Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance (National Gallery)

StrangeBeautyIn the nineteenth century, the National Gallery’s Keeper, Charles Eastlake, refused a Cranach for the nation, stating that ‘it does not please me’. Indeed, for much of this period, as Strange Beauty shows, insofar as German art was studied in England it was used as a kind of art historical phrenology for the German national character. Only three major collectors had anything approaching serious German collections: Carl Krüger, George Salting and Prince Albert. These would, as we learn, go on to form the nucleus of the National Gallery’s German holdings.

Strange Beauty therefore partially explores the strange story of the National Gallery’s acquisitions policy. It’s one of their annual collections-based exhibitions and, in this context, the critical re-evaluation of its own history is a much-needed reminder that each item in the collection has a provenance, and a story, all of its own.

Rooms 2 and 3 are densely and beautifully hung, conveying something of the treasure trove quality of the original private collections of German art. Displayed alongside the oil paintings familiar to the National Gallery are miniatures, medallions and works on paper, a visual treat that evokes an exciting sense of discovery in the visitor and importantly, introduces media otherwise not seen in the permanent collections.

But, when you get to Rooms 4 and 5, and the display of Holbein’s The Ambassadors and Christina of Denmark and Cranach’s Venus and Cupid, this all falls away. Rather than pursuing apparently fruitful comparisons with nineteenth-century artists such as Ford Madox Brown, who (its label tells us) considered Hans Baldung Grien’s Portrait of a Man (bought 1854) to be so detailed it was ‘mapped, rather than painted’, it asks largely pointless questions such as ‘Should art be beautiful?’ Two German visitors next to me seemed quite confused by this. ‘It’s only the English who don’t like Cranach,’ one said to the other.

Though, as works of art, these paintings can stand on their own, the failure of the framing narrative at Room 4, coupled with the shortage of major loans makes it look a lot like the (free) permanent collection’s own Room 4, currently being decanted for the upcoming Veronese show.

A short introduction explaining the concept behind collections-based exhibitions, detailed study and re-evaluation of the permanent collection, might have been all that was needed. The whole final room is given over to inviting audience participation, a gimmick which is not quite successful enough to hide our suspicions that they simply ran out of paintings. When I saw the show there was a merry little visitor game beginning, with the hashtag #connedoutof7quid. Cynical, perhaps, and, I thought, broadly unjustified, but the exhibition certainly did seem to peter out. That’s something a show that ends with The Ambassadors should never do.

Kirsten Tambling is an MA student at the Courtauld

Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance is at the National Gallery until 11th May 2014.

Facing The Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 (National Gallery)

FacingModernPicI’ve always thought that the National Gallery could have a better temporary exhibition space – but this time its underground location was less of a weakness and more of a metaphor. For if history tells the breakdown of a liberal and democratic age into one of intolerance and bloodshed, the paintings themselves may rather tell of a death-drive spurting out from underground.

Death is what one sees upon entering the exhibition’s first room: it is Beethoven’s death mask.  A witness at the composer’s passing reported it was marked by a peal of thunder. Of course, it was apocalyptic – but still, that was 1827, long before the other works in the room were selected for the Miethke Gallery exhibition recreated in Room 1. But then again, that show was in 1905. Vienna 1900 eluded me in a wink.

Showcasing the Austrian Old Masters and their heroic models, the Miethke Gallery show established a genealogy for the new Viennese middle class. The New needed to set its footing in the Old. Accordingly, the moderns found in Ebyl and Amerling the precedents for their innovative painting – for the Kokoschka and Schiele and Gerstl in Room 2. Nevertheless, the contrast is startling, and it remains so throughout the show. For if traditional paintings are everywhere exhibited next to decidedly modern ones, this is only exhibition, not explanation: the viewer is not shown how the ones derived from the others.

Arnold Schönberg: Blue Self-Portrait, 1910.

Arnold Schönberg: Blue Self-Portrait, 1910

The criteria for grouping paintings in different rooms are just as evanescent. After presenting the New Viennese self-constructed antiquity, the subdivisions become thematic rather than historical, concentrating on themes such as the positive perception of private life, the figure of the artist, love and loss. ‘The Appeal of the Artist’ was surely my favourite. Both Rudolf von Alt’s and Schoenberg’s self-portrait were discoveries by artists I did not know before.

Richard Gerstl - Portrait of Alexander Zemlinsky (1908)

Richard Gerstl – Portrait of Alexander Zemlinsky (1908)

Moreover, I appreciated the emphasis on the fabricated nature of Freud’s ‘tormented human subject,’ an aspect easy to ignore face to so many dramatic suicides. Other rooms however fail to deliver what they promise. Grouping together group scenes and portraits, young siblings and adults, the display ‘The family and The Child’ is too heterogeneous to delve deep into the hidden tensions of idyllic families.

But then, why should one delve? There is here enough experimentation on the painted surface. Both the Amerlings and the Schiele reveal their great mastery, made all the more evocative by the flexible and atmospheric lighting. This is definitely not an exhibition to learn about history, but it may be a good one to learn about looking. For as in Gerstl’s Portrait of Alexander Zemlinsky, the revelation may lay on the surface.



Costanza Beltrami is a BA3 student at the Courtauld.

Facing the Modern is on at the National Gallery until the 12th January.