After dark in the old town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, it’s easy to imagine that I am walking in the footsteps of Hieronymus Bosch. For even though he died 500 years ago, the street plan is unchanged from the lanes and alleyways with which he was familiar in the last decades of the 15th century. The painter lived here all his life, walking daily from his home on the Markt to his workshop nearby, and if he returned now, a wayfarer in time, he would still be able to find his way around.
And in a way he has returned. Banners fluttering over the city streets welcome Bosch back home to a year-long celebration the likes of which will almost certainly never be repeated. I’m here in this provincial Dutch town to see the remarkable exhibition which the director of the small museum has managed to assemble to mark the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death. Improbably, he has convinced major museums around the world to lend nearly all of the 50 or so surviving paintings and drawings by the artist, at the same time attracting money from the Getty Foundation to pay for research and restoration work. Continue reading “Hieronymus Bosch back in his old home town”→
Guide books aren’t much use in Berlin at the moment if you’re trying to work out where to see what in the city’s main museums and art galleries. Everything is being reorganised: some galleries like the Neue Nationalgalerie – the main gallery for modern art – are closed for refurbishment, while the extensive programme renovation and reorganisation of the five monumental buildings on Museum Island and the massive project to rebuild the Berlin Schloss as the Humboldt Forum continues.
Only in Berlin for four days, we had to make some hard choices about what to see, a task made more difficult since even the most recently-published guide book couldn’t keep up with developments. We decided to make a quick visit to the Gemäldegalerie (Paintings Gallery) since it’s just a stone’s throw from the Berlin Philharmonie, where we intended to attend oner of the free Tuesday lunchtime concerts of chamber music – and because it houses treasures by favourite artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Vermeer, Holbein and Rembrandt. Continue reading “Brief glimpses of art and music in Berlin”→
After listening to Neil MacGregor’s outstanding radio series, Germany: Memories of a Nation, a visit to the linked exhibition at the British Museum was considered essential. But, you might ask, was it worth it, having heard the radio version? Yes, absolutely. In the radio programmes, Neil MacGregor focussed on one particular object, and very few items he discussed are illustrated on the BBC website. The exhibition, on the other hand, features 200 objects selected to reflect on a number of key themes that offer an impressionistic, but richly detailed, account of 600 years of German history, from the Renaissance to the present day.
Like the radio series, the exhibition sets out to investigate the complexities of German history. For British visitors it poses two key questions: How much do we really understand Germany, and how do its people understand themselves?
Wir sind ein Volk placard, East Germany, 1990
When you enter the exhibition you see three things. The first is a quote from the painter Georg Baselitz: ‘What I could never escape was Germany and being German’; then your attention is drawn to a video of the joyous crowds of East Germans pouring through the hastily-opened Berlin Wall on the night of 9 November 1989. Finally, displayed nearby is a home-made placard made for a demonstration in East Berlin a few weeks later: cut in the shape of the united Germany and with the colours of the German flag it bears the words: ‘Wir sind ein Volk’ – ‘we are one people’.
The point being made is how recently the Germany of today – the Germany on the placard, and the one unification created in 1990 – came into existence. The boundaries of today’s Germany are less than a quarter of a century old, the result of the merging of the German Democratic Republic with the German Federal Republic in 1990.
Model of Strasbourg cathedral clock
How this new Germany echoes and recalls older forms of Germany is the story told by the exhibition. It is a story of shifting borders and jigsaw pieces of German history, some of which are found in cities which are no longer German. Take, for example, Strasbourg, now a French border city, but for centuries a centre of German culture and industry. In the cathedral there, Goethe thought he had found the essence of German art and history. The exhibition illustrates the city’s key place in German history with a model of the cathedral clock, made in 1574. As well as dials to show the time, the clock strikes the hours and the quarters. On the hour, figures emerge on a revolving dais – first Death to strikes the hour, then the figure of Christ appears to banish Death. It’s a remarkable piece of intricate engineering.
Kathe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait, 1904
Next, a reminder that Königsberg, once home to Immanuel Kant and later to the German painter and printmaker Käthe Kollwitz, is now Kaliningrad, a Russian city. Here is one of Kathe Kollwitz’s intense, searching self-portrait, this one from 1904. Kollwitz was born in Konigsberg when it was a Prussian city. By 1945 her home town had been destroyed by Allied bombing and, renamed Kalingrad, was under Soviet control. (For more about Kathe Kollwitz, see ‘Käthe Kollwitz, a Berlin story‘ on the British Museum blog.)
In this opening section of the exhibition, the theme is ‘Floating Frontiers’; the aim is to show how the geographic home of the German-speaking peoples has fluctuated widely, from an enormous swathe of princely states, loosely united within the Holy Roman Empire, then smashed apart by Napoleon, and then re-forged under Prussian leadership.
