Show of Hands: Christopher P. Heuer on Hendrick Goltzius. (from the Vault Preview)

Artforum International, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Show of Hands: Christopher P. Heuer on Hendrick Goltzius. (from the Vault Preview)


"TO BECOME AND BEHAVE LIKE SOMETHING else," wrote Walter Benjamin, "... is really a life-determining force." Long before Andy Warhol or Cindy Sherman tinkered with mechanical reproduction and artistic identity, there was Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617), a sulky, petulant artist of astonishing versatility. Dubbed "the Netherlandish Proteus" by famed contemporary Karel van Mander, Goltzius made a career of ventriloquizing the styles and techniques of older Italian and German artists. His "Durers" and "Lucas van Leydens" duped connoisseurs, and as a reproductive printmaker he (legitimately) published dozens of copies after antique sculpture. He also issued more than two hundred of his own sheets at his firm in Haarlem--images of writhing, elongated nudes lifted from Mediterranean sculpture, tableaux of modish Prague Mannerism-all translated into a chilly Netherlandish patois. Around seventy of these strange printed emulations appear in the exhibition "Hendrick Goltzius: Prints, Drawings, Paintings."

Largely self-taught, Goltzius, who was born near the town of Venlo, moved to Haarlem, then a center for panel painting, around 1577. There he began etching histories in the style of local hero Marten van Heemskerck: furtive, calligraphic animations of Counter-Reformation dogma. At twenty-four, Goltzius opened his own publishing house. Here he developed an ingenious method of making Federkunstucke--pen works-that dazzled later artist-collectors like Rubens.

These sheets, nearly a dozen of which appear in the exhibition, were bravado imitations of engravings; the studies of heads, hands, and bodies are contoured by swelling ink lines traced through meaty cross-hatching. When Goltzius made proper engravings and woodcuts, which he did enthusiastically and prodigiously, he often mimicked established styles in an idiom of his own. Then suddenly, in 1600, Goltzius abandoned printmaking for painting. Although his right hand was disfigured in a childhood accident (he purportedly stumbled face first into a kitchen fire), he had developed an ingenious manner of grasping a burin that was easily adaptable to the brush. Late in life he dabbled in alchemy before succumbing to the lung ailments that had plagued him throughout his career.

Since the early twentieth century, Goltzius's reputation has been wrapped up with that of Mannerism, itself a supposedly malformed, anticlassical phenomenon rehabilitated only in the 1920s by expressionist historians like Max Dvorak and Max Friedlander. Scholars who spied a hint of the avant-garde buoyed Goltzius's reassessment, for along with El Greco and Tintoretto he seemed to embody the fantastic and the potentially surreal. His distended, anguish-racked nudes also fitted well with the formalist Vienna School in the '30S, who saw signals of a Hegelian link between art and world in an era in crisis. After Otto Hirschmann's specialized studies of 1916, 1917, and 1921, a Rotterdam exhibition in 1958 validated Goltzius's worth to an audience of collectors. …

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