The Diagnostic scans of Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, by AHA tutor Freddie Mason.

It is often said that the life of Maurizio Seracini is like something out of the Da Vinci Code. He studied bioengineering at Harvard in the 70s before returning to his home, Florence, to develop technology to investigate Florentine renaissance paintings diagnostically and non-destructively. Since then, he has adapted medical and military technology to scan paintings and disclose secrets locked within the layers of paint.

In the 90s he used this technology to scan the walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio to find a lost Leonardo fresco, The Battle of Anghiari, believed to be under the Vasari frescoes that are visible today. More recently, he turned his attention to an investigation of da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi. What his work uncovered in this latter piece is simply spell binding.

 

 

Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi, 1481

I recently helped to write a chapter in a book to be published about what was discovered. I thought I would share some of my thoughts on what Seracini’s work means for Leonardo da Vinci scholarship and the future of art history.

Leonardo’s enigmatic Adoration is unfinished and in a somewhat unsatisfactory state. The yellowing varnish that covers the entire piece mutes the vibrancy of the forms a great deal. Art historians have long suspected that a hand other than Leonardo’s applied the paint to the work at a later date. The dark brown smears in the foreground certainly seem much cruder than the delicate forms of the congregation.

But despite its unsatisfactory condition, it is clearly a bold work, exhibiting the young Leonardo’s precocious talent. With the painting, Leonardo broke decisively from the moods of pageantry and celebration that Gentile da Fabriano chose for his famous Adoration half a century earlier and instead gave the event a highly unusual sense of troubled urgency. Figures approach the Madonna in a state of unrest, desperately trying to catch her attention or a glimpse of the miraculous occasion. Gone are the dreamy, utopian landscapes of, say, Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Adoration, and instead we have a work that finds a kind of disquiet in the worship of the young Christ. It is a painting, I think, which associates the coming of Christ from the trauma of his crucifixion.

With Seracini’s scans we are able to see Leonardo’s original intentions for the piece. They provide us with unseen Leonardo drawings and a fascinating insight into his compositional process. We are literally able to ‘step into’ the painting.

 

 

Underdrawing for Leonardo’s Adoration.

Notice how the leg of the Virgin is bathed in an ethereal light in the under-drawings. This detail is completely lost in what is visible today. The scans restore a former luminosity to the seated Madonna and a sacred atmosphere to the event. This luminosity perhaps explains why one of the figures to her left appears to be shading his eyes.

Notice how Leonardo thought it necessary to design a much more complete architectural setting in his preparatory sketches. This is a truly remarkable insight into Leonardo’s compositional process: he seems to have felt the need to build the temple first before subjecting it to imaginary ruination. In the discovery of these hidden sketches we can see Leonardo working as a master of naturalistic gesture and anatomy, but also as an architect.

Notice how Leonardo included figures rebuilding the temple in his preparatory sketches. The ruined temple is a common theme in adoration scenes. It is meant to represent the decay of paganism at the birth of Christ. But, its rebuilding displays a desire to preserve, reawaken and revere the forms and ideals of pre-Christian antiquity. It seems Leonardo intended a more complex symbolic duality to the image of the ruined temple. The condemnation of paganism combined with the respect for classical antiquity is after all a contradiction at the heart of all renaissance religious painting.

These are just some of the amazing details you discover when observing Seracini’s scans. I think it is safe to say that his work has changed art history for ever.

Crucially, the scans are not just an important moment for scholarship, but also a deeply pleasurable aesthetic experience.

 

 

Portraits from a Warzone: Photojournalism, life and death in conflict, by Helena Roy

It seems that the concept of a finite war has collapsed in the face of long-term conflicts without geographical limits. In the same way, reporting has changed and as smartphones have emerged as a reporting device, perhaps art seems out of place in a war zone. Static, micro-level portraits will not headline the ten o’clock news or sprint through Twitter. The ease of taking grainy last-minute iPhone footage befits the chronicling of ceaseless long-term struggles, it seems. But a portrait can just as easily convey the enormity of a conflict as a graphic battle scene. And as  today’s battle scenes  have chenged, becoming shattered generations rather than muddy, shelled fields – portraiture reflects some of the deeper consequences of war, reverberating across countries and time.

