The first words in this major new monograph devoted to Johann Liss state the problem: he is, “a painter about whose life almost nothing is known. No documents exist pertaining to his birth and eduaction, his travels and living quarters, the people he met and the patrons for whom he worked . . . Only a small oeuvre remains . . . which took shape over a period of around fifteen years and which distinguishes Liss as an important painter.” And so freedom of interpretation may reign, as difficult to prove as to disprove. Born in northern Germany, Liss left early for the Northern Netherlands, then probably lived briefly in Antwerp and Paris, before spending the rest of his short life in Italy; he led, according to Sandrart who knew him in Venice, a seriously dissolute vie de bohème; he had neither wife nor pupil, and he died mysteriously in a soldiers’ hospital on the outskirts of Verona. His life has all the ingredients necessary for a vivid historical novel; in fact a short story has been written about his last days in Venice.
But let it be quickly said that Rüdiger Klessmann has resisted any such temptation. His book, combining a monograph and a catalogue raisonné, is the result of over thirty years meditation about the artist, and it brings together his own research and that of others in what must be regarded as a definitive assessment of this intriguing if tantalising artist as can be made at the present time. It totally supercedes Kurt Steinbart’s monograph of 1940, written, as Klessmann points out, from a ludicrously nationalistic standpoint, and indulging in some serious misconceptions of the artist. As Klessmann says, it was the comprehensive exhibition devoted to Liss, held in Augsburg and Cleveland in 1975, which gave the impetus to a new approach to the artist, and a revived awareness of what fine artist he is.
Liss may have become an honorary Venetian, it is not surprising that his art was much admired there in the eighteenth century, but he remained very much his own man. It is a tribute to his individuality and the quality of his painting that in the course of time, especially during his period of neglect in the nineteenth century, his works have been attributed to artists of the calibre of Rubens, Jordaens, Velazquez as well as to a number of others such as Domenico Fetti.
Liss’ earliest known painting, A Painter in her Studio, in the Institut Collectie Nederland, Amsterdam, redolent of the style of Dirck Hals, is so unlike anything else he painted that without the evidence of a reproductive engraving it would surely have remained unidentified. Thereafter we can recognize Liss’ personal touch with the brush, whatever the stage of his short career. It is a feature of Klessmann’s detailed study of the individual works to pinpoint his very varied sources, which are indebted to a wide range of Dutch, Flemish, German, Venetian and Roman artists. Yet his paintings clearly demonstrate that his artistic personality was sufficiently robust to absorb and recreate in a way that we recognize as his alone.
In assessing the extent of his oeuvre, one fundamental question about his practice as a painter had to be faced. Because of the quality, as well as the number, of copies after paintings by Liss, Steinbart had conceived the idea that the artist himself was responsible for many of these; that, excpetionally for his time, he was an artist given to making replicas of his own work. There is no evidence for such a theory, which, in the concluding chapter, is firmly put to rest by Klessmann. The latter accepts only the repetition, with minor variations, of the Pommersfelden Toilet of Venus now in the Uffizi as being by Liss himself.
Klessmann’s study of the drawings has led to a reinterpretation of their function. Notable for their finish and pictorial style, reflecting the qualities of his pictures, they have often been considered as ricordirather than preparatory studies. Once again evidence for such a practice is lacking, and Klessmann sees much more variety or purpose in the artist’s approach to drawing, more in line with other artists of the period.
As a result of his meticulous examination of each work, Klessmann has successfully purified and redefined Liss’ oeuvre. By his count, this number 34 paintings, 21 drawings and two etchings. (As a testament to his surgery, he appends a list of no less than 38 rejected works, which had been accepted either by Steinbart or by other recent scholars.) Very well produced, with every painting illustrated in colour, the book allows the reader to get a feeling and understanding of this highly individualistic artist, whose work, as Rudolf Wittkower once wrote, “opens up a vista on the future of European painting.”