Hans Baldung Grien: Prints and Drawings -- National Gallery of Art, East Wing, through April 5.
Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545) may be the finest artist most of us have never heard of.
A gifted painter and master of the woodcut and sketch, he was a student of Albrecht Durer who went on to rival and in some respects surpass his teacher, but somehow Baldung's reputaton failed to reach America. Few of his works are to be found on this side of the Atlantic, and most of our art references ignore or short-shift him.
That's going to change, starting with the opening Friday of the National Gallery's splendid exhibit of 89 Baldung prints and drawings (Baldung was his surname, Grien a nickname that became semi-official). The works assembled in the East Wing cover the full span of Baldung's long working life, and leave the viewer astonished that we could have ignored such an artist for so long.
Like any apprentice, Baldung first copied and then imitated his master, but from the beginning showed an irrepressible vigor and originality. Once he was on his own, Baldung made so bold as to satirize Durer, and was good enough to get away with it.
It is inevitable to compare the two artists, but as Baldung hit his stride the differences in degree from Durer matured into differences in kind.
By his early 20s, for example, Baldung had executed at least two studies of Christ that not only were unlike any he could ever have seen but seem fresh and orginal nearly 500 years later. The Study Sheet with Head of Christ is oddly suggestive of Picasso. The Dead Christ must have stunned Baldung's contemporaries, and seems still to be fooling art historians, for it surely should be titled The Resurrection. The figure it portrays is not dead but is responding to the summons from on high.
As with any artist of his period, Baldung's works run heavily to religious themes, including many a Nativity. Perhaps because of his sympathy with the Reformation (he was buried in a Protestant cemetery), none of Baldung's many Madonnas quite comes off; his Virgin Mary is merely a vessel. Like Martin Luther, he was obsessed with Christ.
The lady Baldung really liked to fool around with was Eve, whom he portrayed as earthy, sly, provocative and/or downright raunchy. Poor Adam, as rendered by Baldung, knows his goose is cooked even before he bites the apple. Baldung also was fascinated by witches, which under his hand could be at once repellent and prurient.
And then there are the portraits -- but enough; go see for yourself. And pick up the fine catalogue, which is the only good source on Baldung available in English.