And so, artists are creating collaborative projects to thread communities out of those displaced by war. On 1st February 2014, in central Kiev, anti-government protestors were barricaded in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, living under a lethal siege. Armour was improvised in a setting of ice, fire, smoke and soot. Anastasia Taylor-Lind, a photojournalist from London, set up a makeshift portrait studio by the barricades. The result of her work is immensely powerful. Against a blank black curtain, ordinary men and women confront the viewer, vulnerable in their homemade protective clothing. As time progressed during this project, the artist’s subjects morphed from revolutionaries brandishing weapons, to women cradling flowers for the dead.

'Anika' by Anastasia Taylor-Lind (Kiev, 2014)
'Eugene' by Anastasia Taylor-Lind (Kiev, 2014)
'Olena' by Anastasia Taylor-Lind (Kiev, 2014)

When conflicts feel like relics of history, or too distant to be relevant, photojournalism throws forward untold stories that demand attention. Photojournalist Michael Kamber published photos from three of the Iraq war’s most prominent photographers. Frustrated at America’s desire to tune out of the war, and the US military’s encouragement of indifference by taking an active role in censoring what could be photographed, the cautiously obscure portraits – some shocking and gruesome – convey an unavoidable sense of perpetual sadness.

In Ali Musayyib, an Iraqi child jumps over the remains of victims found in a mass grave south of Baghdad. The victims were killed by Saddam Hussein’s government during a Shiite uprising here following the 1991 Gulf War. (Photography by Marco di Lauro, 27 May 2003)
An Iraqi woman walks through a plume of smoke rising from a massive fire at a liquid gas factory in Basra, as she searches for her husband. The fire was allegedly started by looters picking through the factory. (Photograph by Lynsey Addario, 26 May 2003)
Samar Hassan, five, screams moments after her parents were killed by U.S. soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division. The troops fired on the Hassan-family car when it unwittingly approached during a dusk patrol in the tense northern town of Tal Afar (Photograph by Chris Hondros, 18 January 2005).

The mass of social media flowing from every war zone makes it almost impossible to separate out nuanced understanding from the fake or unrevealing. Portraits from warzones offer a considered insight into the effects of war and social displacement around the world. Kamber’s portraits show wounds scarring both Iraqi and US communities, as soldiers bring home injury, grief and disillusionment with their sovereign state’s confused world identity. Syrian artist Tammam Azzam’s version of Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’, superimposed on a hauntingly empty, bullet-ridden building in Damascus, is a passionate plea for empathy and kindness amidst cold brutality. Here, the golden ghost of Klimt’s tender portrait mourns the splendour and love the city once offered.

Alan Jermaine Lewis, 23, a machine gunner with the Third Infantry Division, was wounded July 16, 2003, on Highway 8 in Baghdad when the Humvee he was driving hit a land mine, blowing off both his legs, burning his face, and breaking his arm in six places. He was delivering ice to other soldiers at the time. (Photograph by Nina Berman, 23 November 2003 - Milwaukee, Wisconsin.)
Syrian artist Tammam Azzam's 'Kiss' in Syria

As conflict after conflict is buried under an avalanche of new crises, it is too easy to forget one for another. The interchangeablity of hashtags perhaps references this better than anything:  #Ukraine, #Syria, #Iraq and #IslamistState. Photojournalism moves with a society undergoing struggles, capturing the suffering that will remain with people for generations. Most importantly, portraits encourage us to consider the status of the subject in a world perplexed by the boundaries of nation, class, race and religion.

With thanks to Anastasia Taylor-Lind, Michael Kamber and Tammam Azzam for photographs.

Art, Religion and the Smartphone: The Selfie by AHA Tutor Freddie Mason

When people take pictures of famous paintings in galleries, these pictures are often selfies: ‘this is me in the Louvre, pointing at and smiling next to the Mona Lisa’. It is the ‘me’ and the ‘next to’ that the selfie really cares about; people want to watermark their own original version of the painting with that thing that is indisputably their own: their face.

