Northernness and Other Considerations: At the Museums and Elsewhere

By Wilkin, Karen | The Hudson Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Northernness and Other Considerations: At the Museums and Elsewhere


Wilkin, Karen, The Hudson Review


A CONSTELLATION OF TENUOUSLY RELATED EXHIBITIONS provided welcome distraction from the summer's famously unpleasant weather. Spanning four centuries, several nationalities and a notably diverse range of media, they included small-scale bronzes by the sixteenth-century Dutch sculptor Willem van Tetrode at the Frick Collection, a retrospective of drawings, engravings, and paintings by Tetrode's slightly younger compatriot Hendrik Goltzius at the Metropolitan, and a survey of paintings by the German modernist Max Beckmann at MoMA Queens. Despite their disparity, the three exhibitions were linked by what could be termed "Northernness," which translates, in the sixteenth and twentieth centuries alike, as a supercharged intensity, coupled with a degree of hardness and convolution quite different from the more rational, relaxed efforts of Italian artists of the Renaissance or French artists of the modern era. The complicated relationship between Northern and Southern aesthetics, in fact, was a subtext of all three shows.

Together, the Tetrode and Goltzius exhibitions formed an intensive course in Dutch Mannerism-the high style art of the late Renaissance -with emphasis on the connections between Netherlandish artists of the period and their Italian colleagues, a relationship that has been considerably rethought during the past two decades. The conventional wisdom, that all innovations came from Italy, except for oil paint, which was invented by Netherlanders and brought to Italy by a Sicilian, turns out to be inaccurate-not surprisingly, considering the complex links between Italian bankers, merchants, and wool traders with their Northern colleagues, and the long association of Northern musicians with Italian patrons. In the visual arts, too, there was far more reciprocity than previously acknowledged. Renaissance Italian collectors acquired works by Netherlandish artists, with notable effect; a fiery Hieronymus Bosch night scene that came to Venice early on, for example, had enormous resonance. The meticulous, empirical naturalism of the Netherlanders was admired and emulated by Italians, just as Northern artists admired and emulated the Italians' mathematically determined harmonies and proportions. (The balance began to tip definitively in the sixteenth century with the growing fame of Titian, whose work set a standard and whose studio included artists from all over Europe, but that's another matter.)

What Northerners really envied was the Italians' direct access to the surviving masterpieces of antiquity. From the seventeenth century on, a stay in Italy, especially in Rome, was considered necessary to any serious, ambitious artist's education no matter what his origins, but even more than a century earlier, Northerners went to Italy to expand their knowledge, the German master Albrecht Durer among them; many others came, too, some for long periods, some permanently, including Tetrode, who spent almost twenty of his fifty-five-year lifetime in Rome and Florence, before returning to Delft. (Born about 1525, he died in 1580, making him two generations younger than Durer.) In Italy, Tetrode worked with such masters as Giacomo delia Porta and Benvenuto Cellini; he copied antiquities, and looked hard at the work of Michelangelo and of Bartolomeo Ammanati and Giambologna, another emigre Northerner. Credited as having introduced the Renaissance style to the Netherlands and celebrated in his own day, Tetrode is now an obscure, elusive figure. His major stone sculptures are largely lost and his small, lively bronzes dispersed. (Questions remain about which extant bronzes were made by Tetrode, which under his supervision, and which posthumously, when his molds were acquired by other artists.) At the Frick, examples of Tetrode's known bronzes were assembled, including some "autograph" casts, as well as variants, probably achieved by the artist's alterations, and a couple of doubtful works, to provide a brilliant, eye-testing introduction to this wonderful sculptor. …

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