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Exhibition Lucas Cranach The Elder (Frankfurt)

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Frankfurt / Germany / 23.11.2007 - 17.02.2008

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      04.01.2008 19:44
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      an exhibition of masterpieces by Lucas Cranach the Elder

      Meet Lucas Cranach, one of Germany's greatest painters, designers on wood, engravers of copper plates, printer and bookseller, boss of a busy and successful workshop, owner of a pharmacy, dealer in wine and spices, estate agent, councillor and twice mayor of Wittenberg where he lived nearly all his life, a town roughly between Leipzig (Lipsia) and Berlin.

      The name doesn't ring a bell? If you aren't especially interested in art, you are excused as the man was born 536 years ago. :-) To be precise, he lived from 1472 to 1553.

      When I read that 113 of his pictures would be exhibited in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt/Main, I knew I had to see them. I'd like to take you with me, I don't expect you to hop on the next plane to see the exhibition in Germany, but then, you don't have to, it'll come to you, the Royal Academy in London will show it from 8th March to 8th June.

      The pictures are grouped according to subject, the earliest ones are religious paintings mostly depicting scenes from the life of the holy family or the lives of saints. I'm sure not even the devoutest Catholic of today could recount their biographies, nowadays we don't see such pictures as religious instruction but only as works of art. What I liked about the exhibition was that it was possible to get close to the pictures and study them attentively. Nearly all of them are small, to savour the details one *has* to get near , that means you should go to the exhibition at once when it has been opened and not wait until it has become a societal event everyone and their grandmother has to attend and early in the morning on a weekday before the masses come.

      The central character is usually placed before a landscape resembling the north of Italy with lush valleys and mountains on whose tops picturesque towns are perched. One picture is a fragment showing only such a landscape, no saint distracting from the details, so one can admire the masterful depiction of the trees and animals grazing in the distance and the town which one only too easily overlooks when the foreground shows a dramatic scene.

      Cranach's Catholic clientele loved his pictures of Madonnas and saints painted in the traditional manner. The personnel are dressed in the most elegant way, looking at them I feel I'm in a 16th century fashion show, luxurious gowns made of exquisite cloths glide in lush folds to the ground, gloves have slits between the knuckles through which gold rings with enormous precious stones glitter. One can doubt that Palestinians looked like that 2000 years ago - but so what!

      Cranach became also a close friend of Martin Luther's and the chief propagandist for the Protestant doctrine, throughout his life he served both sides, the Catholic and the Protestant one, what people wanted to have, he painted it. If we know what Martin Luther and his wife looked like, it is because Cranach painted their portraits, not once but dozens of times. People learnt to respect the ex-monk who married an ex-nun because Cranach painted them as respectable people, an early example of a successful PR campaign. When he was appointed to the court of the Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony his workshop once delivered 60 pairs of portraits of the elector and his brother on one day!

      The 'Protestant' pictures also include allegories of virtues, for example Charity, a naked woman sitting on a slab of stone with a baby sucking at her right breast, another one hanging at her neck, arms around her throat, one toddler standing on her left side, a hand between her thighs, and a small girl standing to the right of the stone. They're all naked. Why? Why should Charity be naked? The answer is: because Cranach loved to paint naked women! He was the one who introduced carnality, fleshliness, sensuality into German art.

      The way he painted flesh is wonderful, it's impossible to detect the stroke of the brush, the cheeks and the buttocks are oh so rosy, the fingers so dainty. Yet the proportions are a bit odd, Charity's head, for example, is too big, she has no right shoulder, the line from the neck goes directly into her upper arm, the whole body is a bit freakish, other nudes have their boobs too high up - didn't Cranach have models, couldn't he paint any better? No, he simply wasn't interested in perfect anatomy, the overall impression was more important to him.

      Obviously he needed a pretext to paint nudes, the time to just paint a nude as such hadn't come yet, three naked ladies, one seen from the front, one from the back, one from the side are called 'The Three Graces' to make the picture respectable. Then he painted Venus or rather Venuses, thirty portrayals of Venus with Cupid, often in his guise as a honey-thief, emerged from his workshop, of these at least five are by the master himself, two are shown in the exhibition.

      From the net (author Donald Bruce) "Venus, slender as an autumnal leaf slanting in the luminous air, lowers the branch of an apple tree with one hand, whilst waving aside Cupid's woes with the other. Plaintively he shows her the faithless honeycomb, but she is too distracted to pay it heed, absorbed perhaps in contemplation of the lithe obliquity of her body, suave against the rugged bark of the tree and the dark greenery of the spruces behind it, in which a pair of deer watch in grave wonder. Idly and girlishly she swings her foot, the big toe raised, on a low-lying branch. Her body, unclad except by a large hat and a necklace of gold chains, and that of Cupid alongside her, have the nonchalant delicacy of a Ming vase embrowned by the centuries. . . ." What happens to little Cupid is to be taken as a moral comment, i.e., 'life's pleasure is mixed with pain".

      Then there are also Adam and Eve, naked as God created them, Adam's private parts elegantly hidden by a fluttering piece of cloth (a piece of cloth in Paradise?) It seems that Cranach didn't find male genital organs as attractive as female ones, he always hid them behind something or other.

      One can imagine that Cranach had no problem selling his attractive nudes, but he also earned a lot of money with pictures of ugly people. One room shows a series of so called 'odd couples', foxy ugly old woman/handsome young man or randy ugly old man/pretty young woman, in one of these pictures the lass is smooching with her admirer but at the same time stealing the money out of his purse.

      Last but not least there's a series of portraits, just faces, no background, a bit smaller than life size. They were painted as a kind of reservoir for bigger formats in which Cranach told a story (e.g., Jesus blessing the children) and which had a lot of people in the background each of whom with their own physiognomy. Cranach didn't have models in his workshop when painting such pictures, he used the portraits he had already painted and collected before and put them in.

      I always end a visit of an exhibition asking myself, "What would I steal if I could?" If there's nothing I'd like to own, the exhibition wasn't worth its entrance fee. In this case it's clear, I'd like to have one of these small portraits! Good, that I had to leave my handbag in the cloakroom! :-)


      8 Mar--8 Jun 2008

      The Royal Academy of Arts, London, will present the first major exhibition in Britain devoted to Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553).


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      An exhibition of Staedel Museum, Frankfurt and of the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), the great painter of the Reformation period, is the artist who, with his vast body of work, has probably exerted the most enduring influence on the German pictorial consciousness. He injected new life into traditional religious subjects but also created new forms of imagery for the reformed faith. In his erotic pictures, Cranach formulated a timeless ideal of feminine beauty, which was still capable of inspiring twentieth-century artists like Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti. How are we to account for Lucas Cranach's success? That question lies at the heart of this exhibition, in which the Staedel Museum is bringing together over a hundred selected works, all of high quality and drawn from every phase of his output, so as to provide a representative cross-section of his oeuvre.