Someone taking a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa

 

What we are now able to do with Smartphones is put ourselves in the same picture as the Mona Lisa. We can enter the same frame as her. We can place our face into the same visual context as the most iconic face in existence. We can change ourselves slightly. We can get something new about ourselves to take back across that mysterious threshold between art and life.

For the cultured ‘art-lover’ there is nothing more embarrassing than the selfie. There are those that take selfies in front of Leonardos and there are those art-lovers that look on in despair.

Why is this?

I think this opposition between different kinds of gallery-goers has a lot to do with the theological oppositions between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Let me make a crude summary:

One of the things that particularly annoyed the new modes of protestant faith that developed during the Reformation was the worship of holy objects, relics. The worship of relics involves a very bodily orientated kind of faith: it is all about your physical proximity to the holy object. This catholic mode of worship is an externalised kind of religious being that is based upon the arrangement of people and things within space. In some cases, religious objects are even touched, a ritual act I’ve always found exquisitely dramatic.

 

A nail from the 'True Cross'

Protestantism, on the other hand, is much more internalised. It requires the individual to contemplate, in the solitude of prayer, their own fallen existence: faith and faith alone. One should not need the bones of the saints or a bit of the true cross to help absolve sins, only your own intense relationship with the word of God.

But, what has this got to do with selfies?

The tourist that sidles up alongside a Caravaggio to take a selfie is really interested in this Catholic belief in proximity. The tourist is not ‘learning to look’ as the exasperated art history tutors that surround them would like. What’s really important is that they were there, here, near, right next to the divine presence of the ‘original work of art’. In the world of art experience this pertains to a very Catholic set of values. ‘I was physically there. Next to this! The actual one!’

The desire to affirm physical presence in relation to the original artwork with a selfie is, I think, related to that mysterious, much more ancient impulse to physically touch works of art or religious objects.

Some artists have noticed this desire, creating works that ask you to break the rules. Meret Oppenheim’s ‘Objet’, for instance, cries out to be touched.

Meret Oppenheim, Objet, 1936, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

On the other end of the spectrum of gallery-goers is the good student who keeps their Smartphone switched off in their bag, listens attentively to the tutor and looks carefully in the hope that they might one day ‘learn how to look’ properly at art. For the good student, the whole affair is much more internalised. For them, proximity to the original is part of an individualised learning process through which they might gain a private aesthetic sensibility. With regards to their experience of art, they are acting like a Protestant might.

A sign in a gallery

 

Max Weber’s ‘protestant work ethic’ perhaps applies here: does one have to work to understand Caravaggio? Or is being there, having made the journey, the pilgrimage, enough?

I do not want to say something boring about which kind of gallery-goer is more or less superior. Instead, I think we can learn something about our historical position by observing this opposition. This is: however much we think society has become secularised, our ‘secular’ activities are structured by impulses that have their origins in religious ritual or dogma.

 

 

 

Art, Religion and the Smartphone : Pictures and pictures of paintings by AHA Tutor Freddie Mason

Whilst in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, one of the more philosophically inclined students on the AHA early summer course remarked to me: ‘isn’t it funny that the first thing people do when they see an original work of art, is make a reproduction of it’. This struck me as an extremely intelligent thing to say.

She was referring, of course, to the expansive sea of Smartphone screens bobbing up and down in front of the original Capitoline Wolf, desperately catching snaps. The remark was intelligent because the student wasn’t looking to condemn the modern trigger-happy habits of gallery-goers, but contemplate it as a cultural phenomenon. She didn’t say ‘isn’t it hateful’ or ‘isn’t it irritating’ (which, I accept, it often is!), but chose that very thoughtful phrase ‘isn’t it funny…’.

The Capitoline Wolf, The Capitoline Museum, Rome

What I take ‘funny’ to mean here is:

‘I can feel something strange going on here that I might be able to learn something from’.

I want to suggest that we can learn a great deal about the history of art and religion from the strange spectacle of the Mona Lisa exploding into a thousand pixelated versions of itself on mobile phone screens all over the room.

