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A German deficit in Trafalgar Square

by
07 March 2014

Nicholas Cranfield on a frustrating show at the National Gallery

© the national gallery, London

Calvary: by the Master of the Aachen Altarpiece (active late 15th to early 16th century), The Crucifixion, c.1490-95 (National Gallery, London) is part of the exhibition "Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance". The Aachen Altarpiece was originally painted for the Carmelites in Cologne

Calvary: by the Master of the Aachen Altarpiece (active late 15th to early 16th century), The Crucifixion, c.1490-95 (National Gall...

THIS is a frustrating exhibition in so many ways that it is difficult to know where to begin any review. Despite its professed topic, the first room in­­cludes only three German paint­ings alongside the Italians Ludovico Car­racci and Raphael, and the Flem­ish and Dutch; and Van Eyck's Arnol­fini marriage portrait is to be found here, alongside van Ostade's 1653 pub interior once owned by the Earl of Dudley.

It is not helped by the fact that there is no catalogue. Caroline Bug­ler has produced a booklet highlight­ing the German paintings at the Na­­tional Gallery that shares a title with the exhibition; but it is not the cata­logue. Even though it refers to sev­eral of the paint­ings cur­rently in the Sainsbury Wing, it includes works as late as 1867, with Adolph Menzel's luckless rip-off of Manet's Afternoon in the Tuileries Gardens, and glosses over the rea­sons for the development of the Re­­nai­ssance in the Holy Roman Empire.

Nor is there a checklist for the loans from other collections that augment what the publicity material coyly calls a "collection-focused ex­­hibition". This is not the first time that the NG has taken to hanging works from its own collection with a few others from elsewhere in a pay­ing exhibition, but it is the most fla­grant attempt at making us pay for what we already own and can usually expect to see for free.

The loans themselves, from the British Museum prints and draw­ings department and the V&A, and, fur­ther afield, from the Ash­molean in Oxford and the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, are also from free pub­lic collections. Nor is this the first outing of Hans Baldung Grien's 1509 portrait of A Young Man with a Rosary, generously loaned by the Queen from Windsor.

It would be irresponsible of me to call for a boycott of the exhibition, but it is hard to see why anyone with time to visit London later in the year would not wait until the exhibition comes down and the paintings go back. But that is where the rub comes, as not all the paintings are ever hung for us to see.

So there are surprises. Has Wolf Huber's Christ Taking Leave of His Mother always been displayed since it was acquired in 1995? Next to Al­­brecht Altdorfer's depiction of the same non-biblical scene, the West­ern Austrian's composition is more emotionally charged, even though it has been savagely cropped. The fainting Virgin with her attendants is shown, but, of her son, only Christ's arm reaches to her; I was reminded of the celebrated scene from Ben-Hur, as if the censors had refused to allow a depiction of the Son of God to be painted on the first panel. Both paintings are dated around 1520.

In other cases, the reason for keeping pictures in the store is all too apparent. Take, for instance, A Man with a Skull (1560?), a dulling portrait of a self-satisfied burgher with about as much animation in his face as in the death's head under his left hand.

Charles Eastlake, the then Keeper, acquired it in Paris in 1845, believ­ing it to be by Hans Holbein. It was ridi­culed in London, and, rather than be dismissed, Eastlake re­signed. The National Gallery, landed with a dud, consigned it to the store­room. 

Here it is attributed to Michiel Coxcie (1499-1592), but any visitor who has seen the monograph winter exhibi­tion that has just closed in Leu­ven of this artist must query whether it is worthy of the "Flemish Raphael" (who is not a German painter even in the broad terms of this exhibition).

Two decades ago, in the compre­hensive gazetteer of the National Gallery's holdings, Christopher Baker and Tom Henry tentatively suggested that it was in the style of the Nuremberg artist Nicolas de Neufchâtel, working in the 1560s. It has been variously thought to be Netherlandish or an early-19th-century fake. I imagine that it is destined for the basement after the exhibition closes.

The National Gallery has a prob­lem on its hands once it uses public funds to buy paintings that turn to dross in the eye of the beholder. In 1857, an Act of Parliament was re­­quired to offload a number of second-rate paintings that it had rushed to buy as a bulk purchase of German paintings in 1854.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer of the day - William Gladstone, of all people - had, on the advice of the artist William Dyce, and in the ab­­sence of a formal director of the newly emerging national collection, bought 64 early Westphalian paint­ings from a German collector. This imaginative act led me to wonder whether George Osborne even thinks of the NG and the other col­lections in the land which languish for lack of realistic funding from Her Majesty's Treasury.

But, once Krüger's collection was unpacked in London, it was seen to be what it was, and 37 works had to be de-accessioned, as they did not fit with the "present state of the Gallery", as minutes of the Trustees (in a vitrine) tactfully indicate.

Among the works kept in Trafal­gar Square were eight panels from a late-15th-century high-altarpiece from the Benedictine abbey in Lies­born, from c.1465. The reredos was still in place as late as 1803, but was then sold off piecemeal when the monasteries in Germany were la­icised. Other panels were sold back to the Germans and are now in Müns­ter, allowing a virtual recon­struction of the original altarpiece. This might have been the highlight of this variable show if the recon­struc­tion brought back the originals, but none has come from the West­fälisches Landesmuseum. Was the Westphalian government asked?

