Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein

Royal Collection (London), 2 November 2012 - 14 April 2012

Noli me Tangere, by Holbein.
From the Royal Collection.
The tensions of the reformation emerge as stronger influence on northern art than that of classical antiquity, with some profound, and some unpleasant consequences for the art itself.

Both words in the title of this wonderful and thought-provoking exhibition are problematic, the first for curatorial reasons, the second for more interesting ones.

Northern, in this context, is necessarily a little limited, even when assumed to refer to Europe. There are no Scandinavian painters, nor any from countries in the north and east, such as Poland or Lithuania.

Of course, even the largest collection would have trouble representing all of these areas, and even within the geographic remit, some major artists are missing. I learnt from the detailed catalogue that the Prince Regent failed to buy Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait in 1818 so that none of that great pioneering oil painter can be found in this exhibition, though a short trip to the National Gallery rectified that, thankfully.

But was this a 'renaissance'? A comparison with Italian contemporaries is interesting, for south of the Alps painting, whether in oil or onto walls, was more sculptural, more obviously influenced by newly unearthed antique statues.

A kind of intense faith seems to have been a more important development in the north, and I don't see how this can easily be ascribed to rediscovering classical values. Humanism was a strong current, but it clashed with faith instead of complementing it, as in Italy. The curators provide details of the complicated political backdrop against which the humanists and the reformers clashed.

From the former tradition, Erasmus and Thomas More are represented through both multiple portraits and through their (printed) books. For Erasmus, tellingly, this is his edition of the Greek Testament, rather than his non-Christian works. Erasmus' enemy Luther is directly represented by his characteristically savage attack on Henry VIII of England, though his presence is implicit almost everywhere.

Faith emerges unexpectedly. Even when Cranach is painting (erotic) classical scenes in the best renaissance tradition, these turn out to be alternatives to biblical scenes, which were considered suspect by the reformers.

To take an example from the greatest art, Dürer's series of engarvings on the subject of the apocalypse, widely expected in 1500, can be compared with Botticelli's Mystic Nativity, happily nearby in the National Gallery. Both masterpieces are dramatic, but the first seems terrifyingly Christian, while the second is delightfully pagan.

Perhaps given these different concerns of artists in the north and south, the curators avoid any stereotypes about the supposedly one-way influence of art from Italy. Indeed, I learnt that Vasari and Condivi describe a young Michelangelo painting a scene based on a print by Schongauer, the artist who also influenced Dürer (see below).
The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Martin Schongauer.
From the British Museum.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Michelangelo.
From the Kimbell Art Museum.
Enough of the art history. What of the art itself? Much of it is great, some of it is mediocre, but as usual, the greater artists are improved when set in context.

For me, this was especially true of Holbein, whom I'd previously disliked. In addition to some beautiful portraits (beautiful because not especially true to life, I think, despite contemporary claims for their realism), there is a wonderful Noli me tangere.

It is profoundly spiritual, with verdant foliage seeming to sprout from the risen god, and radiance within the tomb. But it is also appropriately human, from the expressions of the angels to the eye contact between the principles. Best of all, the way the composition draws the eye to the expressive gestures of the man and woman.

Another National Gallery comparison came to mind: Titian's version of the same subject. At first, I preferred the greater torsion and drama of the earlier Italian work, but I now think the German painting is the more emotional piece, though with a more disturbing religious connotation, as the human woman is more distant from the god man.

These contrasts came to mind as a result of the cumulative impact of the exhibition, which leaves a powerful impression. With so much to ponder, I should have doubled the length of my visit.

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