The student cleverly noticed the irony of this act: all these people are here because this object is ‘original’, yet all they are doing is reproducing it. People are making out of the image exactly the thing they didn’t come to see: a reproduction. People appear seized by the paradoxical desire to make their own original version of something that is, we’ve been told, original.

But what exactly is an ‘original’?

This is not a straightforward question and one that has been pondered by a number of formidable minds. Its perhaps most startling discussion is by Walter Benjamin in his influential essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.

What we learn from Benjamin’s essay is that the whole notion of the ‘original’ is dependent upon the possibility of reproduction. In the 15th century, art couldn’t be ‘original’ in the same way that it is today. The whole notion of authenticity requires the invention of that which is seen as ‘inauthentic’ – fridge magnets, advertising, posters, book covers etc. All those silly little tourist-tat trinkets that carry the Mona Lisa’s image make space within us for a reverence of the ‘original’.

Andy Warhol, Cambell's Soups Cans, 1962

The 21st century experience of the Mona Lisa is fundamentally different from the 15th century experience of the painting because it has been reproduced so many times. Fascinatingly, a spirit of the originary (as I like to call it) has literally been added to paintings by their reproduction. The more an image is reproduced, the more thrilling people find the experience of seeing the original. This ‘spirit’ is enhanced by reproduction.

This all may seem obvious.

But, in an age where art is becoming an increasingly secular phenomenon, this ‘spirit of the originary’ gives works of art a bizarre, modern kind of religiosity. The reproduction of art works provides a substitute religiosity for the one that is being lost through art’s gradual detachment from formalised religious practice. The visual reproductive capacities of the Smartphone play an active role in re-spiritualising the secularised work of art.

When people take photos of paintings they are partaking in a ritual which makes that painting original. They are part of a congregation of camera phone owners who sanctify the object.

One last point:

Though the technology is 21st century, this camera phone habit has a history. When someone takes a snap of a painting in a gallery they are exhibiting a distinctly renaissance impulse – the desire to return to origins in order to appropriate those origins for your own ends. If I put a picture I’d taken of the Hercules from the Archaelogical Museum in Naples on my facebook page, I would be behaving a lot like Alessandro Farnese did when he excavated the statue from the Caracalla Baths and put it in his palace.

The Farnese Hercules, thought to be c. 216 AD, The Archaeological Museum, Naples

We shouldn’t be suspicious of the involvement of technology in art and art education. Instead, we should think carefully about how people use technology in their aesthetic experience to feel our position in human history with greater sensitivity – to realise, perhaps, how little has changed.

 

Is the cult of celebrity undermining portraiture? Helena Roy looks at modern subjects…

A trip to the National Portrait Gallery requires passing the newsagents’ stalls that litter every London tube station and street corner. Here, fluorescent glossy magazines throw pictures of a myriad of celebrities at the bystander. Entering the gallery, you recognise a few faces from those very same stands in the portraits.

Modern society is obsessed with celebrity. The famous are everywhere – infiltrating all areas of our lives. The reason for this is probably economic: celebrities sell. The list is endless: from clothes and false eyelashes to insurance and payday loans. And now, to some extent, artwork.

Classical works habitually depict religious figures – sacra conversazione and biblical tales in glorious paint and sculpture added meaning and marvel to worship for an illiterate congregation.  Some contemporary art is (only partially satirically) mimicking this to benefit from the worship of celebrities. Marc Quinn’s work on Kate Moss depicts her in goddess-like form: she commands worship in Microcosmoss – The Road to Enlightenment; and becomes an avant-garde version of the golden calf in Siren.

Commanding worship - Kate Moss in 'Microcosmoss - The Road to Enlightenment' (2008) by Marc Quinn

But whilst religious tales often had morals to benefit society, celebrity artwork noticeably lacks this: the idol of the skeletal Siren, Kate Moss made headlines for declaring she lives by the motto ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.’

A modern golden calf? Kate Moss as 'Siren' (2008) by Marc Quinn

Sam Taylor-Wood has created portraits of David Beckham and Daniel Craig. Jonathan Yeo’s fame soared when he painted Sienna Miller pregnant in 2012 (he has painted Nicole Kidman, Tony Blair and David Walliams, amongst others). These subjects bring attention, but is it the right type? The first portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge, by Paul Emsley, was unveiled in January 2013 to slating criticism – but at the National Portrait Gallery the crowd gravitates towards it, ignoring works portraying unknowns that need more than a glance.

