The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy @ Tate Modern

Pablo Picasso. You might just have heard of him, since he is probably the most famous artist of the twentieth century. Picasso had a number of ‘great years’, years in which he made stylistic innovations which really did send ‘shockwaves through the art world’ and change the way that educated people see and think about art.

The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy has the simple idea of looking at one of Picasso’s Great Years in immense detail. It takes us month by month through Picasso’s life and output in 1932, ‘a time so pivotal in Picasso’s life and work that it has been called his “year of wonders”‘.

Pablo Picasso, rue La Boétie, 1933, Paris by Cecil Beaton ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Pablo Picasso, rue La Boétie, 1933, Paris by Cecil Beaton © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

The exhibition includes more than 100 outstanding paintings, sculptures and works on paper to give you a flavour of Picasso’s prolific and restlessly inventive character. It includes an unprecedented range of loans from collections around the world, including the Musée National Picasso-Paris, as well as many works from private collection, reuniting some of Picasso’s greatest works of art, many of which are rarely shown in public, for the first time in 86 years.

What was happening to Pablo Picasso in 1932

In 1932 Picasso turned 50. He was married (to Russian dancer, Olga Khokhlova) and had an 11-year-old son Paulo. Many galleries were vying with each other to stage a retrospective of his works, a competition won by the Galeries Georges Petit, which staged Picasso’s first major retrospective in June 1932.

Picasso was the most famous living artist. He  bought a big farmhouse in Normandy, created a studio in the barn and toyed with having an outdoor swimming pool built. He owned a luxury apartment in Paris and was ferried around in a chauffeur-driven Hispano-Suiza car.

Yet he was restless. He had been carrying on an affair with a sporty, outdoorsy 22-year-old blonde, Marie-Thérèse Walter. And the new flavour of the month in fashion-conscious Paris were the Surrealists, who in the 1920s had mostly been a literary movement, but whose visual experiments and confidence had been given a shot in the arm by the arrival of Salvador Dalí, who joined the group in the late 1929.

Some critics wondered whether Picasso was finished, a man of the past. He consciously set out to prove them wrong, with the result that 1932 marks an explosion of creativity and a restless set of experiments in oil painting, sculpture and drawing.

Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Tate. © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Tate. © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Pictures of women

When I (and the curators) say ‘experiment’ something must be emphasised right from the start: the exhibition showcases Picasso’s stunning creativity and includes a dozen or more quite wonderful works – but at the same time you can’t help noticing the monotony of subject matter. Women. Women are his subject. Or rather, single women. A woman in a chair. Sleeping woman. Woman reflected in a mirror.

Later in the show there are several women playing on a beach. Or a man saving a woman from drowning. Or women lying around while being serenaded by fauns. But at the imaginative core of the work is one woman.

You don’t get far into the exhibition before you’re being told that the woman in question is Marie-Thérèse, the mistress. She was blonde and she had the kind of nose which is an extension of the forehead without a dent or kink, a Roman nose it’s sometimes called.

Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The obsessive repetition of the same woman, sleeping or sitting in a chair makes the visitor wonder whether there was some kind of a trade-off – that Picasso had to limit his subject matter to the tiny world of the studio, and his one, central muse figure – blanking out the entirety of the roaring, industrial, political, urban world of 1932, rejecting every visual thing in the universe except his blonde lover and a few studio props – in order to be imaginatively free to submit it to so many fantastic and brilliant variations.

Information

Each room is dedicated to a month or two, and the audioguide zeroes in on pictures often painted on a specific, named day.

The exhibition includes a huge amount of biographical information, a host of articles about what was going on in Paris at the time, about the fashionable popularity of Freud and Jung’s psychoanalytic theories, about the competition from the Surrealists and the launch of the Surrealist magazine Minotaur (first edition published June 1933 and devoted almost entirely to Picasso), about Picasso building the sculpture studio at his Normandy house, a detailed account of his comings and goings during the year, and the elaborate preparations for the retrospective exhibition.

So much so that it’s almost easy to lose sight of the art in the blizzard of explanations and timelines.

