Printer Friendly

Pictures from Dresden at the Royal Academy.

LAST autumn part of the Gemaldegalerie in Dresden was flooded, leaving a shortage of space for display. Since the Royal Academy, London, has taken fifty pictures deemed temporarily disposable into its protection, with all expenses paid for three months, one expected something better than the present exhibition. The Academy's generosity has not been amply repaid. One hardly hoped for The Sistine Madonna or Giorgione's Sleeping Venus or Jan van Eyck's triptych, but did not expect an event called Masterpieces from Dresden to contain such drudging footnotes to the marginalia of the history of art as works by Castiglione, Crespi and Piazzetta: artists destined all over Europe, without hesitation, for secondary collections or storerooms.

Bernando Belotto who, under the remunerative name of his uncle Canaletto, painted trim exact views of Dresden (vistas diversified by washerwomen, promenaders, boatmen and swans on the River Elbe) is represented by no fewer than five pictures of local interest. They are admittedly livelier than his uncle's sole contribution, a stately architectural rendering of the Grand Canal in Venice on a rainy day. The rule for most artists in the exhibition seems to have been one picture apiece. Why, then, are there three trifles by Metsu from a collection best known for its eleven pictures by Rembrandt, who is not represented at all, and its ten by Lucas Cranach the Elder, who is represented by a single portrait? Admirable though that portrait is, was neither his Garden of Eden nor his St Catherine retable (two wings of which are already in the London National Gallery) an option?

The earliest Italian work shown is Mantegna's Holy Family with Saints (c. 1498), a crowded composition, as is its variant at Forth Worth; so much so that the Madonna's halo endangers St Joseph's nose. The aged, stonn-weathered faces of St Joseph and St Elizabeth have more individuality than those of the smooth, plump types of the Virgin and her child. A charming infant St John twines up in one corner with his olive-twig cross and his Agnus Dei banderole. He points at his infant cousin Jesus, voluble in his news of the Messiah.

Titian's 1561 portrait of a man with an intense, saturnine face averted from a stormy sunset, with a paint box by his side and a palm in his hand, may be of the little-known artist Antonio Palma, nephew of Palma Vecchio (like Titian a pupil of Giovanni Bellini) and father of Palma Giovane, who at least twice collaborated with Titian. The ghost of an imposing hat, painted out, shows through the surface. Dates and iconography support the supposition that the portrait is of Antonio, but do not utterly confirm it. The wide span of Titian's life certainly took in the maturity of three generations of the Palma family.

The scene of the Titianesque Veronese's Resurrection is confused by the artist's virtuoso tricks of perspective, foreshortening and flying draperies. A haggard Christ streams upwards in the posture of the Crucifixion, although His feet kick free. His open hands reveal the cruel wounds of the hammered nails. By a sleight of simultaneous representation an angel opens the empty tomb to the three Marys. The soldiers, on guard-duty but sleeping with discarded armour, are less disciplined than one expects of Romans.

Tiepolo did not take kindly to the dimensions (for him cramped) of an altarpiece; nor did he relish painting the quiet holy figures of his Vision of St Anne (in which she saw the child Mary before Mary was born), rather than Olympian deities and the legendary heroes of the conquest of Troy in Homer and Virgil, and the conquest of Jerusalem in Ariosto and Tasso. He would, if pressed, accept something less than the minimum of three square metres that he preferred, especially if the subject was energetic. Scenes of contemplation and spirituality sapped his verve. The Vision of St Anne, with its haloes, orange fog and winged cherubs' heads, is consequently nothing like his best work. He is true to himself only in the vivid gesticulations he brings into the vision, in which a prim and haloed little girl is conveyed to St Anne's arms from the expansive hands of God as He leans on a planet. Cravenly, Tiepolo holds the composition together only by wrapping it in clouds. One is sorry to notice that the altarpiece rese mbles Murillo's least sincere spates of best-selling religiosity.

Murillo, on the contrary, is at his best in his Madonna and Child (possibly a misnomer, although it is hard to tell, since he seldom used haloes). The mother is a sun-browned Andalusian dona. The humility in her woeful eyes almost disclaims the homespun excellence of her clothes. She sits, gazing in the same direction as the infant who clutches her, on a step near a bollard, perhaps on the harbour stairs in Murillo's native seaport of Seville. One wonders whether she is a Madonna or a sailor's wife restraining her tears as she watches her husband's ship depart. Murillo is well known for his sympathy with his neighbours, the poor and distressed of Seville.

