Tuesday 11 March 2014

Stange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance at the National Gallery

I toddled along to have a look at this exhibition yesterday. It's interesting for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is the art.

They say that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, and one of the themes that the exhibition explores is how, here in Britain, there has been a general prejudice against German art. It is suggested that the strained relations between the two countries over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially in the wake of the First and Second World Wars, is partly to blame for this attitude.

Also in operation is our love affair with the Italian Renaissance - Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Titian, anyone? And our, in my view, unfair perception that the German Renaissance was its poor relation. Anyone of that way of thinking should make straight for room 4 of the exhibition, which displays the works of Hans Holbein (the younger), Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach (the elder).

As a counterpoise to all this negativity there must have been a period when the art of the Northern Renaissance and the German Reformation struck a real chord with the English people. After Henry VIII became head of the English Church and led his people away from Rome I'd have expected there to have been a certain sympathy for the German Masters and perhaps even a shared Protestant aesthetic. Perhaps this underlies the emergence of Hans Holbein as the official court painter to Henry VIII, and his enduring popularity here in England, borne in no small measure of his iconic depiction of his patron king. Included in the exhibition is his exquisite miniature painting of Anne of Cleves, which played its part in paving the way for Henry's disastrous marriage to a woman that he never found comely. 

The final room of the exhibition is interactive, allowing visitors to vote and leave comments on how they feel about what they have seen. I hope that the National Gallery will let us know the general consensus in the fullness of time, and I hope it will show us to be more open-minded than the trustees of the gallery were way back in 1856 when they sold 37 early Westphalian works from the Krüger collection on the basis that they did not fit in with 'the present state of the gallery'.

The exhibition is running in the Sainsbury Wing until 11th May.


Bonny x

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