Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Portrait of Electress and Her Son” (1510-40), oil on panel (Royal Collection Trust, © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019, all images courtesy Compton Verney, Warwickshire, England)

WARWICKSHIRE, England — The Cranach look has been very influential in the world of modernity, hasn’t it? Picasso learnt from him, as did John Currin and many others. Perhaps even Twiggy looked at a Cranach or two in the 1960s.

It is the very particular and distinctive way that he represented the feminine which so beguiles and puzzles and delights us. The almond-eyed female is so thin, so svelte, so pale, so sinuous, so naughtily beckoning. If the wages of sin give us this, let’s spend!

His Venus wears nothing but a hat and a heavy gold choker or two at the throat — it makes you think fleetingly and vaguely of various S&M procedures, perhaps, or of Randy Newman draggy-drawling his lubricious way through “You Can Keep Your Hat On”…

What saucy beauty ever needed more than a hat? The look also has an air of plasticity about it, as if Venus could be a doll of sorts or some manufactured, make-believe ideal snatched from a porn mag.

Where did it come from? Or, just as much to the point, where did he come from? Let’s start with him first.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Cupid Complaining to Venus” (1526-27), oil on wood (© the National Gallery)

My goodness, it was all so long ago! He was a prosperous painter with a thriving workshop in Wittenberg in the Kingdom of Saxony. He worked as court painter to the Electors of Saxony for almost half a century, knocking out designs for armorial shields and coins, prints of stag hunting, portraiture, religious imagery, and much else. His paintings were much in demand — he produced multiple copies of some of his smaller nudes. His depictions of women became types of the idea of womanhood.

This was at the beginning of the 16th century, when Lutheranism was very much freshly on the boil. In fact, Luther was a friend of his. Cranach made woodcuts for Luther’s translation of the New Testament, driving home the Protestant message of corruption at the heart of the Papal Court.

Cranach the Elder (there was a younger one too — same name — who kept on Cranaching along in his father’s shadow for decades after) was a fine and upstanding citizen, thrice mayor. Like that glittery, affluent crowd-pleaser Rubens a little later, he was more than a bit of a canny diplomat. He could please the vocal new Protestants while still working for eminent Catholics too.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Hercules and Antaeus,” (c.1530), oil on panel (© Compton Verney)

The location of this new show, Cranach: Artist & Innovator, at Compton Verney — a big, 18th-century Baroque house in Warwickshire that was saved from ruin almost two decades ago by a man from Liverpool who made his fortune by creating a soccer betting game called The Pools — suits Cranach very well. The house already has on display much fine painting and sculpture from Northern Europe, and Cranach was very much the Northern European in how he represented the human form.

Northern Europe is far too elementally crisp, if not cold, to let in overmuch idealism. Northern European men of this era tend to be shown by the painters as a bit pinched, bony, and stark, even edging towards the malign. Seldom beautiful, in short.

In fact, they are as they are, often quite shockingly so — which perhaps demonstrates at a stroke just how accustomed we generally are to being flattered by painters. You would seldom be inclined to admire these Northern Europeans for their manliness, however we may choose to define that snake-slippery word.

Similarly, these women of Cranach’s are definitely not warm and sensuously curvaceous either. Their fleshiness does not spread and brim over. They are not pleasingly squeezable. They don’t leave you dry-mouthed. No Mediterranean sun has ever warmed them.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Apollo and Diana” (1526), oil on beech panel (Royal Collection Trust, © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019)

They’re even quite boyish in their thinness. They scarcely seem to possess a skeletal structure at all. It’s all smooth, pale flesh, bending and twisting a little. Make-believe women, in short, plasticity on the fabrication and the re-fabrication, just as you like.

John Currin, one of the modern artists included in the show, is very much after Cranach in a painting we can see here called “Honeymoon Nude” (1998). The oddly (improbably) sinuous nude is shown against a black ground. The breasts possess a ridiculous degree of artificial inflation, which is not Cranach at all. But an aura of crisply cut-out make-believe bonds the two painters, and the way the blonde ringlets take wing, too.

As Currin himself once remarked of this work: the only thing that is real is the painting. Picasso’s “Portrait of a Woman after Cranach the Younger” (1958) is a linocut on paper in five colors, the most ambitious that he ever made, and it’s based on nothing but a postcard.

He homes in on the jewelry, showing how its weight and sheer overbearing costliness seems not only to define the shape of the woman, but also to transform this anonymous female into the very epitome of a living, brightly lit jewel casket.

John Currin, “Honeymoon Nude” (1998), oil on canvas, 1168 × 914 × 33 mm (Tate)

The question that hangs in the air is this: where did Cranach get this look of his from? There’s more than a hint of Gothic or even Renaissance sculpture about this shape, how it often appears in the doorway niches of medieval churches in, say, France or Italy (think of the sculptures that adorn the capitals of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, for example) — female bodies whose shapes are thinly manipulable enough to be squeezed into small, tricky, pre-determined spaces.

Religion has lent Cranach’s forms more than a whiff of sinfulness — these saucy women seem bordello-primed, to be avoided at all cost. That fits in well with notions of the dangers of carnality, the temptations of the flesh.

What this exhibition never tries to show us or tell us is whether Cranach’s look had anything whatsoever to do with the experiences of Cranach the man, who must have had dealings of one sort or another, lifelong, with living women. We learn nothing whatsoever about his private life, the women he consorted with.

Was so much of this out of his head then? This is a failure of research — or perhaps a lack of funding. This show pleads for a good catalogue. Instead, what we have is a scattering of quite good and informative wall texts — not to be sniffed at, of course.

Cranach: Artist & Innovator continues at Compton Verney (Warwickshire, England) through June 14.

Due the Covid-19 pandemic, Compton Verney is closed until further notice; the exhibition is currently available for online viewing.

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times,...

4 replies on “Lucas Cranach’s Gothic Carnality”

  1. A marvelous introduction to an often forgotten artist. Thank you! Shame that the exhibition is now unvisitable and that there’s no catalogue, both of which would surely have been absolute delights. I’m looking at the top image and thinking “is this where Japanese print-making came from?”.

  2. Hate to be a pedant but: the pools were not invented by a man from Liverpool but one from Birmingham called John Jervis Bernard in 1921. Littlewoods came out of that idea. And Compton Verney the property, was bought and restored by the chairman of the Peter Moores Foundation, not by the inventor of the pools.

    Can you tell I’m on day 28 of lockdown thanks to that virus thing? 🙂

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