Off the table soon?

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Shows like the Met’s on Mannerist painter Bartholomeus Spranger could become a rare treat

Spranger’s Hercules and Omphale, around 1585 (detail), and Jupiter and Antiope, 1595-97, both lent by the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

Following exhibitions devoted to Hans von Aachen (Aachen, 2010) and Arcimboldo (Vienna/Paris 2008 and Washington 2010) comes the latest—and certainly the steamiest—monographic show devoted to an artist of the Court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II of Prague.

“Bartholomeus Spranger: Splendour and Eroticism in Imperial Prague” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is the first major exhibition devoted to this Antwerp-born master (1546-1611), the suavest proponent of Mannerism at its wittiest and most elegantly sybaritic, who became the leading painter of Rudolph’s remarkably progressive court. Spranger’s distinctive style spread throughout Europe via engravings, which were of prime importance to the young Dutch Mannerists, notably Hendrick Goltzius and Abraham Bloemaert.

Through 40 drawings and 27 paintings, the Met exhibition explores the artist’s hitherto little known formative years in Parma, Milan and Rome where, inspired by Parmigianino and Zuccari, he absorbed the modern Italian Manner more than any previous Netherlandish artist, becoming friends with Giulio Clovio and Giambologna. Like most Mannerist artists, Spranger’s fame was eclipsed by the beginning of the 17th century and if his art was noticed at all, it was generally damned as (in the words of one mid-19th century British critic) “heavy, gross and distorted”. It was not until the 20th century that Spranger began to be reappraised and restored to his rightful place in the annals of Northern painting.

Organised by Sally Metzler of Northwestern University, the exhibition also serves as the Met’s final bow to its instigator George Goldner, who retires after 21 years as chief curator of the museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings. Goldner considerably expanded the Met’s thin collection of Mannerist graphic art, purchasing all three of its Spranger drawings and, when Metzler (who had been working on Spranger for more than 20 years) was an intern in Goldner’s department three years ago preparing for her Spranger catalogue raisonée, he encouraged her to organise the show to accompany its publication.

As nearly all of the artist’s paintings and drawings reside in German and Eastern European museums (the Met’s European Paintings department owns nothing by him), the show would not have happened without loans from the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna (the owner of the largest group of paintings by the artist), which lent six pictures, including the delectably subversive Hercules and Omphale, around 1585, and the aggressively amorous Jupiter and Antiope, 1595-97, the Albertina, which lent six drawings, and the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, which lent four pictures, including St Luke Painting the Virgin, 1582, one of the rare sacred subjects by the artist. Other works in the show, which is sponsored by the Placido Arango Fund and the Schiff Foundation, include Venus and Adonis, 1585, from the Rijksmuseum and an early Mystic Marriage of St Catherine from a private collection in London.

One wishes the exhibition well. At a moment when most US museums twist themselves into Mannerist contortions in the service of the most modish contemporary art, one worries that such delicious aesthetic Old Master caviar may not be on future museum menus.

“Bartholomeus Spranger: Splendour and Eroticism in Imperial Prague”, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 4 November-1 February 2015

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