A review of the National Gallery’s new exhibition, the critics’ mixed reactions and what the Victorians made of it all…
“Beauty, like supreme dominion
Is but supported by opinion”.
Benjamin Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1741)
“What exactly makes a work of art beautiful?” asks the press blurb to the National Gallery’s latest show, Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance, which opened in the Sainsbury Wing on 19 February and runs until 11 May. The gallery, I am afraid, does not at the end of the exhibition’s final room reveal the answer to this particular question. Nor is this really the theme of the current show, which considers how and when the National Gallery built up its collection of German Renaissance pictures, as well as changing attitudes to these paintings over time. The gallery would have been better off looking to David Hume, who in 1742 in his Essays, Moral and Political, wrote, “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them”, for this is the exhibition’s real point.
The title of the show is closer to the mark and in the first room, where the raw emotions and juddering forms of Hans Baldung Grien’s The
Trinity and Mystic Pieta (1512) hang next to the smooth sumptuousness of Raphael’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1507), it becomes easier to understand the attitudes of many Victorians, who at least until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, found little to admire in German Renaissance art. It is not that Baldung’s work is ugly by comparison to the Raphael. Rather the beauty of the Trinity is less conspicuous: to find it, the viewer must work harder.
Today’s visitors may delight in seeing works by the big shots of the German Renaissance (your Holbeins, Dürers and Cranachs), as well as by the period’s other important artists (Hans Baldung Grien, Matthias Grünewald and Albrecht Altdorfer, for example). But when the National Gallery was founded in 1824, its initial collection included no German paintings, and thirty years later, at the beginning of 1854, the gallery had acquired just three German works, two of which were, in all honesty, a bit Dutch.
During the gallery’s early years, however, there was no over-arching agenda to collect and display a comprehensive range of works illustrating the historiographical progression of art. Rather the trustees in charge of acquisitions acted much as they would with regards to their private collections, buying in the words of Sir Charles Eastlake, who would in 1855 become the gallery’s first Director, “the finest works of art, without reference to history”. “I think we should not collect curiosities”, Sir Robert Peel, an influential trustee during these years, reportedly said. And so the absence of German paintings is not, perhaps, such a flagrant oversight;  but when in 1854 the chance arose to acquire 64 German paintings and backed by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, the Krüger Collection of Westphalian pictures was purchased, this did not mark the start of a Victorian love affair with German art.
There is something paradoxical about the current show’s highlighting in Room 2 of what, in the 1850s, turned into a major PR disaster for the National Gallery. The affair, however, nicely illustrates not just the disarray in which the gallery found itself prior to the appointment of its first Director in 1855, but also the ambivalent attitude to German art which existed at the time. When the works arrived, just 17 were selected as worthy of retention, “absurd old pictures”, said the painter Ford Madox Brown of the paintings, following his visit in December 1854. In 1857, by means of a special Act of Parliament authorising the sale of works of art belonging to the public, 37 of the paintings were sold for significantly less than they had been bought. Two days after the sale, a letter was published in the Spectator deriding not just this squandering of public money, but also the art itself, “the remainder, now in the possession of the nation, which are little better than the miserable productions disposed of therefore…”.
The saga, however, does not end here and in the years that followed, a proportion of the retained Krüger pictures, considered unworthy of National Gallery wall space, were sent away
on long term loans to other galleries. Long since reclaimed, the gallery’s Krüger collection includes some noteworthy examples of early German Renaissance painting, several of which are on display as part of the current exhibition. Eight panels from the Liesborn Altarpiece, including the Head of Christ Crucified (1470-80), by the Master of Liesborn, are among the pieces which escaped the 1857 cull, and are now reconstructed across one of the walls in Room 2 to show how the altarpiece might have looked.
Among the most famous of the pieces on display is The Ambassadors (1533). And if many Victorians were unconvinced by the works of unfamiliar Westphalian artists, they held no such reservations in relation to Holbein, who had twice lived in England painting her monarchs, noblemen and burghers, and was perceived as less alien than his Teutonic colleagues. Bought in 1890 and immediately restored, The Ambassadors was put on show in 1891, emerging, according to The Times, “in all its pristine glory”, although admittedly there was initial some confusion as to what Holbein was depicting. The painting was acquired, along with Giovanni Battista Moroni’s Portrait of a Gentleman, for £55,000 – the largest sum yet paid by the gallery for a painting – using funds which were raised, for the first time, with the help of private individuals. The gallery had been hankering after a Holbein for years: in 1845 a work by little known artist Michiel Coxcie was mistakenly bought as a Holbein by Charles Eastlake, then the gallery’s Keeper, an embarrassing affair which contributed to Eastlake’s decision to resign later that year.
There was, by contrast, no such desire to acquire works by Hans Baldung Grien (1484/5 – 1545), a contemporary of Holbein. It was
Baldung, however, who made it into the gallery first, but only because his Portrait of a Man (1514), on display in Room 4, was mistakenly attributed to Dürer. And when in both 1851 and 1852, Baldung’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Rosary (1509) was offered to the gallery by Prince Albert as part of the Oettingen-Wallerstein Collection – 76 pictures which came to the prince as security for a defaulted loan – it was rejected. After Albert’s death, Queen Victoria again offered the collection to the nation, this time as a donation rather than a sale. Eastlake took 25, of which 5 were German; Baldung’s Young Man, however, did not make the grade and is today on loan to the gallery from the Royal Collection.
The critics have not all taken to Strange Beauty and a few familiar grumbles have been rolled out, not least that the show is predominantly made up of works which usually form part of the gallery’s permanent collection. Why, therefore, ask The Guardian and The Telegraph should people pay £7 to see something they could ordinarily visit for free? By focussing on the lack of big name loans from, for example, Germany’s national collections, these reviews are missing the point. It is fascinating to see these pieces in the context of our historically chequered relationship with them, to begin to understand how they became part of the national collection and to give them their due attention. Because let’s be honest, a good deal of the gallery’s visitors will not make it past the Italian cinquecento or the French Romantics. The Evening Standard, for its part, argues that the “well-informed” alone will take something away from this show. But this was not intended to be an exhibition which explores in detail the essence of the German Renaissance. And by siphoning off these works, many of which remain relatively unfamiliar to the so-called untrained eye, and presenting them in the context of the history of the gallery itself, the curators are giving the visitor an easy opportunity to branch out. And is this not the point?
There have also been objections to the final room, in which visitors are asked in large letters across the walls, to consider their own attitudes to art. This bizarre attempt to provide visitors with an “interactive experience” is not, admittedly, the exhibition’s highpoint (they should, perhaps, have left interactivity to Michael Landy). Nor do the supposedly thought-provoking words stuck to the floor between rooms – which (thankfully) after just a week are beginning to peel away – add anything to the visitor’s experience. Complaints about the size of the show, however, seem unfair. Not every exhibition which the National Gallery puts on can be a blockbuster show and it is less than a month until the gallery’s Veronese spectacle, which will include some breathtaking works from abroad. And although one cannot escape the feeling that, in reality, the German exhibition is the B-movie to March’s Italian smash-hit, this should not prevent viewers from enjoying a show which brings to light some intriguing episodes in the gallery’s history and, above all, assembles a collection of German Renaissance works to be admired in their own right, apart from their distracting Italian counterparts.
 It was not, in fact, until Prince Albert’s interventions in the early 1850s and the appointment in 1855 of Eastlake, that this historiographical approach was adopted via the gallery’s “Plan for a Collection of Paintings Illustrative of the History of Art” (conceived by Prince Albert and produced by Eastlake)
 Prince Albert’s German pictures, Susan Foister, 2012