Surprisingly, the German masters at the Gernaldegalerie are outnumbered by both the Flemish and the Dutch. The German collection is richest in regional painters such as the Cranachs. The Elder Cranach's 1526 portrait of the Electoral Prince Johan the Steadfast brings to the fore, in face and gesture, the intrepidity of the Elector, a champion at all times of Cranach's close friend Martin Luther. In the previous year Johan had succeeded his brother Friedrich the Wise as Elector of Saxony, the little principality so rich in talent, which he had already in effect governed whilst his pious and contemplative brother collected, not only relics and curiosities, but also scholars such as Luther and Melanchthon and artists such as Jacopo de Barbari and the three Cranachs. Leonine statues of Friedrich and Johan kneel side by side in the castle chapel at Wittenberg, on the door of which Luther fixed his ninety-five Theses.

The portrait celebrates the new Elector as the host at the marriage of his son Johan Friedrich to Sybille of Cleves, sister to Anne of Cleves, briefly Henry yin's consort. Cranach's nimble intricate drawing, shunning all tricks of tenebrism and sfumato, captures something akin to gloating suffused in the Elector's heavy mien and tired eyes as, rubbing his thumbs together (a characteristic gesture seen in other portraits of him), he envisages the continuance of his line and the Protestant alliance which he hoped his son's marriage would bring about. Cheered by dynastic thoughts, he forgets his disdain for the wedding-favour, a chaplet of carnations, he is obliged to wear.

The picture in its homely veracity contrasts with Durer's over-forceful rendering of the heavy-boned, hound-faced Antwerp businessman, Bernhardt von Reesen. Although Durer is peerless as an engraver, he is often disappointing as a painter. His drawing loses itself in flat areas of ill-chosen local colour. The brilliant, flaring flower piece by his humble compatriot Abraham Mignon evinces greater deftness and vivacity in the handling of paint.

Adam and Eve, by Lucas Cranach the Younger, is an assemblage of rough snippets from his father's pictures of The Fall of Man, without his father's subtlety, fine drawing and rondeur within the outlines. A second picture by his father would have been preferable to this mere historic trifle. The series of four scenes by Master A.B. from the early life of Jesus, although charming in their sweet altdeutsch rectitude, are too crude in conception and too inept in both delineation and composition, to support the argument that he was connected with the Elder Cranach. As well as that, nobody with those initials is listed as a pupil in the painstaking transcription of the Cranach archives in Christian Schuchardt's biography of the artist. Not generally known outside Germany, and too little known in Germany itself, are the dozens of gifted minor masters who flourished in its various states during the Renaissance.

That was followed by a long dearth of original talent, seldom interrupted until the heyday of Anton Raphael Mengs, who is represented by his Penitent Magdalen of 1752. Mengs, the son of the Dresden court-painter, became a disciple of his fellow-citizen Johann Winckelmann, whose works, culminating in his critical history of Greek art, precipitated the Neo-Classical movement. Mengs painted both Winckelmann's portrait and what may be the first Neo-Classical work, his Augustus and Cleopatra of 1760, now with the National Trust at Stourhead, Wiltshire. (Walter Pater's penetrating study of Winckelmann was one of the few essays in his Renaissance which were not first published in The Fortnightly.) Even after Winckelmann's murder in 1768, his writings presided over the earliest seminal works of Jacques-Louis David, Canova and Flaxman, all produced within the next quarter-century.

Mengs's Magdalen was painted in emulation of Correggio rather than classical art, but it conforms to Winckelmann's criteria of 'simplicity and quiet sufficiency'. Nothing in the legend of the Magdalen implies that she was specially literate. Here in her watery cave she reclines as she reads a long scroll with pious concentration. Her cross, as in two of Mengs's variants on the subject, is improvised: a crossbar fixed in a cleft stick. To read more clearly she pushes back the fair hair with which she once dried the feet of her master.

The Norwegian Jonan Dahl almost out-Friedrichs his model, Caspar David Friedrich, with his 1839 view of the Dresden skyline, dark under a moon occluded by ragged clouds, with a woman silhouetted on a bank of the Elbe and looking inward over its pallid water. That is just as well, since Friedrich's own Landscape with a View of Mt Milleschauer, possibly unfinished, is a desolate near-abstract without figures or even more than notional vegetation, in five dismal glaucous shades. It has Winckelmann's postulates of simplicity and quiet, but where is the sufficiency in this stark wilderness of paint? Both Dahl and Friedrich's pictures were offloaded, not from the Gemaldegalerie but from what is deemed in Dresden to be the Gallery of Modem Art.

