A GEM OF an exhibit, small yet unforgettable, goes on view today at the National Gallery of Art. "Hans Baldung Grien: Prints & Drawings" calls to our attention a long-dead German master whose name, at least in our land, is almost totally unknown.
Yet even at first glance, his art seems half-familiar. A sensuous anxiety, a sort of shining dread, throbs beneath the surface of these 16th-century pictures. Baldung's show resembles a nightmare set in silver. It smells of lust and piety, of incense and sulphur. And it offers us a glimpse into the German soul.
Hans Bladung, nicknamed Grien, was Albrecht Durer's pupil and took much from his master. But while Durer's art is decorous, Baldung's is demonic, impetuous, erotic. His draftsmanship is masterful; he often portrayed saints, but his discipline and faith never quite dispel his terror and grief.
Most Italian art is sweet and most English painting gentle, but most German art is haunted. Some spirit of the North, disturbing and oppressive, preys upon the pictures in this 90-item show. So perhaps it's not surprising that Alan Shestack, the director of the Yale University Art Gallery who brought these works together, describes Hans Baldung Grien as "the quintessential German artist."
Baldung was among the first, but was surely not the last, of the Northern artists who feared the spells of witches: Screaming evil crones cavort throughout his show. The harlots of George Grosz are not more dangerous than Baldung's; the art of the Expressionists is not more subjective. Edvard Munch might paint the scream, but Baldung shows us Death himself, clothed in rotting flesh.
Even saints, in Baldung's art, suffer, howl and bleed. His early "St. Bartholomew," who was flayed alive, reminds us of his martyrdom by holding in his right hand the skin torn from his face. Baldung's "St. Sebastian" (1514) has been indecorously pierced by an arrow to the groin. Baldung's Adam is no innocent: He is a lecher undone by his lust. Love, in Baldung's art, is almost always cursed.
His "Wild Horses in a Wood" (1534) jar the viewer still. In Baldung's dark and tangled forest, the stallions and the mares of night fight among the trees. Their teeth are bared, their eyes bulge, but their passion is ungratified. There is nothing else quite like them in 16th-century art. Lust as irresistible drives Baldung's hags to witchcraft, expels his Eves from Paradise, degrades his naked Aristotle. Baldung's clouds resemble entrails. A sense of sin victorious, of discipline defeated, agitates the writhing lines of his angst-ridden show.
Hans Baldung lived in fearful times. He was born in 1484 or early 1485, as the Middle Ages crumbled. He saw the march of armies, and watched while the iconoclasts unleashed by Martin Luther tore apart the paintings of the churches of the North. It is perhaps ironic that the terror of that time is now partially forgotten. What we remember more is the glory of its art.
Leonardo was alive then. So, north of the Alps, were Hans Holbein, Lucas Cranach, Mathias Grunewald -- and Durer. Baldung's fate reminds us that those artists who desire posterity's endorsement should stay away from genius. One reason that Hans Baldung has been so long neglected here is that to see him clearly the viewer must first squint through Albrecht Durer's glare.
Baldung, not yet 20, was already a fine artist when he entered Durer's Nuremberg workshop, perhaps in 1503. He was immediately made welcome, for his learning was impressive and his family distinguished. His father was a lawyer, his brother a professor and Hieronymus, his uncle, would eventually become honorary physician to Emperor Maximilian I. Durer was, of course, not blind to such connections.Master and apprentice, despite the 13 years between them, were destined to become close and lifelong friends.
"It was in Durer's shop," writes Shestack, "that Baldung was given the nickname 'Grien." Some say the name derived from the artist's frequent use of the color green in his early work, while others speculate it was due to Baldung's preference for green attire. Since several of Durer's apprentices were named Hans -- Hans Schaufelein and Hans von Kulmbach, as well as Durer's younger brother, Hans, were all presumably in Durer's shop in 1503 -- he may well have invented nicknames to distinguish them."
Durer taught them well. All of his apprentices mastered Durer's themes, powerful conventions and print-making techniques. Because Baldung's woodcuts, particularly the sacred ones, frequently suggest those made by the master, his works have often been misassigned to Durer. But in spirit the two artists were totally unalike.
Durer was a gentlemen. His art was always graced by a strict sense of decorum, a dignified and formal loyalty to measure. An Italianate refinement, almost Leonardesque, sweetens Durer's pictures; but those made by Baldung remain rooted in the dark forests of the North. Durer's pictures sing; those of Baldung clang.
"Baldung's dramatic compositional solutions, the expressive range and variety of his linear technique, his insights into human psychology, and his preoccupation with demonic fantasy are unique," writes Shestack. "No other artist of his time was possessed, as he was, by a vision of woman as predatory, powerful and erotic. The sensuousness and lasciviousness of his supernatural subjects (and even his religious ones!) have no parallel in the art of his period."
It may be worth comparing Baldung's "Fall of Man," a chiaroscuro woodcut dated 1511, with a Durer print on the same theme done the year before. While Durer's Eve and Adam are still clothed in innocence, Baldung's work, in contrast, is overtly erotic. His Eve flirts with the viewer; Adam grasps her breast. Durer's bearded Adam has the features of a saint. Baldung's is a satyr.
Even stronger is the contrast between "The Large Horse" of Durer, engraved in 1505, and the comparably foreshortened animal in Baldung's "Bewitched Groom" (c. 1544). Durer's horse is massive, but Baldung's mare is cursed. She glowers at the viewer, as if in thrall to the bare-breasted hag (a witch?) grinning at the window. The prone figure of a bearded groom dominates the foreground. Does he represent the artist? The unicorn above the witch is the Baldung coat of arms. Is the groom dead, bewitched, asleep? Is this, the artist's last print, a prediction of his death? Is its theme erotic? There is no way of knowing. This enigmatic print suggests not life, but dream.
The illustrated catalogue that accompanies the show is the first book in English on Hans Baldung Grien. It is an admirable work, readable and scholarly and beautiful as well. The nicely modest installation, too, could not be improved on.
Dispensing with the clutter of 90 different frames, the Gallery's Gil Ravenel and members of his team have installed these prints and drawings behind cut-out sheets of painted plywood so that only paper shows. Although Baldung left us more than 100 paintings, only three are in this country. And only five of his known drawings are in American collections. The pictures here were borrowed from Zurich, Basel, Berlin, Nuremberg, Strasbourg and a dozen other cities. They will remain on view in the Gallery's East Building until June 14.