Reclining Nude (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Reclining Nude (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Practicing curves

One way to approach them is via the room devoted to some of the black-and-white charcoal drawings on canvas which Picasso made throughout 1932. The commentary very usefully pointed out that the sweeping lines, the curves and arabesques of the charcoal lines, are like a preparation for the paintings. For in the paintings, the scholars tell us there was little if any preparation. Picasso rarely painted from life – he started from memory and imagination and created shapes and patterns by great sweeping curves of his hand.

The charcoal pictures show his hand and arm building up the technique of creating great sweeping curves first time, with no afterthought or adjustment, again and again depicting the kind of curve which, in the finished paintings, become a woman’s face or nose or arms or torso or bottom.

His habit was to mark out shapes and patterns in black paint and, once he was happy with the composition, to fill in the shape with colour, but quite happy to leave both elements (black lines and colour) unfinished, rasping the paint, letting undercolours or even blank canvas show through.

All of the paintings here benefited from looking at close up to see this technique up close. Colouring and setting varied a little, but the fundamental idea of the defining black line (almost, at times, the thick black line of a cartoon) is always paramount.

Wallpaper

It may sound trivial and the commentary didn’t mention it, but I was struck by the care with which he depicts the wallpaper behind the subjects.

The Mirror by Pablo Picasso (12 March 1932) Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The Mirror by Pablo Picasso (12 March 1932) Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The curator’s commentary dwells on the fact that these are paintings of a woman, and paintings of Picasso’s mistress. Either angle gives the opportunity for lengthy discussions of either his private life, or the long tradition of painting women in Western art. A woman near a mirror is bound to set off a small explosion of art theory referencing the long tradition of associating women with ‘vanity’.

Maybe. But when I look at this picture the first thing I notice is the dark blue patterned wallpaper and then the orange frame of the mirror, in other words the overall design of the composition, long before I notice the broad-nosed sleeping blonde with her ripe-apple boobs. And after processing her shape and curves, it is to the extraordinarily deep blue of the backdrop that my eyes returns.

In this concern for the decorative ancillaries to the main image a lot of these paintings reminded me of the purely decorative concerns of Picasso’s long-time frenemy, Henri Matisse.

The subject may be a female nude, it may be his hushed-up mistress, she may be passively sleeping and yet reflected, in a semi-surreal way, by the mirror. But the painting is also an arrangement of colours on a flat surface. It is a decorative object, whose subject you can almost ignore, if you will. It is first and foremost a big bright image and I think the viewer reacts immediately, either for or against the size and vibrancy of the colour and shape of the composition, long before you get round to thinking about the ‘issues’ of women and mirrors or marriage and mistresses.

Angles

Again, putting aside the subject matter for a moment, by the time I’d got to the end I realised Picasso had roughly three approaches or ‘styles’, at least in this year of 1932.

One is the curvy, ‘feminine’ style exemplified in the pictures shown above. But there was another, very different style – characterised by uncomfortable angles, distortions, harsh straight lines and geometric interactions. There are quite a few of them here and they feel completely different to the soft curvy sleeping blondes.

The most striking instances are a sequence of smaller works he made which are all variations on the idea of a woman sunbathing – but not a woman as you or I might conceive the subject.

Woman on the Beach (1932) by Pablo Picasso. The Penrose Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London 2018

Woman on the Beach (1932) by Pablo Picasso. The Penrose Collection © Succession Picasso / DACS London 2018

The commentary points out that the small circle in the middle is the woman’s anus. Apparently, Picasso’s usual gallerist refused to exhibit the series because he said he didn’t want a load of ‘arseholes’ in his shop. But I think this rather typical obsession with sex and the body on the part of critic and seller is missing the more obvious point – which is the entire conceptualisation of the human figure which has, in a work like this, become fantastically stylised.

In the strange combination of the zoomorphic (i.e. curved shapes) with harsh geometry (the set of triangles and the table leg-style legs) there’s a lot of the influence of Surrealism, maybe of Max Ernst, influencing Picasso’s own abstracting tendencies.

But Picasso never actually becomes abstract – his paintings are always of something, almost always of people, and overwhelmingly of young nubile women.

