BY Shira Brisman in Opinion | 25 SEP 17
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Issue 6

The Proximity Effect

On the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Shira Brisman looks at how museums around the world are commemorating Martin Luther's radicalism 

BY Shira Brisman in Opinion | 25 SEP 17

‘Here I stand’ are the most famous words that the German theologian Martin Luther never said. His pronouncement in 1521, closing the speech in which he refused to recant his anti-papal writings at the Diet of Worms – an assembly presided over by Emperor Charles V – likely did not issue from his mouth. Absent from the records of witnesses, the saying was added as the ultimate line in printed editions of his defence, which circulated three decades after the event. And yet, the rhetorical force of the locution is telling if we consider the Reformation’s troubled relationship with the particularity of place. ‘Here I stand,’ affirms the monk’s moral position with a proverbial digging of heels into ground.

Marking 2017 as the Reformation’s quincentennial year, museums across the world have mounted major exhibitions – including three in Germany alone – that make different points about the relationship of Lutheranism to locale. ‘Luther and the Germans’ in the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach (all shows run until 5 November), the place where Luther sought refuge after his interrogation at Worms, explores the influence of his revolution on his native culture. At the Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt in Wittenberg (the town where he taught theology), the formation of Luther’s identity as a national hero is explored in ‘Luther! 95 Treasures – 95 People’, which connects the theologian’s maverick courage to such figures as German writers Karl May and Thomas Mann as well as American activists Martin Luther King, Jr. and Edward Snowden. In the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, ‘The Luther Effect’ tracks the global reach of Luther’s reform by dedicating sections to different regions with massive populations of Protestants: Sweden, North America, South Korea and Tanzania.

The effectiveness of Protestant missionaries in these regions is conveyed through objects native to these places as well as artworks that attest to the merging of cultures. On display, for example, are Wampum beads made by North American Indians out of quahog shells, which were used to barter with colonists arriving from European shores. Paintings of the ‘Life of Christ’ (c.1950) by the Seoul-born artist Kim Ki-Chang, stage the narratives familiar to Christian iconography with characters bearing South Korean features and inhabiting Asian architectural settings. The contemporary Berlin-based photographer Karsten Hein was commissioned by the exhibition’s curators to portray the current practices of Protestants in East Africa. Hein’s camera captures baptisms, bible readings, choir festivals, exorcisms and healings in Tanzania. He conveys through his images the charisma of community leaders; you can almost hear the boisterous energy of their songs.

Cultural history exhibitions such as these gather a range of objects that offer different connections to a person or religious movement. On display in Wittenberg are the results of archaeological digs, such as a gold ring missing its stone, exhumed from the grounds of Luther’s house. The roughed-up metal that once clutched the gem is a reminder that, for every unearthed historical clue, there are always pieces of evidence that fail to appear. The ring recalls, but only by speculative association, an incident described in a letter to Wolfgang Capito of 1527, in which Luther chastises his fellow theologian for sending a lavish jewel to his wife.

Throughout his writings, Luther argues that his critiques of the clergy and modifications of ritual practice are grounded in scripture. It comes as little surprise, then, that the exhibitions measuring his legacy encase documents such as those with which Luther spread his ideas: published tracts of his considered arguments on theological points. Unlike Twitter feeds, to which his use of the printing press has been compared, these pamphlets were between eight and 16 pages long. But, across the exhibitions, it is the messages which failed to arrive that trouble the triumphal tale of the Reformation as a media success. Amidst the multiple translations and reprints of Luther’s writings distributed throughout far flung cities there were handwritten originals that were not delivered: for example, a letter from Luther to Charles V dated ten days after the Worms speech was never opened by the emperor because no one dared give him a missive in which the theologian affirmed his stringent criticism of the Catholic Church. The untransmitted letter was purchased in 1911 by the American art patron John Pierpont Morgan and given to Wilhelm II (the last emperor in Germany’s history) as a diplomatic gift.

The most ambitious exhibition in the USA, ‘Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation’, was staged by the Minneapolis Institute of Art late last year. A wide range of objects – finely woven liturgical vestments, gilded reliquary containers, palace guards’ engraved spear heads and a haunting plague mask resembling the nightmarish disfigurations of Hieronymus Bosch’s hybrid forms – provided an introduction to ecclesiastical practice, imperial rule and the dangers of daily life in the early 16th century. To introduce Luther’s critics and allies, engravings by Albrecht Dürer – such as his study from 1519 of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg – joined portrait paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder of the Saxon Princes. The so-called Gotha Altar (named for its current location; it was likely originally commissioned by the ducal house of Württemberg), an altarpiece with over 160 panels, dating from 1539–41, and attributed to the workshop of Heinrich Füllmaurer, demonstrated, with painted scenes from the life of Christ and cartouches with textual passages from the German New Testament, the kind of didactic art that Luther sanctioned to be used as a teaching tool.

Just as Luther debated the ethics of a dark money trail, artists today are calling attention to the failures of our highest institutions.

