Monday, December 10, 2007
December 17, 2007
The complex world of Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Is it just me, or have the Old Masters got younger lately? If so, it may be because present anxieties about the state and the fate of Western civilization echo past ones, when artists were energized around big issues, such as clashes of modernizing and medievalist mind-sets, which may never have been completely settled. Consider a rousing retrospective of the German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), which has opened at the Städel Museum, in Frankfurt, and will travel in the spring to the Royal Academy, in London. There are contemporary tangs to this most bewildering paragon of a cohort which included the Leonardoesque Albrecht Dürer and the dazzling Hans Holbein the Younger. Cranach was a sometime religious revolutionary and a full-time entrepreneur. In his work, early strains of late-Gothic blood and guts give way first to courtly high styles, then to pictorial propagandizing for the new theology of his friend Martin Luther—even as, strangely, Cranach continued to oblige Roman Catholic clients. (Those were intricate times.) He rivalled Dürer and Holbein in portraiture, and he developed product lines of delirious erotica and hilarious genre scenes. Buyers seemingly couldn’t get enough of his “ill-matched couples”: fatuous geezers or crones acuddle with gold-digging babes or young bucks. With a prolific workshop, so well coached that its authorship can be hard to distinguish from his own, and with businesses in real estate, publishing, and a liquor-licensed pharmacy, Cranach became one of the richest men in the Lutheran stronghold of Saxony. He was three times the mayor of Wittenberg. As an artist, he siphoned his era’s chaotic energies into wonderments of style. His re-visionings of humanity are philosophically resonant and lots of fun.
Cranach was born the son of a painter, in Kronach, in Upper Franconia. Almost nothing else is known of him until around 1500, when, in his late twenties, he showed up in Vienna as a convulsively expressionistic painter of gnarled, gory Crucifixions, often with one of the flanking thieves ingeniously pretzeled on a tree-trunk cross, and with dogs gnawing human remains below. He was an originator of what came to be called the Danube school, a painting movement influenced by humanist intellectuals, which vivified religious motifs with realistic landscape settings and raking light. Eloquent primary colors in Cranach’s early work bespeak exposure to Central Italian paintings by Perugino and perhaps by Perugino’s likely student the young Raphael. (It’s not known whether Cranach visited Italy, but a trip north, in 1508, brought him up to date with Netherlandish innovations.) In 1505, he was hired as the court painter and decorator to the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise. Cranach tamed his drawing, though not his color, in such works as a breathtaking “Beheading of St. Catherine” (1515), in which the thuggish executioner, prior to decapitating the elegant saint, seems tenderly fascinated by the locks of hair he lifts from her neck. She looks scared. Cranach made radiantly personable portraits of court figures and sweet nudes—both Biblical (Eve) and mythological (Venus, Diana, the Three Graces)—featuring girlish, impossibly long-waisted bodies and generic expressions whose repetition somehow doesn’t spoil the freshness of each image. The nudes’ appeal to prurient gazes is patent in depictions of the noble Roman suicide Lucretia, made cruelly delectable by the pointy dagger poised to enter her pale flesh.
Then along came a certain disaffected Augustinian monk. Cranach was already friends with Luther in 1517, when the Reformer nailed—or perhaps didn’t; the tale is disputed—his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, denouncing a public sale of indulgences, by which purchasers could shorten their time in Purgatory, to finance the renovation of St. Peter’s in Rome. Cranach and his workshop were soon issuing a stream of movie-star-charismatic Luther portraits, conveying the subject’s vigor and humor, absent his explosive temper. The painter introduced Luther to the renegade nun Katharina of Bora, whom he married. The men were godfathers of each other’s children. Cranach’s enchanting double portraits of the Luthers countered Catholic characterizations of the match as demonic. As the Reformation blazed through German realms, Cranach stoked it with satirical woodcuts that pictured, for example, the Pope and his cronies spilling from a witch’s womb. (Less ribald but likewise vicious Catholic broadsides against Luther papered cities to the south.)
