Cranach: Artist & Innovator
by Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Art Correspondent
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Cupid complaining to Venus, 1526-27. Image: © National Gallery, London
It’s instantly recognisable, the snake-eyed look, coquettish pose, doll-like body, and pale unblemished skin of a classic Cranach nude.
Like many, I thought I knew Cranach’s art: Venuses and Eves and Dianas, diaphanous barely-there drapes: serpentine nudes all, posed against dark backgrounds and embellished with choice accessories. From Compton Verney’s own Venus and Cupid (c.1525), a paradox of suggestive teasing innocence, to the National Gallery’s famous Cupid complaining to Venus (1526-7) - Venus in a hat fit for Ascot, Cupid getting stung by bees - the paintings of Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) are distinctive, stylised and intended to beguile.
Back in the early 16th-century, Cranach’s nudes - typically mythological subjects - did entrance, depicting themes of temptation and its consequences, but as the gallery notes say, also “warned their mostly male viewers of the dangers of beautiful, cunning women.”
But the exhibition Cranach: Artist & Innovator at Compton Verney displays far more than the mythological paintings. And, dare I say, opens our eyes to this innovative, influential painter.
Cranach’s art in all its styles has continued to entrance over the last five centuries, and to influence a wide range of artists, from, for example, Picasso to Michael Landy to Ishbel Myerscough, and others contemporary and modern, who feature in this show. But the exhibition Cranach: Artist & Innovator at Compton Verney displays far more than the mythological paintings. And, dare I say, opens our eyes to this innovative, influential painter.
Perhaps nowadays less well-known for his portraits and printmaking, Lucas Cranach the Elder was in fact one of the leading German painters and printmakers in the early 16th-century. He was fast and prolific and ran a highly successful workshop. He was a close friend of Martin Luther, and as the chief artist of the Reformation produced powerful woodcut illustrations for Luther’s translation of the Bible.
Passional Christi und Antichristi, 1521 Woodcut illustrations by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Page 3
Born around 1472 in Kronach, the small German town from which he took his name, Cranach was a loyal court painter and confidant to his rulers, the Electors of Saxony. The opening room of this exhibition is devoted to his time as a court painter to Frederick the Wise. One of the first works he made once appointed is a woodcut (c.1506) showing The Stag Hunt, a favourite activity of the electors. It’s large for a woodcut; he had to use two blocks to make it: an innovation exemplifying Cranach’s early ambition and readiness to experiment.
In the same room are a number of wonderful portraits: a richly-dressed lady Portrait of a Lady and her Son (oil on panel, c.1510-40) loaned by the Royal Collection, a work long thought to be by a 19th century imitator, but from recent research revealed as by Cranach; another lady, adorned in heavy neck chains, an ‘H’ outlined in glinting pearls on the band of her hood, the painting possibly made as a betrothal portrait of Anna of Hesse (1485-1525), who was known for her love of precious jewellery. Here too we meet Frederick the Wise, John the Steadfast and Frederick the Magnanimous.
Frederick III, Elector of Saxony (1463-1525) was known as ‘the Wise’ because of his diplomatic leadership. Portrayed in beret and fur collar, he is given a grey beard and moustache to underline his wisdom.
A rather special diptych (double portrait) from 1509 shows John the Steadfast dressed in sober black against a green background, while its pair shows his son John Frederick, in which the colour scheme is reversed. Both portraits pay heed to their richly decorative trimmings: fashionable multi-coloured feathers, tiny seed pearls, gold thread.
Portrait of Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous, 1509, Lucas Cranach the Elder. Image: © National Gallery, London
Forty years later we again see John Frederick I, called ‘the Magnanimous’. He succeeded his father as Elector in 1532. He was a strong supporter of the religious reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546). In this portrait he now has a noticeable scar on his face from, in defence of Protestantism, fighting against the Catholic Emperor Charles V at the Battle of Mühlberg in 1547.
Considered a martyr of Protestantism, John Frederick spent five years in captivity and lost the electorship. His friend, Cranach chose to join him in exile from 1550, and when eventually the pair were released in 1552 settled in Weimar.
Moving on to the second room, we see more superb portraits including the vibrant red-toned Portrait of Sigmund Kingsfelt (c.1530), and notice on some Cranach’s ‘signature’ - a heraldic symbol, a tiny winged serpent with ruby in its mouth given to Cranach by Frederick the Wise.
Over 40 artworks and objects make up this landmark exploration of Cranach’s considerably influential career. Dating from the 1520s, several examples of his woodcut illustrations for Luther’s translation of the Bible are displayed in the exhibition, showing his artistic flair in illustrating subjects such as Christ washing the feet of his disciples, while the Pope presents his foot for princes and kings to kiss, and Christ crowned with thorns while, memorably, the Pope is crowned with the triple tiara. The small pamphlet was one of the most successful works of visual propaganda of the Reformation.
Pablo Picasso, Portrait of a Woman after Cranach the Younger, 1958, Linocut on paper. Image: © Tate
Of the modern and contemporary works in the ‘After Cranach’ section of the show, it was Picasso’s that really held my eye. I loved his take on Portrait of a Woman, after Cranach the Younger – an improvement on the original with her black corncob hat! And the National Gallery’s painting of Cupid complaining, which he had seen in a magazine and made into his own in a Cubist style lithograph, Venus et l’amour voleru de miel (1957).
“Cranach’s work was daring for the time, especially when viewed against the backdrop of the political and religious upheaval surrounding him,” observes Julie Finch, CEO-Director of Compton Verney. “But he also understood his market. Famous for working quickly, he employed a large workshop, which produced numerous versions on popular themes, such as Venus and Cupid or Adam and Eve. Instantly recognisable today, these works have become the archetypal images of temptation and its consequences.”
Cranach: Artist & Innovator
Showing until 3 January 2021
Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park
For more information about the exhibition and booking tickets, or to visit Compton Verney’s Lancelot 'Capability' Brown parkland, see: www.comptonverney.org.uk
Cranach: Artist and Innovator is in association with the National Gallery and the National Gallery Curatorial Traineeship Programme, supported by Art Fund with the assistance of the Vivmar Foundation.
Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park is an award-winning gallery, based in a Grade I-listed Georgian mansion amidst 120 acres of Grade II-listed Lancelot 'Capability' Brown parkland in Warwickshire. With six permanent collections (Naples, Northern European Art 1450-1650, British Portraits, Chinese, British Folk Art & The Marx-Lambert Collection) and a schedule of thought-provoking changing exhibitions and events, it is an accredited museum, and a registered charity.