A Wistful Master

The Metropolitan Museum’s current exhibition of the sculpture of Tilman Riemenschneider and some contemporaries is, I would guess, the most exquisite package to arrive on these shores from pre-modern Northern Europe since the Vermeer show at Washington’s National Gallery in 1995-1996. As with the Vermeer, there is a problem of seeing. The Vermeer paintings, though most of the twenty-three had a wall to themselves, were hard to glimpse through the scrum of art lovers in front of each; and, once a view had been obtained, it was hard to maintain it for more than a moment in the press of bodies. The Riemenschneider exhibit is besieged by no such throngs, but its elements, ingeniously mounted through seven spacious chambers, pose in acute form the perennial visual problem of sculpture: From what angle is it best, or most appropriately, viewed?

A color reproduction of a painting gives us, as precisely as the printer’s process can manage, the thing itself, minus only the (not inconsiderable) qualities of its texture and scale. Sculpture, however, exists in three dimensions, and in variable light, so that no photograph, even in as exemplary and weighty a catalog as this one, can be definitive for more than one moment, usually a frontal and evenly lit moment, in a potentially infinite array of appearances.

Most of these pieces were designed as aids to worship, mounted in churches at some height above the congregation and to be seen, dramatically shadowed, in the trembling soft glow of candlelight. Is it proper to approach, as I did in hopes of duplicating a supplicant’s aesthetic sensations, a large limewood representation of the Virgin and Child, raised on the museum wall to place her feet level with my eyes, so closely that, looking upward, I created steep perspectives wherein hands, drapery, and the two holy heads achieved a dramatic, foreshortened conjunction? Was it legitimate to admire, from the side, in the Seated Virgin and Child attributed to Michel Erhart, the way the Christ child’s tiny uplifted right arm is free-standing in the narrow slot of space between his mother’s abdomen and her arm, which thrusts into the Man-God’s mouth one of the world’s earliest (circa 1480) representations of a pacifier? More urgently still, did it deviate from permissible connoisseurship to look behind the wooden tableaux that predominate in Riemenschneider’s late work, and to see, with a perverse thrill, that the figures so impressive and finely worked from the front are hollowed out like huge salad bowls, figures five feet high but hardly more than six inches deep? Riemenschneider, we feel, somehow tricked his public with such august trompe l’oeil, but the modern museumgoer sneaks behind the altarpiece and catches him out.

In his 1955 Mellon Lectures for the Fine Arts, The Art of Sculpture, Herbert Read claimed that sculpture appeals to the “haptic” sense. The word, scarcely heard of in 1955, can now be found in dictionaries, defined as “related to or based …

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