Post-Renaissance

John Haber
in New York City

Hendrick Goltzius and Willem van Tetrode

Not everyone has heard of Hendrick Goltzius, but his works have a way of looking awfully familiar. No doubt they should, for they include trademark images of the late Renaissance. One recognizes those bulging muscles and ostentatious foreshortening. One recognizes that challenge to sculpture on its home turf. They include as well late drawings that foreshadow a new style and a century to come. One knows them from their influence on the great age of Dutch painting.

Yet the most familiar works of all may lie elsewhere. They may be precisely the prints that one never expected and probably never knew. Where, I kept asking, have I seen that? And then it hit me. No, wait: where did Goltzius see that? Hendrick Goltzius's Four Studies of Hands (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, c. 1588–1589)

Goltzius sopped up art the way people now watch TV. In his incessant recycling of the past, his show at the Met seems almost contemporary. So does his attention to mundane detail in the present. Meanwhile, the Frick exhibits bronzes with even more bulges, by a major influence, Willem van Tetrode. Together, Goltzius and Tetrode help sort out that perplexing period called Mannerism.

Almost from its birth, historians have debated whether Mannerism, like Postmodernism now, brings anything new. Indeed, they have questioned whether those labels means anything at all. What does one call art this self-aware and this full of tricks? How does one deal with an art so eager to extend the recent past well past its useful life? Instead of the late Renaissance or the antithesis of the Renaissance, one might well call Mannerism the Post-Renaissance—and, Jerry Saltz and Peter Schjeldahl would add, art as Neo-Mannerism today.

Renaissance art as luxury goods

The recycling bin opens right at the start. In 1578, just turned 20, Goltzius tackles four engravings on the story of Lucretia. The subject alone indicates the young man's divided sympathies. Lucretia chose death over dishonor, after her rape by Tarquin, the Etruscan king. She became an emblem of female virtue, and she also spurred rebellion and the first Roman republic. Yet her story also comes with more than enough excuses for the privileges of power and command—for eating, drinking, sex, and violence.

Goltzius's prints definitely sit in the lap of luxury. He packs in more fun and games than his imagined rooms could ever hold. Were that not enough, he takes advantage of an illogical leap in perspective. It overwhelms the senses quite by itself, while adding background scenes for still more creature comforts. Sound familiar? To any art historian halfway aware of feminism, it should. Only ten years before, Titian had given the same tale of rape a particularly lush female nude.

Goltzius, however, piles it on as the High Renaissance master never would. Besides the crowds and the broken perspective, he is showing off in another way as well. He poses his nude after Titian, and the long diagonal table in his banquet scene comes right out of Tintoretto's Last Supper. And what in the world are people doing in that back room, at yet another dining table? Mostly, they are quoting the Supper at Emmaus, almost exactly as painted by Titian or by an earlier Venetian artist and teacher, Giovanni Bellini.

Ready for the fun part? Goltzius had never seen any of this work, at least in the original. Unlike Jan Gossart, he had not yet gone to Italy even once. With the burgeoning market for prints, the glories of the Renaissance could become the standard for all. He, in turn, works in a reproducible medium. He is making prints after prints. He wants at once to disseminate and control his product, as a luxury itself.

No wonder he offers such steamy virtuosity. To sell the work at a premium, he had better add value.

Woodcuts have often served as folk art, raised surfaces ready for inking and printing, broad in style and affordable by all. In his Renaissance prints, Albrecht Dürer's skilled naturalism left all that far behind. Dürer's woodcuts could almost pass for engravings—designs inscribed in metal rather than coaxed out of the more resistant wood block. His engravings, in turn, could nearly pass for a more pliant medium still, etching. There, an acid does the dirty work of cutting into metal, once the artist traces his design freely into a soft, protective wax layer. Goltzius, in contrast, will not let his hard work vanish into the illusion of nature.

Prints for a prince

Prints after prints for princes—it sounds much like art since Andy Warhol. Goltzius intends to match Dürer's virtuosity, but he will not let his patrons forget it either. His inked lines swell and die. They give his prints a metallic sheen, almost like the printing plate itself, not unlike the oil colors of that period by Joos van Cleve and others. They give his work a heightened awareness of his own quotations.

Today, as then, one ponders "the work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction." One sees a turn from consciousness to self-consciousness as well. Mannerism claimed and challenged the heritage of the Renaissance, much as Postmodernism does with the heritage of Modernism. One of its originators, Parmigianino, also numbered among the first Italian painters to make prints after his own work. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, one cannot always tell where reverence ends and where parody begins. Art challenges the culture of art, its place in the broader culture, and its labels.

