Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance, at the National Gallery

The Crucifixion, The Master of the Aachen Altarpiece, c1490
The Crucifixion, The Master of the Aachen Altarpiece, c1490

One of the great pleasures of spending time in London is that there is an extraordinarily rich collection of galleries and exhibitions available to visit, with the major public galleries all offering free admission. The challenge this brings for gallery curators is that the bar is set high when evaluating the merits of any exhibition. To gain critical approval, an exhibition has to provide:

– an opportunity to see works of art that could not otherwise be seen in London, or combinations and juxtapositions of art that allow new perspectives or insights; and

– effective supporting scholarship which envelopes the exhibition, sets context, provides insight and generally educates the visitor; and

– a catalogue and reference work which enables the interested visitor to dig deeper and retain a reference to what they have just seen.

Of course, not every exhibition will succeed in providing all three of these, but they seem to me to represent a benchmark against to judge the standard of any exhibition.

Sadly, the National Gallery’s current exhibition in the Sainsbury Wing, ‘Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance’ falls short in pretty much every respect. The great majority of the art on display is drawn from the Gallery’s own collection and is regularly on display. The supporting scholarship is rather thin and largely consists of an extended ‘mea culpa’ about the Gallery’s poor record of acquiring German art, because it was not believed to be in good taste. And there is no catalogue to support the exhibition, but a small updated guide to the Gallery’s German collection which makes no reference to the exhibition at all, other than to borrow the title ‘Strange Beauty’.

I understand that the exhibition is in part a response to the need to rehang some of these works for the duration of the forthcoming Paolo Veronese exhibition which is to be held in the main galleries, not the Sainsbury Wing. That might be a reasonable and pragmatic response but it does not justify a £7 entrance fee given the absence of fresh work or fresh insight.

Cupid complaining to Venus, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1525
Cupid complaining to Venus, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1525
The Close of the Silver Age, Lucas Cranach the Elder, c1516
The Close of the Silver Age, Lucas Cranach the Elder, c1516

All this of course is not to say that there are not worthwhile images in the exhibition. Of course there are, from one of the Gallery’s works, Holbein’s The Ambassadors, to work by Cranach, Durer and several wonderful unknown masters of religious painting. And there are some very interesting ideas to explore. Brian Sewel, for example, the endlessly challenging art critic questions both whether the very term ‘Renaissance’ is applicable to northern European art of this period. He makes the interesting point that the essence of the Renaissance is a cultural looking back to classical ideas of form and beauty; ideas which influence our view of what is beautiful to this day. But much of the art shown in this exhibition does not so completely reflect classical ideas of beauty; while there is obvious evidence of classical influence in the work of both Durer and Cranach, for example, it reflects much greater continuity with medieval art. That’s why I think it is much easier for us to appreciate Durer’s image of Adam and Eve than the Aachen Crucifixion which has a raw medieval intensity and a requirement to confront and experience pain and suffering that is simply not present in southern Renaissance art. Cranach’s work sits between these two extremes. He has obviously absorbed Renaissance thinking in his choice of subjects, but he presents them in a way which owes much more to the Master of Aachen than to the Italian Renaissance.

Adam and Eve, Albrecht Durer, 1504
Adam and Eve, Albrecht Durer, 1504

And the story of the National Gallery’s blind eye to German art is also interesting and reminds us that we are all victims of the prevailing taste. And those who define that taste are the greatest victims, unable to see beyond their cultural boundaries. It would be nice to think that critics and curators are more open-minded in the C21 but the evidence is very much to the contrary. Never has contemporary art been more rigorously subjected to an imposed view of what is good, defined by a small London-based clique, than it is today. Perhaps in years to come the Tate will bring itself to present an exhibition which admits what it has closed its eyes to in the pursuit of Young British Artists and their successors.

 

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