Bremen’s exhibition celebrating the return of two of its Dürer drawings, missing from wartime storage in Schloss Karnzow since the closing days of World War II, opened on a day now considered fateful for other reasons. The international loan exhibition and its excellent catalogue were prepared by the Kunsthalle’s curator of prints and drawings in what must have been record time, since the focal point of the show, the drawing of the Women’s Bath, was still in New York in late July, where it had been sequestered as evidence in the trial of one of the conspirators responsible for its theft in 1993 from the state museum of Azerbaijan, in Baku. During the trial it had been stored by US Customs in the vaults of the World Trade Center, but had been removed for a few days’ display at Sotheby’s prior to repatriation. It would indeed have been tragic had the drawing remained in ‘safe’ storage in New York only a few weeks longer.
Bremen’s exhibition placed the drawing in a setting of 99 other works on paper by German, Italian and Netherlandish artists of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries featuring nude figures, the majority from the Kunsthalle’s own collection. Other works were loaned from Amsterdam, Paris, Vienna, and from the six leading German print rooms.
Welcome features of the catalogue are the best reproductions of the ‘Frauenbad’ since the great nineteenth-century facsimile edition of Dürer’s drawings by Friedrich Lippmann; its provenance since 1821 when it entered the collection of Dr. Hieronymus Klugkist, one of the founders of Bremen’s Kunstverein, and a complete list of the literature from its first publication in 1851, when it was willed by Klugkist to the Kunstverein. The emendations to the drawing in different ink mixtures are also discussed, and the date, added below the line at bottom and not a part of the original drawing, is accepted as reading 1496 (the last digit is no longer completely legible.)
After a Foreword briefly summarizing the drawing’s post-World War II adventures, and thanking those who made its repatriation possible, the catalogue’s text is divided into six chapters, treating the physical features of the drawing; the nude as an emerging theme in the arts, beginning with Pisanello’s nude Luxuria (obviously not done from the living model), and including nudes by Mantegna, Master PM, Ludwig Krug and others. In the third chapter, the question of the drawing’s relation to Dürer’s woodcut of the Men’s Bath is taken up; and the remaining chapters deal with scenes depicting the various types of bathing facilities available in Dürer’s day, as well as with bath attendants as life models; constructed nudes; famous biblical and mythological bathers, and other possibilities for depicting the nude female in Dürer’s day (e.g. Eve and Venus, Lucretia and Judith.)
The locale of Dürer’s ‘Frauenbad’ is identified correctly as a sauna, or steam bath – a common type used by men, women and children in fifteenth-century northern Europe. The locale of the Men’s Bath, on the other hand, is identified as an outdoor ‘Kurbad’, or mineral spring, used more for therapeutic and/or social purposes than for simple cleansing, and where bathers might linger for hours. The crucial point is made that, during 1496, the type of indoor bath depicted in the Bremen drawing was ordered closed by the Nuremberg City Council due to current epidemics of the plague and syphilis – so there would have been little or no market for a woodcut on the subject – while the outdoor, mineral springs were allowed to remain in business. The author also discusses the increasing inclusion in Nuremberg of bathing facilities in private houses during the sixteenth century, similar to the one maintained by Dürer’s friend Willibald Pirckheimer. Such facilities featured wooden tubs, on the order of the one depicted by Israhel van Meckenem in his earlier engraving of the Children’s Bath.
The final degeneracy of the bathing scene into pornography by the Behams, and the proliferation of imaginary and/or literary baths – much more common than real ones–– include such themes as the Fountain of Youth, the bath of Venus, the famous biblical ablutions of Bathsheba and Susannah, as well as non-bathing nudes in the Judgment of Paris, and Vanitas and proportion studies are also included.
Jane Campbell Hutchison
University of Wisconsin–Madison