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.

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain (British Library)

Georgians1Georgians Revealed, currently on at the British Library, marks the 300th anniversary of the accession of George I in 1714. The king and his successors would lend their name to a period in British history characterised either as vulgar and rowdy or as excessively obsessed with decorum and ideology. The British Library aims to showcase it from a more neutral perspective. Upon entering the first room, where from the ceiling hang garlands of prints displaying different aspects of Georgian life, we read that the Georgian period saw “unprecedented economic, social and cultural changes”.  With this opening statement, the exhibition sets itself an important, but difficult task: to give a general account of “the Georgians” by considering change as the determining characteristic of their times. Unfortunately, because of the isolationist perimeters chosen, the lovely display does not quite manage to do so.

As would be expected from the British Library, the exhibition impresses with an astonishing number of precious books and other printed material, mostly from the Library’s own collections. A section on “Reading for Pleasure” explains that the period saw a rise of relatively new types of books and prints, such as encyclopaedias, newspapers and commercial pamphlets. A fine example is the 1807 botanical encyclopaedia The Temple of Flora by Robert John Thornton, which is on display. As an institute promoting and facilitating access to the book, however, the British Library could have gone beyond illustration, addressing and questioning more clearly the importance of print culture to the Georgians.

I.R. and G. Cruikshank. 'Tom & Jerry at a Coffee Shop near the Olympic' Pierce Egan, Life in London. London, 1823 (British Library. 838.i.2)

I.R. and G. Cruikshank. ‘Tom & Jerry at a Coffee Shop near the Olympic’
Pierce Egan, Life in London. London, 1823 (British Library. 838.i.2)

Although prints and books are the most prominent features throughout the exhibition, several themes are complemented by the inclusion of paintings, costumes, and decorative arts. In a section on the social custom of drinking tea, a display is made up of Joseph van Aken’s 1720 painting An English Family at Tea, a wooden tea table, some porcelain, and two pamphlets on “The Conversations and Reflections at the Tea Table”. In another section, the birth of the fashion industry is brought to life by several costumes. In confronting us with these recognizable facets of modern life, the exhibition comes closest to fulfilling its promise of revealing the making of modern Britain.

But whose Britain is this anyway? The exhibition focuses on the emerging middle class, which grew to constitute one-third of the country’s population, and on London. While choosing to focus on the capital might seem reasonable because of the influence of the Georgian court on the eponymous era, generally speaking the exhibition seems to somewhat limit itself by indulging in the Georgians’ self-referentiality. These were chaotic and uncertain times: change always involves some sort of loss. The middle class appears to have responded to global expansion by establishing a popular culture that faced very much inward, as in the case of the strict rules of etiquette addressed by the exhibition. Although these reactionary dynamics are mentioned, the exhibition insists on presenting the Georgians only as ushering in modernity as progress, thereby allowing them to remain in an historical comfort-zone.

Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s The Georgeobelisk

Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s The Georgeobelisk

Despite these remarks, however, the stylish display, engaging themes, and beautiful materials presented surely make Georgians Revealed worth visiting. When doing so, do not miss Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s The Georgeobelisk, a complimentary garden installation in the Piazza, which is part of the Cityscapes Garden Festival.

Esther van der Hoorn is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain is on at the British Library until 11 March 2014.