Friday, November 08, 2019

Lucas Cranach: Renaissance Beauties (exhibition)

Lucas Cranach d. Ä. | the Elder: Portrait of a Young Woman (Princess Emilia of Saxony?), before 1537, oil on beech wood. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. © SMK Photo | Jakob Skou-Hansen.

Lucas Cranach d. Ä.: Justitia / Gerechtigkeit als nackte Frau mit Schwert und Waage. 1537. Oil on panel. 72 x 49,6. Fridart Stichting, Amsterdam. In the exhibition: a copy of the same size held at Ostrobothnian Museum, Vaasa.

Lucas Cranach d. Ä.: Lucretia. 1530. Oil on beech wood. 38 x 24,5. Sinebrychoff Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery. Photo: Kansallisgalleria, Hannu Aaltonen. The photo is too bland and pale.

Lucas Cranach d. Ä. | the Elder (Kronach 1472–1553 Weimar). The Ecstasy of St Mary Magdalene. 1506, woodcut. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. © SMK Photo | Jakob Skou-Hansen.

Lucas Cranach: Renaissance Beauties.
26 Sep 2019 – 5 Jan 2020.
Sinebrychoff Art Museum, Helsinki.
Curators: Claudia de Brün, Kirsi Eskelinen.

– Hallwylska museet, Stockholm
– Kunstsammlungen der Veste Coburg
– National Gallery in Prague Nationalmuseum, Stockholm
– Ostrobothnian Museum, Vaasa
– Polo museale del Friuli Venezia Giulia, Trieste
– Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie
– Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett
– Staatliche Schlösser, Gärten und Kunstsammlungen Mecklenburg‐Vorpommern
– Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
– Jeppe Lahtinen, private collection
– Finnish National Gallery: Ateneum Art Museum and Sinebrychoff Art Museum

Exhibition publication:
Lucas Cranach – Renessanssin kaunottaret / Renaissance Beauties.
Editors: Kirsi Eskelinen and Claudia de Brün.
ISBN: 978−952−7067−85−7.
Hardcover, bilingual in Finnish / English, amply illustrated, including a complete illustrated exhibition catalogue, 144 p.
Sinebrychoffin taidemuseon julkaisuja.
Printing: Livonia Print.
Helsinki: Sinebrychoffin taidemuseo, 2019.
Official presentation:
    "In the articles in this publication, international and Finnish experts write about Cranach’s female portraits and nude beauties reflecting their own time and the beauty ideals of the Italian Renaissance.
– Dr. Hanne Kolind Poulsen’s article “Cranach’s Beauties – Ideals or Identities?” looks at one of the research questions that remain open: to what degree do the portraits actually portray real individuals?
– Dr. Elke Anna Werner’s article “Cranach’s Nudes — Sensuality and Moral Exhortation” presents the sources and development of Cranach’s nude themes. Cranach’s earliest nudes were graphic prints.
– Dr. Annamari Vänskä considers Cranach’s beauties from the standpoint of contemporary culture and fashion research in her article “Lucas Cranach Ltd: Female nudes in the service of the market”.
– Curator Claudia de Brün and conservator, Dr. Ari Tanhuanpää have written about works from the Sinebrychoff Art Museum collection."

AA: The German master Lucas Cranach der Ältere (1472–1553) was one of the most prolific and successful Renaissance painters. His productivity was enhanced by his status as court painter in Wittenberg where he established his own workshop, pharmacy (guaranteeing access to paint ingredients) and printing press (still a recent invention). The Cranach signature was a winged dragon. After his death the son Lucas Cranach der Jüngere took over.

Cranach's output may number some 5000 artworks of which some 1000 can be currently located. He was a serial artist who created (or produced) dozens of variations of his favourite subjects such as the Crucifixion, the Fall (Adam and Eve), Judith and Holofernes, Maria Magdalena, the Judgement of Paris, Dido, Lucretia, Venus and Cupid the honey thief, Diana and Actaeon, Justitia, the water nymph, and ill-matched lovers (an old lecher kissing a young woman who has a firm grip on his purse). Thanks to the internet it is now easy to study these series in extenso and observe how different the paintings are even when the subject remains the same.

Cranach was also in great demand as a portrait painter. During his lifetime, Reformation started in  Wittenberg. Cranach was a family friend of Martin Luther, also close to Philipp Melanchton, and he painted definitive portraits of both. Cranach had the courage of his convictions and went to jail when tables turned in religious wars.

Mostly Cranach's portraits were for courts and families of princes, aristocrats and merchants. His early studies and sketches are full of life and fury. The final versions are stately and ossified.

Sinebrychoff Art Museum is a jewel among Helsinki's museums, perfect for intimate and compact exhibitions such Lucas Cranach's Renaissance Beauties. Of Cranach's oeuvre it is a tiny selection of a selection of a selection. The beauties on display are mostly nude.

Picturing the nude is not alien to religious art, but striking in Cranach's work is an open and life-affirming sensuality in both religious and secular subjects.

One of the mysteries of these paintings is that although the portraits are nude and anonymous, they wear unique jewels, ornaments and accessories by which they may have been identifiable to contemporaries.

