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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Max J. Friedlander

Max Jakob Friedlander
(not to be confused with art
historian Walter Friedlander)
In dealing with "The Master of..." phenomena yesterday (the item just below) I encountered at art historian who may well have invented the concept and means of "remembering an artist no one remembers."  I don't think I've ever written about an individual art historian before. In delving into the life and writings of Max Friedlander I've discovered the likely reason why--for the most part, they're a dry, colorless, long winded, pretentious lot. Quite frankly, some of those adjectives could easily apply to Friedlander. And, as art historians go, despite some excellent books on the narrow range of "Netherlandish" art from the 15th century, no one is apt to find them topping any best-seller list (even one limited to art history). Yet, he certainly was the foremost authority on his area of expertise, and  he's also quite readable:
 
"Formerly pictures and sculptures were produced in the same spirit as furniture; that is to say, the professional attitude, the relation of the producer to his patron or client, and his social position were those of the craftsman. Art separated in recent times from craftsmanship, or rather, craftsmanship and art parted company-to the disadvantage not only of craftsmanship. Punctuality of delivery, fulfillment of the agreed conditions, solidity of execution were in past days demanded from painters and sculptors, and remuneration adjusted to the time spent. Even Durer, on asking for a higher honorarium from a Frankfurt patron, still refers not to his name or the superiority of his artistic performance, but to the unexpectedly heavy claim upon his time, and to the high cost of the colours employed. The sons of painters became painters: in choosing a trade one did not wait for special gifts to announce themselves."
 
Today, in an age when virtually any artist can paint and publish and be remembered as long as the paper and canvas upon which his creative endeavors exists, we find it hard to comprehend that painters of the caliber Friedlander explored could remain anonymous. Above, Friedlander explains why. Were it not for art historians like him, there would be far more such artists today. Why is it important to know who created a work of art? Friedlander explains: "If the determination of the authorship of an individual work of art...is not the ultimate and highest task of artistic erudition; even if it were no path to the goal: nevertheless...without a doubt, it is a school for the eye, since there is no formulation of a question which forces us to penetrate so deeply the essence of an individual work as that concerning the identity of the author."
 
A work of art is a representation of the artist's mind. And inasmuch as no single work can adequately portray such a complex entity, then the entire body of that artist's work must come into play. Both the artist and his or her work needs to be categorized in order to be placed in the broader scope of human endeavor. That demands labels, and first and foremost among them is simply the artist's name. Lacking that, Friedlander established his own means of identifying unknown artists' minds--the Master of..." But any name is of little value without additional knowledge of the artist's life, training, and influence. Much of such data is trivial, but place against the broader background of art history, joins the essence of art itself. Friedlander was an art detective, but also a connoisseur, espousing what we might call a "right brained" approach to the subject as opposed to the dry "facts and figures" realm of many of his colleagues.
 
Friedlander was born in Berlin in 1867, professionally coming of age at the turn of the century at a time when the history of art was also "coming of age." It was a time before wars dissipated the wealth of northern Europe. Individuals and state-sponsored museums were collecting art (especially paintings) at a phenomenal pace. There was a need for experts to advise those doing so and to manage their growing collections. The position of curator was born, and Friedlander was one of the best, working tirelessly to not just direct the acquisition of outstanding works from the past, but to study and explain them.
 
Max Friedlander was a Jew, growing old in a country becoming less and less friendly to those of his ethnicity. Fortunately, the Nazi's liked his kind of art, and despite his faith, valued and respected his expertise. One of these art lovers was Reichmarshall, Hermann Goering, whom he advised in amassing his collection. Friedlander fled Germany for Amsterdam in 1939, only to be arrested, destined for a concentration camp, when the Nazi's invaded the city a few months later. Only his association with Goering save him. After the war he spent the remaining years of his life writing and publishing, completing his earlier series of works on Netherlandish painting. He died in 1958.

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