Franz Kafka: woodcut by Hans Fronius, 1937
A superb woodcut of Franz Kafka is here to remind us that the Czech city of Prague was once home to a large German-speaking community, which included Kafka, one of the most acclaimed writers in the German language. Today, however, neither Russian-speaking Kaliningrad nor Czech-speaking Prague are in any sense German.
Holbein, Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1523
Nearby is this portrait of Erasmus, painted by Holbein in 1523 while he was based in the university at Basel. Throughout the medieval period Basel was a thoroughly German city – one of the first centres of the German printing industry. Its university attracted renowned scholars such as Erasmus. In 1501, however, Basel elected to become part of Switzerland.
Holbein, Lady with Squirrel and Starling, 1526
Holbein appears again with this portrait painted during his first visit to England in 1526. His career – and the painting – both reflect the extent of German-speaking cultural and commercial links across Europe at the time. The lady is English, her squirrel is German, and she wears Russian-cut furs that would have come to England through a Hanseatic League merchant operating in the Steelyard, the main trading base of the Hanseatic League in London, located on the north bank of the Thames roughly where Cannon Street station now stands. As this article from History Today suggests, the Hanseatic League was effectively the first Common Market. Holbein went on to paint portraits of several prominent members of the Steelyard community
Casper David Friedrich, Der Mittag (Noon), 1821
This painting by Casper David Friedrich illustrates how the German landscape has had a profound impact on German identity. The work of 19th century Romantics like Friedrich, with their focus on wild places, mountain ranges, remote lakes and deep forests, gave new focus to the German landscape as a symbol of German identity (even today, one-third of Germany is covered by forests). The early and continuing influence of the Green Party reflects this aspect of the German identity.
Albrecht Dürer, pen and ink drawing of a rhinoceros, 1515
Johann Gottleib Kirchner, Meissen porcelain Rhino, 1730
Durer’s famous rhinocerous print and a copy of it made from Meissen porcelain two centuries later have been chosen to represent two of Germany’s earliest artistic and technological achievements. The invention of modern printing in the mid-1400s allowed Durer to become the first leading artist to gain fame for his mass-produced works. Though he never actually saw a rhinocerous, his print – with its inaccuracies – was copied for centuries. It was such an obvious example of great German art that when porcelain was reinvented by scientists in Dresden in the early 1700s it was transformed into this example of an industry which allowed Europe to equal China’s earlier achievements.
These have been just glimpses of a wide-ranging and complex exhibition. Inevitably, it’s the objects that represent the devastating and tragic events of the first half of the 20th century that linger in the memory. The exhibition reflects these events through the works of artists and objects of the time. There are Otto Dix prints reflecting on World War I, banknotes issued during the period of hyperinflation in the 1920s, an etching by Käthe Kollwitz created in response to the assassination of Communist leader Karl Liebknecht during the abortive socialist revolution of 1919.
Otto Dix, Der Krieg: Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain, 1922
Kathe Kollwitz, Memorial sheet of Karl Liebknecht, 1919-1920
In 1937 the Nazis mounted a large travelling exhibition of antisemitic propaganda under the title Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew). The exhibits, which included photographs, documents and charts, repeated mediaeval myths about the Jews, accused the Jews of usury, dishonest business practices, and alleged an international Jewish conspiracy that controlled both capitalism and Communism. The exhibition blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in the First World War and for wars and financial crises in general. The exhibition drew large crowds. The poster for the exhibition, displayed here, emphasized supposed attempts by Jews to turn Germany into a communist state, portraying an ‘eastern’ Jew holding gold coins in one hand and a whip in the other. Under his arm is a map of the world, with the imprint of the hammer and sickle. Kristallnacht followed one year later.
Poster for ‘The Eternal Jew’ exhibition, Dresden 1937
Sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers, 1939
A sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers, produced for children in 1939, shows how the Nazis attempted to embed the cult of Hitler and symbols of Nazism throughout German society, especially in the minds of the young.
KDF-Wagen sales brochure, from 1938
On the way into the exhibition, one of the most emblematic icons of German industrial success, a post-war VW Beetle is on display. The Beetle, or KDF-Wagen as it was initially known, could trace its origins back to the late 1930s, when this brochure was printed, offering the chance to own a Volkswagens ( or ‘people’s car’), by collecting saving stamps. A large factory was built in the new town of Wolfsburg. Civilian production was interrupted during World War II with military vehicles being assembled there, mainly by forced workers and POWs. Production of the Beetle resumed shortly after the end of the war, initially thanks to the efforts of the British Army to get production back on track. By 1955 the one-millionth VW Beetle was being manufactured in Wolfsburg, symbolizing the German ‘economic miracle’.