Another mystery is that the faces and bodies are not realistic and personal but highly formalized. Often they look the same, even when there are several women in the same painting. In Italy Mannerism was already on the rise, but this is not Mannerism, nor was Cranach a Mannerist. On the contrary, he looked back to medieval and Gothic traditions.

Not because he lacked talent and knowhow. In his portraits and landscapes he could achieve perfect Renaissance mastery. But some of his anti-illusionistic paintings with a Gothic / medieval approach or accent are among his most intriguing and original for instance in deer-hunting, Garden of Eden, Paradise and Fountain of Youth scenes and allegories of Law and Grace.

Cranach was also perfectly capable of painting a harmonious and lifelike Renaissance nude, but in this selection the emphasis is on the twisted and the strange. Faces and body parts are disparate while the technique in the brushstroke is immaculate.

Élie Faure in his "lyrical poem" Histoire de l'Art was fascinated by the bizarre dimension in Cranach's nudes – the very dimension highlighted in Sinebrychoff's exhibition:

"Il n'a pas, certes, le sens du ridicule. C'est souvent le meilleur moyen d'avouer sa vraie nature. Il peint des femmes nues qui ont gardé leur chapeau, des femmes fort gauches, avec des jambes malgres, et cagneuses, et de grands pieds, et de gros genoux. Seulement, leurs visages sont d'un charme extrème, tout ronds, souriants, un peu malicieux, avec de belles tresses blondes. Il les a surprises presque toutes à l'heure de la nubilité, elles ont un petit ventre ferme, une ondulation pure du buste et de la hanche, des seins naissants, un air de corolle hésitante à s'ouvrir. Sa sensualité candide promène son imagination en des jardins tout frémissants de fleurs éparses, où des nudités mythologiques mal bâties et délicieuses affirment que le réformateur et ses amis ne sauraient être rendus responsables des préoccupations malsaines qui caractérisèrent l'action des sectes protestantes à la suite de Calvin et ses puritains anglais. De pesants reîtres teutons ont beau s'y trouver près d'elles, leur fraîcheur triomphe, et comme tout s'enveloppe d'un espace blond que les rouges cendrés envahissent d'une vapeur transparente, on n'a pas le courage de lui reprocher sa maladresse. Ce rustre vous livre une âme exquise, dont quatre-vingts ans de la vie agissante n'épuisèrent pas l'innocence." (Histoire de l'Art, 1921, L'Allemagne et la Réforme, 5: Artistes et réformateurs)

Faure celebrates the triumphant freshness, the enticing habit of covering (and thereby enhancing) nude charms with transparent silk veils, and a candid sensuality that ran counter to Calvin's English puritans.

Powerful forces among the Reformation were advocates of the image ban, in a further argument against Catholicism and its temptations to image-worship. Reformation leaders including Zwingli and Calvin renounced visual representation, leading to Bildersturm, but Luther took a conciliatory stand and saw in sacred images a beneficial way of promoting faith. Cranach was Luther's closest advocate in this.

The curators Kirsi Eskelinen and Claudia de Brün and the experts, Hanne Kolind Poulsen, Elke Anna Werner and Annamari Vänskä offer interesting insights into Cranach's beauties.

They are often active, frank and courageous. Eve looks at us while Adam looks at her. Judith executes Holofernes. Madonna and child. Mary Magdalene, the woman closest to Jesus next to Madonna. Salome. Bathseba. Delilah. St. Dorothea. Dido, the Queen of Carthage, betrayed by Aeneas, the future founder of Rome. Lucretia, whose tragedy led to the establishment of the Republic of Rome. Diana caught bathing nude by Actaeon whom Diana transforms into a deer in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Justitia, the goddess of justice.

Nudity in Cranach's work is direct and without shame. Beauties seldom cover their charms. They seem happy and at ease with their nudity. They seem aristocratic, judging by the jewels. (Might in Cranach's Fountain of Youth paradises be a connection to a much later Freikörperkultur?)

It is consistent with the life-affirming glorification of the woman that the vulva is often uncovered and even highlighted as in the portait of Justitia. The source of life, the throne of female power, the fountain of happiness.

The expressions are composed, the look is sharp and clear. These portraits are not meant just for the male gaze. There is also an element of female self-idealization. For today's viewer they may have a bisexual attraction and also a dimension of asexual, paradiasic beauty. They are expressions of a timeless life-force and a desillusioned look at the human condition. Certainly Cranach would have agreed with Rodin: "Dans l'art, il n'y a pas d'immoralité. L'art est toujours sacré."

I remain puzzled by the unevenness in Cranach's giant output. There are perfectly balanced and harmonious paintings – and bizarre ones with twisted limbs and oversize heads. They look as if they might stem from different artists at the same Werkstatt.

P.S. 7 Jan 2020. My wife Laila Alanen saw the exhibition later and wondered about the seemingly underage nude models in portraits with erotic touches.

Photo in the catalogue, painting not in the exhibition: Lucas Cranach d. Ä.: Judith with the Head of Holofernes. n.c. 1530. Oil on lime wood. 88,2 x 58,3. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien.

Photo in the catalogue, painting not in the exhibition: Lucas Cranach d. Ä.: Portrait of a Young Woman, 1526, oil on wood, 88,5 x 58,5. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

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