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Neglected for hundreds of years, Grunewald has now been recognised as a master. The passion and intensity of his work gives powerful impact to his paintings, all with religious themes.
Grunewald is an isolated figure in the history of German art. His very individual style of painting betrays no close allegiance to any of the masters of his age, he left no known pupils or followers, and his descent into obscurity was both rapid and complete. When, in 1597, Emperor Rudolph II tried to acquire The Isenheim Altarpiece, the artist's identity was already unknown and, as late as 1852, The Miracle of the Snows was sold at a derisory price as a mediocre work by an anonymous artist.
One theory put forward to explain this neglect is that contemporary observers deliberately ignored Grunewald because of his Lutheran beliefs. Much more significant, however, was the fact that most unusually for this period he produced little or no engraved work. In an age when travel was not always easy and few people might, for example, be willing to risk a visit to a plague hospital where The Isenheim Altarpiece was sited to see a work of art, this drastically reduced the scope of his influence.
In addition, Grunewald chose not to devote his studies to the new world of possibilities that was being opened up by the Renaissance. His art was firmly centered on God, not man. The small body of his surviving work is comprised entirely of religious paintings, even though it is clear from his depiction of Cardinal Albrecht as St Erasmus that he could have made a healthy living as a portraitist. Certainly, he was aware of some of the technical developments achieved by the Italians the laws of perspective and anatomy, in particular but he used them only as minor components in his pictures.
Most of Grunewald's commissions were for altarpieces. By the late Gothic period, these had become complex but adaptable structures, in which the movable panels enclosed sculpted figures and were crowned with richly carved canopies. The painted sections included folding wings, which could be opened or shut to suit the liturgical cycle of church feasts, and a detachable panel at the foot of the picture, called a predella.
The Isenheim Altarpiece was one of the most elaborate examples of this format ever produced. The inner section, with its statues of saints by Niklaus von Haguenau, was executed quite independently from Grunewald's contribution. His work consisted of various panels including a double set of folding wings, which allowed three separate combinations of pictures to be shown at different times of year. Thus, the altarpiece would be closed during Easter week, when the bleak Crucifixion symbolized the church's mourning; was opened for most of the year, to show the joyous scenes of the Annunciation and the Resurrection; and displayed the final variant, with incidents from the life of St Anthony, on the feast day of the Order's patron saint.
The status of artists at this time was that of craftsmen, rather than of creative individuals. Patrons and especially religious patrons would choose the subjects to be illustrated and would often sketch out a plan of the composition. Within these restraints, however, Grunewald found a great deal of freedom to produce his unique brand of expressive realism. 'A barbarian and a theologian', one commentator called him, neatly identifying the contradictory strands of his art.
Certain Gothic elements remained in Grunewald's work. The use of a larger-than-life Christ in scenes of the Passion was a distinctly medieval feature, and the presence of John the Baptist at the Isenheim Crucifixion and the curious angelic orchestra serenading the Virgin, proved that these were contemplative works rather than naturalistic illustrations of Biblical events.
However, Grunewald allied these intellectual compositions to an unprecedented show of realism, in a bid to tie emotional and rational responses into a firm bond of faith. To this end, he made use of expressionistic distortions to heighten the graphic power of his paintings. In his Crucifixions, for example, Christ's feet are stretched into a deformed arc; the fingers claw convulsively at the surrounding blackness; and the flesh is livid, discoloured and flecked with thorny wounds. The rough-surfaced beam of the cross is slightly curved and the arms of Christ painfully rigid, so that the body looks like a helpless arrow on a giant bow.
An even more potent weapon in Grunewald's artistic armoury was his vibrant colouring, which could evoke the full gamut of human emotions, from the depths of despair to the glory of the sublime. In all his versions of the Crucifixion, he employed dark, sketchy backgrounds and pallid, bloodless figures, setting them off with patches of incandescent colour, to create an eerie, mournful effect.
By contrast, his scenes of the Madonna and Child and the Annunciation glow with a luminous joy, and the Isenheim Resurrection is a particular triumph. In most contemporary treatments of this theme, Christ steps sedately out of his tomb without waking the sleeping soldiers. In Grunewald's version, however, the Saviour's Resurrection and his Ascension are combined in an explosion of light. The guards are hurled aside like worthless dummies and Christ ascends to Heaven encircled by a halo whose rainbow colours are reflected in his clothes.
Artists usually prepared their own paints at this period, and were careful not to divulge their methods. In later life, Grunewald was obliged to sell his paints for a brief time and it is a measure of the quality of his colours that, after his death in Halle, the city's official artist, Hans Hamburger, was called in to analyze them. Unfortunately, he was unable to work out the formula and the secret died with Grunewald.
Attempts have been made to find an echo of Grunewald's individual style in the paintings of his contemporaries of the Danube school. But the violence of Grunewald's effects leaves them far behind and it is no accident that his work was rediscovered in the 20th century, during the heyday of the German Expressionists.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish