The artist and the reformer: Cranach and Luther

IT IS ALWAYS FUN TO MAKE new discoveries. Yesterday, we braved incessant rain and the mist on the motorway to drive to Compton Verney House in Warwickshire, the county where William Shakespeare was born. Our main reason for visiting this lovely 18th century house was to see a special exhibition devoted to the works of the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder (c 1472-1553). He was born in Kronach in the then predominantly Roman Catholic Holy Roman Empire. He was an extraordinarily successful painter. Also, he was a prosperous businessman: he had his own printing business and was also an apothecary. Cranach painted religious as well as mythological subjects in addition to court (and other) portraits.

Cranach became the court painter for the electors of Saxony in the town of Wittenberg. The electors in Wittenberg were supporters of Martin Luther (1483-1546), a professor of theology (at the University of Wittenberg) who rejected Roman Catholicism and became a ‘father’ of Protestantism. When Luther arrived in Wittenberg in October 1512, Lucas Cranach was already running a prosperous workshop (studio) in the town. Cranach made a portrait (engraving?) of Luther in 1520, which shows the reformer in priest’s garb with his head shaved to create a tonsure. This picture of Luther, when he was still an Augustinian monk, was not on display at Compton Verney. However, one room of the exhibition is dedicated to prints (designed by Lucas) and pamphlets (written by Martin) produced on Cranach’s presses. These works were all produced to promote Luther’s then revolutionary ideas.

Cranach’s courtly patrons in Wittenberg were supporters of Luther and Protestantism. The British historian, an expert on the Reformation, Andrew Pettegree wrote (in “Apollo”, 15th October 2016):

“From the beginning Cranach was a firm and important supporter of the Reformation. This was a relationship of mutual respect, mutual affection and mutual benefit. Cranach provided the Reformation with some of its most memorable images…”

Cranach became one of Luther’s important allies:

“… not merely because of his artistic talents. By this point he was one of Wittenberg’s leading citizens, firmly established among the city’s ruling elite. He would play a crucial role in this regard when Luther was absent from Wittenberg in 1521, and over-enthusiastic supporters, led by Andreas Karlstadt, pressed for radical changes to the order of worship that Luther would not have approved. Cranach, civic leader and artistic entrepreneur, was one of the rocks on which the Wittenberg Reformation was built. He also had the managerial skills and resources to conceive a solution to the problem that might otherwise have stopped the Reformation in its tracks: how to build a mass movement from a small place with extremely limited infrastructure.”

Part of that solution was Cranach’s high-quality printing works that were able to produce large editions of publications either written by Luther or by authors promoting his cause. The exhibition at Compton Verney has several examples of Cranach’s printed pro-Luther propaganda tracts and prints on display.  In one of them, facing pages depict the contrast between Protestantism and Catholicism. For example, an image of the pure Christ rising towards Heaven faces an image of the corrupt Pope burning in Hell. For those not able to read, this was a graphic illustration of Luther’s objections to Catholicism.

In 1521, Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X. Four years later, Luther, the erstwhile priest who had taken the vows of celibacy, decided to marry. His bride was Katherine von Bora (1499-1552), a nun who had fled to Wittenberg from a convent near the town of Grimma along with eight other nuns. Luther had undertaken to find them husbands or to find families for them to join so that they could enjoy ‘normal’ lives. At first, Katherine joined the household of Luther’s friend Lucas Cranach (the Elder). Luther tried hard to find her a husband. His friends tried hard to get Luther to marry. In the end, he married Katherine. Lucas Cranach was one of a few close friends who were present when Martin and Katherine took their wedding vows. Luther’s Roman Catholic enemies were quick to claim (according to Richard Marius in his “Martin Luther”) that:

“… all Luther ever wanted was sex, and since he had married a former nun, it seemed he had now lived out yet another of the bawdy stories told of nuns and monks lusting for one another…”

Popular legend of the time predicted that the Antichrist would be born to a monk and a nun, but Erasmus (1466-1536) wrote in connection with this:

“How many thousands of Antichrists had the world already known!”

Katherine and Martin produced six children.  Cranach married Barbara Brengbier. They had several children including Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586), the painter, one of whose works is displayed in the exhibition at Compton Verney. In 1517, Luther stood as a godfather to the last of Cranach’s children. Later, when Luther married, Cranach became godfather to some of his children.

Before visiting Compton Verney, I was already familiar with the fine paintings of Lucas Cranach the Elder, but I had no inkling of Cranach’s close connection with Martin Luther and the promotion of Protestantism. Also, I did not know that Cranach had had other business interests apart from producing works of art. I came away from the splendid exhibition at Compton Verney pleased to have had my eyes opened to an important episode of history about which I was only dimly aware.

Travelling to Compton Verney on a rainy day fulfilled what Mark Twain wrote in his 1869 book “Innocents Abroad”:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

In other words, travel broadens the mind. Our journey to Compton Verney did, despite inclement weather conditions, did precisely that.

