Don’t go for the Nudes (Cranach)

Original text by Lunettes Rouges, Translation by Miss XS

Return to France for the Cranach exhibition at the Luxembourg Museum (until 23 May). Do not believe the enticing reviews that will dazzle you with a cornucopia of lecherous and hypocritical nudes, there are only ten artworks with female nudes (excluding a lactating Virgin): four Eves with genitals hidden behind twigs, two Lucrèces with stripped torsos, and two Charités covered by children suckling. Furthermore, to satisfy you a little more, a nymph, whose body is covered by a transparent, barely-there veil, (“Do not disturb!”) and this Allegory to Justice (1537, private collection), who is similarly barely covered, and is the poster image for this exhibition, where the median point between the scale of justice and the sword of punishment is strategically placed: enough to make our striking judges reflect upon?

Let us abstain from commenting too much about this painter’s too obvious subject matter, whose workshop indeed produced a mass of such beauties (and on this point, the Roman exhibition‘s merit was the comparison of its nudes against those of the Italian Rennaisance). But here, Cranach is only being set against his direct influences such as Dürer and Barbari, in a historical rather than aesthetic analysis. Do not spend too much time on the supposed hypocrisy of this Luther supporter who claimed to paint these erotic scenes only for the purpose of witnessing their moral danger; an audacious, interesting and marketing-like analysis  states that the advent of Lutheranism dried up the demand for traditional Catholic painting, and that Cranach, as a shrewd businessman, had to find a new market,  that of Moralising Nudity. And let’s look at the rest- unlike all those critics so aroused with these adolescent beauties.

The first painting, the so-called ‘Scottish Crucifixion,’ , was painted when Cranach was 28 years old (circa 1500, Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna). It is astonishingly clumsy: the cropped-off thieves are really messed-up and the Virgin’s body collapses and distorts in an unnatural manner, whilst next to this piece, the later Dessau Crucifixion is one of the most accomplished. The juxtaposition of such paintings (and their diverse origins) is one of the gems of this exhibition (this was hardly expected in this museum). Cranach is first and foremost a painter of power, attached to the Electorate of Saxony, and his portraits are more testimonies of power than psychological studies: all his princes with giant jaw-bones, all his frail blonde princesses who all resemble one another, without showing individually here the brilliance of sapience, and there a dazzling charm. It is within the details that we can find finesse, depth, and striking beauty, more so than in the facial traits. The portraits of Luther (and of Melanchthon) by this fellow protestant are much more interesting.

We could also (re)view this exhibition, only concentrating on the details and the décor that are never innocent (even if they are sometimes painted by his son or his apprentices). In the painting of St. Elisabeth (1514, Thyssen Bornemisza collection, kept at the National Art Museum of Catalonia in Barcelona) why does the donor, the Duke of Saxony Bearded Georges (who is a great Luther adversary) profile himself against the black background? This cannot be a staircase with uneven steps, neither a cut-up sheet, and the opening on the right (the Saint’s black robe and the white of her sleeves) is of no particular interest. It probably suggests that the limit between sacred and profane cannot be a simple, regular, straight line- this border must be made of  sudden jerks, reversions, hesitations and incertitudes. Perhaps it is the ambivalent relationship between Cranach himself and the nude – a simultaneously sensual and moralistic posture- that is depicted in this broken, incongruous dividing line.

And in the mystical marriage of Saint Catherine, in the presence of the Virgin and the saints Dorothy, Marguerite and Barbe (detail; 1516-1518, Szépmuvészeti Mùzeum, Budapest), on what exactly do these seven cherubs float upon? What is this black cloud receding from the background? A mountain? A sheet of fabric? The progressive apparition of the cherubs, (where the last one is only seen by the tip of his head and the first is cropped at the torso), indicates a progression, an advancement- which, separated from the rest of the scene by this black tinted area, could be its sublimation? Could this be an indication of progression towards faith, of the (descending) ascent towards the orgiastic mystical ecstasy of Saint Catherine? Flights of fancy no doubt, but what attracted me in this painting was the strangeness of this black emergence.

Also look at the sky in the Martyr of Saint Catherine (1508-09, Ràday Library of the Hungarian Reformed Church, Budapest), this celestial explosion, like fireworks above flailing bodies: Such tumult! Such racket! Such violence!

And Antaeus lifted by Hercules (1520-1530, Compton Verney, Warwickshire): this writhing, twisted, geometrical, swastika-shaped body in the arms of the hero who stands upright- is above all the opposition of two forms of strictness and of distortion, of two different worldly views probably, thus graphically symbolised in a simple and vigorous manner.

Amongst the etchings (Cranach was a great etcher and a true industrialist with the distribution of his works, always with marketing…), one of these marked me for a long time: it’s a Tournament of 1509, conserved at the National Library in Paris (BNF). It’s a confusing, tumultuous etching with tangled up bodies and indiscernible masses in its centre; only the straight lines of clattering blades give this piece its uprightness, that which troubles the omnipresent mousse of the woolly mixture of the combatants’ crash helmets like a carpet, or bouquet, as a background upon which unravels the battle. It would be interesting to set this piece against an Uccello, to compare the manner in which the tension between order and confusion is rendered.

To conclude this unconventional visit (but if you want a tame and erudite conventional discourse about this exhibition, you will find it  all over in the press), I found the Melancoly of Unterlinden less mysterious and engaging than that of Copenhagen, as seen in Rome a month ago, with the image still fresh in my mind. And, in the series of female power (Weibermacht, what a lovely word!), more so than Hercules at Omphale and missing the Fontaine de Jouvence, I loved the Mouth of Truth (1525-30, private collection). The spouse, suspected of infidelity, disguised her lover as a madman; he strolls the streets and touches her. She can then swear (whilst putting her hand in the mouth of truth ) that her husband and this madman who just disturbed her are the only men to have ever touched her.* It’s well more interesting than another naked woman…

And go and see the blog Boîte à images, providing rich reviews on Judith, Salome, Esther and Lucretia.

En français

Photos 1, 2, 3, 5 & 6 courtesty of the  RMN press office.

* On the Museum’s website, a well-made site with fine commentary, you can listen to the editor of Marie Claire talking about the modernity of nudes: Cranach and Kate Moss.

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One response to “Don’t go for the Nudes (Cranach)

  1. Pingback: The Origin Of Life

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