What we get to see instead are life-size, blue-grey pixilated images of the missing fragments alongside the burnished gold of the surviving London panels. This is less than computer technology ought to be able to manage, and does not make much of a contribution.

From the outset, the National Gallery had an ambivalent attitude to European art that was not from Italy or did not look passably Italian­­ate; this explains the rash decision of 1854, when there were still no Ger­man pictures, and the hang of the first room in this exhibition.

Two more recently acquired paintings more than make up for this early lapse of taste. John Paul Getty and the American Friends as­­sisted the gallery in 1993 and again in 1996 to obtain the cele­brated Hol­bein portrait of Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling from the Marquess of Cholmondeley, and the double-
sided devotional St Jerome, on the reverse of which Dürer seem­ingly depicts a nebula or supernova, which may pay tribute to Jerome's trans­lation of the Apocalypse of St John.

It is an irony that Getty and the American Friends have, by their most recent generosity, led the Trustees to reverse a 190-year-old ban this year with the acquisition of the first non-European painting for Trafalgar Square. By the Ohio-born George Bellows (1882-1925), the 1912 picture Men of the Docks (with some dubious paint surface, to my eye) was bought by students of the Randolph-Macon Woman's College in 1920. It has been on the market since 2007, when the college decided to de-accession four paintings to raise endowment funds.

Hans Holbein the Younger, who lived and worked in Basel from 1515 to 1526, and again from 1528 to 1532, first came to London in 1526, when he painted pavilions and other temporary furnishings for Henry VIII's tiltyard at Greenwich Palace. On that first brief visit, it appears that he painted this contemplative and anonymous woman, who seems oblivious of the red squirrel on her right arm, her hands absent-mindedly clasping the little chain by which it is tethered.

He returned in 1532, becoming King's Painter in 1536, and died here in London in October 1543.Ten years before, in the summer of 1533, he painted the French Ambas­sador and his friend Bishop Georges de Selve during their discreet diplo­matic mission to recognise the Boleyn marriage once Henry had obtained the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

Again, the lack of a scholarly cata­logue for the exhibition is signifi­cant. Anyone wanting to learn about the picture will have to turn to Bug­ler; writing of Henry's efforts to an­­nul his mar­riage, she states that "in order to do so [Henry] had by­­passed papal auth­ority and estab­lished the Church of England as a separate institution from that of Rome".

This may be the common ap­pre­hension, but it is neither accurate nor helpful. Read what it says on the box: "The 1533 Statute in Restraint of Appeals". It only barred clergy and laypeople from appealing to Rome in matters of matrimony, tithes, and oblations. By investing such authority in England's two metropolitans, the Statute allowed Cranmer to annul the King's first marriage. The Statute did not establish the dear old C of E.

The condition of this ample painting, which is more than two metres square, has been much enhanced by its most recent, and controversial cleaning. As a result, the ambassadors quite overcome the demure lady at their right.

The other great Holbein portrait in this final room is that of the 16-year-old Christina of Denmark, the widowed Duchess of Milan, whom Henry debated marrying in 1538. Holbein had been sent to Brussels to capture her portrait, and later worked up this wonderful image of a self-possessed canny teenager, old before her years. She acknowledged the flattery of the King's attention, but said she pre­ferred to keep her head.

In 1909, the American collector Henry Clay Frick sought to buy this from Colnaghi's, who handled the sale for the Duke of Norfolk. It is said that an Englishwoman in a spa town in Germany, hearing of this, was so incensed that she paid the substantial balance to allow the Art Fund to acquire it for the UK in­­stead. Her identity remains anon­ymous, but it happily demon­strates what two determined women could achieve: one who kept her head by avoiding the Tudor marriage bed, and the other who has allowed generations to admire one of the finest portraits ever painted in this country.

The German Princess Anne of Cleves became Queen of England at Epiphany 1540, when she married Henry VIII. The marriage lasted for seven months and was annulled. She long outlived her King and all his other wives, dying in the reign of Philip I and her stepdaughter Mary Tudor in 1557. The V&A has loaned Holbein's delightful watercolour miniature of her which came to the National Gallery as part of the Salting Bequest, but was later re- assigned to South Kensington.

From the British Museum comes a frenzied charcoal sketch (1522) by Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531) of a freshly decapitated man's head, which may have been a study for John the Baptist. The artist is better known for his woodcuts, of which more than 800 are usually credited to him. The rapacious speed with which the head has been drawn adds to the seeming urgency and emotion of the moment.

The exhibition asks questions about what makes for beauty and why so many Renaissance artists in the north chose to paint or draw the ugly and grotesque. It also teases out questions of changing taste while narrowly avoiding anti-German sentiment as a plausible reason why so few German painters are repres­ented in the collection today.

As if to illustrate this, also from the BM come two children's heads drawn by Dürer and later included in his engraving Melancholia. By any standard and in any age, these chil­dren offer a timeless sensitivity to all that it means to be made in the image of God.

Sadly I cannot speak as highly of the pudgy-faced girl whom Jakob Seisenegger painted c.1545-50, and I suspect that we will not be seeing her again after 11 May.
 

"Strange Beauty: Masters of the Ger­man Renaissance" is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 11 May. Phone 020 7747 2885. www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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