Henry Moore

The closest he comes to pure abstraction is in the works of his third style, which kept reminding me of the drawings and sculptures of Henry Moore. In both the styles identified above – curvy and angular – the image is essentially flat. There may be token references to chairs or wallpaper but they don’t really create a sense of depth.

In the works where he does go for a sense that the picture is a window into the world, the effect is strikingly odd, for there’s a thread throughout the work of pictures made up of blobs and odd, curved shaded shapes, which look like the products of a pot-maker or clay modeller who’s gone mad.

Seated Woman in a Red Armchair (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Musée national Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London 2018

Seated Woman in a Red Armchair (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Musée national Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London 2018

Here the two balls in the middle, the curved object which seems to contain them, and the curving cowl up towards two tiny eyes in a blank monster’s face – all of them have shade and shadowing which give them the illusion of three dimensionality.

Can you see why I mention Henry Moore? They look like paintings of Henry Moore sculptures.

One room in the show is devoted to a rarely-seen sequence of thirteen drawings Picasso made based on the crucifixion section of the Isenheim Altarpiece by the German painter Matthias Grünewald.

The Crucifixion, from the Isenheim Altarpiece (circa 1512-15)

The Crucifixion, from the Isenheim Altarpiece (circa 1512-15)

The commentary goes heavy on the religious subject matter, but what struck me was how Picasso recast almost all his versions by breaking down the human figure into a sequence of Henry Moore-style blobs and craws.

The Crucifixion (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Musée National Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The Crucifixion (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Musée National Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The approach may also, possibly, owe something to the Surrealists Hans Arp or Yves Tanguy. It was very much a style of the age. But on the evidence of all these works it does look as if, when Picasso thought of depth and perspective, everything turned into shaded, blobby shapes.

Sculpture and landscapes

There are many more themes and subjects. It is, ultimately a staggering and exhausting exhibition. How did he manage to think and see and create so many different things in one short year?

There is a series of surprisingly charming landscapes of the view from his Normandy house over the nearby village, Boisgeloup, which could almost be illustrations of a children’s book.

There is an entire room dedicated to classic works from earlier in Picasso’s career – including Blue Period, Rose Period and Cubist paintings – to give us a flavour of the major retrospective of June 1932. Picasso was very careful in which works he chose to include in it and, most strikingly, he mixed them all up, eschewing chronological order in order to create a solid wall of art, all of it as relevant as any other.

And another room has been carefully arranged to recreate something of the atmosphere of the rough and ready sculptor’s studio he created in a barn at his Normandy house, with one entire wall of the room covered in a massively blown-up photo of the studio with its decrepit barn doors, a sequence of b&w photos made of the artist at work on his sculptures by the classic photographer, Brassaï, and a handful of actual sculptures – big, semi-abstract heads. (Notice the Roman nose – I wonder who this could be a bust of?)

Bust of a Woman (1931) by Pablo Picasso. Musée National Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Bust of a Woman (1931) by Pablo Picasso. Musée National Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The rescue

But the exhibition ends with a turn to a completely new subject, something you wouldn’t have predicted at all from all the sleepy blondes or blondes in armchairs from earlier in the show.

1932 ended traumatically for Pablo when Marie-Thérèse fell seriously ill after swimming in the river Marne. During the illness she lost most of her iconic blonde hair. The result in his art was a series of paintings, large and small, showing the rescue of a drowning woman by a man – all heavily stylised.

Some of the variations take on a dark overtone with the male presence not rescuing but threatening the drowning woman, and at least one of them is titled The Rape.

Or there are variations like this one in which a woman appears to be saving the drowner. And who is the third figure at bottom right – a passing swimmer or a siren reaching out to drown the unwary? (And note the scrappier use of colour – in the earlier sleeping woman pictures the colours tended to be uniform within each section demarcated by a solid black line- – in these last paintings the colours are more blotched and varied within each section.)

The Rescue (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Sammlung Beyeler © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The Rescue (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Sammlung Beyeler © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Here, in the last room, the commentary leads off into a load of history, explaining that only a month or so later, in January 1933, Herr Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and it was only 3 years later that General Franco rebelled against the Republican government of Spain, triggering the brutal Spanish Civil War. And then World War Tow. And the Holocaust. And the atom bomb.

Yes, yes, yes, I know that terrifying things were just around the corner, but I think a) nobody in 1932 had an inkling that any of that was going to happen, and b) the curators are over-politicising a painter who went to great lengths not to reference the contemporary world in any way at all in his art. Guernica was still seven years off and even then it is a thing of primitive people and horse. Not many planes, trains and automobiles in Picasso’s entire oeuvre. In this respect – in  terms of subject matter – he was a very unmodern, a surprisingly conservative, artist.

Anyway, I had never seen any of the works in this room before so, in some ways, found it the most rewarding room of the exhibition. The many variations on The Rescue, although mostly done in the big, cartoony, boldly coloured style of the previous rooms, were nonetheless haunting and powerful.

For reasons I can’t put into words I found one particular painting in this room especially hypnotic and upsetting.

The Rescue by Pablo Picasso (1933)

The Rescue by Pablo Picasso (1933)

It’s at the most abstract end of his range. Probably the ‘figures’ are women, but they really seem more like creatures caught in some agonising death dance and suddenly turned to bronze, against a crude sea and an eerily realistic sky.

Picasso almost never painted landscapes, certainly not intending to make them ‘realistic’ depictions. This reproduction doesn’t convey the incongruity of setting such a completely abstract, modernistic, sculptured shape against that extreme rarity, a realistic Picasso sky.

I don’t know if I was more upset, or scared, or touched by it.

Sometimes it is good to just be in front of a work of art, undistracted by curatorial talk about mistresses and wives, breasts and anuses, analysis of the male gaze, and the theme of the mirror, and rivalry with other painters, and the vagaries of the Paris art market, and the looming European catastrophe, and all those other issues and stories.

To just stand in front of a work and be awed and puzzled and confused and absorbed and transported.

Videos

A brief, wordless overview of the exhibition.

A longer tour of the show by two art experts.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

The Art of the Northern Renaissance by Craig Harbison (1995)

The period covered is 1400 to 1600.

‘Northern’ means north-west of the Alps, excluding Eastern Europe which had its own development, and Spain, ditto. So it includes the many different little German medieval states, France, but especially the northern part of the Duchy of Burgundy (modern-day Netherlands and Belgium). In these rich northern cities the wealth from the wool and textile trade created patrons who wanted paintings of themselves, decorations for their houses, but especially grand altarpieces for the big churches they built.

The Renaissance in Italy was closely linked to a rebirth of interest in classical statuary, architecture and literature, examples of which lay all around its Italian artists. This revival of learning led to new experiments in building in the pure classical style, to the introduction of mathematically precise perspective in painting, along with unprecedented anatomical accuracy in the human form. The paintings, like the architecture, were big, grand, monumental. At its peak, think of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Many Renaissance paintings are vast and use classical architectural features to emphasise their monumentality and to bring out the artist’s clever knowledge of perspective. I often find this art sterile.

By contrast, northern art is more continuous with the medieval art which preceded it. Curly Gothic architecture continues to provide its frame of reference and design. The figures often still have the elongated, willowy S-shape of medieval statuary rather than the new, muscular bodies being pioneered in Italy by the likes of Michelangelo et al. Harbison says that northern art of the 15th century is in many ways a transfer of late-medieval innovations in manuscript illustration to the public spaces of altarpieces, painted boards and frescos.

What I love northern art for is:

  1. its more flattened, less perspective-obsessed images allow for the surface of the work to be covered by gorgeous decorative schemes, particularly sumptuous fabrics and carpets
  2. it is always teeming with life – there are always tiny figures in the distance riding into a wood or firing a crossbow – every time you look you notice something else
  3. the faces – the people in northern art have much more rugged individuality than in Italian art – another way of saying this is that they are often plain and sometimes positively ugly in a way few Renaissance portraits are

As an example of gorgeousness of decorative design, I suggest Virgin among virgins in the rose garden by the unknown artist known from one of his other works as the Master of the St Lucy Legend.

