On Sunday, March 8, the Exhibition, Hans Baldung Grien: Heilig | Unheilig (Hans Baldung Grien: Sacred | Profane) was closing at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe. It was the first monographic exhibition on the artist to take place for sixty years, when Karlsruhe hosted the last such exhibition. As exhibitors at TEFAF Maastricht, we took the opportunity to see it before the opening of the fair. Little did we know, as we squeezed into a small rented car and headed for the autobahn to Karlsruhe how our world would change in the next three weeks. When we arrived at Karlsruhe we got a hint of what was coming: the streets were deserted, the beerhalls and restaurants half-empty. Nevertheless, there was an orderly line to see the exhibition, which was packed. No social distancing. This was an exhibition the like of which we will probably not see again in our lifetime. It comprised of 250 objects, drawings, prints, paintings and stained glass windows by Baldung and his contemporaries, including Albrecht Dürer, comparison to whom was an important leitmotif of the show.
Hans Baldung (1484-1545), eventually known as Hans Baldung Grien (Grien = “green”, and was maybe added to distinguish him from two other Hanses in Durer’s workshop) is one of a small group of German renaissance artists to establish himself as a master of international repute, along with Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Albrecht Altdorfer and Mattias Grünewald. He was a student, collaborator and close friend of the presiding German genius, Albrecht Dürer who sent him a lock of his own hair, included in the exhibition, as a testament to their friendship. Like Dürer, though even more so, one can debate whether Baldung’s real artistic contribution was as a draughtsman and printmaker rather than as a painter. Certainly Baldung’s paintings show a love of line and design which is as graphic as it is painterly, but perhaps his paintings underline Baldung’s eccentricity as an artist more than his drawings and prints, which though different from Durer’s, exhibit in their delicacy of touch, the exquisite use of white highlights on colored paper, a formal grounding in the basics which he throws overboard when painting. Having said that, paintings such as the delicate and intensely moving 1516 snowscaped Martyrdom of St Dorothy (Národní Galerie, Prague; fig 1), the shy 1517 Portrait of Count Palatine Philip (Alte Pinakothek, Munich; fig. 2) and the surreal 1533 Nativity (Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe) all show how Baldung could excel as a painter in a variety of relatively conventional genres.
Related to these lustful depictions of young witches is a series of small paintings of Death and the Maiden, measuring around 30 x 16 cm, one from the Bargello, Florence (of all places!), and two from the Kunstmuseum, Basel (fig. 6). They were all painted between 1513 and the mid-1520s. Each shows a voluptuous young woman being grabbed and groped by the desiccated, cadaverous figure of Death. Baldung delights in the frontal depiction of the somewhat statuesque female nude, striking poses altogether more classical than the earlier witch drawings but we still see the enduring fascination for Baldung of the battle between vice and virtue, age and youth.
We also see Baldung as a painter who employs violent contrasts in light and shade. The gleaming white bodies of the young women in this sequence of paintings echo the unearthly white flesh tones of the Virgin in his Holy Families (Nuremberg; Potsdam; Strasbourg) and his Nativities (Karlsruhe; Frankfurt) and his Adam and Eve (Madrid, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum). His Madonnas, with their pale faces, small eyes and cherry-red mouths look like beauties in an eighteenth-century Japanese woodcut; Baldung, like Cranach, may well have been expressing a German ideal of pale-skinned feminine beauty. And, marmoreal as these figures may seem, Baldung employs these heightened chromatic contrasts for a different purpose than to emulate sculpture or to show an awareness of the world of classical antiquity, even if that may be present. Baldung is constantly striving for dramatic effect, be it in intrinsically melodramatic subjects like Hercules and Antaeus or The Flood (fig. 7) or in more placid, domestic scenes like a Nativity. And this pursuit of drama takes Baldung from the ordered, humanist world of the ideal into a heightened, surreal realm of the otherworldly and supernatural.
This exhibition has many delightful surprises. I did not expect to see the gentle scene of familial bliss of the Rest on the Flight to a very mountainous Egypt, with miraculous water springing from a brilliant bright green knoll complete with a bowl of wild strawberries (Akedemie der bildenden Künst, Vienna) (fig. 11) or the proto Zurbarán-like Catholicism of the Madonna as the Queen of Heaven (Private collection, U.S.A.) (fig. 12). The stylish eccentricity of Baldung’s portraiture showed the artist’s versatility. His sitters are not like those of Titian or Dürer: all power, wealth and self-assurance. They have darting eyes which, when they engage the audience do so with caution or distrust. Unfortunately, like a number of the other paintings in this exhibition, condition is an issue but where, as in the Munich Portrait of the Count Palatine, Philip they are well-preserved one can see how subtle and inquisitive Baldung was as a portraitist, even of important court figures.
Overall this was an exemplary monographic exhibition: tastefully installed, with an intelligent, understated use of technology. Curiously, German museums encourage photography for special exhibitions but there are still exceptions. We were slightly annoyed that the reunited elements of the Mass of St Gregory altarpiece could not be photographed together as the central panel from Cleveland cannot be photographed by the public. Hans Baldung Grien: Sacred | Profane gathered together a remarkable critical mass of 60% of the artist’s oeuvre from over 60 different collections. Too often one leaves a monographic exhibition liking the artist less than when one went in. That was not the case here. The organizers had discussed a partnership with the Metropolitan Museum, but the difficulties of getting loans of fragile panels and works on paper to an exhibition on both sides of the Atlantic precluded this. On the other hand, Karlsruhe did partner with the French government (Karlsruhe is only 20 kilometers from the French border and Baldung died in nearby Strasbourg). So, the catalogue is published in French as well as in German.❖