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Potbellied Nudes, Venuses Crowd Cranach Show in Paris: Review

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Feb. 23 (Bloomberg) -- They call him “the Warhol of the Renaissance.”

Lucas Cranach’s studio in Wittenberg -- where he, his sons and assistants churned out painting after painting -- was nothing short of a factory.

The Cranach exhibition at the Musee du Luxembourg, recently on view in Brussels, is the first ever in Paris.

Like many Renaissance artists, Cranach (1472-1553) was named after his birthplace, Kronach near Bayreuth. His real name was Mueller or Sunder.

Much of his early career is shrouded in mystery. For a couple of years, he worked in Vienna, making a name with powerful biblical scenes. In 1505, Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony, appointed him court painter in Wittenberg where he spent the rest of his life.

The name of the town will ring a bell with Lutherans: This is where Martin Luther, professor of theology at the local university, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church, attacking Rome’s trade in indulgences and thereby kicking off the Reformation.

The artist befriended the young rebel. Luther was the godfather of his eldest daughter. When Luther married the lapsed nun Katharina von Bora, Cranach was his best man.

Cranach became the official painter of the secessionist movement. He portrayed its leaders and gladly depicted the pope as the Antichrist.

Art and Business

That didn’t prevent him from also working for Luther’s archenemy, Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg. Cranach was a shrewd businessman, who never passed up an opportunity to make money. He ran a printing house and, on the lower floor of his home, a pub. When the local pharmacy went up for sale, he bought it. For some time, he was mayor of Wittenberg.

A considerable number of the 80 or so items in the show - - paintings, drawings and engravings -- were produced for customers who cared less for the religious quarrels of the period than for female nudes, biblical or not.

Experts have counted 31 Eves, 32 Venuses and 35 Lucretias among Cranach’s output. A couple of them are on view in Paris, some juxtaposed with similar works of contemporary painters.

Cranach’s ideal of female beauty was a highly personal mix of medieval reserve and Renaissance come-hither sensuality. Their little bellies, though well below Rubensian proportions, would no longer be chic today.

Renaissance Fashionistas

When he dressed his ladies, he did it with an exuberance that made him, in the words of the art historian Kenneth Clark, “the patron saint of all fashion designers.”

One of the strangest canvases in the show depicts the wrestling match between Hercules and Antaeus. Not only does Hercules sport a three-day beard; the defeated giant dies in the contorted posture of a swastika.

The inscription on Cranach’s tomb in Weimar calls him “Pictor Celerrimus,” or Fastest of Painters. It’s an elegant way to say his later work often has an assembly-line feel, like Warhol’s. Still, there’s much to admire in this show.

“Cranach and His Time” is at the Musee du Luxembourg, Paris, through May 23. Information: http://www.museeduluxembourg.fr or +33-1-4013-6200.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of the story: Jorg von Uthmann in Paris at uthmann@wanadoo.fr.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.