January 3, 2011

Some degree of beauty

This is something special. A pietà from 1774 by Ignaz Günther in a chapel on the village graveyard of Nenningen in the Swabian countryside. You’re standing in the back of the small room a little to the right of center. It’s amazing how much the picture changes when you shuffle a few feet sideways. The postcard view is from dead center, more harmonious but also sort of undecided around where the figures grow out of the base. From where you now stand the construction lays bare, and the statics of the load that Mary has to bear become tangible (take the load off her, will you). This is the spot from where you can draw the nicest compositional diagram—there are four cavities: the two mouths, opened in pain past and present, Jesus’ gaping wound, and the hands barely holding each other. Together these four form a cross standing on its head. Some limbs of Jesus are sagging mightily, but part of his body seems to work at keeping upright, exploiting the support that rigor mortis offers and the magnetism of bodily affection. Again, shuffle sideways by a few feet and his left hand which rests in his mother’s in a sort of resigned trust becomes a claw frozen in a final cramp.

Wood is the material to strike this balance, rigid with a hint of flexibility, with a weightiness that seems in relation to the human body. The color mounting fits like a tight skin in a perfect shade of pale, and it’s not like in stone sculpture where a successful impression of something soft and vulnerable always is a virtuosic miracle against nature (and this is not at all meant as a nod to the dead boulder that is Michelangelo’s pièta), but somehow warm and human . . . read Michael Baxandall’s wonderful book on the German limewood sculptors of an earlier epoch to learn how humanism lay in their medium of choice already.

Jesus is worn down by exhaustion from insufferable pain and the exertion of saving our souls; Mary’s grief is dynamic, she has ergonomically followed his body’s contortions to always ease the suffering. Their opened mouths bring to mind that Lessing had published his Laocoön only a few years before, in 1766. You have heard this before: “There are passions and degrees of passion whose expression produces the most hideous contortions of the face, and throws the whole body into such unnatural positions as to destroy all the beautiful lines that mark it when in a state of greater repose. These passions the old artists either refrained altogether from representing, or softened into emotions which were capable of being expressed with some degree of beauty.” It’s highly improbable that Günther had read these words, their two worlds were far apart—the first German freelance writer in Berlin (thanks for the introduction of this form of drudgery, dude) and the leading sculptor of catholic Bavarian “rococo”. But they both were concerned with the same issues, and the sculptor clearly took a lot from classicism in his last years to deepen the emotional impact of his work (which is the opposite direction to the schematizing tendencies of high classicism).

Googling the chapel to verify that I didn’t dream it up, I see that it has suffered a prize-winning restoration three years ago and will now work as a distancing instrument between viewer and art. So read me as a voice from the past.

1 comment:

  1. 'nicest compositional diagram'...and there are the eye holes... slit wounds represented. oh and the super contrasting boob form with directional creases! deffo 'central' to the pieta mother-child thing,,, other stars in your crucifix constellation?.. . thanks for the lessons in looking etc. good point-ing!. x.