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Exhibition of the year: an exhibition dedicated to Hans von Aachen brilliantly revealed the versatile inventiveness of a barely remembered master.

'Hans von Aachen: A Court Artist in Europe'

Kunsthistorisches Musueum, Vienna

19 October 2010-9 January 2011; Castle Picture Gallery, Prague

1 July-3 October 2010; Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen

11 March-13 June 2010

Hans von Aachen (1552-1615) was famous for being famous. To his first biographer, he proved that, 'always and without fail,' artistic excellence brings renown: 'all-knowing Fame trumpets his name abroad, which neither deep waters nor high rocks can prevent.' (1) Karel van Mander contributed to such fame through the laudatory vita of Von Aachen included in his Schilder-boeck (1609). But as the Schilder-boeck reports, the artist's fame rested also on the unprecedented social station to which the painter rose. Invited to Rudolf II's residence in Prague, Von Aachen 'found the greatest and most important art lover in the whole world, in whose service he has since remained as painter to his chamber and he has daily a friendly, Apelles-like association with this great Alexander, and is esteemed and valued by him.' (2) During his time in Prague, from his marriage in 1595 to Regina di Lasso (the composer Orlando di Lasso's daughter; Fig. 5) until Rudolf's death in 1612, Von Aachen was the art-obsessed emperor's favourite painter, chief curator, trusted diplomatic emissary, and personal intimate. Whatever his merits as an artist, and they were considerable, Von Aachen stood closer to Europe's centre of power than any artist before or since.


The artist magnified his station by using a new machinery of fame. He disseminated his artistic inventions to an international audience by hiring the best engravers of the day to create superb prints after his paintings. An admired portraitist, Von Aachen also made likenesses of his patrons, associates, and friends so that, by having engravings produced of their effigy, they could trumpet their own renown, as well as that of their portraitist, whose name (included in the engravings) added lustre to theirs, just as theirs illuminated his, until the artist's illustrious circle blazed in the light of fame.

Today, by a contrast that may have puzzled visitors to the recent retrospective, Von Aachen is barely remembered. In Vienna, where Rudolf's collections descended, this master's paintings belong to a curious historical episode. Fascinating to the more dedicated members of the public, the art of Von Aachen and his circle intervenes between the achievements of the Northern Renaissance and the new departures of Northerners like Rubens and Rembrandt. This episode also unfolds on both sides of the Mps, causing problems for the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which displays Northern and Southern European art in separate wings. Included in Von Aachen's circle are other Northern masters active both in Prague and Italy, most notably Bartholomaus Spranger (1546-1611) and Joseph Heintz the Elder (1564-1609), as well as the Milanese eccentric Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-93), whose famous composite portrait heads have recently migrated from the Northern rooms of the Kunsthistorisches Museum to the Italian wing, reducing the appeal of Von Aachen and company. Core objects of the Habsburg treasury, the paintings of all these artists come to mind whenever one struggles to exemplify Mannerism. Convoluted in their iconography, playfully erotic, and absurdly artificial, with every toe on every foot ostentatiously posed some little diva, these aesthetically overripe creations make Baroque art look Lenten by comparison. Yet viewed on their own, as the recent exhibition invited us to do, the works of Von Aachen transcend this category.


This master's genre paintings, many of which include a roguish, smiling self-portrait, look forward to Adriaen Brouwer (1605-38), Rembrandt (1606-69) and Jan Steen (1626-79), while his more intimate masterpieces (for example, a portrait probably of his daughter; Fig. 2) are as moving and immediate as comparable works by Rubens. (3) The trouble is, because his art varies so dramatically, because, while almost everything he left us is excellently made, the whole remains elusive, he has the reputation of a chameleon able to accommodate his manner to the eclectic tastes of his clientele. And for about 500 years now, from Vasari through to Clement Greenberg, eclecticism earns an artist little praise.

