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PRINT January 2003

Vault

Hendrick Goltzius

“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 “Dürers” 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 Federkunstücke—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 Dvořák and Max Friedländer. 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. Yet the artist remained a deviant—a “spiteful, obsessive neurotic” according to a 1989 assessment.

The Rijksmuseum now offers us the opportunity to weigh these characterizations against the work itself. The fifteen paintings on exhibit (of only thirty-nine attributed to Goltzius) look to be perhaps the most startling aspect of his oeuvre in their cool placidity; the fleshy, torpid countenance gazing out of Portrait of the Shell-Collector Jan Govertsen, 1604, hardly seems the product of the same hands that cut the grisly Dragon Devouring the Companions of Cadmus, 1588, sixteen years earlier. Chiaroscuro woodcuts map a further avenue of surprise. The chunky torsos in his Hercules and Cadmus fistfight seem to index Goltzius’s struggle with the block itself. Meanwhile chalk studies of the Belvedere Torso and Farnese Hercules he executed on a Rome journey of 1590–91 reveal his idiosyncratic method. Goltzius chose a low, almost oblique viewpoint on the sculptures, sketching them from behind or underneath. This resulted in sheets that not only documented antique musculature but also captured the kinesthetic experience of seeing and walking around the sculptures as a mobile, incomplete individual. Here the modernist repatriations of Mannerism ring true: Goltzius’s was an art about art.

Ultimately the jewel-like Meisterstiche (master engravings) emerge as the most wondrous demonstrations of the artist’s self-referential practice. The 1594 series, for which Goltzius was feted by the Duke of Bavaria, depicted the Life of the Virgin in six distinct Renaissance hands: Raphael, Parmigianino, Bassano, Barocci, Dürer, and Lucas van Leyden, respectively. The Haarlemmer ingeniously extracted recognizable elements (a hillock, a cat) from older paintings or reproductions by these masters and then organized them to make six completely new compositions of his own, which were engraved in the signature style of each master. In the case of the Dürer sheet, the Circumcision, Goltzius even emulated the facture of the woodcutting practice itself, mimicking the distinctive swell and pucker of the German line. Finally Goltzius signed each engraving, abrogating all charges of fraud and stamping the series, justifiably, as his own.

Seen today, such quotations and iconographic liftings shed light not just on a particular strategy of making Renaissance prints but on the pedigree of the appropriative act. As Sherrie Levine said in 1994, “What I’m interested in is the almost-same.” Surely Goltzius’s project was different. But doubtless it sprang from a related impulse, the vanguardism of which he so energetically exposes as modernist myth.

“Hendrick Goltzius: Prints, Drawings, Paintings” is on view at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Mar. 8–May 25; travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, June 23–Sept. 7; and the Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio, Oct. 18–Jan. 4, 2004.

Christopher P. Heuer is a fellow at the Getty Research Institute.