Lucas Cranach the Elder, Three Princesses of Saxony, Sibylla (1515–92), Emilia (1516–91) and Sidonia (1518–75), daughters of Duke Heinrich of Frommen, c. 1535, oil on panel, 62cm x 89cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna Photo: Bridgeman Images

Peer-Reviewed Article: Lucas Cranach’s Legacies –‘Primitive’ and Rooted identities of Art and Nation at the European Fin de Siècle

Juliet Simpson, Professor and Chair of Art History and Cultural Memory, Research Director, Centre for Arts, Memory and Communities, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Coventry University and Visiting Fellow, the Warburg Institute, University of London

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) has long been over-shadowed by his more famous contemporaries, Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein (the Younger). Yet, during the second half of the 19th century, Cranach’s art and that of his workshop became the focus of significant national and transnational interest. Not only would this transform Cranach’s visibility for modern art, it would bring the very meaning and identity of a German Renaissance and Reformation memory centre-stage, in particular in the German and Nordic world. It is the potency of Cranach’s unexplored ‘afterlife’, his Nachleben (to borrow Aby Warburg’s key concept[1]), which is pivotal for this discussion.

Taking as its focus the celebrated 1899 Cranach Exhibition in Dresden, curated by the Hamburg art historian Karl Woermann, which brought Cranach into a 20th-century spotlight, this article examines three pivotal, yet understudied areas of modern interest in Cranach’s art.[2] First, is a neglected revival and reception of Cranach as a torchbearer of Reformation art and its cultural legacies. In this, Cranach’s work acquires developed significance in the contexts of expanding Romantic and later 19th-century cultural discourses of nationhood, linked to the new-found appeal of the artist’s ‘popular’ so-called ‘primitive’ expressions of piety. Second, are key ways in which such revivals of Cranach’s work stimulate competing cultural narratives of nationhood, memory and artistic identity: tensions, urgent in the range and character of responses generated by the 1899 Dresden Cranach Exhibition and its catalogue.[3] Indeed, drawing on rarely-examined primary sources relating to the exhibition, its catalogue and contemporary critical responses, section three of this article sheds light on ways in which Cranach’s inspiration for redefined symbols of ‘nation’, ‘belonging’ and ‘primitiveness’ was to become determinant. And third is to consider how and to what ends Cranach’s fin-de-siècle reinventions suggestively develop his art’s negotiated legacies of Gothic, Renaissance and Reformation. A particular concern is to investigate Cranach’s appeal for a group of artists, spanning Victorian Britain to German and Nordic Europe, stimulated by a reawakened attraction to the legacies of a German Renaissance which these artists found in Cranach’s art. These reinventions entwine equally with uncanny artistic and cultural reverberations about what ‘Reformation’ is not (the allure of enchantment and of Cranach’s ‘Gothicism’), and with a fascination for what Cranach’s art may become: sensual, erotic; even disturbing and dark. Thus, my key concern is to shed new light on the substantial ‘ripple effect’ created by Cranach’s survival and presence on the late 19th-century European and international art map. It is to illuminate Cranach’s transformation from revivalist curiosity, symbol of ‘nationhood’, into an unexpected ‘other’ modern as a figure of difference, and Dresden into a potent Cranach-Capital (‘Cranach-Stadt’), pre-and post-1899.[4]

[1] In connection with Aby Warburg’s ‘Das Nachleben der Antike’ (in Fritz Saxl, ‘Das Nachleben der Antike: Zur  Einführung in die Bibliothek Warburg’, Hamburger Universitätszeitung, 11: 4, 1921, 245) – but a concept that opens particularly fruitful insights in navigating complex cultural temporalities, notably the ‘survival’ of pre-/early modern in modern cultures, or as Georges Didi-Huberman perceives in relation to his construct of ‘spectral time’, ‘to enter into a time other than habitual chronologies [and], eternal “influences”’, Georges Didi-Huberman. ‘The Surviving Image: Aby Warburg and Tylorian Anthropology’, Oxford Art Journal, vol. 25: 1, 2002, (61–69), 61, 63.

[2] This article is the developed outcome of papers first given at the international conferences on ‘Protestant Images: Faith and Self-Image’ (Veste Coburg, Coburg: October 2017) and ‘European Revivals: Cultural Mythologies around 1900’ (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh: December 2017) – my thanks to the conference organisers for these opportunities. I would also like to thank the Warburg Institute (School of Advanced Studies, University of London), for the conferral of a Visiting Fellowship (2019–present), for the access to scholarly resources and also the many rich exchanges with Warburg colleagues and Fellows which have greatly advanced my thinking on Cranach’s afterlives, as has fruitful conversations with Prof Dr Gabriele Rippl (Bern), Dr Ralph Gleis (Berlin) and colleagues at the Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery (Helsinki), to whom I extend my gratitude. In preparing this article for publication, my thanks to Dr Tim Farrant (Oxford) and to the anonymous peer-reviewers of the final manuscript for their helpful comments and suggestions.

[3] On the extensive art-historiographical reception of the 1899 exhibition and Dresden’s subsequent reputation as a ‘Cranach Capital [of Art]’ (‘eine Cranach-Stadt’), see S. Heiser. Das Frühwerk Lucas Cranachs des Älteren: Wien um 1500 – Dresden um 1900. DVK: Berlin, 2002, see especially, 29–43.

[4] See Harald Marx. ‘Dresden – eine Cranach-Stadt?’, Dresdner Hefte, 52, 1997, 11–24.

Featured image: Lucas Cranach the Elder, Three Princesses of Saxony, Sibylla (1515–92), Emilia (1516–91) and Sidonia (1518–75), daughters of Duke Heinrich of Frommen, c. 1535, oil on panel, 62cm x 89cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Photo: Bridgeman Images

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