Sunday, December 4, 2016

Martin Luther at the MIA

The exhibition on currently loan from Germany at the Minneapolis Institute of Art features images of Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, propaganda concerning the reformation, and a variety of relics used or touched by the Great Man.  Among the relics are a cup that Luther may have made for himself on woodworking equipment that he had installed in his medieval version of his rec room, handwritten notes in theological treatises that he owned (his hand is spidery, a little nervous, and extremely elegant), and a big pulpit from which the Reformer preached his last sermon.  The pulpit which towers against one end of a gallery is crudely painted with images of saints and apostles, Christ crucified appearing behind the place where the preacher would stand to speak -- it's a moving artifact, more folk-art than fine-art, and impressive in its simplicity; one could imagine this pulpit in a parish church in northern New Mexico.  (The Church in Eisleben, Germany loaned it to the MIA in exchange for the object being restored by local curatorial technicians).  The show is sponsored by Thrivent, a business previously called Lutheran Brotherhood (before the concept of the "brotherhood" became suspect), that makes its money selling annuities of various sorts to the widows of Lutheran businessmen.  The show concludes in January 2017, presumably so that the relics can return to Germany where they will do yeoman-service in the various exhibitions undoubtedly planned for the upcoming year, the five-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant reformation as measured from the date that Luther posted his 95 theses on the cathedral door.  How this show compares to a slightly larger exhibition now on show in Los Angeles as LACMA -- it has 140 items -- is unclear to me.

The majority of the art objects in the show are attributed to either Lucas Cranach the elder or his studio or the hand of Lucas Cranach the younger.  Indeed, the show could be descriptively captioned as "The Cranach family and its art about Luther and his Reformation."  Of the 100 objects comprising the show, at least 50 are made by one of the Cranach's or artist's affiliated with their studio.  Cranach the Elder knew Luther well and, indeed, one of his children was baptized by the Reformer acting as his Godfather.  Cranach shows Luther in many pictures, apparently, obsessed by the man's features:  we see Luther as a nervous, anxious-looking monk with a sullen expression, incognito as the stubbly bearded Joerg Junker, and, often, as a fat belligerent bulldog, hands clenched in fists around his Bible.  There is a life-size image of Luther (by Cranach the younger)  made from 11 wood engravings collaged Hockney-style together -- the black lines and statuesque appearance of the image give it almost surrealistically imposing presence:  you can feel Luther in the room with you, cut into the wood of the old German forests. Several of Cranach's other paintings, only marginally related to Luther, are included in the show -- there is an erotic Judgment of Paris, clearly intended as a quasi-pornographic frisson for the bedchamber of some debauched German princeling and a glowing diptych showing Judith seducing Holofernes and, then, butchering him.  (Cranach's witchy, fox-faced women, with their sinuous pale bodies, are immediately recognizable -- it's hard to know whether these images are misogynistic or intended as some form of adoration:  clearly, the painter seems at once enraptured and terrified by what he is painting and there is a kernel of deep, conflicted anxiety encoded in these images.)  The most memorable of the Cranach paintings is the last in the show, an image of the bulldog Luther blurred by death into a belligerent but sweet looking cherub, his great round head and double chins and formidable torso melting into the cushions of cream-white pillows on which the corpse seems to float:  just the slightest semblance of a smile hovers on the dead man's grey-blue lips, an expression as enigmatic as that of the Mona Lisa. 

The present trend in the display of engravings and woodcuts is to show those things tinted with water-color.  (People raised on Duerer engravings and woodcuts austerely untinted as I was may feel a sense of dismay, even resentment at the application of blue and scarlet washes to the tremendously lucid lines in the old prints -- but I must say that my first impulse as a boy when studying Duerer was to trace his prints and, then, use water-colors and colored pencils to tint them.)  There are many very beautiful prints and other graphics.  Some of the most startling are images in Luther-translated Bibles -- in particular, one watercolored frontispiece for Genesis shows a curmudgeonly-looking God the Father peering up over an orb encircled by gold leaf and containing a ring of blue oceans in which the earth is set like emerald gem; it's an extraordinary and beautiful image, something that you feel that you could gaze upon for a long time.  At the opposite side of the spectrum are grotesque prints denouncing Luther's religious opponents or denouncing him:  in one extraordinary image a fat, grinning female Fury shits out the Pope and five cardinals  -- the other two furies are on hand to suckle the clerics.  "The Papal Ass as Monstrosity found in the Tiber" shows an insouciant looking creature scaled like a snake standing upright with pale, perfectly formed breasts.   The monster has the head of a donkey with long ears, but it is entirely sinister -- there is nothing comical about this chimera.  Similarly, we are shown a huge devil with his mouth agape to hold a round table where five clerics are seated -- in his claws, the devil holds papal indulgences.  It's a horrific image slashed as if with a saber or a butcher knife into the wood and the thick dark lines of the wood cut have a kind of ferocious intensity.  Other woodcuts show a deformed calf, a monstrous birth in Freiberg, analytically portrayed and carefully painted -- the thing looks horribly dead and, also, has the profile of a caricatured monk  Next to this we see the devil playing a monk's head as a bag-pipe.  There is nothing charming or elegant or whimsical about these image -- the artists who cut these things believed in the literal reality of the Devil and his works and some of their conviction rubs off on the viewer who, perhaps, will have to suppress a faint shudder looking at these objects. 

A big canvas by Cranach the Elder called "Law and Grace" is intended as a representation of Lutheran theology -- we see Moses on the left and various atrocities; on the right, we see the annunciation to the shepherds and Christ on the cross.   The tree bifurcating this striking canvas flourishes with leaves and flower on the "grace" (right side) of the painting; it is, of course, bare and wintry on the left side.  There are a number of pictures of the redoubtable Katherina von Bora, Luther's wife, and the complex, almost freakish, Gotha altar, a painting made with 14 wings depicting in innumerable two-foot size panels most of the stories in the Bible.  The altar dates to 1648 and exemplifies the Lutheran commitment to scripture -- everyone should have access to all of the Bible if only in pictures -- but its connection to the show is, at best, tenuous.

You can rent an audio guide to the exhibit -- it's almost impossible to use since there is no discernible order to the objects and their numbers on the guide.  Only a very few of the objects were numbered for audio listening when I attended on December 1, 2016.  (I suspect that the curators label different objects with numbers attracting attention to them for different showings or audiences -- if you were to listen to the whole audio guide, it would take you three hours to go through the exhibit.  As a consequence, only about a third of the exhibits were numbered when I was there -- many of the remaining objects are glossed on the audio guide but you can't tell which of them are the subjects of commentary.  I thought it was very frustrating and confusing.)  Luther's truly formidable and disquieting presence is not much on evidence in the show -- except perhaps in a few of the woodcuts with their "Here I stand" obstinacy.  In his 92nd Thesis, Luther decries those who would impose peace on the virulence of theological disputation:  Away with all those prophets who say to the people to Christ, "Peace, Peace" and there is no peace."  Like Jesus, the man came not to bring peace but a sword.  And there are swords aplenty -- both literal and figurative -- in this show.     

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