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.

The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure (The Courtauld Gallery)

Research Rhythms contributor Niccola Shearman giving her free lecture at a late opening

Research Rhythms contributor Niccola Shearman giving a free lecture at a Dürer late

The Courtauld’s latest exhibition offers a glimpse into the formative years of an irrefutable giant of the German Renaissance. Centring on Dürer’s so-called Wanderjahre, something akin to an extended gap year, it tracks Dürer’s four-yearlong travels in the Upper Rhineland and possibly also to Italy. But this isn’t a one-man show. Instead, through a collection of rarely-exhibited works on paper, the focus is on Dürer as a product of the artistic influences he encountered as a young man.

Martin Schongauer, A Foolish Virgin, 1478 © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Martin Schongauer, A Foolish Virgin, 1478
© Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Throughout, works by the young artist hang alongside a range of works by elder masters who Dürer came across on his travels, either in person or through their work. Particular (and well-merited) prominence is given to Martin Schongauer, who Dürer never met but greatly admired. His ten engravings showing Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins are enchanting.

At the crux of the exhibition is the Courtauld’s double-sided drawing A Wise Virgin and Dürer’s left leg from two angles. This work – one side beautifully finished, the other hastily sketched – is presented as a symbol of the two strands of the young Dürer’s artistic practice: a new emotional intensity in figure drawing and the sustained scrutiny of his own body. This lively union of experimentation and expressiveness also appears in a sketch of the Virgin and Child, where the artist’s own hands hover above the figures’ heads. In a self-portrait, Dürer seems to probe the limits of his ability with a daring frontal angle and his cheek resting in his palm, while a swiftly executed image of his young wife inscribed with the words “Mein Agnes” offers a rare and intimate snapshot into his domestic life.

Albrecht Dürer Self-portrait (verso) c. 1491-92 © Graphische Sammlung der Universität, Erlangen

Albrecht Dürer
Self-portrait (verso) c. 1491-92
© Graphische Sammlung der Universität, Erlangen

Other drawings, like the Three studies of Dürer’s left hand, are highly finished and elegantly arranged. Such works seem anticipate an audience. This awareness of his viewer, as well as his excellent draughtsmanship, would help Dürer to become the master printmaker for which he achieved lasting fame. The important relationship between drawing and engraving is neatly illustrated by the Prodigal Son print hanging alongside its rare preparatory sketch.

The display in the second room suggests the curators’ conviction that Dürer did cross the Alps into Italy, a matter of on-going debate. Evidence of Dürer using Italian sources appears in an engraving of Philosophy displayed alongside Dürer’s drawn copy. The remarkable Men’s Bath is an example of Dürer’s stunning technical ability in woodcut even at this young age. In comparison, the woodcut from his master’s workshop hanging nearby seems almost course and stiff.

Albrecht Dürer Three studies of the artist’s left hand (recto), c. 1493-94 © Albertina, Vienna

Albrecht Dürer
Three studies of the artist’s left hand (recto), c. 1493-94
© Albertina, Vienna

Though not officially part of the exhibition, a small accompanying display warrants mention. This room recreates a famous lecture delivered by the influential cultural theorist, Aby Warburg, entitled “Dürer and Italian Antiquity” (1905). Tackling the challenge of staging the lecture in exhibition format is commendable, though it has only partial success. Without prior knowledge of the lecture, the cohesion of this room remains somewhat obscure. On display, however, are some of the finest engravings by Italian masters of the early Renaissances alongside some of Dürer’s most exquisite drawings and prints including the Death of Orpheus, Melancholia I and Nemesis. So all scholarly history aside, visually speaking this room is a joy and must not be missed.

The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure is at the Courtauld Gallery until 12th January 2014

Laura Llewellyn is a PhD student at the Courtauld