Lucas Cranach’s Legacies – ‘Primitive’ and Rooted identities of Art and Nation at the European Fin de Siècle

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    Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) has long been over-shadowed by his more famous contemporaries, Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein (the Younger). Yet, during the second half of the 19th century, Cranach’s art and that of his workshop became the focus of significant national and transnational interest. Not only would this transform Cranach’s visibility for modern art, it would bring the very meaning and identity of a German Renaissance and Reformation memory centre-stage, in particular in the German and Nordic world. It is the potency of Cranach’s unexplored ‘afterlife’, his Nachleben (to borrow Aby Warburg’s key concept), which is pivotal for this discussion.

    Taking as its focus the celebrated 1899 Cranach Exhibition in Dresden, curated by the Hamburg art historian Karl Woermann, which brought Cranach into a 20th-century spotlight, this article examines three pivotal, yet understudied areas of modern interest in Cranach’s art. First, is a neglected revival and reception of Cranach as a torchbearer of Reformation art and its cultural legacies. In this, Cranach’s work acquires developed significance in the contexts of expanding Romantic and later 19th-century cultural discourses of nationhood, linked to the new-found appeal of the artist’s ‘popular’ so-called ‘primitive’ expressions of piety. Second, are key ways in which such revivals of Cranach’s work stimulate competing cultural narratives of nationhood, memory and artistic identity: tensions, urgent in the range and character of responses generated by the 1899 Dresden Cranach Exhibition and its catalogue. Indeed, drawing on rarely-examined primary sources relating to the exhibition, its catalogue and contemporary critical responses, section three of this article sheds light on ways in which Cranach’s inspiration for redefined symbols of ‘nation’, ‘belonging’ and ‘primitiveness’ was to become determinant. And third is to consider how and to what ends Cranach’s fin-de-siècle reinventions suggestively develop his art’s negotiated legacies of Gothic, Renaissance and Reformation. A particular concern is to investigate Cranach’s appeal for a group of artists, spanning Victorian Britain to German and Nordic Europe, stimulated by a reawakened attraction to the legacies of a German Renaissance which these artists found in Cranach’s art. These reinventions entwine equally with uncanny artistic and cultural reverberations about what ‘Reformation’ is not (the allure of enchantment and of Cranach’s ‘Gothicism’), and with a fascination for what Cranach’s art may become: sensual, erotic; even disturbing and dark. Thus, my key concern is to shed new light on the substantial ‘ripple effect’ created by Cranach’s survival and presence on the late 19th-century European and international art map. It is to illuminate Cranach’s transformation from revivalist curiosity, symbol of ‘nationhood’, into an unexpected ‘other’ modern as a figure of difference, and Dresden into a potent Cranach-Capital (‘Cranach-Stadt’), pre-and post-1899.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1-22
    JournalFNG Research
    Issue number5
    Early online date25 Sept 2020
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2020
    EventProtestant Images (Reformation Cultures ―500 years) - Veste Coburg, Coburg, Germany
    Duration: 9 Oct 201711 Oct 2017

    Bibliographical note

    FNG Research


    • Art Revivals, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Northern Art, Renaissance, Cultural Mythologies, Exhibitions, Modern Art


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    • University of London

      Juliet Simpson (Visiting researcher)

      1 Oct 201930 Jun 2020

      Activity: Visiting an external institutionVisiting an external academic institution

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