We are inundated with pictures of celebrities daily. Society devours their lives in magazines, social networks, films and fashion; inhaling news of divorces, cat fights and diva-like behaviour. In the age of 24/7 media, there is no escape.

Art is a remaining exception. Art allows you to escape from the infectious world of idols to a more obscure, extraordinary medium. But the two are increasingly combined. Celebrity corrupts art by begging for publicity on merit of the subject, not the message, beauty or moral the art can convey.

With religious worship somewhat in decline and celebrity adulation in a shooting trajectory, the most intense portraits are often of unknowns. One of the most iconic is Afghan Girl, the cover of National Geographic in June 1985. Steve McCurry’s shot has been likened to the Mona Lisa, and was taken in the split second when Sharbat Gula (an orphan of the Soviet occupation) unwittingly turned her blazing eyes towards him. The World Press Photography Award 2013 was granted to a heart-wrenching picture of two Palestinian children, killed by an Israeli strike, being taken for burial in Gaza.

'Afghan Girl' – Sharbat Gula, a refugee in Pakistan, captured by Steve McCurry in June 1985
'Gaza Burial', the winner of the World Press Photo Award 2013, by Paul Hansen

Portraiture has the power to present unknowns – those who will never grace the covers of magazines, or have their life stories slavishly consumed by the population. Portraiture has unique stories to tell that are rarely communicated in any other medium. It should focus on these and not succumb, like everything else, to celebrity worship.

With thanks to Marc Quinn, the Telegraph, World Press Photo and Wikipedia for photos.

Lights in the Landscape – The New Trend in Land Art and Installation by Anna Fothergill

My recent research has brought to light (pardon the pun) a trend which seems to be gaining popularity with both artists and the general public; the use of lights in ways and places they do not belong. It seems to me, there is a fascination in the collective artistic world of the way electric light can be manipulated in art. This is being done in many ways, such as in  Jessica Lloyd-Jones’s glass human organs containing neon lights or any display from Gent’s yearly Light Festival, an event which is definitely on my bucket list. However, I think it is the subtler use of light that appeals to the general public. Specifically, stimulated lighting in a natural setting.

Copyright Barry Underwood
Copyright Barry Underwood

The placement of ethereal shapes in a landscape creates a juxtaposition of a traditionally urban feature and nature, yet when it’s done well, there does not seem to be anything unnatural about it. The work of an artist like Barry Underwood perfectly illustrates how well this creation of an electric environment works in beautiful harmony, despite all logic.

Copyright Barry Underwood

Works such as these, whilst falling under the category of ‘land art’, also span many other mediums, and this could explain why it has gained such popularity. This fascination has even seeped its way into national advertising, like Ikea’s recent advert. These light installations are sculptures, surreal photographs and now advertising agents. Underwood’s work seeks to turn the everyday into something unique and unusual. These images, to me, are reminiscent of fairy tales, of something magical happening away from the every day world. They are scenes from a mysterious play, and each installation has its own dream-like narrative, which the viewer cannot help but be drawn to.

Copyright Barry Underwood

The collision of the material and the natural world generates a refined contrast.

Copyright Barry Underwood

The strange beauty of light cannot be captured to its fullest extent but this has not stopped artists from trying and at the heart of this use of light, we essentially see an example of the human condition, choosing light over darkness. Barry Underwood’s lights in a night landscape brilliantly brings together all aspects of installation, photography and a basic human instinct.

Copyright Barry Underwood
Copyright Barry Underwood

When science traverses into art – Jazzy Wong's review of the British Library's 'Beautiful Science' exhibition

The British Library’s exhibition, Beautiful Science, is a visual surprise which had me thinking and seeing in ways I had not expected, exploring the potential of artistic rendering of data.

Whilst this might at first seem a dry topic for an exhibition – I can assure you it was anything but.

