From the 15th century until WWI, dominant western aesthetics rested on the Italian renaissance’s interpretation of the Greco-Roman classical ideal.
The artist’s job was to improve upon nature. By generalising, simplifying and organising representations of the visible world into coherent entities artists could personify and narrate philosophical, mythological and religious ideas.
Naturalistic representations of unidealised human beings and their surroundings in all their “ugly” imperfections and messiness was to insult or debase these subjects and distract from their essential, higher truths.
Yet, as the exhibition Strange Beauty: Masters Of The German Renaissance at the National Gallery shows, German art as part of the northern renaissance pursued an alternative visual tradition.
Rooted in the close observation of the realities of the visible world, it was valued in its day but soon overshadowed by the taste for Italian and French art.
The exhibition explores German renaissance art’s mixed reception in Britain, primarily through the National Gallery’s own acquisitions policies from its foundation in 1824 to the present. In so doing it questions definitions of beauty in art and the ways in which these may alter over time.
The juxtaposition of Hans Baldung Grien’s The Trinity And the Mystic Pieta with Raphael’s contemporary Saint Catherine Of Alexandria provides an initial shock.
Grien’s unidealised holy figures, with their unrestrained displays of grief which are partly empathised by the jagged turbulence of their draperies and Christ’s angular and emaciated body, make a startling contrast with the fluid gracefulness of Raphael’s well nourished, classically proportioned and remarkably placid saint.
Equally unsettling are Grien’s odd mixtures of the lifelike and the symbolic. Flat haloes against a gilded sky contrast with illusions of solidity and perspective in the pieta figures, yet these are dramatically larger than the tiny donor figures beneath.
A crucifixion scene by the Master of Aachen is populated by a multitude of figures whose varied and unidealised faces convey a confusion of emotion and character. By being crammed into the composition they heighten the subject’s emotional tempo to one of near hysteria.
In 1857 the National Gallery sold 37 of the 64 Westphalian renaissance paintings — recently bought by the government for the nation — because they did not fit in with the rest of its collection.
Non-naturalistic handling of space, scale and line and overt displays of grief such as Grien’s were still considered shocking and either excessively emotional or ugly by the dominant aesthetic when the National Gallery bought this painting in 1894.
Yet it was such “primitive” distortions which inspired the late-19th century vanguard to reject classicism for more expressive means.
One room is devoted mostly to portraits by Albrecht Durer, Hans Holbein and Lucas Cranach. Their virtuoso renderings of illusions of surface textures such as fur, silk, embroidery or changing flesh tones continue to amaze.
The influence of Italian art is seen in Durer’s engravings of Adam and Eve and his studies of perspective. The most idealised works are Cranach’s. Large female saints for the Saint Catherine altarpiece are doll-like, with their pale and pious faces contrasting with richly adorned clothes and jewels.
Cranach also produced idealised nudes — thinly masquerading as mythological subjects — such as Cupid Complaining To Venus. Eroticised by her sinuous pose and partial adornment with a gold rope necklace and formidably flamboyant fur hat, Venus is more concerned with engaging flirtatiously with the viewer’s gaze than with the swarm of bees pestering her son Cupid.
That Cranach’s Venus, whose slender, athletic body conforms to current ideals of beauty, has been chosen for the exhibition’s publicity material suggests that taste still tends towards the abstract ideal rather than the realist outlaw.
The last room is an “interactive experience.” Questions such as: “Is ugliness more authentic than beauty?” and “Are beauty and expression incompatible?” are writ large on three walls with fuller quotations on the fourth. The public’s answers on the postcards provided are pegged across the latter.
While public participation is welcome, the lack of context limits the scope for informed responses. The questions’ focus on taste diverts attention from patronage and function. Where, why and by whom these works were originally seen are factors which fundamentally informed their aesthetic.
Many of the public were impressed by the ability to simulate a likeness but several rightly complain at having paid to see works mostly from the National Gallery’s free permanent collection and none from abroad.
Moreover the majority of other works are miniatures or prints from the equally free V&A and the British Museum. Hopes of seeing rare Durer paintings are dashed.
The lack of international borrowings seriously narrows this exhibition’s range. Its conceptual theme has an air of desperately eking out its topic on a small budget. While it raises interesting questions about aesthetics and changing taste the exhibition would be more rewarding if it had brought together works from far-flung collections to make German renaissance art better known.
Strange Beauty, Masters Of The German Renaissance, runs at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2 until May 11. Box office: (020) 7747-2885.
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