The Art of the Renaissance in Northern Europe: Its Relation to the Contemporary Spiritual and Intellectual Movements

By Otto Benesch | Go to book overview
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Introduction

GREAT WORKS of art of the past are to us inexhaustible sources of enjoyment and elevation. Therefore, we are too readily inclined to consider them as creations of a timeless realm of absolute beauty, disconnected from the worries and troubles, from the torment and aspirations of a struggling human world. If we consider the foremost works of the artists of our era, we realize how much the deep split of our time, its anxieties and catastrophes are not only mirrored but even foreshadowed in the representational arts of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was not different in other centuries. Art has always been a function of human life, perhaps the most comprehensive and universal besides theoretical thinking. Therefore, it is a key to the understanding of the totality of life. On the other hand, the knowledge of the leading spiritual and intellectual movements of an era will help us to approach its artistic creations and illuminate the meaning of phenomena which appear strange and obscure because of remoteness of time. This applies especially to eras which were filled with great revolutions of the mind, with cataclysms and the rise of new worlds both in a literal and in a metaphorical sense, of eras which were as pregnant with new constructive and destructive forces as our own time. Such an era was the sixteenth century. Its splits and cleavages, its creative and conflicting trends, were not inferior to those of the twentieth century. The predominance of the fine arts in the imposing movement of the renascence in Italy lends to that particular chapter a unified aspect which is missing in Northern Europe. Nowhere did the artistic ideas stand so much in the foreground as in Italy. The picture which art offers in Germany and in the Netherlands, in France and England during that era, is a much more problematic and complex one. It demands a different method of approach. If our analysis should discuss only form and color, it would elude our efforts.

Such is the general problem and the task of these investigations. They do not attempt to give a panorama of all the overwhelming

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