Saturday, 12 April 2014

Strange Beauty and Augustus, Elector of Saxony

Altdorfer 'Landscape' 1518-20
It seems you can travel miles in search of a certain historical figure, and not realise that useful insights could be hiding in plain view. After a trip to Dresden to see Elector Augustus of Saxony's family home, I decided to visit to London's National Gallery 'Strange Beauty' exhibition. This is not a review because I am too late and its failings have been done to death. However for my purposes the exhibition was a success because it helped me frame some interesting art historical questions, as well as send me off in an unexpected direction.

Naturally I got distracted; in the introductory room I was able to spend quality time with the Arnolfini Portrait, where you could get up close and personal without the usual crowds (yes, I'm happy to pay to be alone with it); as well as some stunning engravings and woodcuts by Cranach and Holbein. The latter's Dance of Death (1526) showed how a tiny skeleton can imbue a scene with an emotional sense of loss - the unwilling toddler being led away was heart stopping. Another dual highlight was Dürer's Melancholia I and an engraving of a self portrait. That arresting gaze missed nothing; whilst the reflection of the windows captured the illumination of his own soul. 

The various Cranachs were, as usual, inscrutable and teasing. Finally I was getting there. Cranach the Elder spent a lot of time at the Elector of Saxony's court and was highly esteemed as an artist and diplomat. Cranach chose to depict the naked people of the mythical silver age fighting one another, against a backdrop of wild mountains and greenery. Instead of focusing on the positives of this age, where Jupiter introduces the seasons and agriculture, he shows the senselessness of men beating each other. The graceful, perfectly coiffed women with their toddlers look on. The fleshy tones and juxtaposition of violence and babies is disturbingly captivating. 

When the kunstkammer of the Electors of Saxony in Dresden was founded by Augustus, Elector of Saxony in 1560, paintings were subordinate to technology and other crafts. However, despite his practical focus, August cherished Cranach the Younger's Adam and Eve which he kept with his treasures. These slim paintings may lack either the sculptural monumentality of Michelangelo or the anguish of Massacio's Adam and Eve, but they have a power and allure of their own. The elegance and simplicity of the gestures catch them on the cusp of the fall; the calm before the storm, the moment of silence before the death and horror. You catch your breath at the inevitability of their temptation and they act as a reminder that we now need to rely on our industry to survive.

From Cranach to the second to last room where I finally captured my Elector; 'Nature and beauty' was the theme. I copied the text which explains the rationale of the pictures in this room. 

Critics have sometimes described German Renaissance art as ugly because of excessive emotion or natural detail but the images themselves present more subtle relationships between beauty, nature and artistry. Durer wrote of his constant search for accurate proportion but he also observed that the human body exists in varied shapes and sizes. Rather than searching for universal ideas of perfection German artists created beautiful images by exploring the diversity of the human form whether variations in body type the effect of ageing or the expressive power of gesture. 
They often lavished equal attention on topography and foliage since mountainous forest landscapes signalled Germanic identity and history. Albrecht invented the new genre of independent landscape omitting all human subjects. But in many figurative images too, landscape setting plays a vital part. Nature in these works is never an objective truth to be recorded. Instead the natural world becomes a subject for creative investigation.

It was Dürer's 'Illustrations of perspective from 'Four Books on Measurement' (1538) I saw Augustus. Augustus was constantly measuring everything, from surveying the land to mapping the heavens. He was looking to the art of science to work out the relationship between things. One article states, 'a 1580 handwritten catalogue lists 2,345 works in his collection from all fields - the classics, theology, history, medicine, surgery, law, mathematics, architecture, astronomy, tournaments and festivals, warfare, mining, numismatics, mineralogy, biology and agriculture'. So not so much creative investigation but early modern natural philosophical experimentation on what the earth can produce for the benefit of the Elector and his state.

Landscape was all. I don't know whether Augustus saw the romantic beauty of his wild forests and mountains, or if he saw the mineral ore, timber, and wealth that they provided. However it is the mountainous forest landscapes signall[ing] Germanic identity and history which has provided me with raw material for consideration. The wiredrawing bench is covered with images of a mysterious forested landscape and set against some of the images in this exhibition, it can only be described as 'germanic'. Altdorfer and his dramatic landscapes are going to provide some very interesting ideas.

The exhibition ends with questions and says, 'today art galleries avoid identifying aesthetic qualities with national character'. I agree, 'national character' is a very woolly and unhelpful phrase. However when a patron like Augustus commissions a work of art or technology, it is necessarily going to be identified with him and his personal interests. Where his interests are so forcefully tied to the identification and exploitation of his state's natural resources, do they produce a 'national character'? If a place is famed for its silver mines and industrial processes, and one of the tools of that process - the wiredrawing bench - is highly decorative, it is logical to assume that the images are inspired by the local landscape. Thus the work of art takes on a national character and demands an explanation in that context.

And this is what I'm setting out to investigate. 

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