The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein, The Queen's Gallery | Visual arts reviews, news & interviews
The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein, The Queen's Gallery
A heady encounter with the material world of the Northern Renaissance
In what ways was the Northern Renaissance distinct from the Italian one? When we look at a painting by Holbein we’re struck by the painting’s rich surface: we admire the finely delineated weave of a Turkish rug, the individual hairs of fur lining a heavy coat, the intricate calligraphy of musical notation in an open hymn book. Since all is sumptuous surface and detail, our eyes feast upon the mass, weight and texture of objects firmly rooting us to the material world.
This isn’t to say that Italian Renaissance artists such as Leonardo, or Giovanni Bellini, aren’t enamoured by the finely wrought textures of the visible world. They are. But whereas our attention might be drawn to the way these artists are preoccupied by a subtle play of light, the expressive modelling of figures in light and shade, and in the delicate rendering of atmospheric effects, there is something so solidly physical and present in the work of the German artist that makes him an exemplar of Northern Renaissance art.
The Reformation produced a demand for images that glorified the secular
We think, too, of Holbein’s older German contemporary Albrecht Dürer, although both artists, in fact, learned a great deal from Italian art. Dürer twice visited Venice where Bellini was the presiding master, and his encounter with the aged artist drew his praise. “Though very old he is still the best in painting here," observed the ambitious young artist when he first visited the city from Nuremburg in the mid 1490s.
But one should make note of the far stronger Gothic influences informing the art north of the Alps. With an emphasis on linearity and a taste for filigree detailing, painting and printmaking of the Northern Renaissance carved out a distinct signature style, and this exhibition does a terrific job in drawing us into its world.
It’s a world in which portraits and mythological scenes have largely usurped religious ones, or else made religion appear a little more earthbound. In Germany it saw the arrival of the printing press 20 years before Dürer’s birth in 1471, enabling the artist to disseminate his engravings and intricate woodcuts and so spread his fame throughout Europe. And it’s a world in which the Reformation, in a decisive move away from idolatry, produced a demand for images that glorified the secular.
Framing the exhibition are its two foremast German practitioners. From the Bavarian town of Augsburg, Hans Holbein the Younger became the King’s Painter in England in 1536, before which he’d made his reputation during long stints in both London and Basel. In 1527, eight years before Henry VIII ordered his execution for denying the supremacy of the crown, Holbein had painted his patron Thomas More, the social philosopher, humanist and Lord Chancellor to the King. Although we do not see this great portrait in this exhibition, which hangs in the Frick Collection, the Royal Collection does own a fine and detailed cartoon of the painting, which we see here. With his gaze a little softer and less focused, and his face a little rounder, the drawing presents him as less the politician, more the visionary (image above right: Holbein, Derich Born, 1534).
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
more Visual arts
The artist talks about his ambitious new work and tells us why he could never belong to a political party
A survey of the influential French filmmaker proves a difficult introduction to his work
In a beautiful and cultured city, 20th-century music and art shine (Glass excepted)
A shortlist harking back to pre-digital image-making, and with one clear winner
An irrepressible joy touched by pathos in the French modernist's late works
Two women who were associated with the Viennese Actionists and who should be better known
An artist who astonished with the visceral intensity of his paintings, but who came to see himself as an outsider
theartsdesk recommends the half-dozen top exhibitions
An exhibition of painting that has no set agenda, no dogma, and is full of bold gestures
A joyous celebration of ad hoc creativity fills the Duveen Galleries
A ham-fisted attempt to summon up memories of the Holocaust by the Polish artist
Contemporary artists respond to the idea of the monument in remembrance of two world wars