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Monday, 11 January 2021

Cranach: Artist and Innovator

Here's a review of Cranach: Artist and Innovator, which was at Compton Verney Art Gallery & Park until 3 January 2021. The review for various reasons is backdated.

As a Reformation propagandist who was also a Renaissance man, the works of Lucas Cranach the Elder and his workshop are shot through with paradox. Cranach was an artist, entrepreneur, innovator, and politician, who worked for Protestant and Catholic clients while spearheading the promotion of the Reformation through the publication and illustration of Martin Luther’s writings.

Although the engravings that accompanied Luther’s texts are uncompromising and crystal-clear in their condemnation of the perceived corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, it has been the complexities and ambiguities of Cranach’s work that have primarily engaged later audiences and many artists. This exhibition brings us Cranach’s portraiture (often for his Court patrons), engravings (primarily Reformation illustrations), and Biblical/mythological scenes (a mix of public and private work, with the private predominating here).

Cranach’s paintings are frequently referenced in contemporary art and popular culture. In particular, his distinctive nudes, with pale, serpentine bodies posed against dark backgrounds, have entranced a wide range of artists. In the final section of this exhibition a lively dialogue with Cranach emerges in works by Pablo Picasso. John Currin, Ishbel Myerscough, Michael Landy, Raqib Shaw and Claire Partington, among others, as these artists take the formal structure of a work by Cranach as a point of departure for a creation of their own.

The works on display here chart a range of responses to Cranach by other artists, and correspond with the increased availability of Cranach’s work in books and postcards from the nineteenth century onwards. As variations on a theme, these works show both rupture and continuity with Cranach’s distinctive aesthetic, as Cranach’s familiar icons are overlaid with personal stories and current perspectives. This, then, is an exhibition which can be experienced in reverse with the recent images providing contemporary commentary on Cranach and his work.

Michael Landy’s towering mechanical depiction of Saint Apollonia, made originally for his Saint’s Alive exhibition at the National Gallery, seeks to reanimate the violent narrative of how this saint was tortured by having her teeth pulled out. Landy was responding to Cranach’s rather more serene depiction in an altarpiece that is now in the National Gallery. Cranach’s depiction of Saint Apollonia comes from 1506, prior to the posting of the 95 theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg. The violence in Cranach’s own work was to come later, particularly in the first of his collaborations with Luther, Passional Christi und Antichristi, pages from which can be viewed here and which contrasted the simple, virtuous life of Christ with the perceived privilege and pompous excesses of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church.

Wolfe von Lenkiewicz brings Cranach and Albrecht Dürer together in his Adam and Eve. Von Lenkiewicz has combined Compton Verney’s Venus and Cupid with the figure of Adam from Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1507, Prado, Madrid). Posed against a dark background, the human forms dissolve into flowers after the Dutch still-life painter Ambrosius Bosschaert, which have been clipped into new shapes. Von Lenkiewicz is known for his artistic reconfigurations of well-known imageries from art history and visual culture in order to create ambiguous compositions that question art historical discourses. Typical of his work, this image is a ‘tissue of quotations’. Dürer and Cranach were peers and, together with Hans Holbein, Matthias Grünewald and Albrecht Altdorfer, defined 15th century Northern Renaissance art. Their German Catholic devotional images foundered on the rock of the Reformation with Dürer and Cranach (in particular) laying the foundation for Reformation art.

In addition to the personal and art historical connections between the two, von Lenkiewicz is also aware that Cranach’s Venus figure doubled as Eve in, for example, the 1526 Adam and Eve (Courtauld Gallery). Including the additional element of Bosschaert flowers introduces a third, slightly later Protestant artist whose career in the Netherlands began after leaving Spain due to potential persecution, and a new Reformation art form, the still life, which has particular resonance here as nature morte. The transience of flowers and floral arrangements is aligned with the Reformation belief that our mortality results from The Fall.