The intelligence of the Minneapolis exhibition was to unite objects that share visual motifs and then to explain how they might, in fact, have played very different roles. One gallery displayed an indulgence box, a chest that gathered funds from the sale of notes promising release from purgatory. A few rooms later, another, similar-looking box was introduced as a common chest from Wittenberg’s parish church. This coffer, rather than funnelling funds to the papacy in Rome, collected money for loans to local citizens and payouts to teachers, church workers and those in need of welfare.

Luther has been heralded as a social reformer, a public-relations strategist and a theologian who could modify his interpretations of scripture for different audiences. He is also known for his moderate stance on the role of images in worship. While extremists such as Andreas Karlstadt (the Wittenberg professor and cleric who performed the first reformed communion while Luther was hiding at Wartburg Castle in 1521) and Huldrych Zwingli (who advanced the Reformation’s cause in Switzerland) argued for the removal of sculptures, paintings and other forms of ecclesiastical art, Luther asserted that the faith within the individual’s heart mattered more than external stimuli. The effects of the reforms that Luther instigated on the Church’s use of art played out differently in different places. Varying attitudes towards the destruction or removal of images must be considered on the level of local communities. Some places violently destroyed what they deemed offensive, such as statues of the Virgin and Child or reliquaries with the bones of saints, while in other places, town council members organized the dismantling and storage of artworks in an orderly fashion. Other cities quietly covered up their churches’ finery.

Erhard Schön, Demon playing monk bagpipe, c.1535, coloured woodcut and typographic text, 37 x 27 cm. Courtesy: Foundation Schloss Friedenstein Gotha and Minneapolis Institute of Art

The long-term effects of the 16th century’s religious reforms on the course of art history have been characterized either by considering the direct impact of iconoclasm on visual strategies of representation or by emphasizing the new forms of art-making that were born out of a decline in commissions for the Church. The latter narrative follows the emergence of genres such as landscape or still-life. The former tracks the elements of visual language that seem to admit a discomfort about representation. ‘Religious imagery has iconoclasm built into it,’ Joseph Koerner wrote in his book, The Reformation of the Image (2004), ‘The image of Christ was self-negating from the start.’

Pursuing Protestantism’s impact on the trajectory of modern art is not the aim of this year’s major exhibitions, which are concerned with Luther’s communicative efficacy. In naming 2017 as the Reformation’s 500th year, the organizing institutions nominate Luther’s ‘nailing’ of the 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door as the religious revolution’s originating event. Luther’s list castigates the Church’s practice of diverting individuals away from the work of earning salvation through faith. Moreover, money from the sale of indulgences supported the building of the Basilica of St Peter in Rome. In light of a retrospective re-examining of Luther’s call for transparency – his instigation of public debate around the ethics of a dark money trail – it is vital to consider not how modern art broke off from such concerns, but how contemporary art resonates with them.

Today, socially conscious artists are calling attention to the failures of our highest institutions to attend to human rights, just as Luther rebuked the Catholic Church for failing to care for the individual soul. Sarah Kanouse’s National Toxic Land / Labor Conservation Service (2011–ongoing) is an imaginary federal agency that detects the nefarious impact of the nuclear state. In 2016, the journalist and filmmaker Laura Poitras was given exhibition space in New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art to create a multmedia installation that provoked consideration of the relationship of individual privacy to national surveillance. And Steve Rowell’s Parallelograms (2013–16) is a map of dots that shows corporate, industrial and political connections across Washington, D.C.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Martin Luther, 1528, oil on wood, 36 x 26 cm. Courtesy: Luther Memorials Foundation, Saxony-Anhalt  

In earlier decades, the art that most readily recalled Luther’s tactics might have been the works that employed language to critique capitalism’s imbrication with art. Jenny Holzer’s Money Creates Taste (from her series ‘Truisms’, 1978–87), involved engraving this phrase on silver spoons, posting it on billboards and projecting it with LED lights for drivers on highways – who are accustomed to seeing ads, not art – to read as they passed by. Ken Aptekar’s Pink Frick (1993) is a rose-tinted reproduction of a Rembrandt self-portrait, owned by the industrialist Henry Clay Frick, which disfigures the Old Master image with a repeated phrase that includes the name of the man who bought it. Both pieces summon attention through the impact of the written word. But, in today’s world, it is information –a conglomeration of written, visual and auditory languages – that requires our vigilance. Artists are compilers and re-sorters. Many of them convey that the most effective means of bringing society to honesty is by forging fictive reports and false authorities.

Luther’s critique of church practices called the Christian Church to evaluate what Sergiusz Michalski has called the ‘social costs’ of art – building basilicas before extending benevolence to beggars. Rather than tracking the payments that have funded the Church’s ritual props, we are now in the position to tally the social costs of ignoring what art has to say.

Main image: Kim Ki-Chang, The Annunciation, c.1950, from the series ‘The Life of Christ’, exhibited in ‘The Luther Effect’, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, 2017, as an example of the global reach of the Protestant Reformation. Ink on silk, 64 × 73 cm. Courtesy: Seoul Museum

Shira Brisman is assistant professor of Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, and the author of Albrecht Dürer and the Epistolary Mode of Address (2016).