GIVEN the St. Louis Art Museum's current absorption with
Italian things, you might consider it peculiar to hear that one of
the most compelling exhibitions on view there now is devoted to an
examination of art created in Germany.
This show is "Men, Women and God." It is an assembly of German
Renaissance prints drawn from the museum's print cabinet and other
collections in St. Louis and hangs in the Cohen Gallery on the
upper floor of the museum's east wing.
Although a number of artists are represented, the great genius
of the day - Albrecht Durer - dominates this show of late 15th- and
early 16th-century art, and the examples of his work chosen for
exhibition could easily form an exceptional show on their own.
Because of Durer's artistic ownership of "Men, Women and God,"
it is interesting to contrast this show to the bath of warm Italian
light that fills the special exhibition galleries downstairs, the
show called "In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open Air
The pictures of "In the Light of Italy" were created about
three centuries after the prints of "Men, Women and God," yet they
have in common the fact that, in varying degrees, Italy had some
influence on their creation.
All the painters in the open-air show were inspired by what
they saw in the hills and towns of Italy. Durer's take from his
journeys south is more cerebral.
The prints show is, by its nature, chillier, monochromatic. The
vocabularies are harsh and disturbing; symbol piles upon symbol
like participants in a rugby match. Although dazzling in their
clarity of expression and the actual condition of the works, most
of the subjects serve to admonish and threaten and frighten, while
simultaneously provoking the visceral, emotional and intellectual
satisfactions served up by genuinely great art.
The culture out of which this art evolved would become
entangled, in the early 16th century, in the great tug-of-war that
was the Reformation. Although we tend to think of the Reformation
in "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" rhymes and manifestos nailed to
the doors of churches, the Reformation was a cultural volcano, a
political and social hydra, a great riving of the social fabric of
a huge chunk of Europe.
Brothers turned against one another; uncertainty and anxiety
produced by the sudden challenging of deeply held beliefs and
loyalties galloped through the countries like the Four Horsemen of
the Apocalypse, a subject Albrecht Durer presented with ferocity.
Not all of this upheaval was esoteric or religious: The German
princes who became Protestants did so as much to secure temporal
power as to find the true path to salvation. Henry VIII's interest
in the intricacies of theology sat in a pew way back from his
front-pew interest in diminishing the astonishing earthly powers of
the papacy and increasing the size of his treasury.
Martin Luther, whom Lutheran-brand Protestantism has canonized
and apotheosized with fervor equal to any saint-making in Rome, was
actually very much like the art of this time. Luther and the art
presented a dour Teutonic face and a tangle of recognizable images
underlying the rather impassive and inscrutable visages, and hidden
in the thickets of razor's-edge realism raged pitched battles
between good and evil.
Such warfare is evident in one of the most compelling images in
this show. It is the "Tribulations of Saint Anthony," an engraving
from 1470 by Martin Schongauer (c.1450-1491), who was an early
influence on Durer. The engraving reveals not only the vivid
perversities of the Northern re ligious imagination and the
stoical, hit-me-harder face put on religions' saints and martyrs in
the north but also, and extremely importantly, the extraordinary
power of the line to communicate such spiritual longings and
From this brilliant, tormented and technically masterful
tradition emerged Albrecht Durer, and from it he ascended to far
greater artistic glory. …