Sir Philip Hendy. Venus is also depicted in Hans von Aachen's The Amazement of the Gods (Room 5) painted some 65 years later as a titillation piece for the Emperor Rudolf II in Prague. The theme is the Emperor (as Jupiter), having abandoned Venus, shown embracing their daughter Minerva. Venus herself is being disrobed by a putto, a display that leaves nothing to the imagination. Subtle, erotic, and probably just what the Emperor ordered (top, left). 

 Painting with oils was only beginning in the 15th and 16th centuries so for many of these artists it was a relatively new medium. Room 4 shows a work from the beginning of the 16th century from the workshop of Albrecht Dürer: The Virgin and Child ('The Madonna with the Iris'). Lovely as it is, in terms of perspective, the Madonna's head is set rather far back. The shape of her knees seems to jut out awkwardly beneath the fabric of her robe; the sunlit arch on the left of the picture plane could be said to detract from the overall compositional harmony (left). But as Dürer himself shows in Illustration of perspective from 'Four Books on Measurement' Unterweysung der Messung) and Two studies for the child genius in the engraving 'Melencolia', both lent by the British Museum, practice makes perfect. 

The results when they got it right can be seen in prime positions on the walls as well as in vista position as you move from room to room. They include Holbein the Younger's Erasmus, a superb portrait of the great thnker, and a loan from the Longford Castle collection, his Anne of Cleves (a watercolour miniature on vellum), A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, and 'The Ambassadors'. We have Albrecht Altdorfer's Christ taking Leave of his Mother, Matthias Grünewald's An Elderly Woman with Clasped Hands (charcoal or black chalk on paper), Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece (Saints Peter and Dorothy), Hans Baldung Grien's Portrait of a Young Man with a Rosary and Unknown Swabian Artist's Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family.

This is a particularly scholarly exhibition, a piecing together of the works and artists of the Northern European Renaissance and well supported by renaissance events as well as events related both to this exhibition and other exhibitions in the Gallery's 'Renaissance Spring', including the Italian Renaissance beginning with Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice.

But back to the Cranach Venus in Room 5. Just look at her (above). She seems to have abseiled down from a Mount Olympus garden party, minus her dress, but wearing a fashionable hat, and a bejewelled collar. She picks her elegant way out of the apple orchard into which she has descended, right next to the angry bees whose hive her son Cupid has raided. And there is the little scamp, showing mummy his stings and as the title says "complaining". The picture is stuffed with allegory and not just the idea that with pleasure eventually comes pain. It is loaded into every gesture and emotion with which the artist has endowed his subject. What is the expression painted into her eyes? Fondness, certainly, but exasperation too. What is the meaning we read from the gesture of her right hand? She is looking sideways at us. Her hand looks arrested. Is she implying 'look at the imp, but how can I punish him?' or is her hand about to open and she to imply 'Watch me, I'm going to hit him'. Compositionally, the work is both beautiful and daring.

In conclusion I would say that these works are not strange, merely different
and in many cases marvellously different.

For advance tickets or to book, visit the National Gallery web site.
Full price  £7
National Art Pass (Art Fund) holders  £3.50

Under 12s free with paying adult
Joint Strange Beauty/Veronese ticket  £5

Picture credits:

Hans von Aachen, The Amazement of the Gods

The National Gallery, London. Bought 1982
© The National Gallery, London

Workshop of Albrecht Dürer, The Virgin and Child ('The Madonna with the Iris')
The National Gallery, London. Bought through the Art Fund, 1945
© The National Gallery, London

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Cupid complaining to Venus
The National Gallery, London. Bought 1963

© The National Gallery, London

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