From the outset, Hendrick Goltzius (1558 - 1617) gained recognition for both his technical virtuosity and the creativity of his pictorial inventions. He was especially noted for his capacity to imitate the styles and print techniques of other artists – while at the same time surpassing them with artistic comment.
This exhibition is a collaboration between Augustinermuseum Freiburg and the Art Collection of Georg-August-Universität Göttingen. It brings together selected works from Goltzius’ extensive and varied printmaking body of work, retracing his artistic journey from his debut work as a publisher to his final print design. This re-examination of his career exposes a particular fascination with transformation, most notably: as leitmotif in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; in his use of sophisticated and complex artistic techniques; in his propensity for the visually deceptive; and, lastly, as the modus operandi of his own career as an artist.
How can art be successful? This is the question that Goltzius’ Fortuna series attempts to address, in his first endeavour as a newly established publisher. Art and Practice proposes that art is a balancing act between an idea and its implementation. Goltzius knew what he was talking about. By the time his Roman Heroes series was published, he had gained the reputation of a technical virtuoso. Characteristic of his style at this time were his excessively muscular bodies, whose anatomically exaggerated forms came to be known as “bulbous style”.
With his publishing debut, Goltzius made an entrepreneurial and artistic mark. The figures of artistry and practice, completely immersed in writing, symbolize the union of theory and practice. The sheet is part of his Fortuna series, with which Goltzius shows what constitutes a successful artist's career.
They crossed lines, cheated, and enraged the gods. While the Fates tirelessly weave the thread of life, the anti-heroes revolt against the authority of morality, reason, and divine order. Goltzius reached new heights around 1588 by developing his technique further: Employing swelling lines and hatching, he was able to evoke a sense of great plasticity in the falling bodies. By applying different amounts of pressure with the blade of the burin, the lines swell, widen, and taper off in clear lines. The circular shape of the tondo reinforces the torque depicted and, in doing so, places the anatomy of the naked body centre stage.
Illustrating Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a popular endeavour for 16th century artists. These mythological stories of transformation, narrated by Ovid across 15 volumes, provided great space and scope for artistic imagination. The illustrations which accompanied the texts were published in numerous series, particularly in letterpress printing. It was Goltzius’ ambition to illustrate the Metamorphoses in their entirety as a print series. In 1589, he began work on drawings which would form the basis of 52 engravings which his workshop would produce until 1604. It was his intention to set himself apart from earlier illustrative versions by creating a visual equivalent to Ovid’s poetry, infamous for its continuously evolving narrative.
Journey to Italy
There was a long-established tradition for artists from Northern Europe to travel to Italy and study the art of antiquity there and, in 1590, Goltzius himself made the journey. He particularly wanted to practice drawing in-situ – in front of the antique works of art – in order to hone his technique to perfection. These drawings then served as the basis for later engravings, among them the Apollo Belvedere. The prints should have been published in a comprehensive catalogue, but this over-ambitious project was never completed. Goltzius’ journey to Italy marked a significant turning point in his stylistic development as an artist. Acquiring a classical vocabulary, he left behind the excessive quality of his earlier designs.
Experiments in Colour
Goltzius’ woodcuts differ notably in technique and style from his engravings. With engraving, fine lines are scored in copper plates (known as intaglio printing), whereas with woodcut printmaking, everything which should not appear in the print is cut away from the surface of a block of wood. Consequently, the visible lines of the woodcut print are those parts at surface level (known as relief printing). Goltzius achieved pictorial quality in his coloured woodcuts by using multiple “tone” blocks in addition to the more conventional black-inked block. This approach produced an effect of dark and light through the over-layering of yellow/ochre and olive-green colouring onto a blank sheet of paper which, itself, provided the lightest shade of the palette.
Artist(s) of Transformation
With his Virtuoso series, Goltzius set out with the express aim of producing art in the style of other artists. This series consists of six pieces, crafted in the style of different artists (some of which can be clearly identified). However, Goltzius’ ultimate ambition stretched beyond merely copying the originals. It was his desire to surpass them in the level of craftsmanship on display. The Adoration of the Shepherds is said to be Goltzius’ last print design, and it remains unfinished. Goltzius the artist underwent a “metamorphosis” of his own, turning away from printmaking and dedicating himself exclusively to painting.
Verwandlung der Welt: Meisterblätter von Hendrick Goltzius. Begleitbuch zur Ausstellung. Hrsg. von Stephanie Stroh, Anne-Katrin Sors und Michael Thimann. Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag 2020.
The exhibition catalogue is available in the museum shop.