A familiar face

THE SCULPTOR ELIZABETH FRINK (1930-1993) was a close friend of my late mother, who was also a sculptor. I do not know how they met at first, but they remained close friends. ‘Liz’ Frink, as I knew her when I was a child, was a regular visitor to our family home in northwest London. After my mother died in 1980, I never saw Liz again. She was born in Suffolk (where one of her pieces stands in the garden of the cathedral of Bury St Edmunds), studied at both Guildford and Chelsea schools of art, and died in Dorset (at Blandford Forum, which is a few miles southwest of Salisbury).

FR 1 BLOG

Walking Madonna

Early in August (2020), we drove from London to Devon via Salisbury. There were two reasons that we chose the less direct route through the city of Salisbury. One was to avoid the motorway system as much as possible and to travel along roads that pass through lovely countryside. The other was to visit Salisbury, especially its cathedral and enclosed environs (the ‘Cathedral Close’). The cathedral, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture built mainly between 1220 and 1320, is worthy of a visit, or as the Michelin “Guides Vert” say in French, ‘vaut le détour’. The splendid architecture was one reason for our latest visit but not the main one. We had come to see an exhibition called “Celebrating 800 Years of Spirit and Endeavour”.

The exhibition consists of 20 works of art, mainly sculptural, displayed within the cathedral and outside it in the Cathedral Close. These works are in addition to the cathedral’s permanent collection of 9 sculptures. My favourites amongst the temporary works were pieces created by: Conrad Shawcross, Danny Lane, Subodh Gupta, Antony Gormley, Tony Cragg, Lynn Chadwick, Daniel Chadwick, and Grayson Perry.

I was intrigued by an electronic sculpture, ‘The Reader’. made in 2015 by an artist named Stanza (born 1962). It depicts a standing man reading a book. The book glows regularly and as it does, LED bulbs in different parts of his body glow for a few moments. The artwork attempts to show, quite successfully, how reading can affect the body and feelings of the reader.

Several of the artworks in the cathedral’s permanent collection particularly impressed me. One of these is a small stone carving by Emily Young, which stands in the cloisters. Also, in the cloisters, there is a large coloured sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, which recalled the works of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, a good friend of hers. It is called ‘Construction (Crucifixion’). Generally, I am not enthusiastic about her works, but this one, which is so different from most of her other creations, pleased me greatly.

There is another wonderful part of the permanent collection within the nave of the cathedral. This is a large baptismal font by William Pye. Installed in 2008, this huge vessel is filled to the brim with water which flows from it via four spouts. The surface of the water is perfectly smooth and acts as a mirror in which the architecture of the cathedral is reflected beautifully. It is truly a reflective piece in more than one sense of the adjective.

Outside the cathedral, there is a fine stone carving in white marble, ‘Angels Harmony’, by Helaine Blumenfeld. To me, it seemed to depict drapes being blown around in the wind. I liked this, but what really caught my eye was a rather dreary looking cast bronze sculpture, ‘Walking Madonna’. This life-size piece was made in 1981 by ‘our’ former family friend Liz Frink. At first, I glanced at it quickly, and then, for no special reason, I took a closer look. I experienced a strange feeling of ‘déja vu’ when I looked at the Madonna’s face. For a moment, I felt as if I was looking at Liz Frink’s face. As mentioned already, it is over 40 years since I last saw her. Yet, I had the feeling that I recognised her face. I have since learned that Frink often included her long jawline in the faces she sculpted, but it was not that which gave me the fleeting feeling of recognition. Instead, it was the nose and mouth on the depiction of the Madonna that sparked that momentary sensation that I was looking into Frink’s face. I have since compared photographs of the sculptor with those I took of the work on the lawns outside the cathedral. Comparing them, one cannot entirely rule out the possibility that Liz Frink was influenced by her own face when creating the ‘Walking Madonna’.

Whether or not Frink intended her sculpture to include her own face is up to the viewer, but in any case, I can strongly recommend a visit to Salisbury Cathedral before the enjoyable sculpture exhibition is dismantled.

Clive in India

I AM NOW IN CALCUTTA. Last time I came here, for miles and miles along the railway lines and at stations, there were starving people. Now there is not a sign of famine – it has been organised with the ability of genius…” 

Thus, wrote Clive Branson (1907-1944) from Bengal on the 11th of November 1944. Later in the same letter, this British soldier in India added:

“… it is reported that in the week ending November 5th, 267 deaths occurred in Chandpur town and in the 53 unions (groups of villages), on an average more than 200 in each. The report states ‘Almost all the dead bodies were thrown into the ‘khal’ and paddy fields – to be devoured by dogs, jackals and vultures – as there was no man available to bury or burn those corpses.”