Luther seems to have been unfazed by his ally’s occasional projects for the enemy camp, which included heroic allegorical paintings of the indulgence-sponsor Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg as St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin. (Luther’s German translation was the Reformation’s battering ram.) It is less surprising that Cranach continued to paint nudes. Sex was O.K. with Luther—whose related soft spot for babies is reflected in a Cranach painting, from the late fifteen-thirties, of Jesus happily being mobbed by little ones and their mothers. However, as religious dispute descended into religious war, a baleful ideological pressure grew in Cranach’s work for churches. In close consultation with Luther, he initiated a practice that, enslaving imagination to didactic programs, is all but oxymoronic: Protestant art.
Protestant mobs destroyed untold amounts of church art in the early years of the Reformation. Luther, returning to Wittenberg in 1522, after a period in hiding, found the city’s sanctuaries ravaged by zealots who deemed images of the divine idolatrous. He objected, deciding that, if anyone saw too much in such creations, it was the wreckers themselves. But Luther narrowed his defense of ecclesiastical art to its use for catechismal instruction, chiefly in advancing his doctrine that salvation comes per solam fidem—by personal faith alone, without saintly or clerical intercession. No more miracles were to be countenanced, except those warrantied by Scripture. A brilliant book by the art historian Joseph Leo Koerner, “The Reformation of the Image” (2004), expatiates on a work that is not in the Frankfurt show, Cranach’s “Wittenberg Altarpiece” (1547), which couches scenes of down-to-earth preaching and religious community in a novel language of discursive signs and gestures. Koerner treats this as a paradigm of recurrent anti-aestheticism in Western art, including that of political correctness. The altarpiece was dedicated on the day of the Battle of Mühlberg, a decisive military defeat of faction-crippled Lutheran forces by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Cranach lost his court position and, in 1550, joined the Elector John Frederick in exile, ending up in Weimar, where he died three years later. After Cranach’s death, his workshop was taken over by his son Lucas the Younger—whose works in the show include a startlingly vivacious portrait of Luther’s intellectual collaborator Philipp Melanchthon, which, like some Cranach nudes, might almost be the work of our contemporary John Currin. The Cranach family’s genealogy is still traced in Germany, where descendants have included Goethe and Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron.Melanchthon, doubling as an art critic, graded his day’s leading painters on their styles, from high to low: Dürer at the top, Matthias Grünewald in the middle, and Cranach the Elder at the bottom. There is indeed an over-all rambunctious crudity to Cranach, except in portraits, where he exercised self-forgetfully fine observation. He is careless of composition, often dumping figures into the pictorial rectangle almost at random. But Koerner notes that St. Augustine had “extolled a low style for ‘instruction and exegesis’—precisely the jobs that Reformation art was engineered to do.” Besides, Cranach’s willful romanticism, not Dürer’s classical restraint, has been the signature quality of Germanness in art for five centuries since, down to Sigmar Polke, Georg Baselitz, and Anselm Kiefer. (The ever-deliberate Gerhard Richter is an important exception.)
Certain tastes of today dominate climactic sections of the Frankfurt show, which ends in a fiesta of bare flesh and genre comedy. The emphasis makes historical sense in that it points up a career course, of relying on bourgeois markets, that became common for Northern European artists in the following century. These are works whose only reason for being, the odd perfunctory moral notwithstanding, is that people liked them. Pure pleasure is both the subject and the content of “The Golden Age” (1530), a big picture of handsome men and pretty women dancing, lolling, and bathing naked—but for gold necklaces on some of the women—in a walled garden, among peaceable deer, lions, rabbits, fox, and birds, with castles and mountains in the blue distance. A ring of dancers anticipates Henri Matisse’s “La Danse” in their abandoned mood as well as their gaily lurching form. The sidelong gaze of a female dancer invites us to join in. A woman about to splash water on a playfully cringing man is laugh-out-loud cute. Schematic renderings of grass and foliage, in two or three overlapped greens, typify the artist’s indifference to Renaissance realism; but you can just about feel and smell the moist verdure. Cranach had a penchant for joy, undimmed in an age that turned the world upside down. What were the secrets of his fortitude? These days, it would be salutary to know. ♦
Geplaatst door anonymous op Monday, December 10, 2007