From Ruben's Antwerp picture factory, by way of Dresden, come two large paintings. One is Diana and Satyrs. Satyrs usually chase nymphs. In this canvas their enjoyable scamper is blocked by the bulwark of a vast matron; a head-mistressly Diana, weighing something like twenty stone. In the face of the satyrs' cajoleries she coyly lowers her head and settles down into her voluminous flesh. She is followed by a row of her docile pupil-nymphs, demurer than their mentor, whose hounds blissfully sniff at the blooded feathers of the snipe and woodcocks she carries, and at the hare pathetically strung up by the legs on a stick shouldered by one of her nymphs. The game is likely to be the work of Ruben's assistant Frans Snyders. Less distasteful are the rollicking genial satyrs with their trophies, mellow as themselves, of fruit. One satyr, animated and expressive, offers the nymphs a bunch of grapes and is rewarded with cold looks and averted eyes. The satyrs are probably by Rubens himself, since they roughly corres pond with one of his sketches. Possibly, as a contemporaneous engraving suggests, the picture records the weighty constituents of a patrician Antwerp dinner.

As a product of the Studio of Rubens, Diana and Satyrs is unusually static in composition. The master and his collaborators were more enthusiastic when they had a wilder and more histrionic subject, as in Hero and Leander. In a tempest worthy of our own apocalyptic blood-curdler John Martin, a daringly foreshortened Hero dives into the Hellespont to join her drowned lover Leander. She finds him dragged down into the depths by sea-creatures who are an amalgam of classical nereides and the malicious nixies and mermaids of northern folklore. Their red locks and adornments of coral and pearls flounder on the pitch and whirl of the waves which augment the writhe of their seasnake legs. It is remarkable that such heavy creatures can move with such energy and elasticity. The drama is completed by thunderbolt-lit deluge from above, and sea-monsters churning up, agape, from beneath a sea-bed piled with shells.

Of the two pupils of Adam van Noort, Rubens often assumed the role of the warrior aristocrat, whilst Jacob Jordaens usually played that of the quiet peasant who rejoices in peace and fecundity:

How blest are shepherd, how happy their lasses,

When drums and trumpets are sounding alarms!

To Jordaens fecundity meant the grain and fruit harvests gathered in by broad-hipped maidens clumsily helped by satyrs: agrarian demi-gods whom Jordaens's peasants, gross, primitive and intemperate, often resemble. An example is his Allegory of Fecundity in the Wallace Collection, London. Fecundity to Rubens means opulence, as in his Allegory of War and Peace, an autograph work in the London National Gallery; or a display of his own prosperity, as in his several pictures of his estate at the Chateau de Steen. A tragedian, Rubens loved to depict battles, atrocities, martyrdoms and slaughters. Jordaens, a farceur, was attracted to the rudimentary life and coarse humour of those bound to the soil. Because of their affinity with the toilers of the fields, he took an odd liking to satyrs. Apart from Christmas carousels, satyrs were his favourite subjects. He had greater powers of invention than the Elder Pieter Brueghel, but was otherwise 'of the earth, earthly'. He lacked Brueghel's acute observation and Brueghel 's love of landscape. It is no surprise that in Jordaens's Diana and Actaeon his corpulent bumpkin Actaeon struts at leisure past the globular pop-eyed nymphs, taking in what he would call an eyeful of them. His mild dogs do not look capable, for all Diana's magic, of more than a playful nip or two. So it will end, to Jordaens's satisfaction, in nothing worse than a romp, with no harm done.

There are three classes in David Teniers's Kermis in an Innyard: people of fashion who have come to stare at boorish antics; farmers who stand at the porch to discuss their crops, and are still too close to the soil to forego the country fair; and the peasants, who enjoy themselves. As in the pictures of Adriaen van Ostade, the peasants are childishly apt to mirth, and childishly inquisitive. One group crowds around a tippling grandam, closely attentive to her stories. At a table across the innyard an older peasant, in the full heyday of an anecdote, pauses while carving a ham, his knife still aloft. He is raptly heard by a girl in a hood, whose middle-aged admirer, perhaps jealous, urges her to drink up her ale. At the end of the table a greybeard makes heavy overtures, mirthfully spied upon from a window above, to a half-protesting matron. Nearby a drunkard, almost nose-to-nose with a pig, sprawls on the ground. Another toper, incapable of standing, is solicitously helped by his friends through the gate of the innyard.

Bent on their revels, other peasants dance stoutly in a ring to the music of a fiddle and a bagpipe: the women with dogged concentration, the men with carefree high-kicks. One old reprobate has detached his companion, not in her first youth, and dances her away down the road to a tete tete in their delectably neat village: in the environs of Antwerp, since the spire of its cathedral rises among distant trees. An egalitarian peasant, exhilarated and probably drunk, grabs the hand of a girl from the visiting gentry, to drag her into the round dance. She resists so vehemently that she falls to the ground on her hip. The impudent fellow has also angered his wife who sits nearby suckling their child. This village upstart is likely to have a day of trouble on the morrow. Like a series of engravings by Hogarth, the detailed interactions of Teniers's Kermis would provide the material for a whole novel, perhaps a seventeenth-century version of Zola's La Terre. In its own right it certainly deserves the designation of a masterpiece.

