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Beguiling mix

Exhibitions: Temptation in Eden: Lucas Cranach’s ‘Adam and Eve’; Work, Rest & Play

5 September 2007

2:15 PM

5 September 2007

2:15 PM

Exhibitions: Temptation in Eden: Lucas Cranach’s ‘Adam and Eve’; Work, Rest & Play

Amazingly, the Courtauld can claim to have mounted the first exhibition in England devoted to Lucas Cranach the Elder (c.1472–1553). He’s not an artist we know at all well here, though one or two images will be familiar from reproduction, probably elegant, elongated and slightly heraldic full-length portraits, or glimmering erotic nudes. There’s something very individual and instantly recognisable about his images, an aura of self-containment which is based on a decorative unity which looks back to Gothic art. This is balanced by the new naturalism of the German Renaissance. Cranach employed landscape elements (in the wake of Dürer) in his portraits and religious pictures as a means of adding poignancy and expression to his compositions. His particular mix of old and new is striking, and, at its best, deeply beguiling.

This fine small exhibition is built around the Courtauld’s own ‘Adam and Eve’, painted in 1526, one of more than 50 versions of this subject created by Cranach, his sons and their workshop. Prepare yourselves for the Fall of Man, for a slightly perplexed-looking Adam surrendering to temptation and accepting the apple from Eve, watched by a small but supercilious serpent in the tree. The action takes place in what looks more like a (German) forest glade than the Garden of Eden, and what really grabs the eye after the human charms of the principal couple is the abundant fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (though it took only one apple to bring down Adam — who were the others aimed at?), and the wildlife all around. Here the lion almost lies down with the lamb, various deer are in attendance and a wild boar snortles into view. Rather oddly, the foreground birds are rendered completely out of scale, shown here as tiny in comparison to the animals, though in reality both stork and heron are large birds.


Much of the complex charm of this picture derives from the dense grouping of animals, and not from any symbolic attributes they may or may not have embodied. If the larger theme of the painting is beauty and temptation, then undoubtedly the animals count for innocent beauty. Cranach prepared for their depiction most carefully, making a number of studies from real animals both living and dead. One of the chief delights of this show is the inclusion of some of these studies. So we are treated to the sight of ‘Adam and Eve’ flanked by drawings of a young stag to the left and a brace of partridges to the right. There’s also a gorgeous drawing of a spotted and whiskery wild boar in brown and grey ink, and a more savage rendition of the horripilant boar at bay to hunting hounds. A goat and dead hind are also among the best drawings here, the hind so good as to have once been attributed to Dürer.

There are five paintings, the drawings and a group of engravings and woodblock prints in this exhibition. From Dresden comes ‘Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden’, a slightly more old-fashioned narrative painting, with a frieze of animals across its lower half, including a unicorn with a particularly long and probably encumbering horn. Again, the foliage and sylvan setting are exquisitely done. A sort of triptych on the left wall of the gallery comprises ‘A Faun and his Family’ from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the National Gallery’s ‘Cupid complaining to Venus’ and ‘Apollo and Diana’ from the Royal Collection. Quite a grouping. This show is a must, and comes with the added bonus of a special display of German drawings entitled ‘Dürer and his Legacy’ in a further gallery. Look out for Dürer’s own pen and brown ink study for ‘One of the Wise Virgins’, all ringlets and crosshatching, and a rather sweet Virgin by the Swiss-born Joseph Heintz the Elder.

I have been all in favour of the series of touring exhibitions organised by the National Gallery in partnership with the museums of Bristol and Newcastle. In previous years we have seen various themed shows with the titles Paradise, Making Faces and The Stuff of Life. Last year it was Passion for Paint, which was the best of the series so far. Now we are offered another broad subject, Work, Rest & Play, but the coherence in this group of exhibits seems sadly lacking, as if the magic ingredient — inspired selection — has for some reason been misplaced. There are good things to be seen, sure enough, but a larger dimension is missing.

When I went there were, of course, far more people watching the film which supposedly explains the show than actually looking at it. This is to be expected when people have learnt so to distrust their own responses that they much prefer any form of commentary to the act of looking for themselves. But this disparate collection of pictures and one sculpture probably baffles more than most such exhibitions. In the entrance area to the Sunley Room, a tremendous Joseph Wright of Derby painting, called ‘An Iron Forge’ (1772), hangs in all the white-hot dramatic glamour of its subject, witnessed rather implausibly by the forge master’s young family (too dangerous even for those devil-may-care times — can you imagine Health & Safety’s warnings today?), rather dwarfing a small but imposing factory-scape by Lowry. Here, then, is Industry. Opposite is a screen-printed decorative scroll on the currently ubiquitous subject of slavery (anyone would think it had actually been eradicated worldwide) by the African–American artist Renée Green. On the other side of the doors is a group of four sordid colour photos of ‘global office culture’ by Lars Tunbjörk, while opposite this exercise in banality is Ford Madox Brown’s Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece ‘Work’ (1863).

Actually, this is the smaller of two versions of the painting, borrowed from Birmingham Museum, and it really does look quite reduced in size here. But it is monumental in scale and packed with incident, celebrating the glories of the kind of work acceptable to the Victorians. (The barefooted flower girl who squeezes apologetically past the ladies in their finery is evidently not acceptable.) In the main room the visitor is greeted by Duane Hanson’s appallingly lifelike and lifesize ‘Traveller’, slumped refugee from the horrors of airports and customs officials, asleep in a nest of baggage. Elsewhere there is the appealing likeness of a fashionable tailor by Moroni, the earliest recorded portrait of an artisan (1565–70), and Maggi Hambling’s powerful image of the Nobel-winning scientist Dorothy Hodgkin. Hambling has painted her with four hands, like a goddess, supercharged with energy and intelligence.

Other paintings include an escapee from the Royal Academy’s Impressionists by the Sea — a lively Monet of fashionable ladies on the beach at Trouville; Dame Laura Knight’s famous image of Ruby Loftus in the munitions factory; Manet’s superb ‘Corner of a Café-Concert’; and a lovely soft-focus Courbet of a couple of prostitutes relaxing by the Seine. For an exhibition which deals with work as well as play, there are no real farming pictures aside from a heavily romanticised Gainsborough, and an idyllic Breton landscape by Gauguin complete with shepherdess. And some rather feeble anecdotal paintings of the seasons by David Teniers the Younger, all very well in their place, which is not here. Avercamp provides the obligatory winter skating scene, and Jan Steen some skittle players. Spare a glance on the way out of this rather nebulous show for Longhi’s ever-popular but sinister portrait of a rhinoceros at Venice. There’s a fearsome beast for you.


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