“Make no small plans,” proclaimed architect Daniel Burnham, and he proceeded to develop the master plan for the city of Chicago. That could be the watchword for Till-Holger Borchert; his massive exhibitions in Bruges have recast the interaction of all Europe with the ars nova of the fifteenth-century Netherlands. His memorable first foray studied Van Eyck and the Mediterranean (2002), and now he surveys the diffusion of Netherlandish models – here sparked mostly by Rogier van der Weyden – across Central Europe, broadly defined.
This point has long been acknowledged; Borchert himself starts with a quotation from 1879 by Schnaase. But except for some notable instances of close influence, such as Hans Holbein the Elder in early sixteenth-century Augsburg (first studied by Baldass in 1928, most recently by Katharina Krause in 2002), the larger question has not been revisited for many years. Notably, Borchert’s catalogue includes significant illustrated sections of loans that go well beyond the usual Germano-centrism to encompass points farther east accompanied by introductions: Austria (Arthur Saliger); Bohemia (Olga Kotková); Silesia (Antoni Ziemba); Poland (Malgorzata Kochanowksa); and Hungary (Gyöngi Török). But Germany is not slighted, either. Successive regions receive close attention. All-important neighbor and archdiocese, Cologne, is covered by Julian Chapuis. Borchert himself discusses Franconia (HNA members will also want to know that Robert Suckale’s opus, Die Erneuerung der Malkunst vor Dürer, not yet reviewed, appeared last year). Another crucial region, Westphalia, is analyzed by Stephan Kemperdick, fresh from his own magisterial exhibition of Flémalle/Van der Weyden (2008-09). Bavaria is discussed by Matthias Weniger; Swabia and the great artery of the Upper Rhine by Anna Mohrat-Fromm.
Another important aspect of the exhibition is its consideration of media other than painting: drawings (discussed by Guido Messling), sculptures in varied materials, manuscript folios. The influence of prints as intermediaries (discussed by Christof Metzger, fresh from his own brilliant show on Hopfer), and the travels of individual artists facilitated this geographical exchange, far more than the pan-Mediterranean influences that formed the focus of the previous Bruges exhibition. And the terminus of the exhibition emerges appropriately from the return visit to the Netherlands by draftsman/printmaker/ painter Albrecht Dürer in 1520/21.
To set up the major themes of the exhibition and to stitch the regional sections together, Borchert commissioned a book-within-a-book of essays. Borchert begins with a vivid sketch of the pictorial innovations of illusionism, which diffused outwards from the Van Eyck brothers. Equally important (but less visible in the works on display), sculpted retables are surveyed by Reinhard Karrenbrock in a beautifully illustrated essay that features intact works from Central Europe (Sweden, not included, became another major region for exported works from Brussels; cf. Sophie Guillot de Suduiraut). Then Kemperdick surveys the crucial “First Generation” in German-speaking countries (Witz, Moser, et al., including in Bavaria Gabriel Angler, the former Master of the Tegernsee Tabula Magna; cf. Helmut Möhring).
Occupying the crucial center of influence for Germany, the art of Rogier van der Weyden is ably, if briefly, discussed by Antje-Fee Köllerman. Cologne properly receives its due, but early, almost simultaneous adherents also included Friedrich Herlin in Nördlingen (1462), the Master of the Sterzing Altarpiece in Tyrol (1458), and Hans Pleydenwurff from Nuremberg but painting in Wroclaw/Breslau (1462; no. 212) and in the familiar Hof Altarpiece (1465). But the transmission of Netherlandish ideas also traveled widely through the mediation of Martin Schongauer’s prints, discussed for “Central Eastern Europe” by Ingrid Ciulisová.
In terms of the increased opportunities for travel by individuals during the fifteenth century, a few key artists should have been stressed further, notably Michael Sittow from Reval/Talinn in Estonia, even though he already appeared in the earlier exhibition, since his travels through Bruges carried him all the way to the court of Isabella in Spain before he returned to his home town. In this volume Sittow is represented only by a lone portrait (no. 96; the not-especially-typical man’s head in the Mauritshuis, whose attribution has been doubted on several occasions). So once more the artist falls between geographical stools, even though he is the one foreign painter whose work demonstrably derives from direct exposure in Bruges to the template of Hans Memling. But his value for the wider point of the exhibition is indisputable, if muted in execution.
Moreover, the final map in the volume, while helpful, shows only overland routes, whereas surely many of the linkages between cities in the late Middle Ages followed sea lanes – particularly the well-plied trade routes of the Hanseatic League. Through those maritime links Bruges and the Netherlands reached across the Baltic to Reval (Sittow), Gdansk (where Memling’s Last Judgment Altarpiece arrived through piracy), and Lübeck (where Memling’s Greverade Altarpiece reached its permanent home).
Though not placed at the end of the essay section, a very stimulating essay by Juliane von Fircks, “Nuremberg to Antwerp and Back,” carries the history into the early sixteenth century and really considers the rich exchange, still to be explored more fully, of regions that were then peers in the post-Dürer generation that included, among others, Baldung and Holbein on one side and Gossaert and Lucas van Leyden on the other. But that topic signals the opportunity for yet another great Borchert exhibition!
It is a cliché of reviews like this that space does not permit proper discussion of either the catalogue or the visual discoveries on the walls. But easy truths are magnified in the exhibitions by Till-Holger Borchert, which – as was already proved by the 2002 Mediterranean concept – can justly be seen as enduring and seminal.
University of Pennsylvania