Today, I got out of work early and decided to check out an art exhibit I’d been wanting to see for a while: "Lucas Cranach et son temps", featuring paintings and engravings by Northern Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), best known for his graceful nudes wearing saucy red hats.
Like this one:
A few years ago, I’d gone to the Musée du Luxembourg, right beside the Sénat in front of the Jardin du Luxembourg, for a Modigliani exhibit. I remembered a very long line, and the museum itself being crowded and small.
Still, it had apparently been renovated since then, and I thought that this would mean better circulation. And it’s not every day you get to see works by one of the more obscure of the popular Renaissance artists (if that makes sense). So, I went.
After half an hour’s wait in a bone-chilling wind (“It’s going to be so worth it,” I chattered to myself), I finally got into the museum. Twenty-five minutes or so later, I was out.
The exhibit itself only featured what I'd estimate to be around fifteen to twenty of the artist’s paintings and engravings, and while they were very impressive, the situation was much like I’d remembered during my Modigliani exhibit flashback: there were so many people clustered around each work that I barely got any face time with the art, let alone the ability to really get up close and examine details and brushstrokes. One of the paintings, a magnificent almost life-sized “Adam and Eve”, was only visible to me through a crowd. It didn’t help that most visitors decided to take the audio guide, and thus floated around in a smoke monster of humanity from one painting to another. Whether by Modigliani or Cranach or countless others, the works featured in the museum's temporary exhibits are masterpieces, and the ill-adapted site does them an enormous injustice.
Even if the crowds and the size of the museum hadn’t been a factor, though, I would still have been a little disappointed. For the amount I paid (11 euros) and the time I waited (you can – and probably should – reserve tickets in advance, but I have issues with making plans in advance), I was expecting a lot more. There were some treasures, though, and many new discoveries, and I definitely enjoyed what I could see.
The first art publication I ever bought was a book of highlights from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Northern Renaissance collection that I found in a local bookstore as a teenager. There were some lovely Cranach reproductions in it. I continued to study and enjoy his paintings in college – and got to live the dream by frequently visiting the canvases I'd once seen in my book, in person at the Met. Today, though, I came away with several new conclusions about Cranach’s work: 1. Most of the babies depicted had huge, disproportionate heads, yet he could paint stunningly realistic portraits – what’s the deal with that? 2. He was extremely influenced by Albrecht Dürer – but then again, who wouldn’t be? 3. In most of his non-portrait works,the most interesting figures are women. The lines and gestures of their bodies have such a grace and rhythm – similar to what we see in Botticelli’s masterpieces. It’s hard to believe that they and the often stiff male or child figures beside them have been sketched and painted by the same hand (and sometimes they weren’t, since Cranach the Elder was immensely popular and employed a number of painters in his studio). It makes me think how creative people seem so frequently destined to fill a niche; no matter how capable they are of doing acceptable work in general, there will often be one or two subjects they can do to perfection. Like Woody Allen and intellectual, nebbishy comedy.
As I frustratedly navigated the museum’s crowd, I came upon a surprise. It was an allegory of Charity, and her lovely face, luminous skin, and sinuous posture were exactly what I’d expect from a Cranach nude. The absence of the red hat was understandable, since Charity would probably give away her red hat to someone less fortunate. But what took me aback here was the fact that Charity had thighs, a wide waistline, and even a belly!
There are countless representations of this virtue (there was even another version painted by Cranach himself, just beside this one), and many of them show curvaceous women in the role. But few images of Charity look alluring and sexy – and still like an everyday woman, with stomach, booty, average-sized boobs, and all. This painting stopped me in my weary tracks.
In January, I wrote a post about my changing body. In it, I mentioned how I like to look at 19th century nude photographs to get a better idea of what a real human body looks like – not someone who's airbrushed or had plastic surgery. This portrayal of Charity makes me feel the same way. The woman in question wouldn’t be allowed to pose in most magazines today – yet how many of us resemble her, at least to a degree, when we look in the mirror? Here she is, in all her glory, her gaze wise, responsible, and unashamed. I think she may be one of my favorite representations of a woman in all of the art I know.
As soon as I left the exhibit, I hightailed it to the gift shop and bought the postcard of this image. I’m going to cherish it, and I wanted to share it. Ladies, if you feel self-conscious or bad about your body, why not take a look at Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portrayal of Charity? I think she reminds us all that a natural woman can be sexy, confident, and sublimely beautiful to a man, to the general public, and, judging from her confident expression, even to herself.