This guest blog article is by Jamie Deangelo.
If you ever wanted to see an unflattering portrait of Charles V or know what a 15th century indulgence looks like, here’s your chance to find out. Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, is on view at the Blanton Museum of Art now through January 5, 2014.
This exhibition takes up four rooms and features about 100 woodcut prints and engravings, as well as a few coins and two small helmets. The artworks on display come from 15th century Augsburg, an imperial free city and one of the centers of the German print boom. The show highlights some of the biggest names of the Northern Renaissance like Albrect Durer and Hans Holbein, but also exhibits images from lesser-known printmakers like Hans Burglemair, Leonhard Beck, Hans Schaufelein, and the impressively named Erhard Ratdolt.
The show catches the moment of transition when German artists, after exposure to the works of the Italian Renaissance, stop drawing what they imagined things should look like and started depicting what they really saw. As the artists struggle to shift from a two-dimensional world of lines to a three-dimensional world of light and shadow, they leave behind many experiments. Some are wildly successful, some a bit more awkward and funny.
Hans Burglemair’s Christ on the Cross with St. John from 1491 is a great example of this. You can feel the artist struggling to detail what the figures really look like, as he jettisons previously safe conventions of depiction to work in a more naturalistic way. Not everything in the image is successful. For example, the loincloth of Burglemair’s Christ defies gravity. The crisp materials puff out dramatically on either side of the holy thighs, looking goofily out of place and a little like an awkwardly tied diaper.
Daniel Hopfer’s portrait of Charles V is another fun example of the rough transition from formula to observation. Even though Charles V is notoriously ugly, Hopfer doesn’t shy away from depicting every inch of him: the bulging eyes, potato nose, and famous Habsburg underbite.
Even though most of these prints are smaller than an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, these experimental printmakers at Augsburg pack in a lot of different stories: lovers surprised by demons, hairy forest monsters attacking knights, virgins sacrificing themselves to preserve their innocence, saints, cityscapes, jousting matches, siege weaponry, and angels holding up the sudarium (a cloth early Christians believed Jesus used to wipe his face).
These scenes are both holy and depraved, both biblical and secular, and there’s a reason. This is a world still quaking from the Protestant Reformation and the beginning of capitalism. These artists have one foot in modernity and one in the archaic stories of a chivalrous and Christian past. Their images are infused with both elements.
This world owes much to Maximillian I (1493-1519), a Holy Roman Emperor and devout Catholic who nevertheless knew that religious tolerance was good for business. Max I oversaw much of the artistic and commercial development in Augsburg and patronized many of its artists.
One of his commissions on display is a nearly 8 foot long print by Albrect Durer. It shows the emperor sitting in a fancy chariot on parade, surrounded by a procession of ladies in very clingy drapery. Speech bubbles above the women proclaim Max I’s virtues: he’s charitable, pious, and noble. Lettering at the top states in German: “What the sun is to heaven, the emperor is on earth.”
There are other equally silly depictions of the imagined histories of Max I. Daniel Hopfer draws him as St. George the dragon-slayer. Another print chronicles his altar-ego as Theuerdank, a magical knight. Such images are an interesting look back at the convoluted standards of legitimacy that governed late medieval Europe.
What the exhibition really documents well, though, is the love affair between 15th century metalworkers and that almighty liquid of history, ink.
Most the first printmakers in Augsburg were metalworkers, skilled in the art of decorating armor and weapons. Stirred by the lure of new technology, they transformed their engraving skills into printmaking skills. They taught themselves how to catch ink, to spread and contain it, to force it to selectively bleed, to layer it into dense patterns.
As interesting and provocative as the narratives behind these images might be, what translates the best across time is the incredible craft practices that many printmakers today would be hard-pressed to duplicate (and that even computer algorithms still can’t quite capture perfectly).
Go see the Augsburg show for the wacky stories about saints, hairy forest monsters, and wayward monks. Stay for the oceans of aquatint, the forests of cross-hatching, the corridors of half-tones. In fact, fall into them—it’s a pretty fantastic journey.
Jamie DeAngelo teaches art history in Austin, TX. She likes paintings of robots, science museums, and high-speed trains.
Cover photo via Flickr CC, courtesy of Jim Nix from Nomadic Pursuits.