(National Gallery, London, until 11 May 2014)
If forewarned is forearmed, then I went to this exhibition fully armed with the mixed (and sometimes frankly baffled) reactions of friends and colleagues. The National Gallery are clearly trying to do something slightly different in this show, and the ambition itself is commendable, but they just don’t quite pull it off. The key distinction I’m going to have to make in this post is between the works on show, which were indeed beautiful, and the concept of the exhibition itself, which seems to skip confusingly between several different driving themes.
Let’s get the criticisms out of the way first. The main problem is that I didn’t understand precisely what the show was trying to do. Is it about the National Gallery’s own early reticence about buying works by German artists? That’s the official line and indeed that’s the only explanation that makes sense of the opening room. It’s rather disorientating to stroll into an exhibition allegedly on German art, and to find yourself with a first room containing almost exclusively non-German paintings. This, of course, is the point. When the National Gallery was founded with the Angerstein Bequest in 1824, and for several decades thereafter, the only kind of German painting that found favour was the kind that (ironically) didn’t look German. The taste of the time prized Italian and Dutch painters, and that’s what the first room of this exhibition demonstrates: a sample of early Victorian taste, with a Carracci, a Cuyp, an Ostade, Raphael’s St Cecilia and the Arnolfini Wedding by Jan van Eyck. The only time German artists were accepted was when their works were so influenced by the Dutch or Italians that they’d lost all sense of Germanness.
It’s an interesting theme and promised to tell me a great deal about the history of taste. And the second room was equally promising, where glass cases showed documents from the Gallery’s archive, charting the developing furore over Gladstone’s acquisition of the Krüger Collection of German old master paintings in 1854. In the end, the press and public were so furious about public money being spent on such ‘ugly’ things that Parliament actually passed an act allowing the Gallery to get rid of some of them. Many of the paintings were scattered across the globe; others dispatched on long-term loan to other, more open-minded British museums. This room demonstrates the problem of dispersal by displaying an ambitious reconstruction of the Liesborn Altarpiece, whose fragmentary remains are now split between London and Munster. With the Munster fragments represented by monochrome panels, it makes for a rather sad reflection on 19th-century British cultural policy.
But after this the exhibition loses focus. It stops being interested in when and why the Gallery purchased German paintings. Instead it becomes gently distracted by more general themes in German Renaissance art; and it wanders ever further away from a National-Gallery-specific treatment. Why include a room of prints and drawings if we’re looking specifically at the National Gallery’s history? Or, if we’re looking more broadly at taste in Victorian Britain, why don’t we have more information on the development of collections at the British Museum or Ashmolean? But the show becomes sidetracked by the art itself: it revels (justifiably) in the expressive line of Schaufelein’s drawings or Durer’s prints; it savours Holbein’s dazzling skill; and it spends a room looking at the interest in naturalism, and Altdorfer’s pioneering adoption of pure landscape in art. In itself, this is fine. I don’t mind looking at beautiful paintings, and the very fact I do find them beautiful speaks volumes about the changing nature of taste. But it doesn’t support the alleged purpose of the exhibition.
This isn’t to criticise the pictures themselves, which are deliciously exotic to my Italy-accustomed eyes. Bystanders in altarpieces pose in colourful swirls of striped scarves over pinked and slashed doublets and hose. Landsknecht style, as Patrick Leigh Fermor called it, runs riot. Cranach beauties with slanted eyes and pursed lips pose in pleated gowns and extravagant feathered hats. Madonnas regard the limp bodies of Christs with faces contorted in deeply felt agony. Hands are painstakingly posed, with crooked and gnarled fingers. Faces have an astonishing individuality which few of the Italians ever matched… the level of detail is exquisite. One of the exhibits which most impressed me was a series of little prints by Holbein showing the Dance of Death, in which Death carries away people of all ranks: snatching a child from a hearth here, waking a countess in her bed there; and these are almost microscopically intricate. Then there was Grunewald’s drawing of an Elderly Woman, which I saw recently at the Ashmolean, reappearing here with a tentative identification as a Virgin Mary for a Crucifixion or Lamentation. But perhaps the most unusual exhibits were the little game-pieces in turned pearwood, in the form of medals with profile portraits made in gesso. I’d never seen such things before and they were wonderful (although perhaps not strictly relevant to the alleged theme of the exhibition, since they’re not paintings and come from the V&A).
And then there’s Holbein. Even though his portraits are familiar from so many books and shows, they never lose their breathtaking power. The large gallery at the centre of the exhibition is dominated by The Ambassadors, with its towering, startling naturalistic figures. I’d come to Strange Beauty immediately after wallowing in the gorgeous Veronese show upstairs, and so I was freshly primed to admire the representation of fabric and texture. Standing in front of The Ambassadors (which was painted when Veronese was ten years old), I couldn’t help noticing that Holbein quite magnificently outdid him with the soft, tactile quality of his fur. Here is one example of Germany triumphing over Italy – but it’s true that Holbein has always been admired in Britain and it’s probably not just to compare his reception with that of Grunewald, Schaufelein, Altdorfer or Schongauer, with their more calligraphic, stylised art.
You might not be aware that this exhibition is almost entirely composed of works that can usually be seen for free – paintings from the National Gallery’s permanent collection and loans from the Ashmolean and the British Museum’s print rooms. I was glad to see them brought together; but, in order to justify the exhibition’s ticket charge, the National Gallery would have to have used the juxtaposition to draw some particularly valuable and insightful comparisons. And unfortunately that doesn’t happen.
The show lacks focus and has an unfortunate feeling of having been slightly cobbled together, with a final room in which there are no paintings at all, but merely a wall of metal cords on which members of the public are invited to leave messages giving their own opinions on whether German art is beautiful and worthwhile. This is the kind of thing you expect to find at the end of a schools workshop, perhaps, but it feels out of place as part of a paying exhibition in one of the country’s main galleries. More to the point, it feels as if the Gallery ran out of paintings and had to find some way to use that final room. (Of course, in the way of these things, only about two-thirds of the notes I read were actually related to the exhibition. The others offered trite quotes on beauty or were variations on ‘Bob from Birmingham was here’.)
All in all, it’s a bit of a curate’s egg: good in parts. The exhibits themselves are wonderful things, but there seems to be no consistent logic in their presentation, and the exhibition doesn’t seem to bear out the ambitions described in the press release. More frustratingly, the accompanying book is not a catalogue of this exhibition but a book of the gallery’s German paintings, including much later German pictures and not including some of the interesting loans in the exhibition – thereby making the message even more difficult to comprehend. In the end I didn’t buy the book but would be interested to hear, from anyone who did (was the Grumpy Art Historian tempted, I wonder?), whether it makes things any clearer. The ticket price isn’t going to break the bank, but if I were you I’d focus your energies upstairs instead, where Veronese holds dazzling court.