The display is divided into three topics: weather and climate, public health, and biological diversity. My experience of scientific learning did not greatly extend past my Triple Science GCSE, so I felt if someone like me could grasp these concepts, the images and diagrams of the exhibition would have fulfilled their purpose well.

Illustrated plate from 'Barometrographia' by Luke Howard, image courtesy of libraries.ucsd.edu

Meteorology, out of the three topics, was probably the one I had encountered least often and knew least about. However, looking at the cartographical imagery superimposed with swirling, dramatic wind patterns, I realised how instantly familiar I was to the imagery of planetary weather. It is something we see everyday on the weather forecast and seeing demonstrations of climate activity from the 1800s it became clear to me how influential and effective illustrations such as Robert Fitzroy’s Weather Book are today. Many of the early meteorological observations pre-20th century were reliant on the information provided by explorers and mariners, and in the case of the ship The Rochester of the East India Trading Company, their logging of weather from 1709-12 were integral in understanding patterns of precipitation and wind. What makes the tables of data more exciting however, are the intricate illustrations of animals and ships that embellish the graphical information. Similarly, Luke Howard’s Barometrographia of 1847 shows lines of longitudinal and latitudinal points surrounded with the measure of air pressure as it’s tondo frame, acting both as a visual stimulus and providing supportive information.

'On the Mode of Commmunication of Cholera' by John Snow, image courtesy of WordPress

At the heart of global concern is the science of epidemics, and the utilisation of graphs and diagrams are no less integral to understanding health issues, as the exhibition continues to demonstrate. Behind the glass displayed Florence Nightingale’s influential Rose Diagram, representing in a concise, circular fashion the causes of death during the Crimean War. I was surprised to learn that as well as being one of the most important figures in British healthcare, Nightingale was also a celebrated and enthusiastic statistician.

Another exhibit which caught my eye was On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, 1845, a map which marked the places where the disease was reported  in Soho. Here, the concentration around Broad Street helped health authorities to identify the exact pipe which the water-borne disease stemmed from.

As well as fascinating examples such as these, the exhibition also offers an interactive map, where the visitor can ‘play god’ for a few minutes, controlling a hypothetical epidemic configuring its contagiousness, source of origin and season of spread, watching the disease disperse across the globe in mesmerising red and orange trails.

 

'Rose Diagram' by Florence Nightingale, image courtesy of understandinguncertainty.org

Before going to this exhibition I knew Darwin’s work in the field of biological diversity and his Tree of Life was a landmark and treasure of British history, but it was only seeing it in the context of these other works that I understood its true beauty. The diagram of the trunk and branches of the animal kingdom not only create a digestible arrangement of the vastness of nature’s variety, but the symbolism of the tree also gives the diagram a sense of vitality and life. I was intrigued to learn that the tree was not exclusive in this respect, as Georg August Goldfuss’ 1817 System of Animals represented the animal world in the shape of an egg, another life-giving symbol. Two centuries before, Robert Fudd’s Great Chain of Being interpreted nature’s diversity through concentric levels of god, man, animals and minerals, overseen by Sophia, the goddess of wisdom. Today scientists employ the practical yet visually intricate methods of fractal geometry to depict the ever expanding scope of our understanding of the natural world, and interactive screens in the exhibition allow visitors to explore just how deep our knowledge is becoming through graceful animations of spiralling shapes.


It did not surprise me what a large role imagery has played in the discipline of scientific learning but I must admit I was taken aback by the variety of different modes of representation which scientists used and still use. NASA’s video of the Perpetual Ocean, depicting the currents of the world’s water were animated in such a hypnotic, undulating manner that it began to resemble the romantic swirls of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

The whole exhibition was a wonderful, visual and intellectual surprise. If you have spare time before May, head down and have a look – not only is it short and sweet, it’s also free!

Still from 'Perpetual Ocean' (2013), image courtesy of NASA
'Starry Night' by Vincent Van Gogh, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

‘Strange Beauty’ is strange indeed… Jazzy’s review of the National Gallery’s newest exhibition on the German Renaissance

It’s safe to say that I am an avid fan of the work of the Northern Renaissance, having written a dissertation on Holbein’s The Ambassadors last year. It excited me greatly to hear then, that the National Gallery was to dedicate its Sainsbury Wing to masterpieces of the German Renaissance under the entrancing title Strange Beauty, offering an alternative cultural exploration that has been marginally overshadowed by the Veronese  show opening this time next month.

