Cranach: Artist and Innovator review – a grand seduction

Compton Verney, Warwickshire
The Renaissance master’s graphic brilliance is thrown into dramatic relief alongside the work of artists ranging from Picasso to Michael Landy

Venus, goddess of love, wears nothing but a lynx-eyed smile and a gleaming pearl choker. She has high breasts, slim hips and the improbable torsions of a doll, milk white against a black velvet background. Balancing on a little plinth below, Cupid points his dart straight up at her bare pudenda – just in case you hadn’t noticed what she is supposedly trying to conceal, with a veil of such transparency it is scarcely visible to the naked eye. Her blond tresses crackle with suggestive excitement.

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Venus was so popular, so appealing, apparently so seductive (how tastes change) that he and his assistants painted – at the very least estimate – 20 more versions. In all of them, she is a flagrantly sinuous silhouette, an outright provocation to 16th-century viewers and beyond. In the 19th century, Prince Albert was buying Cranach nudes for Queen Victoria; in the 21st century they were familiar to millions of viewers from the title sequence of Desperate Housewives, where Cranach’s Eve reaches up to pluck one apple, then another, and so on until hapless Adam is buried in an avalanche.

Eve, Venus, Diana – they lend themselves so perfectly to animation, these sharp cutouts, being already such brilliant inventions of graphic design.

Compton Verney’s terrific exhibition, only open for a few days before the virus struck and now extended until next year, puts Cranach’s modernity strongly in focus for us once more. This is achieved in part by the revelatory juxtaposition of his paintings with works by contemporary artists such as Michael Landy, John Currin and Ishbel Myerscough, all of them influenced by the German Renaissance artist. But it is not difficult to make a modern figure out of Cranach himself.

Born in Kronach in 1472 – hence the surname – Cranach was versatile, prolific, perpetually enterprising. Thrice mayor of Wittenberg, and its richest citizen, he was a property developer and founder of Germany’s first licensed pharmacy as well as court painter to Frederick the Wise. Best man to Martin Luther, he illustrated Luther’s translations of the Bible: their rugged woodcut vigour is spectacularly displayed against light boxes at Compton Verney.

Johann the Steadfast, left, and Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous, 1509, by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Johann the Steadfast, left, and Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous, 1509, by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Photograph: National Gallery, London

Cranach painted Frederick many times, his heavy jaws growing silver with age, a weary wisdom in his eyes. And then he portrayed Frederick’s successors as elector of Saxony. One of the greatest images here is a diptych of Johann the Steadfast from 1509, a man strained and depressed and already a widower. For the figure in the adjoining panel is not Johann’s wife but his son, a little boy of six who will eventually succeed him as elector. The child is uncomfortable in his green slashed-silk costume and not quite sure what to do with his hands. A father-and-son diptych, so poignant, is rare in western art.

Yet Cranach’s portraits are often exceptionally odd, a weird hybrid of true and unreal. You see the faint stye in an eye, acutely noted, or the mole on a cheek, sharp as a Holbein, while marvelling at the dramatic orchestration of pale shapes against pitch dark. Hanging opposite Johann is a portrait of a woman who may be his wife, Sibylle of Cleves, with another of their sons. Her face is luminous as a lunar disc, beneath a hat shaped like some outlandish bird of prey in the utter darkness. In the elaborate patterning of red and gold clothes, it is almost possible to overlook the secret fact of mother and son’s clasped hands.

Saints Genevieve and Apollonia, 1506 by Lucas Cranach the Elder, left, and Michael Landy’s Saint Apollonia, 2013.
Saints Genevieve and Apollonia, 1506 by Lucas Cranach the Elder, left, and Michael Landy’s Saint Apollonia, 2013. Photograph: National Gallery, London; Michael Landy

It is such a curious fusion: human and yet also strange. Cranach plays with body shape like a practised Photoshopper, diminishing a torso to fit the space, lengthening the limbs or hands. This effect is enlarged upon by the British artist Michael Landy, in a towering kinetic sculpture from 2013. Saint Apollonia rises high above you, powerfully realistic and yet theatrically artificial as the Cranach painting on which she is based. Press the foot pedal, and she raises a pair of pliers to her very much smaller head, chipping away at the painted plaster. Apollonia’s martyrdom was to have her teeth pulled out.

These stylistic exaggerations are more keenly apparent in Cranach’s nudes, where the sinuous outlines hold the figures so tight against the flat backdrop they could almost be scissored from paper. Ishbel Myerscough’s 1990s portraits take these incisive silhouettes and fill them with the fleshly truths of real women’s bodies; Cranach’s anatomies being what she aptly calls “uninformed”.

Pablo Picasso, thieving as usual, gets at the way Cranach concentrates all the features in the epicentre of the female face, with a coruscating cubist pastiche.

The sculptor Claire Partington casts a Cranach Venus in twinkling enamel and lustre, so that the goddess becomes a luxurious object – one definition of the original painting, which hangs alongside, in which Venus is seductively serpentine, reaching up against dark foliage like a counterpart Eve, with a comic punchline in the chubby Cupid at her feet. He was trying to get some honey but he got stung, by bees as sharp as his love darts.

Cranach’s Cupid Complaining to Venus the Elder, 1526-7, and Claire Partington’s Venus and Cupid, 2020.
Cranach’s Cupid Complaining to Venus the Elder, 1526-7, and Claire Partington’s Venus and Cupid, 2020. Photograph: National Gallery, London; Claire Partington

An inscription at the top of the painting – “the brief and fleeting pleasure we seek/ is mingled with sadness and brings us pain” – acts as a kind of rebuke to the viewer: you may look at all this honey, but you’ll be stung too. It is a kind of pagan-puritan painting.

Cranach never lost his position as court painter, through four generations of electors. He sailed on productively until the age of 81. This show omits the repetitions of the last few decades, homing in on a select few of the more radical early paintings. And perhaps the shrewdest choice of modern follower to analyse their radicalism is the American art star John Currin, whose fusion of old master painting with popular culture turns Cranach’s inventiveness into a knack.

John Currin’s Honeymoon Nude, 1998.
John Currin’s Honeymoon Nude, 1998: ‘takes a Cranach Venus and turns her into kitsch’. Photograph: Tate

Compton Verney has borrowed Currin’s Honeymoon Nude (1998) from the Tate. It takes a Cranach Venus and turns her into kitsch, with improbably large eyes, blow-dried hair and the whitest smile American dentistry can provide. The effect is both eerie and magnetic. It is also makes you wonder what Cranach’s own contemporaries thought when they looked at his ideals of beauty. Were they considered graceful, elegant, titillating or fully as bizarre as Currin’s plastic surgery update?

What interested Currin was precisely this put-together look, these made-up bodies constructed to fill the picture space in what he calls “the most beautiful way”. Currin’s comments about his own art could hardly be more eloquent of Cranach’s achievements too. All these figures are creations, fabrications, figments, never real people. “The only thing that is real,” Currin observes, “is the painting.”


Laura Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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