I always thought that the term “expressive” was a modernist or twentieth-century concept, in which the depiction of figure types and formal elements conjured up a peculiar state of mind or conveyed (“expressed”) some inner state on the part of the artist. The term enjoyed its heyday in German art for Expressionist artists, especially die Brücke, even if it was retrospectively applied to eccentrics like El Greco or found to be a Germanic heritage by Wilhelm Worringer and others. Yet Jochen Sander, the energetic curator at the Städel and his Liebighaus colleague Stefan Roller now employ the same term to characterize experimental art just after 1500 (on the museum web site the English translation is “Realms of Imagination,” though no English catalogue version was produced). The creative artists in the show are by no means confined to Altdorfer alone, as the title suggests (perhaps keyed up, like most would-be blockbuster titles); indeed, this longish period also engages painters and graphic artists, led by Wolf Huber (with cameos from baby Cranach, Baldung, Breu, and Grünewald, even by Jan de Beer of Antwerp [!]) as well as several sculptors with enlivened figuration, notably Hans Leinberger and Master IP of Passau, plus Master HL, and the Masters of Ottobeuren and the Zwettl Retable. The exhibition generally claims that period experimentation, especially in the “Danube School” (a commonplace art-historical term that is never evoked directly, perhaps because of Nazi-era taint?), uses newly exaggerated figure types and poses, as well as forms of heightened color and lighting to depart from prevailing norms of naturalism and proportion (read: the norms pursued in the early sixteenth century by the older Dürer).
How much does this imagery cohere, and how much does it elucidate the once so-called Danube School as an artistic or period movement? Imagery in this exhibition spans a region from the Rhineland to Austria and from the Danube down to Bavaria, so its own geographic cohesiveness (with likely contact among artists) remains relatively shaky. The time period in question also encompasses fully a third of the new sixteenth century. By implication, it overlaps the period of the nascent Reformation – or at least some of the Angst concerning devotion that spawned those religious changes and their adoption across an even larger territory. A brief essay by Daniela Bohde (85-87) and the accompanying section suggest explicitly that religion holds a central role, noting that even the very composition of its key event – the Crucifixion – is sometimes rotated away from the direct gaze of the pious viewer and placed at a skewed angle or else intensified in pathos, emerging from late-medieval affective piety. A half-century ago some of these “expressive” forms of religious images would have been called “Mannerist,” albeit more often for Italian than for German art. Certainly Italy’s own Mannerist episode frequently seems to focus on religious imagery (pace John Shearman’s courtly setting for that “stylish style”), so that such a claim can readily be asserted, there as well as here, even if the arguments around this exhibition remain unsubstantiated and implied rather than addressed directly.
But then why call the exhibition “Fantastic Worlds,” and emphasize the importance of landscapes, as the essay by Katrin Dyballa (115-17) and its accompanying section would suggest? Of course, the contributions by Huber in particular to the independent German landscape, especially in graphics (or of Altdorfer before him, as noted by Christopher Wood, among others, including the author) has long been celebrated, so they clearly belong in an exhibition devoted to this period and these artists. But how, then, can the sculptures of the exhibition, even those exquisite IP and Leinberger reliefs with settings, fit into this concept? And if the general concept of “Expression” in various, media-specific forms do generate a new period style in this Germanic region, as the essay, “Mittel des Expressiven,” by Dyballa (149-51) implies, what underlying meaning or purpose of art-making drives this lively experimentation?
If there is a fundamental shift in the concept of human agency and essence, as suggested in Sander’s lead essay, “Bilder des Menschen” (41-43), then that rupture – again, perhaps fundamental to the altered religious outlook of mankind’s relation to the divine – would perhaps more fully integrate this wide-ranging assembly of objects to a historical perspective and an interpretive argument. After all, basic questions remain: why “circa 1500,” as the title asserts (even though most of the objects postdate that moment by decades)? Why in Germany? Or is this a more European-wide shift, as the many books on Mannerism used to assert (esp. cf. Shearman and Daniel Arasse)?
Exhibitions arise out of many good reasons. Clearly in this case the Frankfurt team made a special effort to collect and display major works across media as well as to highlight a great moment of visual art in the German-speaking regions. In some ways, their motivation can be compared to Michael Baxandall’s profound sympathy for German sculpture of this period in his Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (1980), which he saw as undermined not only by the icono-phobia of much of the Reformation towards religious carving but also by the import of “foreign,” specifically Italianate (Welsch) forms within sculpture itself. This bold exhibition in effect links Baxandall’s heroic, if doomed carvers to contemporary forms in painting, drawing, and graphics.
After recent festive celebrations of Dürer’s year, especially in Nuremberg, perhaps it was time elsewhere in Germany to celebrate the amazing burst of creative energy and imagery of the early sixteenth century by less familiar, even anonymous artists around the time of the Reformation – and not to define them by means of either Dürer or Luther (who will certainly dominate the year 2017!). Surely this collaboration in Frankfurt but also in Vienna will be eye-opening for the avid museum public in those great art cities. But for scholarship, and for the HNA specialist audience, this exhibition can only be seen as a confusion of dazzling images that do not add up, neither to a coherent phenomenon nor to an episode with a clear historical explanation, even if we concede that “the Expressive” did begin to assert itself “um 1500.”
University of Pennsylvania