A refugee cart from East Pomerania (now Poland) c 1945
Alongside a loan from the Buchenwald concentration camp – a replica of the camp’s gate with its inscription in elegant Bauhaus lettering stating ‘to each his own’ – is a simple refugee cart. The former is testimony to the annihilation by the Nazis of the Jews of central and eastern Europe, while the cart speaks of the largest organised deportation in history – the expulsion of around 12 million Germans, forced to migrate after 1945 from areas of centuries-old German settlement across central and eastern Europe. Using family farm carts like this to carry what belongings they could, the migrants fled before the advance of the Soviet army or were expelled after the German defeat.
Stage model for ‘Mother Courage’, made for first German production, Berlin, 1949
Next to the cart is a model prepared for the first German production of Brecht’s play Mother Courage in Berlin in 1949. Brecht had written the play in Sweden in 1939 in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Set during the Thirty Years War that began in 1618 (an earlier age of self-inflicted German devastation), a traditional family cart was central to the staging.
The final, searing section of the exhibition is prefaced by these words from the curators:
The Nazis left a dark memory that can neither be avoided nor adequately explained. After 1945 a once more divided Germany had to engage with this past and create a present that could accommodate it.
Here is one of the most powerful artistic statements made in Germany in the last 25 years. In 1980 Anselm Kiefer began a series of works inspired by Paul Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’, a poem composed in German in late 1944 and 1945. Celan’s parents, along with many other Jews from Czernowitz, Romania, where he had been raised, were killed in the Trisnistria camp in eastern Romania in 1942. Celan himself endured two years of forced labor under the Germans, after which he lived in exile in Paris until his suicide in 1970.
Anselm Kiefer, Your Golden Hair, Margarete, 1981
His poem deals obliquely with the horror of the Holocaust, stating ‘Death is a master from Germany’. In this watercolour version of the enormous canvas of the same name which is currently on show at the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy, Kiefer places the words ‘Dein goldenes Haar, Margarete’, used by Celan to represent the Aryan ideal of blonde beauty, over sheaves of golden corn. Her blonde hair is contrasted in the poem with the ‘ashen’ hair of Jewish Shulamith, the favourite wife of King Solomon.
Model of the new Jewish synagogue in Offenbach, 1946
But the exhibition concludes with three exhibits which offer the hope of renewal and are suggestive of the way in which the German people have attempted, in the last thirty years, to come to terms with their past, openly and with honesty.
After concentration camps like Buchenwald and extermination camps like Auschwitz, it seemed that the story of Jews in Germany must come to a full stop at the end of the war. Over 90% of Jews living in Germany died in the Holocaust. Most survivors in exile decided to remain abroad. Why would any Jew, in 1945 or after, see any part of their future in Germany? But remarkably Germany today has the fastest-growing Jewish population in Western Europe.
By 1948 there were already nearly 100 Jewish communities in Germany again, and new synagogues were being built. In 1946 the town of Offenbach offered to build a new synagogue. On display is the model design by Herman Guttman for a synagogue and community centre that would provide protection and refuge for every member of the community: ‘Nach au Auschwitz’ (After Auschwitz). The synagogue was built and is now much enlarged to accommodate the large number of Russian Jews who arrived in the 1990s.
Ernst Barlach, The Hovering Angel, 1927 bronze replica from Gustrov Cathedral
The end of the exhibition is dominated by the hovering figure of Ernst Barlach’s Der Schwebende, a mourning figure in solid bronze designed for Güstrow Cathedral, initially as a memorial to those who died in World War I. Its subsequent fate has meant it has become a distillation of Germany’s 20th century history and a powerful symbol of the strength of reconciliation. It has been generously lent to the Museum by the congregation in Güstrow – the first time it has left the cathedral.
Detached from earth and time, with folded arms and closed eyes, the figure expresses an internalised vision of the grief and suffering of war. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, Barlach’s works were among the first to be declared Entartete Kunst (‘degenerate art’) and confiscated and removed from public display. Sadly, Barlach died in 1938, knowing that his masterwork had been taken down to be melted and probably made into war munitions.
However, some courageous friends had managed to hide a second cast, which was then hung in the Antoniter Church in Cologne after the end of the Second World War. This time, the sculpture commemorated two World Wars. During the time of the Cold War in the 1950s, the parish of Cologne made another cast of the Angel and presented it in a gesture of friendship to the parish of Güstrow cathedral. For the next few months this cast is displayed in the British Museum’s exhibition.
In 1981 Helmut Schmidt, the Chancellor of West Germany, met Erich Honecker in East Germany, and they visited Barlach’s Angel in Güstrow cathedral. On this occasion, Schmidt said to the bishop in Güstrow: ‘I would like to thank you very much for your kind words of welcome. As you said, Barlach is indeed part of our common memory of the past. May I add, that Barlach could also stand as a representative of our shared and common future.’ Schmidt was right. Eight years later, in peaceful demonstrations, East Germans brought the wall between East and West down.
The facial features those of Kathe Kollwitz, kindred spirit of Barlach who shared his pacifist views.