There’s perspective of a sort, in that the wooden pergola covered with climbing roses creates a proscenium arch through which we can see an idealised version of the city of Bruges in the middle distance. But the overall affect of the foreground is more flat than in an Italian work. This brings out the wonderful detail of every leaf and petal of the dense rose hedge behind the characters; and emphasises the decorative layout of those figures, two on either side of the Virgin and in similar poses but with enough variation to please the eye. It allows the eye to rest on the sumptuous gold dress of St Ursula sitting left and contrast it with the plain white dress of St Cecilia sitting right. As to my ‘teeming with life’ point, I love the tiny figures of the two horse riders departing the city in the distance. In this work, I admit, the faces lack the individuality I mentioned, but I like this kind of demure medieval oval facial style.

Harbison contrasts this northern work with a contemporary Italian work, Madonna and child with saints by Domenico Veneziano (c.1445)

For me, all the human figures are dwarfed and subordinated to the ruthless application of the new knowledge of mathematical perspective. I find all those interlocking pillars and arches exhausting. And, ironically, somehow for me this does not give the image the desired depth of field but makes it appear flat and cluttered. The orange trees peeping up over the back wall don’t make up for the clinical sterility of the architectural setting. And although the human figures are obviously individualised and their clothes, the folds of their cloaks and gowns, are done with fine accuracy, these aren’t enough to overcome what I see as the overall flat, arid, washed-out and sterile effect.

As Harbison puts it:

In place of the clear, open, even and often symmetrical Italian representation, northerners envisioned subtly modulated, veiling and revealing light effects, intriguing nooks and crannies, enclosed worlds of privacy and preciousness. (p.35)

As an exemplar of this Harbison gives Rogier van der Weyden’s wonderful three-part St John Altarpiece (1450-60).

The dominant feature in all three scenes in this altarpiece is obviously the Gothic arch. (These repay study by themselves, with a different set of saints and small scenes depicted on each of the three arches.) The three main scenes depict, from left to right, the presentation of the newborn John the Baptist to his father; John the Baptist baptising Jesus; and then John’s head being chopped off and given to Salome.

The figures are given quite a lot of individuation, especially the balding executioner with his stockings half fallen down which gives a bizarrely homely touch. But the foreground scenes are really only part of the composition. Equal emphasis is given to the detailed backgrounds of all three. Perspective is used, but not ruthlessly – with enough poetic license to allow the backgrounds to be raised, tilted upwards, so we can see and savour them better.

In the left panel St Elizabeth being tucked into bed (a typically homely northern detail) is good, but better is the deep landscape behind Jesus in the central panel, with its church perched on cliffs on the right in the middle distance and city on a cliff in the remote distance left. But best of all is the right-hand panel, where our eye is drawn by the steps and tiled floors of King Herod’s palace, complete with a lounger staring out a window, a bored dog lying near the table where courtiers appear to be feasting.

And, as always, at the very bottom, in the corners, the humble, everyday, weedy flowers of northern Europe which I love so much.

The St John Altarpiece is a prime example of the richness of detail which characterises northern art and makes it – to me – so much more enjoyable, homely, decorative and domestic – funny, even, with its wealth of humanist touches.

The Art of the Northern Renaissance

The book is divided into four parts addressing different topics:

  1. Realism
  2. Physical production & original location
  3. Religious behaviour and ideals
  4. Italy and the North.

Within these there are 35 separate sections addressing issues like ‘artist and patron’, ‘manuscript illumination’, ‘the production of a panel painting’, ‘the pilgrimage’, ‘landscape imagery’, ‘the naked body’, and so on. From these sections we we learn lots of detail about specific areas of medieval life and their depiction, but nothing which affects the basic thesis that at the core of northern art is, as Harbison puts it, ‘a love of detailed description’.

It is as if one is always catching sight of something out of the corner of the eye. The ideal is not simple harmony but complex polyphony. (p.39)

Northern art is fragmentary, interested in detail. Italian art is more unified, classical and spare. Take this masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden.

For a start it was a north European convention to depict the Deposition within an architectural frame (cf. The descent from the cross by the Master of the Bartholomew altarpiece) which gives it a kind of continuity with the Gothic architecture of the church where it is located.