A few lines later, he adds:

The point is that out in the villages people can starve to death without anyone knowing about it, while on the basis of the falling mortality rate in Calcutta Amery will no doubt claim that the famine is over.”

‘Amery’ to whom Branson referred was Leo Amery (1873-1955), who was Secretary of State for India during WW2. The famine was that which decimated many Indians in Bengal and other parts of India.

clive

Writing on the 28th of August 1943, Branson suggested that the famine was to some large extent man-made rather than the result of natural disasters:

But the fact is there is enough food in India now …”

A major cause of the famine he suggested it was:

“… the hoarders, the big grain merchants, the landlords and the bureaucrats who have engineered the famine …”

And, on the 14th September 1943, Branson wrote:

The thing that stands out a mile is that the Government showed no signs of weakness when it came to the arrest of the Congress in glaring contrast  to its utter helplessness (??) (or should we call it co-operation, tie-up) in the face of the grain profiteers (and in a similar situation – the cloth merchants – the coalowners, re employment of women underground).”

These quotes, damning indictments of the situation Clive Branson observed whilst serving in India come from a book, “British Soldier in India”. It contains the letters that Clive wrote from India to his wife in England and was published in 1944 by ‘The Communist Party, London’. The slender volume contains an introduction written by Harry Pollitt (1890-1960), who was General Secretary of The Communist Party of Great Britain from 1941 to 1956. I came across the book while reading an excellent book about the 1943 Bengal famine, “Churchill’s Secret War” by Madhusree Mukherjee, and ordered a copy.

Clive was born in Ahmednagar (India), son of an army officer. Ironically, most of his time in India during WW2 was spent in the town where he was born. He trained to be a painter at The Slade School of Art (part of University College London) and became a prolific and talented artist. Some of his works are housed in London’s Tate Gallery. From the age of 20, Clive became interested in Communism and joined the Communist Party in 1932. Pollitt wrote of him:

He was one of those who endear themselves to all who came in contact with them … he was able to inspire others to hate poverty and fight to remove it, to hate ugliness and see beauty … He was not only a brilliant speaker and organiser, but also did more than his share of what is sometimes called “the donkey work”. Nothing was too much for him …”

During the Spanish Civil War, Clive both recruited for, and from 1938 fought with, The International Brigade. In March 1938, he was taken prisoner by Franco’s Nationalist forces and interned in San Pedro de Cardeña concentration camp, where he painted and sketched the camp and many of its inmates. These artworks are currently stored in the Marx Memorial Library in London’s Clerkenwell Square. Pollitt reports that a fellow prisoner said of Clive:

In any difficult time, Clive was always cheery, putting forward what we should do … He was one of the most popular and most respected among the British prisoners.”

Clive, a true patriot and ardent anti-fascist, joined the Royal Armoured Corps during WW2 and was posted to India where he arrived in May 1942, the month that he sent his first letter published in the book. Pollitt accurately notes that Clive’s letters from India:

“… will make you angry and they will make you sad. They will make you see new colours and shades, an unimaginable suffering and a truly heroic grandeur, extraordinary nobility and equally extraordinary bestiality. It is a vivid and many-sided picture which Clive wanted to record in painting, and which we may be sure he would have executed with feeling and sincerity...”

Reading Clive’s letters today, 76 years after they were composed, still evoked a sense of anger because of the awful things he saw as well as a sense of wonder because of his very evident love and admiration of India and its people.

Whenever he was able, Clive mixed with Indians from all strata of society and delighted in their company.  While in Ahmednagar, Clive was introduced to an Indian artist. At this person’s house, he:

“… did a drawing for 1½ hours of his little niece aged 10. I did it in indelible pencil and ink – this is the medium I shall do most of my work in as it is more lasting – does not smudge – than ordinary pencil. But how difficult are Indian clothes – I shall have to do a lot of careful observation and drawing before I shall know what to do technically’ The Indian just sat and watched me working. He speaks English quite well, and knows a number of famous Indian painters – he himself went to the Bombay School of Art…”

This was noted in a letter dated 13th of April 1943. Several months later, in mid-September, Clive was invited to lunch with his artist friend. I loved his description of the occasion, which was new to him but typically Indian:

We sat on wooden seats about 2 ins. off the ground. The meal was in a room just off the kitchen. Of course we had taken off our boots etc. Each had a large silver plate with the various ingredients put around the edge. A small bowl of what they call butter-milk took the place of water. A pattern, done with vermilion and white powder had been drawn on the ground. In front of me was placed a little silver stand in which a stick of incense burned. Nana’s elder daughter also ate with us. The whole affair was very civilised and friendly.”

In general, Clive was enamoured of all of the Indians he encountered, both those from sophisticated and also humble backgrounds. He was horrified at the way that the British and their government treated them. This is a significant feature of what he conveyed in his letters. Also, the failure and apparent unwillingness of the British to address the terrible famine concerned and upset him greatly. He communicates this eloquently and powerfully in his writing.

