MATTHIAS GRUENEWALD: Personality and Accomplishment. By Arthur Burkhard, Harvard University Press, Cambridge. $7.50. 1936.
Nobody seems to have much luck in uncovering the details of Gruenewald's life. Readers of Professor Burkhard's newest and most thorough study of the artist will find that he too has to admit defeat on this issue. But the author assembles and weighs wisely whatever evidence has been unearthed concerning the painter of the Isenheim Alter; shows that his name was not actually Gruenewald but Gothart, that he studied and lived in the Rhine-Main region of Franconia, that he was a court painter for two archbishops of Mainz; that he feld some sympathy with Luther, but remained a Catholic; that he died, like Albrecht Duerer, in 1528. It is a scanty row of facts; and the works of Gruenewald, the only real source for study of him, are likewise scanty in number, and not always certainly his.
This book his its greatest value as a careful critical discussion of the paintings and drawings now generally accepted as Gruenewald's. For this splendid artist needs to be introduced to Americans. Few travellers from this country take the trouble to visit Colmar in Alsace for a sight of the Isenheim Altar. Few go to Karlsruhe to look at the "Cruifixion" and the "Christ Bearing the Cross." Unless they have been warned, they are likely to pass by the Basel "Crucifixion", or the Stuppach Madonna, or even the two important works at Munich--"St. Erasmus and St. Mauritius", and "The Mocking of Christ". Yet, taken together with the thirty-odd drawings extant, and a few other paintings, these constitute the complete works of one of Germany's three greatest artists--Gruenewald, the most German in style of them all.
"Duerer", says Professor Burkhard, "turned partly Italian, Holbein became cosmopolitan, Gruenewald remained German." Hence the archaic nature of Gruenewald's work. Nothing of the new formal dignity of the South is in it, no compromise with the fashionable standards of Renaissance art that Holbein surrendered to, and even Duerer did not escape. Instead, one finds all the intensity of the medieval religion of the North. Every work of Gruenewald has a religious subject. He paints a gaunt Christ, suffering the torments of the martyrs--and this in the years when the Raphaels and Peruginos were turning out the sweet, peaceful solemnity of their religious paintings. The visions of monsters assailing St. Anthony have nothing to do with the Renaissance. Neither have the radiant Resurrection of the Isenheim Altar, of which Stefan George wrote; nor the mystic Incarnation of the Altar, placed in a little Gothic chapel where "lines live and flame and quiver, figures twine and inter-wine, pillars shoot upward, arches swing, towers stretch and strive to heaven."
In spite of the difference between them in time, and often in externals, Professor Burkhard holds that Rembrandt is the Northern painter who best can be compared with Gruenewald. Both, the author feels, remained true to their inheritance; and so in them "Northern painting reaches its climax and culmination."
Every work of Gruenewald is finely reproduced in the series of plates included in this volume. There is also a catalog of Gruenewald's works, with a bibliography of articles and books on him that have been published since 1914. The author might have made this more useful by suggesting which of the manifold German studies would be most worth the time of readers who wish to continue their acquaintance with Gruenewald.