A man, naked, his pale flesh splotched with blood, hangs from a rope tied around his waist. His body is bent double; hands tied to feet that are secured to the wood platform on which he stands. Beside him a fully dressed fellow in jolly striped trousers slowly tightens the screws of this torture device. The pour soul will die before he is torn in two. This is only one of the gruesome horrors perpetrated in “The Torture of the Maccabean Brothers”, painted in Cologne in the early 16th century. It is one of 22 late medieval and mainly German paintings in a selling exhibition now at the Richard Feigen gallery in New York, which opened earlier this month. The works belong to Sam Fogg, a London dealer; his gallery isn’t big enough to house them. At Feigen the walls have been painted a deep, rich blue which nicely sets off the gold in a number of the works. The effect is handsome, but it cannot disguise the fact these are not paintings for the faint-hearted.
The best art dealers are gamblers. They put their money, as well as their reputations, on the line when they buy works to sell. Fogg, a specialist in medieval and Indian art, is particularly keen on taking risks. In the last decade he has staged selling exhibitions of Ethiopian and Armenian art for which there was no apparent existing market. These shows were critical successes, and the Ethiopian art sold particularly well. In effect, Fogg helped create a market for it. Now he is attempting to the same for another neglected genre: late medieval German paintings on wood panels. The current exhibition is one prong of his attack. Another is the hefty scholarly catalogue he commissioned to accompany it, the work of Susie Nash, an art historian at the Courtauld Institute, in a rare collaboration between a commercial dealer and an academic institution. In addition to information about and illustrations of all the works in the exhibition there are detailed condition reports and the results of a high-tech investigation, allowing for a uniquely thorough analysis of the restoration history of these paintings.
These paintings convey a clear-eyed, almost hyper-realistic vision of pain, suffering and evil. Martyrdom is a frequent subject. But they are not all as grisly as “The Torture of the Maccabean Brothers”. Take, for example, “The Conversion of Saul”, painted on spruce panels around 1480 in south Germany or the Eastern Alpine. The central figure is on horseback, his vivid red cloak the dramatic centre of this evocation of Saul's vision of Christ as he rode towards Damascus. In a Swiss painting from about 1490, an endearing, tiny stag peers out from behind St Hubert’s long green cloak.
Fogg states that this is the first big show of such material in the English-speaking world since the 1960s. But there has been interest elsewhere. A highly praised exhibition of paintings from the Netherlands and Central Europe from this era opened in Bruges this time last year.
Prices range from $100,000 to over a million. Seven of the paintings sold within a week of the opening, and another three are reserved. Half of them are destined for American homes. It looks like Fogg’s gamble is paying off. This is another of history’s twists of fate. According to Fogg, the Nazis were particularly keen to acquire German medieval paintings. So much so that they used income from their sales of so-called "degenerate art" to buy them. Many of the Expressionist works removed from those modern art museums found welcome buyers in the United States. This familiarity among Americans with the raw and searing imagery of artists such as George Grosz and Otto Dix may well explain the current openness to and interest in the works of their medieval predecessors. The very first painting sold from this show was "The Torture of the Maccabean Brothers"—the toughest of these works—which went to an American.
“Late Medieval Panel Paintings: Methods, Materials, Meanings” is at the Richard L. Feigen gallery in New York until January 27th.