Neil MacGregor recently made this comment on the meaning of Barlach’s Hovering Angel:
In Britain we have monuments to things in our past that we are very proud of. The Germans put up monuments to their own shame, and that makes them very different from almost any other country. They do that as a reminder of how they ought to behave in the future.
Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1991 (lithoprint from 1988 painting)
The last object we see before the exit is a painting by another contemporary German artist, Gerhard Richter. It’s based on a photo of his daughter, taken as she turned to look at one of his paintings.
The young girl may be turning away from the artist – her father – or, perhaps, turning towards something else. Fraught with ambiguity, the painting suggests conflict between generations, the interplay of past and present, and ideas of acceptance and guilt.
Richter was born Dresden in 1932 and grew up in what later became the GDR. He escaped to the West two months before the Wall was built in 1961.
In London for a couple of days last week, I knew that I had to see the exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery – The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein. The Renaissance art of Northern Europe emerged from significantly different traditions and political experiences than those that informed the art of the Italian Renaissance. This large exhibition is organised around two of the greatest artists of the age: Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein. When I look at a portrait by Durer or Holbein, I am struck by the humanism that these works express in their quest to depict the uniqueness of the individual, questioning what it means to be human and the place of humanity in the wider world.
Two portraits by Albrecht Dürer of his closest friends are displayed side by side at the start of the exhibition; they seem epitomise the respect for learning and the individual pursuit of truth that lay at the heart of the dissemination of ideas which ultimately challenged authority and religion.
The first is an engraving made by Durer in 1524 of the Nuremberg humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, Dürer’s closest friend. He was a respected scholar and translator, and a close friend of Erasmus. It was from discussions with Pirckheimer that Durer, who had not benefited from an academic education, acquired the classical and humanist learning displayed in his works. Pirckheimer appears in several other Dürer’s prints, sometimes in a less than academic pose, as in ‘The Bath House’, discussed below. The inscription to Pirckheimer’s portrait, composed by Pirckheimer himself, reads, ‘We live by the spirit. The rest belongs to death’. Durer’s portrait of his friend does indeed seem to probe beneath mere likeness to reveal the soul of the man.
The companion portrait is of another of Durer’s friends, Philip Melanchthon, Professor of Greek at the University of Wittenberg. He was a respected man and staunch supporter of Luther, with whom he worked closely to put reforming ideals into practice. In 1525 Melanchthon was invited to Nuremberg to oversee reform of education in the city. During his stay, Melanchthon lodged with Willibald Pirckheimer and undoubtedly met Dürer, either through his host or through other members of the city’s humanist circle.
Dürer’s inscription translates as ‘Dürer was able to depict the features of the living Philip, but the skilled hand could not portray his mind’, a reflection of Melanchthon’s own views on images, which he believed served as valuable signs and prompts to religion, but which were not interchangeable with the subject. This radical Protestant attitude to religious images meant that they could not be the object of worship themselves, and would lead ultimately to the destruction of religious imagery in churches across northern Europe.
But something else is implied in the inscription: it relates to a debate that raged in artistic circles about the extent to which a work of art could portray the essential reality of its subject. Melanchthon’s image, the inscription states, is a good likeness, facilitating remembrance of the sitter, but it does not bear his essence and therefore falls short of being the man himself.
In the period delineated by this exhibition – from 1450 to around 1600 – Northern Europe experienced profound changes. The period is often described as the Northern Renaissance, analogous to the revolution in art and scholarship which took place in Italy from the fourteenth century. The Renaissance in Northern Europe was, however, different from that in Italy in several respects. At its heart was the challenge to the teachings of the Catholic Church initiated by Martin Luther. Thinking minds in the north were more concerned with religious reform, feeling that Rome had strayed far from Christian values. As northern Europe became more openly rebellious of the authority of the Church, art shifted in a secular direction, turning in many cases from devotional scenes to non-religious subjects such as portraiture and mythology.
As demand for paintings shifted in response to these changes, artists moved from city to city seeking work. The printing press, invented in Germany around 1450, 21 years before Dürer’s birth, allowed texts – and thus ideas – to circulate freely and enabled Durer to disseminate engravings and woodcuts throughout Europe. As the Reformation led to a decisive move away from idolatry, demand grew for images that glorified the secular, a demand met by the artists represented in this exhibition.
Northern scholars drew upon the approach of Italian humanists, who had turned to classical sources to explore man’s identity. Among them was Desiderius Erasmus, whose books, arguing for religious tolerance and reform of clerical abuses in the Church, gained readers across Europe. He is represented here in a portrait by Quinten Massys painted in 1517. Erasmus sent this portrait to Sir Thomas More, the lawyer, author and statesman who, until his arrest and execution in 1535, was prominent at the court of Henry VIII.
