Credit is due to the Stedelijk Prentenkabinet and the Rubenshuis in Antwerp for, respectively, acquiring and exhibiting 44 pen and wash drawings by the young Rubens after the Images of Death, the famous woodcut series by Hans Holbein the Younger. Recognized by J.Q. van Regteren Altena in a private collection in the early 1970s, they were first published in a facsimile edition in 1977 – the Rubens anniversary year. The present volume, with its three important essays, appeared in conjunction with the exhibition in Antwerp last year. The essays discuss items seen in the exhibition, but the book does not contain a catalogue as such, or even a checklist. All exhibited items are illustrated, and information about them is given in the captions. An extensive bibliography concludes the volume.
The main contribution, by Kristin Lohse Belkin, is bracketed by two essays, dealing, on the one hand, with the practice of copying from graphic models as part of artistic education (by Michael Kwakkelstein), and, on the other, with the reception of the subject of the Dance of Death by Holbein, Rubens and later artists (by Volker Manuth). All 44 drawings are reproduced in colour. In an essay the title of which does not do justice to its content (‘Rubens’s Copies after German and Netherlandish Prints’), Kristin Belkin offers a profusion of new information on the drawings (which are bound), the make-up of the sketchbook, its provenance, authorship and style. Michael Kwakkelstein places Rubens’s sketches, which he sees as part of the young artist’s earliest drawing exercises, within the context of artistic training in the Renaissance. Copying from earlier works of art played a central role in the workshops and art academies, from the Renaissance to the beginning of the twentieth century. Known for his extensive contributions to the theory and practice of drawing in the work of Leonardo da Vinci, and for his critical edition of Willem Goeree’s Inleydinge tot de Al-ghemeene Teycken-Konst (1670), Kwakkelstein here offers a highly useful summary of the subject. He takes into account the new medium of prints which greatly enriched the opportunities for artistic training by enlarging the repertoire of models and forms to be copied. In the second part of his essay, Kwakkelstein gives a vivid account of the speed with which prints travelled – from north to south, and vice-versa – and the eagerness with which they were studied and copied.
Volker Manuth discusses Rubens’s drawings iconographically and places them within the context of more or less contemporary images of Death: by Goltzius, Rembrandt, Jan Lievens, Frans Francken II, and, above all, Stefano della Bella. (those of the latter, in the Albertina, constitute, like Rubens’s drawings, a series of copies after Holbein). It is worth noting that Manuth is also the author of the interesting essay, “Zum Nachleben der Werke Hans Holbeins d. J. in der holländischen Malerei und Grafik des 17. Jahrhunderts,” which appeared in the proceedings of the 1997 Holbein symposium in Basel (to be reviewed). It should be remembered that the Basel Dance of Death, known today not least through the etchings of Matthäus Merian the Elder, was in Holbein’s day still in its original location: the cemetery walls of the Dominican monastery in Basel. Holbein must have been intimately familiar with the great freso cycle (c.1440; sometimes attributed to Konrad Witz) since his daily walk home to his house in the Basel suburb of St Johann’s led him past the cemetery. Thus it is all the more surprising that neither his Images of Death nor Alphabet of Deathcontains even a single figure from the famous frescoes. Here it might be of interest to mention a recent exhibition catalogue from Wolfenbüttel, which of course could not have been known to Manuth: “Ihr müsst alle nach meiner Pfeife tanzen”. Totentänze vom 15. bis 20. Jahrhundert aus den Beständen der Herzog-August-Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel und der Bibliothek Otto Schäfer Schweinfurt, Wiesbaden, 2001 (see also below: New Titles).
The young Rubens did not only draw after Holbein. As Kristin Belkin demonstrates, slightly later date his copies after the prints of Tobias Stimmer, Jost Amman, Hendrick Goltzius and Hans Weiditz. With the exception of Weiditz, a contemporary of Dürer, these are artists of the second half of the sixteenth century. With the copies after Stimmer, the author returns to a subject first introduced by her in the 1984 Basel exhibition catalogue, Spätrenaissance am Oberrhein: Tobias Stimmer.She now considers the mostly German origin as well as protestant content of Rubens’s models in the context of his own upbringing in Germany. Moreover, she places these copies within the wider range of Rubens’s copying activities, citing examples from sculpture, such as the antique Torso Belvedere and a small female bronze statuette by Conrad Meit (both seen in the exhibition), as well as his later practice of retouching other artists’s drawings, as shown in Antwerp at hand of an anonymous copy of a Young Boy with a Cornucopia (from Berlin) after Mantegna’s Bacchanal with a Vat. Copying from the works of others remained an activity Rubens pursued throughout his life. As far as it served the collector’s passion, this activity was later augmented by the real thing, so to speak, i.e. an extensive collection of paintings, drawings, and antique sculpture and artifacts.
Though copying today has acquired rather negative connotations, it is worth noting, as Kristin Belkin does, that many of the greatest artists made copies, and did so throughout their careers. Of the approximately 1,250 known drawings by Cézanne, around 400 go back to works by earlier artists (see Gertrude Berthold, Cézanne und die alten Meister,Stuttgart, 1958; Paul Cézanne, Skulpturenzeichnungen, cat. exh. Glyptothek, Munich, 1994). It is not enough to be surrounded by photographic or digital reproductions; an artist needs to absorb his/her model. In the mid-1930s, when Alberto Giacometti found himself in a creative crisis which eventually led to the abandonment of his surrealistic sculptures, he started to work again from the model – a frowned upon enterprise at the time. In turning to older art forms, he discovered a reality envisioned, transformed and, ultimately, defined by another artist (on this see Dieter Koepplin, Warum kopierte Alberto Giacometti ältere Kunst? Publication on the occasion of the exhibition Neuerwerbungen und Geschenke, Kupferstich-kabinett Basel, 1995). From the perspective of the twenty-first century, Rubens’s copies acquire yet another dimension. In Giacometti’s words: “For years I have known that copying is the best method to truly recognize and understand that which I see.” Not least through the seeing of others do we gain a vocabulary of seeing.
(Translated from the German by KLB)