Books: Sinuous nudes and protestant propaganda as English analytical works on Cranach increase

The Cranach exhibition catalogue and a book on technical aspects of his work

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) seems to cross from the Middle Ages straight into the modern era. During the Renaissance, artists and audiences supposedly expected the visible world to be represented more plausibly, but the current Cranach exhibition at London’s Royal Academy (until 8 June) amply reminds us that he, like many of his German contemporaries, conceived of human bodies and other visual subjects as opportunities for pure art. Several of his portrait drawings and animal sketches prove that he could capture natural details with breathtaking vividness, but his paintings and prints are all about stylised image-making. His workshop’s tremendous output—the majority of which no longer survives—proves that Cranach appealed to many in 16th-century Germany, and he appeals again today with his parallels to modern advertising and design.

This first major Cranach exhibition in England, initially staged at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt with noticeably more works, aims to give an overview of Cranach’s life and oeuvre, not an easy task. We know nothing of him before the turn of the 16th century, when he was already around 30 years old; then, after a couple of years working in Viennese humanist circles, he took up the position that lasted throughout a long career, court artist to the electoral dukes of Saxony in Wittenberg. There, working both for the dukes and for other private patrons, Cranach’s production ranged between courtly decoration—virtually nothing of which now survives—quirky devotional pictures, crowded woodcuts, grand altarpieces, portraits, and eventually the repeated genres of female nudes and allegories that would become his hallmark. He became a friend to Martin Luther and helped develop a new Protestant style—flat pictures teaching a strict theology of redemption through faith—but he also continued to work for Catholic patrons like Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg. His workshop evolved into a modern machine, churning out variations on his most popular subjects including Venuses, Charities, and portraits of Luther; contemporaries admired his speed and his prodigious output.

Given that most major research on Cranach is carried out by German scholars (with notable recent exceptions in Joseph Leo Koerner’s The Reformation of the Image of 2004 and last year’s small “Temptations in Eden” exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, London), the exhibition catalogue effortlessly becomes one of the most significant pieces of Cranach scholarship available in English. Chief curator Bodo Brinkmann first provides a stimulating overview of Cranach’s life and a brief historiography, while the remaining six introductory essays give various perspectives according to the authors’ particular expertise and interests: an assessment of Cranach’s workshop techniques; his connections to humanist thought and art; a Lutheran interpretation of his images of Charity; his ongoing work for Catholic patrons, in spite of his Protestant connections; the impact of his early trip to the Netherlands; and an analysis of his representations of veils in relation to early modern conceptions of artistic seeing. Although these give us partial facets of the artist, not entirely adding up to a complete picture, they make accessible a considerable body of the leading research on Cranach and his milieu.

Gunnar Heydenreich’s essay on workshop practices complements his highly detailed book on the subject, based on his 2002 PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art. The book still feels rather like a dissertation, and a not especially readable one at that, but specialists able to assimilate the painstaking scholarship will benefit enormously from its ground-breaking research that specifies the enormous variety in Cranach’s materials, the equal variety in precisely how he and his workshop used them (particularly their gradual advances in standardisation and efficiency), and the difficulty of distinguishing different hands within individual works. Heydenreich also supplies an invaluable appendix of primary documents, and another listing the forms of technical analysis that have so far been applied to each painting. Crucially, the book is very well illustrated with numerous close details.

The larger-scale exhibition catalogue also provides excellent illustrations. The entries are grouped by major themes in Cranach’s work: his earliest extant pieces in Vienna; the Netherlandish trip; his work as court artist; Protestant and traditional religious imagery; the workshop’s mass production practices; allegorical and moralistic paintings; nudes; and the role of his sons in the workshop. The significance of these themes for Cranach’s work are revealed far more clearly through the catalogue than in the exhibition. The entries are judicious and intelligent, often providing new theories about the meanings or circumstances of individual works. With no comparative works on show by other artists, the exhibition itself can give little sense of Cranach’s intersections with, and divergences from, previous or contemporary art practice; the informative catalogue does much to compensate for that, although it is unfortunate that so many of his key works, particularly from early in his career, could not be included. Moreover, some themes one might have hoped to find are absent or curtailed, including Cranach’s role in print design—particularly the development of the chiaroscuro woodcut—and his large-scale altarpieces.

The staged exhibition tells viewers little about the degree of Cranach’s personal involvement in the paintings attributed to him. The catalogue takes repeated pains to argue, not always persuasively, that Cranach maintained a consistently high standard in his workshop production; the works catalogued for the exhibition often suggest otherwise. Some of them are striking masterpieces, including the Martyrdom of St Catherine, the Holy Kinship triptych, the engraved portrait of Luther, the Temptation of St Anthony woodcut and the Head of a Peasant. Others are thoroughly unimpressive, at least in execution, including several of the portraits and religious panels. But after all, part of Cranach’s intrigue, and the reason for his lasting popularity, is the degree to which many of his images—especially his famously sinuous nudes—still work effectively as poster reproductions, even when they are no longer so ravishing as singular painted objects.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Sinuous nudes and protestant propaganda'