The exhibition reminds us that the Northern Renaissance did not develop in isolation – there was regular interchange, both artistic and commercial, between the northern lands and Italy. Florence was a centre of continental banking, Venice traded in spices and luxuries from the Orient, while the Rhine and Rhône served as fast trade routes between the Mediterranean and the northern seas. There were as many Italian merchants in the commercial centres of the north as there were Germans, Flemings and English in Italy. Hilary Mantel picks up on this in her novel Wolf Hall, in which Thomas Cromwell returns to England after some years involved in commerce (and maybe more) in Italy.
But it wasn’t only commerce: artists from Flanders, the Netherlands and Burgundy journeyed south, to gain an education in classical and Renaissance art. Dürer, for example, went to Venice as a student in 1494, and Bruegel went to Rome around 1550. Italian artists and their apprentices never travelled north, though: Michelangelo never contemplated a jaunt to Brussels.
The Northern Renaissance was a superb series, presented by Joseph Leo Koerner, shown on BBC4 a few years back. Someone has uploaded a clip of the first 6 minutes of part 1 to YouTube:
The Renaissance in the north crystallized around the intense vision and realism of Dürer’s work. Other painters in both Germany and the Netherlands followed the same Northern impulse for precise observation and naturalism in the fields of landscape painting and portraiture.
The son of a goldsmith, Albrecht Durer set up his workshop in 1494 in his native Nuremberg. From here, he produced a wide variety of painted and printed works, from images of saints and Biblical stories to mythology, portraits and scenes of contemporary life. Durer was not only a brilliant artist, but also a very clever entrepreneur. He was the first artist fully to exploit the potential of prints – mainly engravings and woodcuts – which could be issued in multiple impressions, circulating his images widely and relatively cheaply. He spread his fame by stamping his prints with his trademark AD monogram. By 1497, he was successful enough to employ an agent to handle his foreign print sales.
The prints Durer made were used as objects of devotion, pasted onto walls and into collectors’ albums, and purchased by artists to use as models in their own work. He is represented in this exhibition by a number of his most famous prints, including his woodcut of an Indian rhinoceros, which is surprisingly accurate given that he never saw the beast in the flesh.
Here are two contrasting examples of Durer’s work, perhaps an example of his success in catering to entirely different markets. Both are examples of Durer’s consummate draughtsmanship. First, the profane: ‘The Bath House’ is a woodcut of four men at a male bathhouse, washing, socialising and listening to two musicians. One leans against a water pipe, another drinks from a tankard and two sit in the foreground, one holding a back scraper, the other a carnation. The man standing against the water pipe is recognisably the artist himself, while the plump seated man drinking is Dürer’s friend Willibald Pirckheimer, who we’ve already met in different circumstances. The two figures in the foreground have been tentatively identified as Lukas and Stephan Paumgartner, friends of Dürer who commissioned, and were portrayed in, an altarpiece by the artist. If the observer in the background is included, the figures stand for the five senses: Dürer as hearing, Pirckheimer as taste, the figure holding the flower as smell, his companion as touch and the onlooker in the background as sight. Dürer demonstrates his skill at portraying the male nude in varying poses, but the print is not simply a study of the male figure. There is also some profane humour here, as indicated in the suggestive cock-topped tap that juts from the post against which Dürer leans. It’s perhaps relevant that the communal baths in Nuremberg were closed in 1496 in an attempt to prevent the spread of syphilis.
And so to the sacred: ‘The Virgin and Child with an Angel playing the Viol’, a delicate composition and an excellent example of Dürer’s confident yet exacting draughtsmanship, which was paralleled by his bold woodcuts. It shows the artist’s deft hatching, which was clearly executed briskly, yet with remarkable precision, making a careful contrast between areas of light and shade. Lines with which Dürer worked out the proportions of the Virgin’s face can be seen clearly.
I stood and stared at this one for a very long time, for what is astonishing about this depiction of a greyhound is that it is composed entirely of delicate brushstrokes. The handling of the elegant brushmarks is deceptively simple; as an engraver, Dürer knew how to use swelling and tapering lines to convey the dog’s wiry yet muscular form and coarse coat.
‘The Great Triumphal Cart’ is a large woodcut, over 2 metres in length, displayed across one wall of a room. It exemplifies Durer’s success in gaining recognition, not only in the popular marketplace, but from rich and important patrons. None was more important than the man who commissioned this work. It was originally planned as part of a huge printed frieze, undertaken by a team of designers and woodblock cutters, to show a triumphal procession celebrating Maximilian I, who had been Holy Roman Emperor since 1493. Dürer and his friend, the humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, however, proposed a revised version of the chariot to Maximilian in 1518, and issued it as a posthumous memorial in 1523 (Maximilian had died in 1519).
