Under Lucas Cranach’s spell

by Jeff Michael Hammond

Special To The Japan Times

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) is acknowledged as one of the greats of the German Renaissance. His combination of religious piety and fleshly eroticism went on to inspire artists across the globe, including many in Japan. Despite his standing worldwide, however, Cranach’s career and legacy have only now become the subject of a large-scale exhibition in this country.

“Lucas Cranach the Elder, 500 Years of the Power of Temptation” at The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, brings together around 90 works — just over half are by Cranach himself, the others by members of his workshop, his son (Lucas Cranach the Younger) and his contemporaries, or by later artists who also fell under his spell.

Born in Kronach in Bavaria (then part of the Holy Roman Empire), Cranach’s name was derived from that of his hometown. In 1504, he took employment in Wittenberg, south of Berlin, at the court of the Saxon elector, Frederick the Wise, one of the most important rulers of the empire. There, he painted many religious pieces and works with mythological themes.

The exhibition opens, however, with several woodcuts he made of jousting tournaments and horse mounted knights and princes, testament to the militaristic environment he found himself in. While a court painter, he also ran his own successful workshop, gaining fame for speedily turning out quality pieces for private patrons.

Portraiture is the focus of the second section of the exhibition, where we are upbraided by the stern profile of Cranach’s Count Philipp von Solms-Lich. Cranach the Younger’s work also makes an impression here, particularly in a pair of full-length portraits of Augustus of Saxony and Anne of Denmark, both of which display fine detail in the texture of the clothing.

The 15th and 16th centuries were a time when numerous currents of thought and artistic developments came together, particularly in the cities where Cranach worked. On the one hand, he addressed many themes typical of Catholic tastes, such as his paintings of the Virgin and child, which display a familiarity with the art of Raphael. In Wittenberg, however, he was at the heart of the the German Reformation, led by his friend Martin Luther.

Cranach expressed sympathy with Luther’s goals, painting the theologist’s portrait numerous times and providing a public face for the Reformation. A number of these works are on display, including one of Luther in his younger days as an Augustinian monk, and another of him against a stark background of green dressed in a simple, austere black cloak.

It is suspected Cranach may also have visited Italy, where humanist ideas and new developments in art were spreading northward. Such a trip could explain the similarities between his 1510-13 painting “Lucretia” and a 1505-06 work in Venice by Francesco Francia on the same theme. This legend of the chaste wife who kills herself to preserve her chastity and honor was painted by Cranach in at least 40 versions, three of which are included in the exhibition.

Women are portrayed in many guises: as victims of brutality, symbols of ideal beauty and — as alluded to in the exhibition’s subtitle, “500 Years of the Power of Temptation” — as expressions of desire and seduction. One room houses depictions of female roles in major religious stories, with Samson and Delilah, and Lot and his daughters facing off against Salome and Judith brandishing the severed heads of their vanquished enemies, St. John the Baptist and Holofernes, respectively.

Yet, the exhibition is at pains to convey the ambivalence of Cranach’s views of women. Like many artists of the time, his moralizing did not preclude the sensuous depiction of the female body. In many cases, Cranach’s rendering of supple naked flesh, such as that in “Allegory of Justice” (1537), is contrasted and highlighted by a necklace or other item, pointing to an almost fetishistic interest in objects.

Copies of “Allegory of Justice” fill an entire wall nearby, supplied by contemporary Iranian artist Leila Pazooki, who gathered 100 artists from a Chinese village that produces handmade reproductions of classic paintings and gave them seven hours to replicate the Cranach.

Compared to the original, the results see the ideal of beauty compromised — breasts become larger or smaller, or are placed too high or too low on the body. While the avowed aim of this “competition” was to question such issues as original versus copy, and mass production in the art world, it also offers a reflection on conceptions of body type, proportion and beauty.

Other artists represented at the exhibition — those drawn to Cranach’s sensuous touch and, no doubt, his fetishistic bent — include Yasumasa Morimura, Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, who poses as Adam (with an Eve) in a Man Ray photograph that pays homage to Cranach, who depicted the story of original sin many times. The inclusion of such pieces suggests the spell cast by Cranach’s art is potent as ever.

“Lucas Cranach the Elder: 500 Years of the Power of Temptation” at The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, runs until Jan. 15; 9.30 a.m.- 5.30 p.m. (Fri. until 8 p.m.). ¥1,600. www.tbs.co.jp/vienna2016/english. We have five pairs of tickets to give away to readers. Apply online at jtimes.jp/tickets or send details to the ticket giveaway address below the Art Openings. Deadline: Dec. 13.