Historical circumstances helped make this painter mutable. Born in Cologne in 1552, when confessional divisions, iconoclasm, and the ascendancy of an Italianate pictorial style stifled art in Germany, Von Aachen was trained by Netherlandish emigres--epigones of Italianising Northerners like Frans Floris (the 'Flemish Raphael'; c. 1519/20-70), through whom earlier Northern styles and subjects nonetheless could pass. Portraiture and genre, two of Von Aachen's lifelong specialties, had been the traditional strengths of Flemish and German masters. Spurred by ambition and encouraged by local sophisticates (the great city atlas Civitas urbis terrarum was produced in Cologne), Von Aachen travelled in 1574 to Venice. There (according to Van Mander) his German origins brought him scorn. By absorbing the lessons of Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and Bassano, however, he eventually garnered the admiration of Netherlandish artist and dealer Gaspar Rem (Fig. 4). By 1577 Von Aachen moved to Rome, entering the circle of Flemish painter and dealer Anthonis Santvoort and Hans Speckaert, a master draftsman who mentored Northerners in what to learn in Italy and how technically to do so. A brief sojourn in Florence at the court of Francesco I de' Medici acquainted him with the secondo maniera of Giorgio Vasari, Jacopo Zucchi and others. By 1587 he had moved to Munich to work for the ultra-Catholic Bavarian court and, from 1589, for the cosmopolitan Fugger family in Augsburg. In 1592 Rudolf II appointed Von Aachen peintre de chamber--although only 'von Haus aus', meaning that the artist could work 'from home', receiving imperial pension and patronage but able to fulfill commissions in Bavaria. Three years later the artist finally moved to Prague, where the emperor had gathered an amazing circle of artists and, through their collecting endeavours, a matchless collection of earlier art.


Von Aachen's itinerant career made his art itself mobile. The Prague venue of this exhibition juxtaposed two versions of the Carrying of the Cross, both from around 1587, one a demonstration of gestural freedom and Venetian colourism, the other--on copper, finishing work begun by Christoph Schwarz an early essay in controlled 'fine painting' (Dutchfijnschilderie). (4) More jarring is the contrast between the austere Crucifixion of 1596 from Munich's Church of St Michael and the erotic fantasies painted for Rudolf at the same time. (5)

While Von Aachen seems always present--Zelig-like--in every new current of painting and sculpture, he is frequently first, and always at least vanguard, within these many currents. A charming garland painting of around 1590 (exhibited in the Prague venue) calls to mind the more famous versions that Rubens made much later in collaboration with Jan Bruegel; Von Aachen's picture may be the very first of this type. More dramatically precocious are his genre paintings featuring tavern and brothel scenes. It is true that these have Netherlandish prototypes, but their luminosity, colourism and detailing put them in a class by themselves. In some of these, Von Aachen made the fallen protagonist resemble himself--a sly trick that viewers can penetrate thanks to several surviving self-portraits (Figs. 1 and 5). He implicates his own person in the ribald plots of his pictures, and by turning the action outward to the beholder, often by way of the protagonist gazing or gesturing out at us, he also mockingly implicates the viewer in the scene. Such games prefigure by decades the art of Dutch Golden Age masters.

Elsewhere, even when the artist looks most like his elder collaborator Spranger, and the impact of Giambologna's figure style is most pronounced, Von Aachen shows the way to the future. Comparing the amazing ensemble of Von Aachen's late works to Spranger's (displayed in adjacent rooms in Vienna), the depth of Von Aachen's chiaroscuro, as well as a haunting intimacy lacking in Spranger, was immediately evident. In his moralising genre paintings, Von Aachen infused the erotic allegories prized by Rudolf with a new pictorial concreteness, while also intensifying the engagement with the viewer.

Bringing together more than a hundred of the artist's works and displaying the full range of his activities (paintings on canvas, panel, copper, slate, and alabaster; drawings for all purposes and from all phases of his career; prints by his principal engravers), the exhibition, ably curated by Thomas Fusenig, may have been Hans von Aachen's unique moment in the sun, a once-in-a-lifetime summation of the versatility of a major master of his time. There were elegant paintings, such as the Rape of Proserpine (1589) and the Judgment of Paris (1588); sensuous masterpieces like Bacchus, Cere and Amore (c. 1600), all powerfully aware of their own affective agency; (6) and intimate works, from the early self-portraits (Von Aachen's Opus 1 and 2) through the probable likenesses of the artist's son and daughter. Set apart from the Mannerism expected of this painter, these personal works show an artist puzzled by his own creative powers. They also made the exhibition cohere. The erotic, mythological and allegorical pictures, and even some of the more formal courtly portraits, contained the spark of a master at once delighted and troubled by his own protean capacity for invention.


