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May 2008 Journal

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Art notes (review)

















The sixteenth-century German artist Lucas Cranach lived on the cusp of the Reformation, an exciting time for any serious painter. Cranach, at the Royal Academy until 8 June, was a spirited and witty painter, gracious and delicate. Yet his religious subjects evoked genuine human suffering without ennobling it, which also makes him one of the first Realists. The luminous colours of his altarpieces were preserved through his use of oil and tempera, noticeable in the elaborate triptych he created for Emperor Maximilian 1.

Cranach took his name from his birthplace, Kronach, a town in Upper Franconia. He led a school of painting in which human action is infused with the surrounding landscape. His religious works are genuinely spiritual but he was also a shrewd businessman. A close friend of Martin Luther, he did not decline Catholic commissions, such as the portrait of Luther’s sworn enemy, Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, but gave a nod to the sweeping Reformist movement by surrounding Albrecht with symbols like the translated Bible, a pivot of Luther’s egalitarian vision for the Church. Cranach’s woodcuts for the New Testament translation contrast with his erotic, if stylised, female nude paintings. But he had a taste for the lurid and the bloodthirsty – witness his many Salomes with the head of John the Baptist - while his Crucifixion scenes are presented in all their hideous and fleshy realism.

Much of Cranach’s work embodies Realist, Surrealist and Symbolist principles: his Materomnia shows Mary holding mankind within her cloak. Another turbulent landscape, Melancholy, features horsemen from the planet Saturn above the subject’s head, among symbols of discontinuity. But there is a Gothic edge to Cranach’s realism. He often takes a mischievous swipe at his uglier subjects – whose rudimentary treatment almost foreshadows Hogarth. Influenced by Luther, Cranach is one of the first painters to show the Virgin as a contemporary woman - intelligent, thoughtful, maternal. His diptych of John Frederick, a widower with his young son, gives us a face as clenched with grief as the hand sporting his wedding ring.

The thoughts of Noam Chomsky are paraded at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in Cornelia Parker’s take on the American political and ethical theorist. The 40-minute interview Chomskian Abstract, 2007 minus questioner focuses on the minutiae of expression on the face of this elegant thinker as he surfs the complexities of the cosmos and the negative effects of Western governments on free choice and consumerism - ‘the huge gap in the US between public policy and public opinion’.
It is a gentle, refined rant against post-industrial society, indifference to the planet and religious fundamentalism. ‘One third of the population don’t care about global warming because of Christ’s second coming’, he observes. Yet America’s
unconditional support for Israel stems, he feels, from this religious conviction, in itself deeply antisemitic – ‘because all the Jews will get massacred after Armageddon’.

The art installation - questionable as a piece of art - is part of the gallery’s collaboration with Friends of the Earth on environmental issues.







Gloria Tessler

previous article:From police chief in Berlin to refugee in Britain
next article:Uniqueness of the Kindertransport (review)