Turmoil and Tranquility

For weeks now — actually, now that I do the sums, the word ‘months’ might be more accurate — I have been trying, and failing, to finish writing something on the subject of the Royal Academy’s current Cranach exhibition.

What keeps putting me off? The draft already runs to thousands of words. I’ve long since read, and indeed entirely forgotten, quite a lot of the catalogue.

Yet somehow, between all those fakes and forgeries, the sharp-elbowed smirking nudes describing smooth amoral S-curves in depthless space, the frankness and opacity of the portraits, the pungent obscurities of the relevant phase of reformation-era theological disputes, the politics, the sanguinary hell of the Peasant’s War, the contemplation of these problematic factors interrupted all too often by a banal hallucination in which some ominous sonderweg threads its way through dark forests to the usual, bleak, ‘inevitable’ conclusion — the sort of hallucination that always always seems to me, in itself, the strongest of arguments for formalism of the most austerely fundamentalist sort — well, err, somehow, other projects just keep taking priority. Hence, no Cranach today — nor, alas, any time very soon.

On the other hand, news of the forthcoming exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, endowed with the stirring title Turmoil and Tranquility, fills me with hope and wonder. Displaying, not before time, the museum’s famously important collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish seascapes, the final result must, surely, be a marriage between beautiful painting and bracing history. (The picture above, Sailors sheltering from a clearing rainstorm by Bonaventura Peeters the Elder, shows the moral and emotional charge, none the worse for not being wildly subtle, this strand of visual culture can also deliver.) And as if further blandishments were required, the setting is the Queen’s House, Greenwich — without doubt, one of Britain’s most absolutely faultless buildings, blessed with magnificent natural light, excellent views and poignant, if not always happy historical memories.

In any event, whatever defect of personality somehow held me back from embracing Cranach more fully, propels me headlong towards Turmoil and Tranquility. Who knows, someday I may even actually post a proper review.

(Turmoil and Tranquility runs from 20 June 2008 to 11 January 2009 at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.)


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