Dürer’s triumphal chariot shows the Emperor seated in a cart drawn by six teams of horses. The Emperor holds a palm, and a laurel wreath is being placed on his head by Victory, while other virtues holding laurel wreaths stand on the cart or lead the horses. The cart is driven by ‘ratio’ (‘reason’) and the horses are reined with ‘nobilitas’ (‘nobility’) and ‘potentia’ (‘power’). The wheels of the cart, which are adorned with Maximilian’s symbols, the splayed eagle and the Burgundian flints, are named ‘magnificentia’, ‘dignitas’, ‘gloria’ and ‘honor’. An extensive interpretive text, by Pirckheimer, is included on the print. Pirckheimer was largely responsible for the iconography of the chariot, over which he had corresponded with Maximilian in 1518. Drawing on a long tradition of triumphal entries, thought to date back to Roman emperors, the design implied a parallel between Julius Caesar, the archetypal Roman emperor, and Maximilian, the modern Caesar.
This is the first part of a documentary on Durer from YouTube. Five more parts are also available
Like Durer, Hans Holbein gets a whole section of the exhibition to himself. The Royal Collection contains one of the finest collections of work by Holbein, who came to England for the first time in 1526 during the reign of Henry VIII. Anyone who has read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall will be fascinated by the portraits of members of the royal family and eminent courtiers on show here.
Hans Holbein was born in southern Germany in 1497. In 1516, he moved to the Swiss city of Basel where he worked as a portraitist, book illustrator and designer of stained glass. Among his employers was the publisher Johannes Froben, who commissioned illustrations for books by Sir Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus. The exhibition includes a portrait of Froben by Holbein in which he records in the sitter’s face his wisdom and age, while the textures of skin, hair and the fur collar are presented with consummate skill.
After making his reputation Basel, Holbein was appointed as the King’s Painter to Henry VIII in 1536. Apart from a brief return to Basel between 1528 and 1532, Holbein spent the rest of his life in England. Holbein had arrived in London in 1526, carrying an introduction from Erasmus to Thomas More, who gave the artist his first English commissions.
In 1527, eight years before Henry VIII ordered his execution for denying the supremacy of the crown, Holbein had painted his patron Thomas More, the social philosopher, humanist and Lord Chancellor to the King. Although this portrait is not in this exhibition, the Royal Collection does own a fine and detailed cartoon of the painting, which is on show.
One of Holbein’s first commissions after his arrival in England in 1526 was a group portrait of the family of Sir Thomas More. This work is now lost, but on display here is this 18th century print, a copy of a line and ink drawing, an annotated record of an early draft of his painting. Holbein showed the members of More’s household sitting and standing, in conversation and reading.
William Reskimer, who came from Cornwall, held a number of minor positions at Henry VIII’s court, among them Page of the Chamber. In 1543 he was granted keepership of the ports of the Duchy of Cornwall and in 1546 was appointed Gentleman Usher. I have no idea what those responsibilities would have entailed!
A comparison of the preparatory drawing and the oil painting shows how closely Holbein followed the former. The painting deviates only marginally in the contour of the inside of the earlobe, and even such details as the fine lines around Reskimer’s eyes and the shadows on his cheeks follow the original drawing.
As with Durer’s portraits, Holbein has the ability to capture personality as well as likeness: you can sense thoughts and feelings behind each face on show.
Sir Henry Guildford was one of Henry VIII’s inner circle, and one of his closest friends. On the King’s accession in 1509 he was appointed Esquire of the Body – a personal attendant on the King – and Master of Revels, responsible for organising the lavish entertainments at court. He threw lavish parties that featured morris dancers, moving stages and elaborate costumes for the young King. Guildford went on to have a distinguished career as Comptroller of the Royal Household. In his continuing support for Katherine of Aragon he made a dangerous enemy of the King’s mistress, Anne Boleyn, but it was a mark of his friendship with Henry that he remained in post until his death in 1532.
The finished oil painting of Guildford is considered to be one of Holbein’s most impressive surviving portraits. It shows Guildford standing, richly dressed in velvet, fur and cloth of gold. Holbein has meticulously painted these varied textures, with the satin of the sleeves set against the rich black of the velvet on his upper arms. To emphasise the luxuriousness of the sitter’s dress and his high status, Holbein has made lavish use of both gold paint and gold leaf (which has been used to depict the highlights of gold thread in the material). Guildford holds the white staff of office of the Comptroller of the Household, and a hat badge showing a clock and geometrical instruments.
Another fine portrait is this one, of Hans of Antwerp, a goldsmith who worked in England from 1515 and was in royal employ between 1537 and 1547. It seems that he and Holbein were friends. On his return to England from Basel in 1532, Holbein painted several portraits of German merchants based in London. Here, Hans has paused from writing on the paper in front of him to cut the string of a letter he has just received.