I love everything about this painting, the cleverness with which ten human figures are composed so as to make a polyphony without excessive artifice; the colour of the clothes e.g. the olive green and high cord of the woman holding the fainting Mary, the sumptuous fur-lined cloak of the rich burgher (Nicodemus) on the right. Harbison points out the detail of Christ’s pierced bloody hand hanging parallel to the Virgin’s long white hand, providing a powerful and moving real and symbolic contrast.

And, as always, I love the flowers in the foreground – is that yarrow at bottom left and herb bennet at bottom right? Harbison gives a detailed analysis of another northern masterpiece:

The detail of daily life, the sense of real people in an actual community, is what I love about this art: the unashamed flat-faced ugliness of the three shepherds, the (married?) couple standing by the gate in the background beside the shepherds; the wrinkled face and hands of old Joseph praying on the left.

As always, flowers in the foreground, here the highly symbolic lilies and irises (symbolising the passion), columbine (representing the Holy Spirit) and three small dark red carnations symbolising the nails of the cross.

Harbison makes the interesting point that the shadows of the two vases fall sharply to the right as if the floor of the stable (incongruously tiled) is almost flat; whereas, somehow behind the sheaf of wheat the floor suddenly tips upwards, presenting a much more flattened surface than strict perspective would suggest – which is then ‘decorated’ with the various figures. There are perspective points in it, but the painting ignores a strict rule of perspective in order to create a more effective, colourful and ‘rhythmic’ composition.

Top artists of the northern renaissance

If I summarised every one of Harbison’s analyses this post would be as long as the book. Instead here’s a quick overview of the key players and some major works:

Early Netherlands masters

The weird

From the generation following the deaths of these early fathers of Netherlands painting comes the one-off genius of Hieronymus Bosch.

  • Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) The religious triptych was the most common format of painting in this period, and Bosch produced at least sixteen, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments. The most famous is the weird and wonderful Garden of earthly delights. No one has adequately explained where his bizarre fantasies came from.

The Germans

I find the Germans a lot less pleasing than the Flemish or French painters of this period. They lack grace and delicacy. Their depictions of the human body, especially of the crucified Christ, seem to me unnecessarily brutal. Albrecht Dürer is meant to be the great genius but I like hardly anything that he did.

After the Reformation

The Reformation forms a watershed halfway through the period 1400 to 1600, usually dated with great specificness to 31 October 1517, when the monk Martin Luther sent 95 theses systematically attacking Roman Catholic theology to his superior, the archbishop of Mainz. His arguments became a rallying cry and focus of decades of growing discontent with the corruption and over-complex theology of the Catholic church. His ideas spread quickly and were taken up by other theologians, who were often protected by German princes who had their own secular reasons for rejecting Papal authority, until it had become an unstoppable theological and social movement.

In artistic terms the Reformation’s rejection of the grandeur of Roman Catholic theology and the authority of the super-rich Papacy played to the strengths of the northern artists, who already produced an art often characterised by its relative smallness and intimacy.

Harbison very usefully brings out the fact that fifteenth century art was so dominated by images of the Madonna seated holding the Christ child because such a static image encouraged silent devotion and meditation – in contrast with the more dynamic and emotionally upsetting images of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

He points out how the corruption of the official church had already alienated many Christians from public worship and created through the 15th century a cult of private devotion. It was onto this fertile ground that the anti-establishment teachings of Luther and his followers fell, and proved so fruitful.

Thus Reformation theology tended to foreground personal piety, meditation and reflection – moving away from bravura displays of big ostentatious public ritual. And so while the Counter-Reformation in Italy (the theological and artistic reaction against the northern Reformation) was marked by the increasing ornateness and vast, heavy, luxury of the Baroque in art and architecture, in northern Europe – although Christian subjects continued as ever – there was also a growth in depictions of ‘ordinary life’, in domestic portraits and still lifes.

It was during the post-Reformation 16th century that landscapes and still lifes came into existence as genres in their own right.

