The Deposition’ painting
The Deposition’ (anon, 1500-05) © The National Gallery, London

Contemporary media apart, the biggest change in the history and economics of taste in the 21st century is the rise and rise of German and Austrian art. From Old Master Lucas Cranach, who had his first-ever museum exhibitions in the UK and France in 2008-10, to Viennese Secession painter Gustav Klimt, whose “Adele Bloch Bauer” seized the record as the world’s most expensive painting in 2006, artists who had barely registered on the global radar are suddenly centre stage.

There are broad reasons for this – current scholarship is reinterpreting modernism as more nuanced, less French-dominated; stellar works are emerging in Nazi restitution cases – and specific reasons too. Cranach’s sarcastic, sexy take on classical tradition, in which sinuous nudes such as the goddess in the National Gallery’s “Cupid Complaining to Venus” are adorned with jewels and lavish hats to suggest provocative court ladies, resonates with contemporary strategies of irony and hybridity.

But there are also reasons for continuing reservations about German art. “The figures show a ghastly enjoyment of horror and ugliness,” Ruskin wrote in 1888 of the “Crucifixion Altarpiece”, a National Gallery masterpiece from 15th-century Aachen, where the thieves are writhing, agonised forms and Christ’s tormentors are grinning grotesques. A generation later, the Burlington Magazine noted that “seldom indeed in German work do we meet with the tender idealism of Italy or the grace of France”, and in 1963 the critic of this newspaper, Denys Sutton, observed how German art was always “leaning towards violence and brutality”.

As a provocation, daring us today to disagree, these comments are printed large on the walls of the final gallery of Strange Beauty, the National Gallery’s new exhibition about the German Renaissance and its uneasy reception in Britain. The show displays the greatest German works from Trafalgar Square’s collection, and often these are indeed brutish, over-expressive, emotionally X-rated.

In “The Deposition”, by a Cologne artist known only as the Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece, the shocking naturalism of Christ’s rigid, bloody body carried down from the cross amid weeping mourners, a swooning Virgin and an Evangelist whose toes curl in grief, is offset by the scene’s setting within the artificial shallow space of a golden sculpted shrine: medieval ornament meets stark Renaissance realism. In Albrecht Altdorfer’s “Christ Taking Leave of His Mother”, elongated figures with wildly gesturing hands – pleading, commanding, calming, blessing – and disproportionately large feet sticking out from flowing robes stand before an acid green-blue sky, a fiery sunset full of foreboding, and a dark forest of knotted tree trunks: human distortion and untamed landscape combine to accentuate pathos and nervous tension.

The expressive horror of these German works is unrivalled in European Renaissance painting, and for the centuries when Mediterranean classicism was a barometer of taste, few viewers outside Germany admired them. Not until their exaggerations chimed with the freedoms of modernism – Picasso studied and copied the great painter of the Isenheim Crucifixion, Matthias Grünewald – and until expressionism did such paintings begin to find a wider audience. In the 19th century, by contrast, Charles Eastlake, the National Gallery’s first director, called Grünewald “repulsive” and refused to buy a Cranach because “the picture does not please me”.

‘Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family’
‘Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family’ (anon, c1470) © The National Gallery, London

The National Gallery was reluctant too to accept the pictures from Prince Albert’s collection donated by Queen Victoria after his death. And yet these include outstanding early portraits such as the 1470s “Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family”, painted in oil on silver fir with a virtuoso display of illusionism and patterning: an elaborate padded, ruched white headdress draped so that light concentrates on the young woman’s face; meticulous distinctions between the fur collar and the metal clasp of the dress; diagonals formed by the fingers at the centre of the composition echoed throughout. But the anonymous Swabian artist’s perverse masterstroke was to paint a fly just alighted on the coif – a creature so lifelike and irritating that we are tempted to brush it away as if from the surface of the picture, to which it gives, however, a sense of momentariness, instantaneity, in brilliant contradiction to the sitter’s static pose and remote look.

The mix of clinical precision and detachment with the drama of interiority is what makes northern portraiture so mesmerising, and portraits are rightly at the heart of this show. The unquestioned highlight is Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”, a work regarded as exceptional even through the 17th and 18th centuries – although its purchase for £30,000 by the National Gallery in 1890 was nevertheless controversial. One of the earliest double portraits in history, it features two life-size, sympathetic, melancholy figures in a refined humanist setting characterised by globe, compass, lute, hymnal. The pair were finally identified in the 20th century as French ambassador Jean de Dinteville and his friend churchman Georges de Selve. Since then the enigmatic work has sparked numerous interpretations: a lament for the passing of the Tudor enlightenment into tyranny; a philosophical musing on the nature of truth – the skull elongated across the floor between the two men only comes into focus from a certain position on the panel’s edge, suggesting that reality must be viewed correctly if its full meaning is to be grasped; a game of perspective and participation evocative of today’s conceptual strategies.

‘Cupid Complaining to Venus’ by Lucas Cranach the Elder
‘Cupid Complaining to Venus’ by Lucas Cranach the Elder (c1525) © The National Gallery, London

Many other works of arresting realism here – Holbein’s suggestive “Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling”, Cranach’s fresh, affecting portrait of father and son “Johann the Steadfast and Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous” – were not acquired by the National Gallery until the 1990s, and the museum’s only undisputed Durer painting, the tiny, delicate double panel “St Jerome”, with a near-abstract scarlet/grey Day of Judgment skyscape on the reverse, was purchased as recently as 1996.

Anyone interested in German art will want to see this show. Nevertheless, there is a curatorial sleight of hand about Strange Beauty. With few substantial loans, the exhibition (ticket £7) is little more than a rearrangement in the Sainsbury Wing of familiar pieces that are usually displayed better, and for free, in the permanent collection. Worse, an opening room purporting to contextualise the German paintings within the museum’s holdings is an opportunistic squandering of masterpieces: works including Raphael’s “St Catherine” and Van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Marriage”, one of Trafalgar Square’s destination pictures, have been moved from their prominent, chronologically and thematically important positions in the regular display merely to become ancillaries to an account of German art’s distinctiveness.

In an interview in these pages last month, National Gallery director Nicholas Penny said that “how to keep the balance between the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions is one of the …most worrying things for the future of museums”. He has got the priorities woefully wrong this time.

‘Strange Beauty’, National Gallery, London, to May 11

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