Jan Gossaert at the National Gallery

I went along to this with little knowledge and few preconceptions and on the whole was pleasantly surprised. I’ve said before I particularly like the Northern Renaissance for its more medieval aesthetic compared to the Italians. That’s actually less true of Gossaert; a lot of his figures have that contorted quality that I associate with, say, Michelangelo; of being posed in rather uncomfortable-looking positions with pronounced foreshortening. They also have a kind of fleshiness which relates to the Italians but also seems to make him a precursor of painters like Rubens and Jacob Jordaens.

The portraits stood out for me; which, come to think of it, is often the case in these exhibitions. I guess that’s partially because of their human interest — they are the most gossipy kind of painting — and partially because the relatively constrained format strips away many of the things modern audience find off-putting about older paintings. I think there are various reasons why religious paintings and history paintings are not to modern taste, some of it to do with the subject matter, but also the style. Whereas a straightforward head-and-shoulders portrait, the subject looking out of the canvas, is probably the single genre of painting which carries through most directly from the Renaissance to now.

So there was certainly stuff to enjoy — not least some fantastic Dürer engravings and woodcuts which were in there for context — but I can see why Gossaert’s not as well known as some of his contemporaries. He was clearly a wonderful painter, but he just lacks the extra something to make him stand out. And the ways in which he is different from his contemporaries probably make him less to modern taste rather than more. Certainly less to my taste.

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Renaissance Faces at the National Gallery

Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian is an exhibition that does exactly what the title the suggests: it’s a selection of portraits by van Eyck, Titian, Raphael, Holbein, Botticelli, Dürer, Cranach and their contemporaries. Room after room of rather solemn looking people — no smiling for portraits back then — wearing their most expensive-looking velvets and furs and damasks. So if that’s the kind of thing you like, and on the whole I do, you’d probably like this show.

About half the pictures are from the National’s permanent collection, which sometimes seems a little bit like cheating; but there are some very good paintings they’ve borrowed from elsewhere, it’s interesting to see them all together, and it’s not actually a chore to have another look at van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait, or the Bellini portrait of the Doge, or Holbein’s Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling.

For me the finest picture in the exhibition is the Titian portrait of Pope Paul III which normally lives in Naples. It really is one of those works which seems transcendent even by the standards of a great artist. The Pope sits there, engulfed in these huge robes, looking physically old but sharp-eyed and full of power. And they have it hanging next to the portrait of Pope Julius II by Raphael from their permanent collection, painted fifty years earlier and an important influence for Titian’s portrait. They are both marvellous paintings and they make a fascinating contrast, stylistically and psychologically.

» The Raphael is the one at the top.

Cranach at the Royal Academy

Now this is my kind of exhibition. I don’t what it is I find so appealing about the Northern Renaissance; obviously, artists like Dürer, Van Eyck and Breugel are among the all-time greats of European art, but I love it all: van der Weyden, Memling, Bosch, Holbein, and indeed the star of this show, Lucas Cranach the Elder.

I like the Italian stuff as well, but there’s something about these northern painters I can’t get enough of. Maybe, as someone with a soft spot for the medieval, it’s because the continuity with the medieval is in some ways more obvious in the north. Maybe it’s because I am myself northern European; maybe there really is a northern sensibility — a gothic sensibility, if you like — which runs a great deal deeper than one might imagine. Or not.

portrait of a Saxon Princess, Lucas Cranach the Elder

Whatever the reason for them, it’s amazing how much difference these preferences can make. The other day I went up to see the Cranach, but the ‘From Russia‘ exhibition was still running at the Royal Academy and the queues were horrendous, so I popped in to the Pompeo Batoni at the National instead. Batoni was an C18th Italian artist who did history paintings and portraits, many of them English aristos doing the Grand Tour. I didn’t bother to blog about it because I just found it so boring. In the Cranach, on the other hand, I liked every single work, even the ones were it didn’t seem like he was really trying.

And there are a few like that; apparently he was famous at the time as a quick man with a brush, the person to go to if you’d just built a new castle and needed a dozen paintings on assorted themes to brighten up the place. He had a big workshop and churned out lots and lots of work, including many repetitions of the same themes. Compare, for example, these portraits of Martin Luther, all in different galleries: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Cranach was a friend of Luther’s, and as well as portraits of Luther he painted biblical scenes illustrating Protestant themes, illustrations for Luther’s German translation of the bible, and other Protestant propaganda material; yet that didn’t stop him taking commissions for prominent Catholics. There was a marvellous portrait of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg who was working on a Catholic version of the bible in German, painted as St Jerome, the man who translated the bible into Latin. He’s sitting in his suitably German-looking study, wearing his red cardinal’s robes, surrounded by animals, including a lion, a parrot, a squirrel and a family of pheasants.

Adam and Eve, Lucas Cranach the Elder

And I don’t suppose Luther would have approved of the sexy pictures of naked, pot-bellied, weaselly-faced blonde girls, who all look the same whether they are supposed to be Lucretia, Eve or Venus. One of these features on the posters for the exhibition, and the National managed to gain a bit of free publicity when it was initially rejected by London Underground as being too racy for them.

As you can tell, I give the show a big thumbs-up. I just don’t understand why it should be so much less popular than ‘From Russia’. It’s just as well it was, though, because these are the kind of paintings you want to get right up to, and take in the details.

» The RA’s exhibition website is pretty rubbish, as usual. Both the paintings above featured in the exhibition but I got the images from Wikimedia Commons. The portrait of a Saxon princess (they know she’s a princess by what she’s wearing, but don’t know which one) is from the National Gallery in Washington. Adam and Eve are in the Courtauld in London.

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