Quentin Matsys

A figure who straddles the pre- and post-Reformation era is Quentin Matsys (1466–1530) (also spelt Massys) founder of the Antwerp school of painting. His mature work dates from the period of the High Renaissance (1490s to 1527) but is the extreme opposite of the vast panoramas of human history being painted in the Vatican (the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Stanza). Instead, Massys typifies for me the virtues of northern painting, with its small-scale atmosphere of domesticity, its focus on real, living people – not the Prophets and Philosophers of Michelangelo and Raphael – and its portraits not of heroic archetypes, but of plain ordinary and, sometimes, ugly people.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

This increasing valuing of secular life is one way of explaining the rise of the genre of ‘peasant paintings’, which was, apparently, more or less founded by the teeming peasant panoramas of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Hans Holbein the younger

The northern Reformation was suspicious of religious imagery. In many places it was stripped out of churches and burned; in others merely covered up. Certainly the market for grand altarpieces collapsed, and the period saw a rise in other more specialised subjects. Critics from centuries later define these as genre paintings.

Portraits also became more secular and more frequent, a trend which produced one of the most wonderful portraitists of all time, Hans Holbein the Younger.

Technique

Harbison explains a lot about the technicality of northern Renaissance painting. Some of the most notable learnings for me were:

Panel painting Almost all northern renaissance artworks were painted on wooden panels, ‘panel paintings’ as they’re called. It wasn’t until the 17th century that prepared canvas became the surface of choice for artists. Some works were painted on linen but almost all of these have been lost. A small number were painted directly onto metal and some onto slate.

The rise of oil painting Most 15th century paintings were made with tempera. Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually egg yolk. Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium. But as the 1400s progressed, northern artists experimented with using oil as the binding material – first mixing colour pigment with oil then applying it to prepared surfaces.

Most of these new ‘oil’ paintings were built up from multiple layers. This required paintings to be put to one side for weeks at a time to fully dry before the next level could be done – a repetitive process which explains the incredibly deep, rich and luminous colours you see in these works.

Most Renaissance sources credited the northern European painters of the 15th century, and Jan van Eyck in particular, with the ‘invention’ of painting with oil media on wood panel supports (‘support’ is the technical term for the underlying backing of a painting). There is ongoing debate about where precisely it originated but it was definitely a northern invention which headed south into Italy.

Destruction and loss

The vast majority of European art has been lost.

  • Much of it was created for ephemeral purposes in the first place – for ceremonies, processions, pageants or plays – and thrown away once the occasion had passed.
  • Thus, much effort and creativity was expended painting on fabrics, such as linen or flags, on backdrops and sets and panels, which have rotted and disappeared.
  • Huge numbers of paintings in the churches of northern Europe were lost forever when they were painted over with whitewash during the Reformation. Outbreaks of popular or state-sanctioned iconoclasm also saw the systematic destruction of statues, wooden tracery and decorative features – all defaced or thrown out and burned in the decades after 1520.
  • Successive wars wreaked local havoc, destroying in particular castles which would have held collections of art sponsored by rich aristocrats. As an example, only ten paintings and thirty-five drawings survive of the entire life’s work of Matthias Grünewald – ‘many others were lost at sea in the Baltic on their way to Sweden as war booty’.
  • The destruction of the Great War – epitomised by the German army’s deliberate burning of the manuscript library at Louvain – was essentially localised to north-west Europe.
  • But the destruction of the second World War ranged all across Europe, deep into Russia and involved the destruction of countless churches, galleries, museums, libraries, stately homes, castles and chateaux where art works could be stored. Dresden. Hamburg. Monte Cassino. The loss was immense.

It’s always worth remembering that the comfortable lives we live now actually take place amid the ruins of an almost incomprehensibly destructive series of wars, religious spasms and conflagrations, and that the art we view in the hushed environments of art galleries is not an accurate reflection of what was painted and created in Europe, but are the scattered remnants and lucky survivors from a continent of incessant destruction and artistic holocaust.

Related links

Where to see some

You can see some masterpieces from this period for free in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (in London):

You can see the fabulous Seilern Triptych by Robert Campin in room 1 of the Courtauld Gallery, off the Strand, which currently costs £7 admission price, but is worth it for the stunning collection of masterpieces from these medieval pieces through the French post-Impressionists.

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