New York

16th Century Engravings

Lucien Goldschmidt Gallery

Lucien Goldschmidt’s overview of “16th Century Engravings” will open fresh areas of speculation while it reacquaints the connoisseur with a wide group of North European klein Meister—including Aldegrever, the two Beham, Goltzius, Pencz, Sadeler, not to mention such famous names as Peter Brueghel the Elder or Lucas van Leyden. The term is generally taken to refer to a body of expert practitioners who had grown up in the shadow of a great figure and who, while not especially altering his legacy, preserved it with admirable conscientiousness and virtuoso proficiency. But in this case the term klein Meister must also be employed with regard to the actual size of the works. The majority are barely inches; many are scarcely even that. Such a dedication to littleness intensifies peculiar graphic qualities—preciousness, minuteness, and, considering that the works had first to be engraved on copper plate, patience, skill and manual dexterity. One senses in these qualities an admiration for late Gothic carving, a numismatic enthusiasm most likely for Roman coins and cameos, and an ornamental impulse. Many of these engravers were known in their day as designers of armorial ornament to be used in the decoration of helmets, gun butts and sword hilts.

By and large these small works call forth modest prices in the market. Since the unit price is so low, few dealers have applied themselves to amassing a cache. The present exhibition comprises 123 cataloged pieces, and taking into consideration secondary states, it covers more than 150 examples—perhaps not as many as some private collections hold but larger than any commercial exhibition on the subject in my memory. The catalog, if only as a pictorial source, will become one of the useful tools of research in the field.

What struck me most about the exhibition was not so much that Dürer was absent but that his presence was so strongly felt in terms of his German followers, particularly Aldegrever. Without wishing to insist on a closed theory, it would appear that for the German engraver of the 16th century, Schongauer and Dürer not only had established the models of graphic productions but also a kind of sacrosanct national style. This attitude has come down to the present, except for a momentary Neo-classical and Romantic hiatus in the early 19th century—Friederich, Runge and the Nazarines. One is even tempted to regard German Expressionist graphics of the 20th century as a kind of Dürerism modified by Primitive art. Certainly with the advent of Nazism it was natural, if unfortunate, that Dürerism was absorbed into the German racial myth.

What is equally interesting is the degree to which the Protestant German engravers were attracted to antique moralizing subjects which stressed virtue, privation and devotion. Despite its Roman legend, Aldegrever’s Die Nacht, for example, is remarkable and unique for the bold eroticism it displays. This appears to run countercurrent to Netherlandish, Flemish and French engraving of the period which turned to an entirely contemporary Italian influence, Mannerism. The German mood is Roman in subject, medieval in form and deeply anti-Mannerist, a resistance probably compounded by the Germans’ strong anti-Catholic and anti-Papal feelings. A so-called degeneracy of Mother Church was equated in the German mind with the stylistic flourish of Roman and Florentine Maniera. The Netherlandish engraver and publisher, Goltzius, by contrast, was entirely open to this taste and the engravings after Spranger’s Italianate paintings are especially beautiful.

Robert Pincus-Witten