Mannerism stuck as a put-down, style as opposed to substance. In this century, however, historians began to see vividly its conflicts and agonies, starting from late works of Michelangelo and Raphael themselves. Andrea del Sarto, to Robert Browning the "faultless painter," can look sinister to modern eyes, and El Greco or Rosso Fiorentino can look struck by lightning. Still more recently, historians have stressed the very continuity in which sixteenth-century artists, such as Lorenzo Lotto or Jacob Bassano, took such pride. To make things worse, all accounts of the Renaissance begin with Giorgio Vasari for Italy and, for northern Europe, Karl van Mander—two Mannerists.

Last year, the Met looked at Artemisia Gentileschi in light of her father, Orazio Gentileschi. While only five years younger than Goltzius, Orazio lived to see the Baroque in its full flowering. The pairing of father and daughter helped one to see the continuities and discontinuities as Mannerism gave way. One could trace more clearly the changes in surface and style. I would not attempt here to repeat all that I hoped to learn.

This year's shows help focus on Mannerism in its heyday. They help place it in relation to its past rather than the future. One can see better what it contributed and what it was unwilling to leave behind, like Guido Cagnacci a century later. One can see it better in relation to politics and patronage as well. Goltzius is caught in an age of empires, between the papal states and city states of the early Renaissance and the nation states of the future. Think again of Lucretia and the artist's divided loyalties.

He yearns for a republic himself and for still-emerging middle-class virtues. Holland had a long way to go in its war of independence from Spain, and Goltzius's prints pay tribute to its hero, William of Orange. In drawings of his peers and in a 1591 self-portrait, one recognizes the sharp eyes, modest expression, and white ruffed collars of later portraiture—by Rembrandt or Frans Hals, for example. Yet he works largely for the German nobility, with its transnational ambitions and with its habits of excess. Years after Lucretia's banquet scenes, he repeats several times the title Love Grows Cold Without Food and Wine. Perhaps the Renaissance must grow cold then, too.

The battle of the bulge

Goltzius will confront his contradictions and move on, I promise, but the Frick shows change in the air a generation before him. Born in 1525, Willem van Tetrode had a knack for reproduction, too. Like Antico more than a generation before in Mantua, the sculptor perfected a system that allowed multiple molds—and so multiple casts—from the same full-scale model. Scholars may not always know what he cast when or, indeed, what he cast himself. Posthumous casts show a coarsening of the musculature and less tense faces. Tetrode's career thus challenges the idea of authenticity while making correct attribution an imperative.

Wonderfully, the Frick challenges visitors to decide for themselves. A small room gives clear details on the casting method and its results. The small bronze figures then make excellent use of the interior garden court, and labels spell out the uncertainties rather than a curator's false assurances. As so often, the Met takes an easier route. It puts out engraving tools without explanation, like a decaying art-supply store. Its wall labels are long on compliments, but one would never learn, for example, the conflicts and allegiances behind that memorial to William of Orange. Willem van Tetrode's Hercules Pomarius (Hearn Family Trust, c. 1562–1572)

At the Frick, one can see clearly a strong though little-known personality, like another Renaissance sculptor in bronze, Andrea Riccio. I had never heard of him, and I can see why. He carries the preciousness of Mannerist sculpture, like that of Benvenuto Cellini, to the breaking point. Still, one can see someone obsessed with the Renaissance while heading off in another direction.

Tetrode did know Italy at first hand. From works by Donatello, in the early 1500s, through Michelangelo, he knows male nudes, heightened drama, twisting poses, and exaggerated—or ambivalent—sexuality. He pushes all of these to their limits, as befits his elite audience. At the same time, he exchanges sculptural values for visual ones. In the process, he helps advance the dominance of visual illusion and a single point of view. In fact, he derives these from the three dimensions of sculpture.

He creates work more fully in the round than before. However, instead of a continuous mass, one perceives striking single views as one circles the work, like a series of planes arranged in space. Similarly, he shows off his knowledge of anatomy, emphasizing every tiny muscle in a group. Not having dissected anyone recently, I can only trust his veracity, but I also know that a real body builder puffs up larger muscles above all. Paradoxically, the tiny masses dissolve the whole into a diaphanous surface, like the ripples in Op Art. To undermine sculptural gravity all the more, he distends his figures slightly, and he likes to have one wrestler lift the other off the ground.

