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.