The French section, though small, is in my view the delight of the exhibition. The introductory picture, Poussin's Pan and Syrinx, is admittedly a light-hearted work, but not the worse for that. Poussin perpetuates the convention, which goes back as far as the Pompeian frescoes, of burnished umber men and pearly women. His hearty brown slaphappy woodgod Pan merrily chases the naiad Syrinx along her native riverbank. Alarmed and pallid, she slips his hands, at the same time begging her father, a river-god, to change her into the reeds among which she plunges. Poussin was clearly pleased with the transverse pattern of the flight, in which the tawniness of the two gods alternates with the primrose of the two nymphs, and Syrinx's posture mirrors that of Pan. After Syrinx's transformation Pan calmly plucked the reeds to make himself a set of pan-pipes, and played a tune on them: thus Syrinx survived in Pan's music.

Pierre Subleyras's Christ in the Pharisee's House is a meticulously finished sketch for the larger version in the Louvre. Goethe kept an engraving of this touching work in his private collection. As in Poussin's two sets of The Sacraments, the setting is Ancient Roman, with triclinia around a table, wine-urns and oil-burners. In fact, the canvas draws in part on an engraving of Poussin's lost Sacrament of Penance. To an onrush of varied reactions among the guests at the feast given by Simon the Pharisee, the Magdalen raises Christ's foot and with a gaze of almost animal devotion and washes it with her tears before drying it with her flaxen hair:

But can these fair floods be

Friends with the bosom-fifes that fill thee?

Despite a protest by a nearby Pharisee, Christ raises His hand to bless her without reservation.

Subleyras was later than Claude but, because of his conservative style and affinities with Poussin, one would hardly believe so. His Diana and Endymion, recently bought by the national Gallery, is fraught with a lower form of devotion, though still fervent. In Claude's supremely poetic Landscape with the Flight to Egypt, the Holy Family is safely hidden on its flight. Diminutive figures secluded with their donkey in a clearing of shady wood, they are directed on their way by a still more diminutive angel. Herod's soldiers would have to look hard for them in the wondrous hazy diffusion of the scenery.

A river from the fading distance, which is one mist of collapsed aqueducts and castles, wanders between poplars and pollarded willows. As its wide spate washes up against a small verdurous spur, it swirls over waterweeds and drenched rocks to form an inlet in which goats splash. Careless of his duties, a herdsman in a saffron tunic plays his pipe to a young laundress delectable in suntan and ultramarine blue. Water trickles from a tributary spring into a ewer held against the outlet by a maiden gracefully leaning forward as she grasps the stem of an olive bush to steady herself. The whole picture reverberates with the rustle and ripple and bank-caught plash of water.

Into Watteau's Fete Galante recede ephemeral lawns and the ephemeral lovers reclining upon them, as they drift into vague distance through tree-tangled light. One lover, indeed, is already a transparent wraith, through the fading of Watteau's glazes, the thin layers of successive diaphanous colours which enhance the sense of evanescence Watteau sought to convey in his fetes. Though his chevaliers are fluent, and faintly half-win the attention of their distractedly listening demoiselles in their silky striped dresses that cling to, then loosen from, their coquettish forms, they all pursue separate dreams. One lady delicately pushes away an admirer who has presumed to slide his arm around her waist. Her fingers are as light as the puckers in her silks. A small girl, oblivious of the tiny drama, toys with the float of the lady's hair, which has slipped from her topknot, perhaps as a result of her admirer's tentative advance. Less oblivious are the couple passing by, who archly glance over their shoulders at the suitor's faux pas. Was his ill success due to the neighbouring statue? There Venus, with a teasing smile, has confiscated Cupid's arrows. At the top of the statue's ivy-wisped plinth a satyr's mask mocks the ceremonious transience of all these mortals.

Masterpieces from Dresden continues at the Royal Academy until 8 June, 10.00 to 18.00 daily, with extended opening to 22.00 on Fridays. Admission costs [pounds sterling]7.50, with concessions. Further information: Tel. 020 7300 8000 or (
COPYRIGHT 2003 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Bruce, Donald
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 2003
Previous Article:Dancing on tables in Singapore's guided democracy.
Next Article:Flashman and the Victorian social conscience.

Related Articles
antique: what's it worth?
Your Verdict.
War is over so let's be friends.
Exhibitions/Music: Shedding Light on county's best photographic talents; Gallery.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |