Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance

Event Date: 
19 Feb 2014 to 11 May 2014

The National Gallery, London


Historically, German art has not even qualified as the poor relation of the Italian Renaissance. Although Dürer, Holbein and Cranach are perhaps well known enough, how many people have heard of Wolf Huber or the Master of Liesborn?  Strange Beauty promises to raise the profile of these neglected artworks and artists, but this is only one of the rewards for those wise enough to visit the exhibition.  This is an intelligent and subtle exhibition that tells us much about the way that German art has been perceived and collected, while also demanding the engagement and reactions of the viewer.  (There is an opportunity for visitors to record these reactions in the final comments room).


For Victorians, German art of the 15th and 16th century appeared ‘frightful’ and ‘ugly’.  Room 1 helps to uncover what it was that so disturbed them. For Victorians used to a diet of Raphael and Dutch landscape painting the distorted, thinly-painted and expressive Trinity and Mystic Pieta by Hans Baldung constituted a disruptive a viewing experience, and indeed can still be today.  It is striking that the German paintings from the Krüger collection or the collection of Prince Albert that were accepted by the gallery (Room 2) are either those that compared favourably with Italian 15th century painting, like panels from the central section of the Liesborn altarpiece (Room 2), or those with a high degree of technical finish, like the panel of Saints Peter and Dorothy by the idiosyncratic Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece. The gallery did not want Prince Albert's Hans Baldung portrait with its rougher paint surface and this remains in the Royal Collection to this day.


A few German paintings were deliberately purchased for the National Gallery's collection in the 19th century, probably as ‘specimens’ of otherwise unrepresented painters, like the stunning Cranach portrait in Room 5, purchased by the director Eastlake in 1857.  Eastlake himself was no lover of German art, and neither were the Gallery’s trustees.  The big Dürer Madonna with the Iris purchased in 1945 by director Kenneth Clark had been offered to the gallery decades earlier but turned down.  German art was further tainted by the Second World War and remained effectively blacklisted until the 1960s, when the Altdorfer Landscape and Cranach Venus and Cupid (Room 5) were acquired. The Venus and Cupid is likely to stoke renewed controversy now that it is known to have come, however indirectly and innocently, from Hitler's own art collection. The full story will be available when the Cranach entries from the forthcoming National Gallery in German catalogue are published on line during the course of the exhibition.


Rooms 1 and 2 show the formidable canonical values against which German art was evaluated. Rooms 3 and 5 focus on what is distinctive about German art itself, namely invention and expression and nature and beauty.  Here the stunning and relatively recently acquired fragment by Wolf Huber is displayed: the luminous fainting Virgin and her companions cut from a larger Christ Taking Leave of his Mother of which the hand of Christ remains tantalisingly pointing from the right-hand edge.  This is a painting that gloriously flouts most of the 19th century criteria of a good purchase: it is a fragment, painful in its subject matter, sparsely painted and expressively distorted (albeit mildly, compared with the neighboring Altdorfer version of the same subject).


The viewer may feel on more familiar territory in Room 4, where paintings by Cranach, Dürer and Holbein are displayed, but here,    as in Room 1, we are presented with the visual challenge of very different approaches.  Holbein retained a craftsman-like finish, a    naturalistic eye and in The Ambassadors even a taste for the kind of iconographic density more often associated with the high  Renaissance in Italy. Perhaps it is for this as much as his long career in England that he has been embraced as an honorary British  artist. Dürer and Cranach stretch our perception of what Renaissance art can be rather further.


 This fascinating exhibition is small enough to engage with all of the works displayed, and big enough to widen and challenge the  viewer’s aesthetic experience. Whether all of its subtleties will be apparent to the average visitor remains uncertain. The captions  and the room information will help – they are in keeping with the current concern to avoid overload but are well-written - and there  is also an audio guide. For those with journal access, there is an interesting essay by co-curator Jeanne Nuechterlein in the February  volume of The Burlington Magazine, but there is no catalogue to accompany the exhibition and this is a pity. The much awaited  catalogue of the German school is not ready in time either (though the Cranach entries will be posted on line). Still, the important thing is that German Renaissance art is now on the public map, hopefully to stay. 


Kim Woods