Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 28, 1999
Julien Chapuis Tilman Riemenschneider: Master Sculptor of the Late Middle Ages Yale University Press, 1999. 352 pp.; 150 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (0300081626)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., October 3, 1999-January 9, 2000; Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 10-May 14, 2000.

Most Americans will know about Tilman Riemenschneider from the wonderful 1980 publication, Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, by Michael Baxandall, one of the rare discussions of German wood sculpture in English, or perhaps from the scattered fragments of the artist’s works in American museums, such as Cleveland or Raleigh (an essay by William Wixom in the present catalogue chronicles “Riemenschneider in America” and offers a useful checklist). Now viewers have the opportunity to visit an unprecedented exhibition of the artist’s works, first in Washington and then in New York, thanks to the remarkable organizational, curatorial, and editorial skills of Julien Chapuis of the Cloisters. The sumptuous catalogue that accompanies the exhibition displays frequent color, an impressive array of essays by leading contributors (many from Germany), and full entries for each object on display.

The purpose of this review, however, is not merely to review the catalogue, although as the permanent record of a major exhibition and one of the most accessible, focused studies on this master sculptor, this volume deserves scrutiny on its own. The first priority really should be to assess how effectively such an exhibition can work to suggest the achievement of Riemenschneider in the gallery and also to gesture at the integral altarpieces, still in situ in Germany (as well as in German museums), which could not be relocated for purposes of temporary exhibition.

On one level, the exhibition is a resounding success. The variety of Riemenschneider’s materials is very much in evidence, with the contrast between his soft brown, unpainted limewood figures, his polished white alabasters, and his muted gray sandstone statues. Polychromy is not a frequent accent, but the imposing Cleveland and Frankfurt standing saints (cat. no. 32), reunited for the exhibition, suggest the more dominant form of German altarpiece figuration, echoed in a few lesser pieces of the exhibition. One might have wished for a few more comparisons of this kind, since the exhibition willingly included a few precedents to Riemenschneider and a single (lonely and not very evident) Stoss comparison; one can find these juxtapositions in the catalogue, in Hartmut Krohm’s magisterial essay, “The Sources of Riemenschneider’s Art.” To a certain extent the catalogue also compensates elsewhere with color essay illustrations, such as the works in Michele Marincola’s “The Surfaces of Riemenschneider.” So it is also to the essays, chiefly the lead essay by Chapuis, that one must turn to see the great extant retable ensembles of Riemenschneider in Rothenburg, Creglingen, Maidbronn; for the marble tombs of the Würzburg prince-bishops in the cathedral of his home town, we must consult Stephan Kemperdick’s sketch, “A Sculptor in Würzburg.”

Thus, the first impression to the specialist visiting the exhibition in its Washington incarnation remains one of lack: lack of any full single retable ensemble, lack of comparable polychromed figures and lack of visual representation of missing imagery in the form of reproductions (the National Gallery has a longstanding policy, it seems, against “visual aids” to fill in their exhibitions with necessary comparanda, though the reconstituted Münnerstadt Altarpiece in situ is offered as a photomural alongside the loaned portions in the exhibition, and there were instructive wall texts and woodcut illustrations of carving techniques for both wood and stone). To be sure, the exhibition offered some impressive reconstitutions of fragmented altarpieces, most notably Münnerstadt (cat. no. 13), where the wings and predella from Berlin and Munich were reassembled; or the reunited Frankfurt-Cleveland saints (no. 32). Equally notable were a few imposing groups of figures, such as the small but moving Darmstadt Crucifixion (no. 33) and especially the full-scale Lamentation, an unpainted limewood group from the parish church at Grossostheim. These were framed with special nichelike constructions in the exhibition (sometimes with rounded arches, not very period appropriate, but at least given visual isolation and special mounting).

Most confusing of all in the visit to the exhibition was the organization and layout of the sequence of rooms. The sculptures were housed in the high-ceilinged main floor of the National Gallery, within the sequence of rooms normally housing the permanent collection of German paintings from the same period. The net effect of these pleasant spaces was mixed for the sculptures, however; smaller pieces seemed dwarfed by the high ceilings, whereas the large figure groups were able to assert their presence in ample rooms. For the most part, the tiny cases of small pieces at the outset were low for easy viewing by adult visitors, but the larger works on more elevated pedestals were shown to good advantage. Chronology seemed to be the first basis for the arrangement, with early works in the first room and late works in the last room, but in between neither themes nor periods seemed really to control the organization. Moreover, some of the frequent themes, particularly the Madonna on the Crescent, were divided into almost every room with only the last displays ever explaining the importance of this theme, as an image of the Immaculate Conception, an indulgenced image and a frequent focus for rosary devotion. Surely many of the visitors would have benefited from knowing more about the actual prayer-based use of such imagery. Other themes, such as the Fourteen Helper Saints, might well have received fuller functional discussion. On the other hand, technical and formal considerations were helpfully cued by the unobtrusive but frequent labels.

Certainly the visitor to Washington can learn about Riemenschneider’s figure types and favorite themes, and can even make some comparative visual judgments about his use of a workshop in the latter rooms. The visitor can see the difference between works in various materials, particularly alabaster, limewood, and sandstone. A few stylistic comparisons to other artists are offered, such as Gerhaert and an anonymous Strasbourg carver, but the one Stoss comparison, located in the middle of a room near the conclusion of the exhibition (Tobias and the Angel from Nuremberg,1516; no. 25), reveals more about the virtuoso folds of the latter than any common outlook toward material or figure presentation (its somewhat empty facial expressions actually offers a subtle indictment of Riemenschneider’s own rather passionless features but is at odds with the greater fervor characteristic of Stoss).

In short, the visitor to the exhibition in Washington would be well-advised to buy and read the well-illustrated catalogue as part of a tour of the galleries, in part for the excellent entries on individual pieces with numerous comparative illustrations of works not on view. The catalogue will also convey to the nonspecialist some of the most impressive achievements of Riemenschneider as well as provide a variety of current approaches to that material: sources and origins (Krohm), local craft regulations and conditions of work (Kemperdick), formal qualities and aesthetic norms (Baxandall and Marincola), and historical and critical fortune (Borchert and Wixom). It should be noted that an impressive international symposium, held in Washington in early December (and scheduled for eventual publication by the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts), also structured its topics around the following general approaches: Defining the Oeuvre, Aesthetic Choice and Late Medieval Taste, Context, Technology and Materials, and the Dialogue between Riemenschneider and Others (including graphic artists as well as audiences).

From Washington the exhibition moves to New York, although its location is not yet clear: the period-evocative Cloisters collection or the Metropolitan Museum’s own various venues? After the skylights and flexibly neutral environs of the National Gallery, one realizes how important display conditions are for the appreciation of these works and their varied scales and materials. Washington did display some of these works to great advantage, but one cannot help feeling that the presence of other altarpiece ensembles and stone churchlike surroundings at the Cloisters would make it an even more evocative and lasting experience.

Larry Silver
Farquhar Professor of History of Art, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania