Artwatch UK

How ‘good taste’ destroyed art

7 April 2014

Florence Hallett writes:

The wretched prospect of an altarpiece deliberately diminished as a result of an historic acquisitions policy dominates the National Gallery’s current exhibition, Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance. The exhibition presents the weaknesses of the Gallery’s collection of German Renaissance paintings as a consequence of nineteenth century taste, which overwhelmingly favoured Italian art. The surviving panels from the late fifteenth century Liesborn Altarpiece were bought by the Gallery in 1854 on the instructions of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, the acquisition causing such public uproar that an Act of Parliament was passed to allow its resale. But instead of selling all the panels together, the Gallery retained eight so that the already fragmented altarpiece was, in effect, flung to the four winds. The altarpiece has been reconstructed for this exhibition, the National Gallery’s eight panels accompanied by monochrome reproductions of those held by other museums and making a sorry, perhaps even repentant, sight.

Florence Hallett is a freelance writer on art.

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Above, Figs. 1 to 4 showing the whole (top) and three section details (above) of the fifteenth century Liesborn Altarpiece which has been reconstructed for the National Gallery’s current exhibition, Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance. The monochrome reproductions represent panels sold by the National Gallery shortly after its purchase in 1854; they highlight the extent to which an already fragmented object was further diminished. (Photograph by courtesy of the National Gallery.)
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