RA Magazine Spring 2008
Issue Number: 98
Cranach had a profound influence on the German Expressionist painters of the early twentieth century, who regarded him as a cultural hero, while contemporary artists such as John Currin continue to pay homage to Cranach in their paintings of female nudes. Frank Whitford follows the artistic trail of the master from Kronach
Which of the Old Masters has had the most unexpected influence on the art of the past 100 years? Many might think of El Greco, whose elongated figures and sinuous compositions are said to have interested Picasso while he was working on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Or perhaps Grünewald, whose tortured imagery was one of the several sources for Francis Bacon’s nightmarish imaginings.
My candidate is less likely than either of these: it is Lucas Cranach the Elder, the German Renaissance master from Kronach, whose idiosyncratic style has left an indelible mark on several important painters of our century as well as the last.
At first glance, Cranach’s highly mannered and often recondite work seems a far cry from modern art. His world is so distant from ours, his concerns are so different. Of what relevance to us is a painter who counted among his major aims the making of propaganda for Martin Luther and the Protestant cause, and supporting the Elector of Saxony? Cranach's subjects, from his curious accounts of Greek myths to his portraits – some of them not very far removed from caricature – can seem so remote, so medieval in their significance that their contemporary appeal might well appear to be limited.
Yet Cranach and his work have affected several contemporary and modern artists – sometimes deeply – although the disparate ways in which his admirers have construed him often tell us more about the artists themselves than about Cranach. Take, for example, the contemporary American artist John Currin. The gaunt, scantily clad, enigmatically smiling women that we encounter in his paintings share much with Cranach, whom Currin eagerly acknowledges as one of his sources. The German master is also the inspiration behind the strange, markedly angular poses and inflated bellies of currin’s female figures, as well as his high-toned palette and crisply edged forms. Yet, it could be argued, Currin seems to be playing post-modernist games with Cranach and other old Masters, taking from their work in order to give his own a weightier presence. A century ago, artists were studying Cranach for more authentic reasons.
From the start of his career, the German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was deeply interested in him – as well as in other, specifically northern european old Masters. ‘no modern artist could have given me what the old Masters did,’ he wrote. Of the artists whom he specifically mentioned – Dürer, Rembrandt, and Cranach – it was the latter who gave him most. certainly, Kirchner borrowed directly from Cranach. in 1910, he began what is essentially a close copy of a Cranach venus, changing the face to look like that of his young mistress, Dodo, who is wearing only a black hat and red shoes while standing in what is clearly Kirchner’s studio in front of curtains decorated with explicitly sexual imagery. Writing in the third person, Kirchner once described this painting, Standing Nude with Hat from 1910, as ‘the realisation of what was then his ideal of physical beauty. Kirchner loves this picture. The work and technique of Cranach confirmed him in his progress towards thinly applied paint and flat compositions’.
Not satisfied with just a painted version of Cranach’s Venus, Kirchner then made a woodcut of it. This is more than a matter of passing interest, for the use of the woodcut generally held an almost political significance for Kirchner and his fellow members of the artists’ group Brücke (Bridge). In early twentieth-century Germany (where, thanks to Kirchner and others, there was a revival of all graphic media), it was widely believed that the woodcut was the quintessential German art form. But it had been more or less moribund since the sixteenth century, when, thanks to such German masters as Cranach and Dürer, it had achieved a high point that was never to be surpassed. This was also the moment when German painting, printmaking and sculpture was at its most influential.
Ever since that Golden age, German art had been in decline, Kirchner believed, condemned shamefully to imitate first the art of Italy and then France. This conviction was part of a more general German inferiority complex, a cultural cringe. As Emil Nolde, who was also a member of Brücke (and an outstanding printmaker) declared, ‘if our art is to be the equal of or even more significant than the French then it will also be… entirely German. In industry, trade, science etc, we have gradually become not only the equal of others but an example to them. in art the same will come’.
The solution lay, according to the archnationalist Nolde, in studying the national art of the distant, glorious past. ‘We young artists instinctively wanted to give back to German art the Germanic character which it had lost 250 years before, but in a newly-born form in full colour,’ he wrote in his memoirs. ‘I passionately loved the old, pure German art for its austere, stubborn, spiritually perfect beauty, for its imaginative powers that are so deeply rooted in nature and in the ineffable… My joy and my love were reserved for medieval sculpture, Dürer’s linear fantasy, the passion and grandeur of Grünewald, the childlike beauty of Cranach.’
If, for expressionists like Kirchner and Nolde, Cranach was a prominent figure in the last great, thoroughly German movement in art (and therefore a national cultural hero), his significance for the post-expressionist generation of German artists was less philosophical. Cranach, together with such other early renaissance German painters as Hans Baldung Grien, and Sebald Beham, was an inspiration to several new objectivity painters, not least Max Beckmann and Otto Dix, who, paradoxically, were reacting against the emotional excesses of the expressionists and searching for a more sober approach that was rooted in history.
True, Beckmann never refers specifically to Cranach in his Creative Credo, 1918, but he does name Mälesskircher, Grünewald and Bruegel in describing his search for a ‘transcendental objectivity [created] out of a deep love of nature and humanity’. and you can feel the presence of Cranach in the attenuated figures and cold colours of Beckmann’s religious paintings made towards the end of the First World War and in his later obscurely allegorical triptychs with their heavy religious overtones.
Otto Dix’s debt to the German old Masters in general is clearer and larger even than Beckmann’s. this is most evident throughout the 1920s and 1930s, as reflected in his monogram signature, in much of his subject matter and, above all, in his painstaking technique. His friend George Grosz, who mockingly referred to him as ‘Hans Baldung Dix’, said he ‘did all the drawing in thin tempera, then went over it with thin mastic glazes in various cold and warm tones. He was the only old Master I ever watched using this technique.’
In an interview given late in his career, Dix said that his interest in sixteenth-century German art began as early as 1912 with a series of self-portraits which were ‘already painted in a very severe style’. These paintings, such as Self Portrait, 1912, are obviously derived from a close study of Cranach, Dürer, and Hans Baldung Grien in the Dresden Zwinger, one of the world’s greatest old Master collections, when Dix was a student in Dresden just before the First World War.
Dix admitted that he’d been ‘schooled, if you will, in Cranach and the early Renaissance’, and though his style and subjects changed under the influence of expressionism and dada, he returned to the old Masters with gusto. He borrowed their subjects – the cruel comedy
of decrepit old men making love to nubile young women, the nightmarish vision of death ravishing a virgin, the seven deadly sins, the temptation of St Anthony, Lot and his daughters, to say nothing of a self-portrait holding his son Jan as if he were St Christopher – as well as their style. Dix’s paintings speak loudly of a continuing and proudly acknowledged debt to the artists he described as his most important teachers:
Dürer, Grünewald, and, above all, the master from Kronach.
- Free lunchtime lecture: Cranach’s Influence Upon Expressionism, by Dr Christian Weikop, Reynolds Room, Royal Academy of Arts, 1pm, 19 May;
- John currin, Sadie Coles HQ, London (020 7439 8611; www.sadiecoles.com) 2 April–10 May
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