Sunday, February 22, 2015

Bartholomeus Spranger: Splendor and Eroticism in Imperial Prague

What a title and the show at the Metropolitan Museum totally lived up to it.  Unfortunately, I saw the show in its last week but I want to tell you about it anyway.

Bartholomeus Spranger , was born in Antwerp in 1546 and died in Prague in 1611 and this is the first monographic exhibition dedicated to him, which is surprising when you realize what a great artist he was.  We always hear of the artists that were not appreciated in their own time, however, Spranger was celebrated and then forgotten. He was not an overnight success, however.  When he went to Milan he thought that clients would flock to him but they did not. Then he had the bad luck of having a colleague steal what little money he had so he took the hint and left!  He lived in Rome for a decade and worked under the patronage of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese and Pope Pius V appointed him as Court painter in 1570.  The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II summoned him to Vienna where he arrived in 1576 but unfortunately the Emperor died soon thereafter.  He had the good fortune that Maximilian’s successor, Rudolf II, also wanted Spranger’s services and appointed him Court painter in 1581.  He moved to Prague where the Holy Roman Emperor was then situated and worked there until he died.

The guest curator of this amazing show was Sally Metzler and she was able to get loans from 14 countries.  Interestingly, she states in her introduction that she “met” Spranger in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.  One of the pictures that caught her eye took me by surprise in the exhibition.  It is a very small picture without wall power in the usual sense.  But when you get close to this small copper representing “The Lamentation of Christ” that Spranger painted for Maximilian in 1576 it jumps out at you as if it were 3 dimensional.  Unfortunately, it does not come off as such in an illustration but take my word for it.  It is luminous and in a non-sexual way it is a very sensuous image.  Spranger is a great Mannerist artist and the twisted figure of Christ is certainly a fine example of the style.

Rudolf II was not a very successful politician and his enemies blamed his antics and interest in the occult and the arts for bringing the Empire into the Thirty Years War.  His love of the arts, however, gave rise to a surge of creativity at his court and Spranger might be said to have led the way.  The Emperor commissioned a great deal of erotic art and Spranger was a master in that area.  Possibly the sexiest image in the show, though there are a number to choose from, is a large image of “Jupiter and Antiope” 1595-97 from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.  Jupiter is holding Antiope under her arm and around her breast while Antiope caresses Jupiter’s leg.  This is a time long before the ideal woman became anorexic and therefore there is plenty of flesh for the artist to embellish on.

I want to share with you Ariella Budick’s introduction in the Financial Times to her review of the Spranger show, “Imagine a 16th-century version of an adult website, with lithe bodies tangled in impossibly acrobatic poses, lissome limbs, lustrous flesh, supple skin, all elaborately arranged in dances of erotic abandon."

In an extremely erotic image borrowed from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Satyr Mason pulls back the curtain on Venus who is in an extremely suggestive position.  Mason has dropped a string, a plumb line, between her legs, which swings back and forth and up and down in a metaphor for intercourse.  The Metropolitan Museum was kind enough to supply the other images but this one was reproduced by me from the catalog.

Spranger drew and doodled on every surface he could find and was a natural draughtsman as well as a print maker.  The 380 page catalog that accompanies the show by Dr. Metzler is not only a catalog raisonnĂ© of the paintings but also the drawings, etchings and related engravings.

The most impressive installation in the show is an entire wall representing a Kunstkammer.   Although a kunstkammer is literally an art room it included wonders of nature as well as of man.  It is what preceded the museum in the wealthy families of the court.  All sorts of  curiosities could be found there often including scientific instruments.  The Met has recreated a kunstkammer on a single wall showing paintings and drawings by Spranger along with bird taxidermies and skeletons.  Rudolf II had a lathe workshop in Prague Castle where he made turned objects himself, so the technical feat of an ivory turned in the form of a crooked standing cup is also included.

Reviewing it here I keep wishing it would still be up.  A bit like seeing a play that you can’t go back to.

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