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UPDATE: LACMA amends 'celebration' of Protestant Reformation to include Luther's anti-Semitism

by Marc Haefele | Off-Ramp

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Lucas Cranach the Elder (Workshop of), Portrait of Martin Luther, 1532 © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister/ Hans-Peter Klut

"Renaissance and Reformation: German Art in the Age of Dürer and Cranach" is at LACMA's Resnick Pavilion til March 26, 2017.

UPDATE 1/3/2017: On Dec. 14, two weeks after Marc's commentary ran on KPCC's Off-Ramp, LACMA added the following to the exhibit's main wall didactic and says it made changes to the audio tour as well:

"This exhibition is a celebration of the Reformation and of its impact on European culture. Martin Luther was the key figure in the Reformation. His ideas and actions were marked by controversy, and his writings could be particularly virulent to groups beyond the Roman Catholic Church. He supported, for instance, the repression of the peasants' revolts in 1525 and sided with the powerful, who in return protected him. Particularly unacceptable were his anti-Semitic feelings, which he expressed in several pamphlets. Although Lutheran churches have over the years distanced themselves from Luther's positions on the subject, there is no denying that Luther's anti-Semitism was used by the Nazis to foster their own. Luther's positions on Islam were equally inflammatory.

"Renaissance and Reformation: German Art in the Age of Dürer and Cranach is in no way an endorsement of Luther's beliefs on these subjects. The works in this exhibit have been selected primarily for their beauty, but also to evoke a major cultural shift in Europe by bringing together some of the finest works by the greatest German artists, painters, sculptors, and craftsmen of the Renaissance and Reformation periods."

Marc responds: I appreciate that their corrections underline Luther's infamies.  I might further point out that, while Luther did at one point castigate Muslims, in Luther's time, the armies of Islam were engaged in total war with Christian Europe, while the Jews were a small, powerless, and inoffensive segment of the European population. And Luther's "On the Jews and Their Lies" was a full-length book; he did also write some anti-Semitic pamphlets.

LACMA’s observation of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is a mighty production from three major German museums: the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, and the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen München. It’s exhaustive, inspiring, beautiful, unique … and disturbing.

500 years ago, rich principalities among the incoherent Catholic entity known as the Holy Roman Empire eased away from the teachings of Rome. Generations of dissent focused on a single prelate, Martin Luther, who in 1517 published 95 resolutions against the Church — the big one being that people could not save their sinful souls merely by giving money to the Pope.

It was one of history’s major spiritual convulsions, and it produced an outpouring of visual art the German-speaking countries of Europe had never experienced … and birthed the original scurrilous mass media.

“Renaissance and Reformation,” at LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion, offers us work from the titans and the lesser known. So here we have Holbein, and works by Albrecht Durer, best known for his myriad engravings, that show he may have been the finest German painter of all.

Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of Jakob Muffel, 1526
Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of Jakob Muffel, 1526 Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Jörg P. Anders / Art Resource, NY

There’s a superb array of works by the Cranach's, father and son. Cranach the Elder, like Durer, worked for both Catholic and Protestant patrons. LACMA has also gathered fine work by artists far less known, like Hans Baldung Grien and Melchior Feselen.

Hans Baldung Grien's Portrait of Ludwig Count von Löwenstein, 1513
Hans Baldung Grien's Portrait of Ludwig Count von Löwenstein, 1513 bpk, Berlin / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Art Resource, NY

There is an affecting transition here, as the great religious painting of the Renaissance, with its mighty triptychs and frescos, gives way to a more individual and realistic style of portraiture, and the more personal style of artistic religiosity that brought us Durer’s “Praying Hands” and Holbein’s mighty “Christ in his Tomb.” Another art revolution came via the printing press: not just books, but pictures rolled off the presses. Durer’s major income source was the stream of engravings that he and his wife Agnes peddled all over Central Europe. These included some of his greatest and most famous pictures, like the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and “St. Jerome in his Study,” both of which are at LACMA.

Printing also produced what the exhibition rightly terms the invention of mass media as religious propaganda broadsheets — vicious captioned cartoons showing the Pope as the devil, or Luther as a 7-headed monster.

Hans Sebald Beham, Allegory of Monachism,1521
Hans Sebald Beham, Allegory of Monachism,1521 Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Kupferstich-Kabinett/ Herbert Boswank

This material was distributed on both sides by the tens of thousands, waging an indelible war of words that often fueled the war of swords that raged until 1648. (The show appropriately includes many ornate weapons of the period.)

Jörg Ziegler, Head of a Stag with Monstrous Antlers
Jörg Ziegler, Head of a Stag with Monstrous Antlers Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Kupferstich-Kabinett/ Herbert Boswank

The art is glorious, but the tone of the show uncomfortably exults the Reformation. LACMA’s Chief Curator of European Art, J. Patrice Marandel, said at the press preview, “The spirit of the Reformation changed the world for the better.”

Few historians see it that simply. For one thing, the religious battles that followed the Reformation killed off 40% of Germany’s population alone: it took 130 years for Europe’s leadership to realize warfare can’t settle religious differences. For another, the great Martin Luther, simply by being the most prominent Anti-Semite of the 16th Century, inspired the centuries of German bigotry against Jewish people that culminated in Hitler. Luther wrote a book, widely circulated both in his time and Hitler’s, called “Jews and Their Lies,” and the last sermon he ever preached called for Jews either to convert or be killed. In his time, Jews were driven out of Nuremberg, Regensburg, and other German cities. 

The title page of Martin Luther's book, "The Jews and their Lies"
The title page of Martin Luther's book, "The Jews and their Lies" Wikipedia Commons

The exhibit’s $50 catalog briefly notes Luther’s anti-Semitism, but the wall copy, which is what most people will see, doesn’t even mention this tragic underside of the glorious Reformation. Via a LACMA spokesperson, curator Marandel explained that mentioning that Luther was an anti-Semite did not seem essential, especially since the museum didn’t have a copy of “Jews and Their Lies” to display.

But it is essential, and not mentioning it is a serious historical inaccuracy, idealizing an historic movement while ignoring its deep, dark flaws. An old saying goes, “where God builds a cathedral, the Devil will build a chapel.” The devil built a megachurch right inside the Mighty Reformation.

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