Thursday, October 11, 2012

Johann Friedrich Overbeck: Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (1815)

We return this week to the Nazarenes, a group of artists who sought to bring art back to the time of the early Renaissance, free from the influence of the later masters, such as Michelangelo and Raphael.  Just why the early Renaissance was held up as an ideal is an interesting question.

The leader of the movement, Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789 – 1869), believed that art had been corrupted by Enlightenment-era thinking.  He thought that painters in the Academy were spurred by visions of artistic excellence, and not by divine inspiration or love of God.  He wrote a friend during his training to say that he was losing his faith in humanity while studying art, and was forging a closer connection to God as a way to cope with the rigors of contemporary life.  Overbeck was, in short, much like many people terrified by the real world:  looking for comfort in an idealized past or seeking solace in the myths of religion and the supernatural. 

Overbeck was born in Lübeck, the product of three generations of Protestant pastors.  Overbeck left Lübeck in 1806 to study art under Heinrich Füger in Vienna.  Füger was a teacher steeped in the Classical tradition (he had trained under Jacques-Louis David).  Overbeck absorbed the lessons taught in the Academy, but found the lack of religious focus inimical to his views on art.  He created a following of his own while at the Academy – eventually calling themselves the Nazarenes.  After four years, he and his followers would be expelled. 

Overbeck went to Rome in 1810, where he stayed mostly for the next 59 years.  (He became a Roman Catholic in 1813.)  He was joined by other artists attracted to his way of thinking, including Peter von Cornelius, Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow and Philipp Veit.  They lived in an old Franciscan convent, San Isidoro, where they worked hard and prayed harder.  A Holy Order of Artists is an idea not without charm, but I believe the Nazarenes rejected too much that was good and embraced quite a bit that was retrogressive.  They believed firmly in a hardness of outline which robs many of the figures of any feeling of being within their space, and used light, composition and color mainly as a means to further an argument rather than to create images of beauty. 

Today’s picture, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, was painted in 1815.  The story can be found in Luke 10: Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary.  Mary sits at His feet and listens to Him speak while Martha proceeded to "make all the preparations that had to be made."  Martha becomes upset that Mary did not help, and Christ says: "Martha, Martha ... you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."  In short, one could call it a summation of the entire Nazarene philosophy.

There is much to admire in this picture but, to my mind, very little to love.  The attempt to reimagine an early Renaissance aesthetic is admirable, but it never looks like anything other than a pastiche.  Worse still, Overbeck’s high mindedness seems to rob the picture of any drama it might have: instead of sitting at Christ’s feet in raptures, Mary looks rather bored by it all.  And Martha, the scold, looks more like a harried house frau than a lost soul.  Christ seems rather patrician and formidable in profile – more Basil Rathbone than Prince of Peace.  And who is that standing behind him – looking for all the world as if she wished that she, too, were seated?

But … what Overbeck gets right he hits in spades.  The trio behind Jesus are depicted with the gentle lines of the early Renaissance Masters, and the room and furnishings reflect that period’s love of detail for its own sake.  The folds of the clothes are lovingly detailed and at the same time flat – aping the sometimes unsure sense of depth found in early Renaissance pictures.  Also present is an out-of-window view, another favorite trope of the early Renaissance, featuring something that comments on the foreground action.  Though I can’t be sure, it certainly looks to my eye like Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life … which justified the faith of both Mary and Martha.

Move Overbeck tomorrow.

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