F.R. has lugged around a massive pair of old books, 25 at 19 inches by 13: “Meisterwerke of German Art” by Carl Thonet Jutsum, 1883-4, and he wonders if the collection of art pictured in these books is still recognized as “Masterpieces.” (That’s what the German word “Meisterwerke” means.)
This is an excellent question, one that goes right to the heart of what makes a work of art “immortal” or “important,” and, furthermore, why some works of art are beloved in some eras and despised in another. Indeed, the very question of “what is a work of art” is broached; although we think that the pieces hanging in our great museums are “masterpieces,” will they be considered such in 200 years?
These two illustrated tomes are a case study in visual culture. To discuss why, we must give recognition to the printmakers who reproduced these works of art, the engravers, etchers, and woodcut copyist of fine art. Yes, this was indeed a career. Copyists were engaged to re-produce fine art from paintings, called “Reproductive Prints After (fill-in artist’s name).” Just a few of the great artists who were reproduced from the 15th to the 20th centuries were Raphael, Rubens, Carracci, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Eyck, Titian, Michelangelo …
In fact, the only way art lovers could see great works was through the publication of prints after a certain work of art. The argument might be made that without the army of copyists through the ages who reproduced fine engravings “after” a work, our world of visual culture would be lacking a good portion of our visual vocabulary when speaking or looking at art.
Here’s an example: the first volume of “Meisterwerke” states that there is no Germanic art before Christianity and uses copies of “great” works to reinforce that statement. As proof, the author, writing in 1880s, states that until Irish Monks brought the Christian Illuminated Manuscript to Europe, no art existed. After the technique of Illumination (illustrating Holy Books) was discovered as practiced in Ireland, German monks in the 7th century began to add simple pen and ink drawings with color to illustrate their manuscripts.
The author gives, as evidence, two German-illustrated manuscripts (814 A.D.), The Bible of St. Paul, and the MS of the Covent of Wessobrunn (815 A.D.).
The author places the beginning of Germanic (called Teutonic) art with the advent of Christianity, which “frames” what the author means when he chooses “Art.” (I wonder if he imagined the reaction in 1908 when the Venus of Willendorf was discovered, dating from 24,000-22,000 B.C.E., now in the Museum of Natural History Vienna)?
The reproduction of certain works of art pictured in many such compendia of geographically specific art reinforced certain cultural biases about what makes a work great.
“Meisterwerke” is no exception. The author lauds the “realistic” nature of German art as a Germanic trait visually expressed.
A world of hurt proceeded from this kind of bias, but also worlds of good. For example, through copyist’s engravings, common folk visited the great works without travel, impossible for centuries. Other artists could see what other artists were doing in other “schools.” Art so copied enjoyed a public forum for discussion and education.
Moreover, books like “Meisterwerke,” whose author used a whole team of engravers and etchers, who traveled to museums and private collections to copy works and, in fact, became “star-makers” though their expert drafting and engraving skills.
To be an artist included in such a book meant an established fame.
But for how long? That’s the question F.R. is asking. Once a work was published, as copied by a master engraver, how long (historically speaking) was a work of art considered a masterpiece?
Since copyists have been copying since the Renaissance, we have a good indication of two factors.
Firstly, book publishers who collected images to publish from fine copyists had great influence over visual culture for centuries, and two, that the art climate changes, often reinforced by copies of art.
Great thinkers like F.R. have asked this same question: is a work of art “itself” only, or does it live only in copies?
I had an up-close exposure to this question when I worked with the eminent dealer Robert Strossi in Boston on a collection of the woodcut engraver Timothy Cole, one of the best and perhaps one of the last great copyists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Look at the collection at Strossi’s Brier Hill Gallery online.
The massive two volumes, if sold, would fetch $390, because of the questions it raises, and the climate that has changed.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.
Volumes of “Meisterwerke of German Art” by Carl Thonet Jutsum could sell for $390. “Meisterwerke” means “masterpieces.”