'The Crucifixion' by the Master of the Aachen Altarpiece, photo courtesy of the National Gallery

The premise of the exhibition was captivating –  to shed light on the overlooked paintings produced by German painters, often shrugged off in favour of Italian High Renaissance greats, perhaps because of their more eccentric sense of “beauty”. The information in the first rooms gave a fascinating insight into the history behind the National Gallery’s acquisition of German Renaissance works, or perhaps, their lack thereof. It was startling how overlooked this area has been. Indeed,  it took 23 years for the National Gallery to acquire its first German painting, the 15th-century ‘Crucifixion’ by the Master of the Aachen Altarpiece. And even after this, the painting wasn’t displayed until the 1880s. This aversion to German paintings extends into the early 20th century, and it wasn’t until the rise of Modernism that the institution and audiences of the time began garnering a larger appreciation of these works. For example, the gallery was offered ‘Virgin and Child’ by Dürer’s workshop in 1872, which was not accepted until 1945!

'Virgin and Child (Madonna with the Iris)' by Dürer's Workshop, photo courtesy of the National Gallery

As interesting as finding out the provenance of the gallery’s acquisition of these works was, I was surprised, however, to find that this theme was a the only prominent driving force of this exhibition. I did not expect half of all the caption details for each painting to be so descriptive of which bequest resulted in the appropriation of the work and must admit that I was a little disappointed as a result. In all honesty, I’m afraid that my aesthetic appreciation of the works was a little diminished by my disappointment, particularly as the exhibition itself had “beauty” in its title. Nevertheless, some interesting comparisons were drawn and I was especially struck by Raphael’s ‘St Catherine of Alexandria’ which was juxtaposed with Grien’s ‘Trinity and Mystic Pieta‘,  to enhance the contrast in styles and heighten the disparate notions of beauty between the Italian and Northern Renaissance. The Raphael did look very out of place among all the Northern works but, I suppose, that was the point the curator was trying to make.

 

(above) 'St Catherine of Alexandria' by Raphael, photo courtesy of the National Gallery; (below) 'Trinity and the Mystic Pieta' by Hans Baldung Grien, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For me, the most intriguing objects were sourced, ironically, from outside the collection of the National Gallery. The miniature sculptural portraits loaned by the V&A were intricate and beautiful, and the inclusion of woodblock prints and engravings of Dürer and Cranach the Elder,  originally from the collection at the British Museum, were a refreshing change for the eye, and for me really captured the essence of what was meant by a “strange beauty”, displaying raw emotional power and visceral detail. In my opinion, it was the greater focus on the visual nuances of the prints and paintings in the fourth and fifth room that picked up the pace of the exhibition. For me, the most interesting parts of the exhibition were those which focused on the innovations of German workshops rather than the acquisitions of the National Gallery itself and I would have liked to see more rooms dedicated to this.

'Man Holding a Glove' by Jan Gossaert, photo courtesy of the National Gallery

Strange Beauty exhibits some gems of the German Renaissance from the National Gallery’s  permanent collection and visiting the gallery brought them to my attention. For example,  Gossaert’s ‘Man Holding a Glove’, which I felt somewhat guilty and ashamed that I had never spotted from previous visits, captured my attention for the first time and I’m glad that I will now be able to go back and re-visit it in the future.

The last room of the exhibition poses the questions in large font on the walls: “Is ugliness more authentic than beauty?” or, “Can art be both inventive and true to nature?” and paper and pencils where visitors could display their responses. It was amusing to read some of the scribblings of visitors, though one particularly scathing remark commenting, “what a waste of a room”, stood out. This posed an interesting point about curating and balancing the expectations of visitors whilst encouraging them to engage directly with exhibition content. Though I found myself edging towards agreeing that more could have been done with this last room, still, it was an interesting show and one which allowed me to discover some new art and ideas.