Lucas van Leyden was an amazingly talented, prolific, inventive and resourceful artist, but his great efforts are almost unknown in this country.
Or were. The curators who put together an exhibition titled "The Prints of Lucas van Leyden and his Contemporaries," in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, have done everything possible to focus our undivided attention upon the achievements of the underrated Dutchman.
Lucas was perhaps even more of a prodigy than his legendary German contemporary, Albrecht Du rer. His first dated print is a 1508 engraving, "Mahomet and the Monk Sergius." Chroniclers from the 17th century to scholars in our own time have debated whether Lucas was 14 or 19 years old, or somewhere in between, when he made this print.
Let's give doubters the benefit and say he was 19. Well, what an exceptional piece of work it is for an artist of that age. And it does not stand alone. It was preceded by a group of engravings that, despite occasional awkwardnesses, already herald the arrival of a tremendous talent. It was followed by an outpouring of graphic images that did not cease until Lucas died in 1533, at age 36 or 41 or somewhere in between.
By the time he made the "Mahomet" print the precocious Lucas had accomplished his impressive ambition to translate the great accomplishments of 15th-century Netherlandish painting into the black-and-white medium of engraving: the sense of spaciousness is there, the wonderful respect for the specific physical qualities of things (be they rocks or trees or turbans), and most of all the sense that something important, and indelibly human, is taking place for our delight, horror or moral edification (or all three at once).
Lucas was a born storyteller. He had an instinct for just the moment to bring a scene alive.
The subject of the "Mahomet" print, taken from a popular medieval book of tales about the Holy Land and the Near East, is full of dramatic and horrifying possibilities. The story concerns the slitting of a sleeping monk's throat in the glow of early morning. Lucas did not sensationalize. Instead, he depicts an instant of utmost stealth after the crime, when the murderer stoops to slip the deadly and incriminating sword back into the sheath of Mahomet, its owner, who is crouched in a careless, drunken sleep. You can almost feel the evil fellow holding his breath.
More importantly, the viewer is stimulated to ponder the meaning of the story. The image, like many of Lucas' prints, has moralizing overtones. On one level it is a little essay on the ills of drunkenness, and on another it concerns the greater sin of murder and larger questions of guilt and innocence. The characters, as Lucas portrays them, are believably human.
This innate tact is the hallmark of Lucas' best works. An earlier print of "The Fall of Man" concentrates so effectively upon the ordinary humanity of the principal characters that his awkward, youthful rendering of the naked figures hardly detracts from the immediacy of the message. And later, in stupendously detailed panoramas such as "Golgotha," dated 1517, Lucas tellingly places the Crucifixion in the middle distance, so that our attention initially is fixed upon the vigorous crowd of ordinary mortals in the foreground. We become, in effect, participants in the holy event. It is our own fallibility that is being emphasized and, perhaps, judged.
Lucas' gift for making religious or moral stories seem immediate and real is evident even in his curious "Power of Women" woodcuts. Lucas (and perhaps his audience, too) seems to have been obsessed with the idea of woman's disastrous power over man, and he repeatedly returns to the theme with images of Adam and Eve, Delilah and Samson, Phyllis and Aristotle, Herod and Herodias and others. They are extremely powerful, unnerving images.
The exhibition, containing nearly 100 of Lucas' prints, amply traces the development of his short career. Like many northern artists of the time, Lucas fell increasingly under the sway of Italian Renaissance art, and with similar results. Lucas' late prints, in which he strove with no great success to conquer the fully rounded human form, are lifeless exaggerations when compared with the spaciousness, vigor and insight of his earlier works. Happily, the late prints are a distinct minority in the show.
One of the reasons Lucas' art has been undervalued, even in Europe, is the lack of a comprehensive collection of his graphic works in one place. Another is the existence of numerous second- and third-rate impressions of the prints. The scholar-connoisseurs who put together this show did Lucas the great honor of sifting through the widely dispersed collections of his work in this country and in Europe in search of the best available impressions. The result is a revelation.
Curators for the exhibition were Ellen S. Jacobowitz, acting curator of prints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Stephanie Loeb Stepanek, former assistant curator of prints at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Their fully illustrated catalogue is an impressive document. The show sits beautifully in the new graphics galleries on the ground floor of the West Building. It will travel to Boston this fall, after closing at the National Gallery Aug. 14.