Another superb portrait, of another of the German merchants: Derich Born was a merchant from Cologne, and the youngest member of the London Hanseatic League. The translated inscription (seen on the stone ledge on which Born leans, reads: ‘If you added a voice, this would be Derich his very self. You would be in doubt whether the painter or his father made him. Der Born, aged 23, the year 1533.’ As already noted, the question of whether art could perfectly imitate nature was much debated by contemporary humanists.
In 1541 Born and his elder brother were expelled from the London Steelyard (the walled area where the Hanseatic merchants resided and did business) after a dispute with the Duke of Suffolk concerning payment for a consignment of lead.
Holbein’s greatest achievement at the court of Henry VIII was reputedly a magnificent wall painting in the Privy Chamber at Whitehall Palace which was destroyed by fire in 1698. The mural was painted in 1537 following the long-awaited birth of a male heir – Prince Edward. Its aim was to celebrate the strength of the Tudor dynasty by depicting Henry VIII and Jane Seymour standing in front of Henry VII and his wife, Elizabeth of York.
The first part of the Latin inscription on the plinth in the centre translates as: ‘If it pleases you to see the illustrious images of heroes, look on these: no picture ever bore greater. The great debate, competition and great question is whether father or son is the victor. For both, indeed, were supreme’.
This small painting was copied by the Flemish artist Remigius van Leemput for Charles II from the life-size mural on the wall of the Privy Chamber in Whitehall before it was destroyed in the fire of January 1698.
I liked this drawing by the Swiss artist (and mercenary) Urs Graf. Graf was the son of a goldsmith who, by 1511, had established himself in Basel as a designer of stained glass and prints. Graf was repeatedly involved in acts of violence, and in 1518 he was forced to leave the city after attempting murder. The city council recalled the artist from exile to work for the Basel mint in 1519, having decided that his talent as a die cutter outweighed his violent character. Graf also saw active service in military campaigns as a Swiss mercenary .
The engraving work shows a soldier embracing a woman, probably a prostitute, by a lake. Graf’s deft penmanship is shown in the economical depiction of the landscape – in which loops denote trees and a handful of strokes become a boat – and in the exuberance of the feathers in the man’s cap. Exotic dress was a hallmark of the mercenary, whose itinerant lifestyle meant that money was quickly converted into items that were easily portable. Although the scene is one of calm, in which both the figures and the landscape appear still, an underlying aggression, both physical and sexual, is provided by the perpendicular sword, a phallic as well as a military symbol.
This portrait, like the previous drawing, is from the section of the exhibition that brings together a range of work under the title, ‘Art in the Holy Roman Empire’. It forms a pair with the painting below, and is attributed to Hans Brosamer, who was probably born in Fulda, in the dukedom of Hesse, and died in Erfurt in Thuringen. No documentary evidence for the artist survives. The black fur-lined gown, possibly lamb fleece, worn by the sitter in this portrait suggest that, though affluent, he was not one of the most wealthy members of the civic elite.
The woman in the paired portrait is perhaps his wife. Her blue apron (rather than white) suggests that she came from the same social strata as the man. She wears a linen coif worn by married German women, and apart from the gold rings on her fingers, her most expensive clothing is the short cape which seems to be made of a cut silk velvet with an edging of blue silk velvet.
Here’s another German couple, painted by Ulrich Apt of Augsburg in 1512. From a family of painters, Apt was an important member of the city’s Guild of Painters, Glaziers, Carvers and Gilders. This painting is a marriage portrait: the numbers 52, 35 and 1512 (painted on the white window frame) indicate that the man was 52 and the woman 35 on their marriage in 1512. A church holds the central position in the landscape between the couple. The husband, in a gown possibly lined with marten, is set against the open landscape with a castle at his back, suggesting that he is part of the world of affairs, while the wife’s domestic realm is alluded to by her enclosure within the house and placement against a blank wall. The painting would probably have been displayed in the family home, and reflects the self-assurance of the new middle class in Augsburg.
Another extensive section of the exhibition presents a nearly 30 works of various kinds that illustrate the theme of ‘Art in the Netherlands’ during the Renaissance. At that time, the Netherlands included present-day Belgium, Luxembourg and part of north-eastern France as well as the Dutch Republic, an area ruled by the Habsburg family. Charles V inherited the Netherlands along with the Holy Roman Empire and Spain, thereby becoming the most powerful ruler in Europe.
The Netherlands flourished as a centre of trade at this time. Bruges was particularly wealthy, its success reflected in the presence of many artists’ workshops, including those of Hans Memling and Jan Provoost. Later, Antwerp’s increasing prominence meant it was the base for painters such as Quinten Massys, Jan Gossaert and Joos van Cleve.