Raqib Shaw’s paintings here have been inspired by Cranach’s earliest known engraving The Penance of St John Chrysostom and his painting of Lot and his Daughters. Both, at first sight, seem unlikely material for a Reformation painter. The legend of Chrysostom’s penance was later mocked by Luther as a Roman Catholic lie linked to the selling of indulgences (Cranach’s image precedes his collaborations with Luther), while the story of Lot and his daughters is one of incest.

Shaw gives us characters that are re-evaluating their lives in the light of the traumatic events they have either endured or facilitated. His Lot, like William Blake’s Newton, is using a compass to try to make sense of destructive events – environmental and military - that he cannot explain, although they occur in the shadow of the Tower of Babel. For Lot, all his reference points for understanding have been removed leaving him, in the words of Shaw’s title, without a compass, whilst holding one in his hands. Shaw’s Chrysostom, by contrast, is at a point of understanding having written ‘we cannot see the baggage on our own back’; an acknowledgement of all he had sought to evade about himself up to that point.

For Cranach, however, these stories have a clear and linked Reformation understanding which concerns the repression of sexuality necessitated by the Roman Catholic demand for celibacy in those who are priests or religious. For Cranach and Luther, our sexuality finds its proper and full expression within marriage but, when prevented, by circumstances in the case of Lot and by unnecessary restrictions in the case of Chrysostom, the result is disaster.

This understanding of the Reformation view of sex is vital in understanding why it was acceptable for Cranach, as a Reformation propagandist, to paint alluring nudes, whether as Eve or Venus. Pablo Picasso and John Currin in their re-interpretations of Cranach, amplify the eroticism that their male perspective sees as central, according to their differing styles of work. Ishbel Myerscough and Claire Partington, however, critique the male gaze perspective that underlies Cranach’s moral view.

Cranach’s nudes are images of temptation. The version of Cupid Complaining to Venus included here from 1526-7 has Venus posed as Cranach also posed Eve in the Courtauld version of Adam and Eve. The connection between the two images is further emphasised in that Venus is depicted as holding on to an apple tree. Eating the apple in the story of The Fall is the temptation to step outside of what God has ordained. Venus is not tempting the viewer with an apple but with her body in a way that is outside of the order that God has ordained. The envisaged viewer is, of course, male.

It is this viewpoint that Myerscough and Partington rightly critique. Myerscough, by painting naked women as people, with value and beauty in and of themselves, not idealised morality lessons (Cranach) or objects of lust (Picasso and Currin). Partington, by sculpting women of strength, who reject all the trappings of male fantasy, including and especially the patriarchal identification of Eve as temptress.

Cranach paints through a revolution and his works reflect the confidence of rebels on their way to becoming rulers. We can no longer view his works, or the Reformation that he helped to build, from that perspective. The exhibition ends with Partington redressing the balance of power. Referencing biblical stories in which the underdog wins, including Judith beheading Holofernes and David defeating Goliath, Judith is shown posing triumphantly, with her foot on Cranach’s head.

Cranach: Artist and Innovator is actually artistic and curatorial reinterpretation of Cranach and his legacy. Partington’s reaction to Cranach’s images of Lucretia, a mix of confusion and incredulity which provoked her first Cranach reinterpretation, seems similar to the feedback curator Amy Orrock reported from the early days of the exhibition; of people drawn in by the contemporary reinterpretations and only understanding the Cranach’s in their light.

This contemporary inability to access or understand the Reformation mindset is graphically depicted in Andrew McIntosh’s What No-one Else Had, which sets Cranach’s Cupid Complaining to Venus in an eerily empty building alongside an isolated block of flats and a tree in South East London. The incongruity of both is indicative of the way in which much of what was revolutionary in Reformation thinking now appears oppressive. For those of us who are within the legacy that Cranach and Luther established, it may be that we need to learn the lesson of the legend that Luther mocked and Cranach engraved. St John Chrysostom was restored to his right mind when he received forgiveness from the ones he had abused. 


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