The Met hardly mentions Tetrode, perhaps fearing to compete with this exhibition. It prefers to mention other Mannerists who influenced Goltzius, such as Marcantonio Raimondi and Bartholemeus Spranger. Nonetheless, one readily sees the connection. Early prints borrow Tetrode's striding, twisted poses and those ridiculous muscles. In one of his most famous prints, Goltzius shows Phaeton in his fall, punished for driving his father's chariot too near the sun. As he tumbles to his death, Phaeton offers one last boast—that a single print can match every one of sculpture's visions in the round.

Portraits of nature

Goltzius does not rest with that boast either. Yes, he remains the Mannerist. As with his conflicting loyalties, he retreats from his own gambles and draws back from his own feelings. One may not ever meet up with him in school, perhaps just as well. He generally misses the cut for surveys of the Northern Renaissance, and he turns up in Baroque surveys largely as an influence—or a foil. Still, he continues to grow, and he continues to muddle Mannerism's view of its own past.

One sees it even when he quotes Tetrode. The older man's Hercules comes across as something between a superman, a male model, a madman, and a bully. Goltzius prefers a comic swagger. He offers the warm, slightly dimwitted smile of a Dutchman on the way from a hard day's labor to a tavern.

His humanism only intensifies when he visits Rome at last. He sketches sculpture above all, from antiquities to Michelangelo's Moses. In the process, he simplifies his own life studies. In effect, he reverses the course of anatomy under Tetrode.

His color range widens and becomes more natural as well. Earlier he used chiaroscuro woodcuts to dissolve the surface, again like Mannerist sculpture. This method permits different layers of color wash, rather than simple black and white. It de-emphasizes solid forms and settled appearance in favor of hard, sometimes acrid tints. However, later studies in colored chalk have brighter, primary tones and a sketchier tonality. His last prints have thinner lines and a less metallic tone.

The trip also brings out his natural sympathy for ordinary creatures. Children preserve a dignity all their own, as neither unformed beings nor miniature adults. His sketch of a monkey shows a real body, with a real mind, lost in captivity. Eve seems less a temptress or a fool than like a vulnerable woman who loves her husband even after his Fall.

He sketches some of the first true landscapes ever—up close, on the spot, without myth or excuse. In The Art of Describing, Svetlana Alpers took them as emblems of a new Dutch art. She saw an impulse to map the world, with bird's-eye views and cityscapes. Yet at the Met one sees something closer to portraiture, only now of trees. The universal perspective matters, as for Alpers, but it has to manifest itself in individuals—whether Hercules, children, animals, or the places they inhabit.

Drawing itself

In sum, he edges toward Gian Lorenzo Bernini and the Baroque. Call it the Renaissance or not at this point. Still, as with Postmodernism now, irony is dead, and long live irony.

Walter Friedlaender, the art historian, called the first glimmerings of the Baroque "Anti-Mannerism." Goltzius's host in Italy, Federico Barocci, actually plays a key role in that change of heart. In his final prints, Goltzius plays his part, too. Mary and the angel of the Annunciation share a small, coherent space and an intimacy again like portraiture. Then again, these works may reflect Mannerism's contributions all along. Friedlaender speaks of the Baroque's new "secularization of the transcendental," but that theme already lurks as one among a struggling artist's divided loyalties.

Suddenly, at the height of his powers, Goltzius drops prints for good. He gets too pleased with his growing humanism—not to mention with his income statement. For the new century and for more than the last decade of his life, he aspires to painting and painting alone. Oddly enough, it comes with a giant step backward, to his roots. His fans, including the Met, call these his greatest triumphs, akin to a young Peter Paul Rubens. I am not buying.

The odes to debauchery return, along with coppery colors closer to an early model, Lucas van Leyden, than to Barocci. His interlaced couples never rest on firm ground. One painting cuts them off before their ankles. Another goes back to an earlier print. The woman sprawls half on the ground and half on her lover, with a little left over for nowhere at all. I could not hold her pose for fifteen seconds.

Maybe it serves him right. I would not want Goltzius without the contradictions of his time. He ends, only fairly, as the same knowledgeable guy and virtuoso performer. Remarkably, he became both despite a painfully deformed right hand. He lost full movement in childhood, after injury in a fire.

Characteristically, he drew his own right hand more than once—warmly, accurately, and dispassionately. Characteristically, too, the sketch calls attention to its skill in more ways than one. That hand could not sit for its own portrait: he worked with it. Does this sound curiously like M. C. Escher's hand drawing itself, or should I say an awareness of drawing itself? Call it Post-Renaissance after all.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Hendrick Goltzius, Dutch Master" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Willem van Tetrode's bronze sculptures at The Frick Collection, both through September 7, 2003.

 

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