Until the Reformation, devotional paintings were an important part of the market, but with changing beliefs and social attitudes, portraits and other subject matter became more significant. In Marinus van Reymerswaele’s ‘The Misers’, portraiture was turned to caricature to mock the despised occupation of tax collector, and to highlight the perils of wealth (which, ironically, put bread on the table for artists). The painting here is representative of what was, apparently, a popular genre of painting in the sixteenth century, showing miserly figures with grotesque features. The curators note that recent cleaning and conservation have revealed the high quality of the painting and the precision of details, such as the change in skin tone when seen through the spectacles worn by the man on the left and the blemishes in the skin of the man on the right.
Another brilliant Netherlands portrait is this one, by Hans Memling who, although he was from Frankfurt, probably trained in Brussels before becoming a citizen of Bruges in 1465, where he worked for the rest of his life. He built up a strong network among the European aristocracy, thereby generating a steady stream of work. No record exists of this commission and there is no clear clue within the portrait to identify the man. In his portrait style Hans Memling created a means of expressing not only the individual personalities of his sitters but also a sense of idealised beauty.
In the final room of the exhibition, on one wall alone, hangs a masterpiece which reveals the dark side of the Renaissance: religious intolerance, war, and the imperial suppression of attempts to assert new national identities. But more about this in the next post.
In Ego: The Strange and Wonderful World of Self-Portraits, last night on BBC4, Laura Cumming, the Observer art critic, presented an absorbing survey of the self-portrait. She began with Durer’s compelling study of himself in 1500, aged 28, Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe (above). Durer was the first European artist to produce a self-portrait. That alone is remarkable, but in total Durer created at least ten: three paintings, a watercolour and around six drawings, including the portrait of himself at age 13 (below). Laura Cumming began by recalling the personal significance for her of Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe:
One summer of my childhood was spent in bed with measles. A family friend braved the quarantine bearing what she called her portable museum, dozens of old master postcards in a shoebox. Among the many portraits were some that stood out, having that intensity about the eyes that even a child recognises as the sign of a self-portrait; one was this Dürer. Too modern to have been painted so long ago, too vital to be trapped behind ancient varnish, the picture captivated me with its coldly glowing stare. It made me aware for the first time that people in paintings could be as exciting as people in life, that art could be as powerful as reality.
‘The self-portrait is quite unlike any other form of art, for it reveals the most intimate truths’
In her film Laura Cumming argued that self-portraits are a unique form of art – one that reveals the truth of how artists saw themselves and how they wanted to be seen by the world. The self-portrait has a ‘special look of looking’: the artist looks into our eyes with an intense gaze – though, of course, the artist is looking not at us, but at his own image in the mirror. Cummings examined self-portraits by, amongst others, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Courbet, Messerschmidt, Warhol and Wallinger, tracing the development of the genre. I’ve chosen some highlights here.
Raphael: Self-Portrait 1506
Tintoretto: Self-Portrait c. 1546
‘He was an insomniac, painting through the night – note the pink-rimmed eyes.
Rembrandt: Self-portrait as a Young Man, 1629 (age 23)
Rembrandt: Self Portrait 1659 (age 53)
Rembrandt: Self-Portrait 1661 (age 55)
Rembrandt: Self-Portrait 1669 (age 63)
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638
Head tilting, body kiltering, Gentileschi rises to the creative moment like an action painter three centuries in advance. She could have shown herself sedately doing nothing, like most women before her. Instead she embodies her own legend as the most celebrated female artist of her time. Gentileschi wastes no time on eye contact, on social introductions, but gets straight down to work: a painter of strong women, a strong woman painter.
Jacques-Louis David, Self-Portrait, 1784
David is oppressively alone, not quite recognising himself immediately or completely in the mirror. There is a trace of bewilderment, even grievance and one imagines he has lost all sense of the brush and palette he grips so tightly. Imprisoned for his association with Robespierre in the French Revolution, David is literally in solitary confinement.
Van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1889
A Starry Night in daytime, dazzling yet solemn, this is Van Gogh’s final self-portrait. He is of a piece with his own painting, speaking of himself in the same language he uses for fir trees and stars. The artist never quite explained how his colour effects should work, but the strange outcome of so much blue radiance here is uplifting calm. Sane and free of self-pity: the opposite of Van Gogh as clichéd martyr.
Laura Knight: Self-Portrait,1913
Laura Cumming explained that this painting was a first for a woman artist, showing Laura Knight with a nude model (fellow artist Ella Naper was the model).
Lucien Freud: Reflection (self portrait), 1985
Lucien Freud: Reflection (self portrait), 2002
Lucian Freud, Painter Working, Reflection, 1993
Lucian Freud casts a cold eye over his body in its mortal condition. Confronting his own reflection at 71, heavy workmen’s boots unlaced and flapping like the fetlocks of some hooved animal, he is a bare King Lear of the studio, a satyr or perhaps something more devilish. There is no reliance on the usual combination of pose, clothes and expression to put oneself across; identity emerges even naked. Whatever we are as human beings, we are infinitely more than our bodies. Freud brandishes his palette knife like a baton – maestro, subject and audience of his own solo performance.