The Vienna venue put this feature front and centre by placing at the beginning of the exhibition a marvellous suite of self-portraits, in which the artist positioned himself aggressively turned outward toward the viewer. Here hung the strange double self-portrait painted, before 1574, when the artist was still in Cologne. Von Aachen shows himself pulling his own ear, causing both the mocker and the mocked to burst forth in disfiguring laughter--a wittily knowing tribute to the power of art, made before the artist had properly launched his career. His later self-portraits show him ageing, and developing artistically, but a distinctive self-consciousness remains.


In the final room of the Vienna exhibition Von Aachen's late works made powerful sense. Although artificial like so many creations of Rudolph's Prague, and focused on the female nude, these highly finished masterpieces nonetheless preserved something of the intimate dialogue between painter and beholder that originated in the self-portraits. This dialogue is a hallmark of Northern art. Already powerful in Van Eyck and turned malicious in Bosch, it becomes playfully erotic in Baldung and Cranach.

Von Aachen produced a number of remarkable 'friendship' portraits of fellow artists from the North. He must have felt an affinity with these itinerant avatars of his native tradition. In an unforgettable masterpiece, Portrait of Joseph Heitz the Elder of around 1584 (beautifully hung in the Prague venue), he portrayed his friend and disciple with downcast eyes and a melancholy shadow playing over his brow: it is a marvellous evocation of the inner person. Period models of mental activity located fantasy at the front of the brain. Because the sitter was a fellow artist, and would thus be inwardly filled with images and fantasies, personhood becomes the play of light and shadow on the forehead. A painting such as this also had more practical functions. Created within the artist's network of collaborators and supporters, it trumpeted the talent and personality of that network's members. Instead of mere craftsmen working for a wealthy clientele, there were now distinctive, even psychologically resistant personalities. This idea also served the new cult of art and of artists that reached a pinnacle in Rudolfinian Prague.


Von Aachen was born two decades before Caravaggio, and no one would claim the two equals, but Von Aachen does possess an alternative modernity. Most contemporary art does not strive heroically to be original; it is often willfully eclectic and cryptically self-conscious. Its most celebrated masters aim their expressions at historically over-aware cognoscenti, who respond to ironic allusiveness at least as eagerly as they do to originality or skill. Contemporary artists are sometimes curators, and curators artists, as in Rudolf's Prague. Von Aachen's mutable appropriation of past and present art may be somewhat lost on today's viewers, who do not possess the knowledge of the art-mad Rudolph. But this is our weakness, not Von Aachen's.

The exhibition opened in the cathedral town of Aachen, where German kings were crowned and from where the artist's family originally hailed. It then moved to Prague, Von Aachen's final destination and once the seat of Habsburg imperial power. (It is tempting to think that Rudolf himself enjoyed his painter's trajectory, that he took pleasure in Von Aachen's roots in Charlemagne's residence.) From Prague the exhibition travelled to Vienna where, when the Empire's capital moved there, most of Von Aachen's works found their permanent home. Pilgrims to all three venues could thus retrace the itinerary of the Holy Roman Empire in its longue duree.

This memorable exhibition clarified the achievements of a pivotal and overlooked master, expanding his known oeuvre and bringing new scholarship to bear on his achievements. Through the creative use of the three exhibition venues, in Aachen, Prague and Vienna, the show brilliantly revived a forgotten geographical axis of European history. For this and more, the show richly deserves this journal's annual exhibition award.

(1) Karel van Mander, Schilder-boeck, trans. Berry Cook-Redmore, ed. Hessel Miedema (Doornspijk: Davaco, 1994). p, 414; fol. 289v.

(2) Ibid., p. 421, fol. 290v.

(3) Thomas Fusenig (ed,). Hans von Aachen (1552 1615): Court Artist in Europe, exh. cat., (Aachen: Suermondt-Ludwig Museum and Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2010), cat. 111.

(4) Bratislava, Slovenska Narodna Galdria, and Prague, Strahov Monastery; Hans von Aachen, cat. 23 and p. 21.

(5) Ibid., cat. 45.

(6) Ibid., cat. 26, 24. and 73.

Joseph Leo Koerner is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University.
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Title Annotation:APOLLO AWARDS: EXHIBITION OF THE YEAR; Hans von Aachen: A Court Artist in Europe
Author:Koerner, Joseph Leo
Geographic Code:4EUAU
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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