One of Clive’s many observations struck a personal chord. It concerns the bookshops that Clive visited in India in search of reading material. In a letter written from Bombay in September 1942, he noted:

I have said a lot about going to bookshops, but I have never mentioned something which hits you in the face about the general trend of literature: 1. Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ is on sale prominently at every bookstall …”

Seeing copies of “Mein Kampf” openly on sale in most bookshops in India is something that has always surprised me since my first visit to India in 1994.

As a Communist, Clive’s political views are not concealed in his letters. He showed little or no sympathy for the policies of Gandhi and the All India Congress. On the 10th of March 1943, he wrote:

How stupid Gandhi’s fast looks compared to the grandeur of a handful of Indian peasants and workers uniting to demand their human rights!  No wonder the Viceroy corresponds with Gandhi and sends the police after the people.”

As for the Muslim League in Bengal:

The net result of the League’s scheme is to launch the peasants against the little men and leave the big bastards to control the famine via the black market – such is the first practical application of the policy of Jinnah.” (letter dated 19th June 1943)

Also, as a staunch anti-fascist, he regarded Subhas Chandra Bose as contemptible because he had chosen to fight alongside the Japanese, who were allies of fascist Germany. During his stay in India, Clive met and discussed matters with members of the Indian Communist Party. This is described in the letters and was not removed by the censors. In addition, his harsh but justifiable criticism of Britain’s mishandling of the famine in India passed the censors’ scrutiny and reached his wife’s letter box intact.

Clive was constantly upset by seeing examples of British racism in India. He mentions this often in his letters. The most eloquent example appears in a letter written on the 29th of November 1943:

I am sitting on the grass outside a long army hut. Not far away is an African negro … reading a book. Five minutes ago a B.O.R. [British other rank] came up, stopped, and said to him, ‘Can you read?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What’s the book? Miss Blandish?’ ‘No, Pygmalion.’ I had to record this – whole books could not present the present world situation better.”

(I imagine that the B.O.R. was referring to “ No Orchids for Miss Blandish”, a  raunchy thriller by James Hadley Chase)

In the same letter, Clive noted that the British Conservative MP, Ferris:

“… has made a study of Indian affairs, and has delivered himself of the profound judgement that India is not ready for self-government. I wonder how many whiskies and sodas it took to produce such an original conclusion.”

Sadly, Clive did not live long enough to see India becoming independent in 1947. He was killed in action early in 1944 “…commanding an M3 Lee tank of B Squadron, 25th Dragoons. He was hit a glancing but fatal blow on the back of the head by a Japanese anti-tank shell near Point 315 at the end of the Battle of the Admin Box.” (source: Wikipedia).

Clive’s letters provide a moving collection of well-described observations of India, a country in which many of its citizens were enduring a plight at least as bad as that of people suffering in Nazi occupied Europe. They were under the control of the British, who were fighting to defeat Nazi tyranny. The British were under the leadership of Winston Churchill, who is reported (by his close colleague Leo Amery) to have said:

I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

Here are two short videos well worth watching in connection with what I have written:

https://youtu.be/QI6qg1ERmGE

(Pathé Newsreel with scenes of the famine. Commentary in Punjabi, but images are very powerful)

https://youtu.be/fUjtxHFGUrg

(An Indian historian/author/politician gives a fresh view of Churchill)

 

 

Venice observed

 

Venice is a special place in many ways. This meeting place of oriental and occidental art is bathed in light of a special quality. Maybe this is due to the fact that there is so much water reflecting the daylight and thereby increasing its intensity. Maybe, it is something else, but whatever it is, part of the beauty of Venice is its lovely light.

Artists have long been attracted to portraying Venice. Canaletto portrayed the city almost photographically in his paintings.  Guardi captures the city brilliantly by using an almost impressionistic technique. Ruskin captured the beauty of the Venetian architecture scholarly yet attractively. Other artists such as Manet, Monet, Moran, and Turner have also portrayed some of the ‘essence’ of Venice’s attractiveness.

Yesterday, I visited an exhibition of new paintings inspired by Venice by the British contemporary artist Joe Tilson (born 1928). Each of his deceptively simple canvases capture several aspects of what makes Venice attractive for me. Architectural details, coloured patterning like tiles or brickwork, and moonlit skies  conspire to evoke the special light an appearance of Venice. His painting is both simple and subtle, and above all visually satisfying.

 

The exhibition is at Marlborough Fine Art, 6 Albermarle Street, London W1S 4BY until 18th May 2019

Burne-Jones in London

Until 24th February 2019, there is an excellent exhibition of the works of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) at London’s Tate Britain.

BURNE 1

 

For Victorian art  

looking back to the past

Burne-Jones does excel

 

BURNE 2