What makes a painting a masterpiece

The secret of the masterpieces

Transmission date: 05/15/2011 5:20 pm | archive

A bunch of asparagus, a bouquet of roses, an ugly or a pretty girl, everything can be turned into a masterpiece, as the painter Max Liebermann once judged. But first Imagination refine the craft into a work of art. But what exactly is a masterpiece? The British art historian Christopher Dell has set out in his new book in search of answers. Jan Ehlert knows whether he has found what he is looking for.

It is considered one of the most famous works of art in the world: the Mona Lisa. It hangs in the Louvre in Paris, smiling unfathomably. Visiting them is a must for tourists who are less interested in culture. So a masterpiece of art? Not for the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus.

Quote: "I have always had a mysterious aversion to the Mona Lisa's unfathomable smile, without really wanting to admit it. This prejudice was not overcome by the sight of the original, on the contrary, I found that it would not soon be something less appealing, more old-fashioned than the smile of the Mona Lisa, whose secret I was not curious about and who, at best, seemed to smile at the shallow belief in the unfathomable woman's soul. " Karl Kraus

More than a mere image

Many a tourist may have felt like Karl Kraus when he stood in front of the astonishingly small painting. Why should this female portrait be a masterpiece? There are so many other similar images.

Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo da Vinci in 1505.

Reading sample:
The answer is that the painting went beyond its function as a portrait in a very crucial way. It transforms the image of the "beloved woman" that permeated all Italian Renaissance poetry into a new visual form. A veiled portrait of the soul - this is exactly what Leonardo intended.

And what he succeeded in doing with his wonderfully fine pigment layers, which are applied in countless color glazes - writes Da Vinci expert Martin Kemp. He buttons himself in front of each detail, eyes, hair, background - and thanks to the enlarged image sections, you can understand what seemed hidden at first glance.

The secret of the masterpieces

with texts by:
Werner Busch, Anthony Caro, Christopher Dell, Antony Gormley, John House, Martin Kemp, Stephan Kemperdick, Ulrich Pfisterer, Pierre Rosenberg and others

Experts for every masterpiece

The Mona Lisa is only one of 70 masterpieces, the secret of which editor Christopher Dell wants to get to the bottom of this lovingly designed book. To do this, he gets help from art historians, painters and curators. A different one for each work of art. For the Venus by Botticelli, the Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, the Night Watch by Rembrandt.

"The ecstasy of St. Therese" - sculpture by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini

Author Marina Warner looks at Gian Lorenzo Bernini's sculpture of the rapture of St. Teresa.

Reading sample:
It is Bernini's outstanding achievement that he makes this vision appear completely convincing through a virtuoso architectural staging, a sculptural work of the highest empathy and a passionate identification with his subject. The oceanic sense of rapture finds its material expression in the case of Teresa's robes as well, in her reactions mediated by the river and the eddies of her robe.

Ambitious art guide

"Venus" by Sandro Botticelli. His paintings are considered masterpieces par excellence - and achieved record sums in auctions.

Art history for beginners and advanced learners: The texts are all deliberately kept short, rarely more than two pages long. The works of art themselves are therefore all the more detailed - not just pictures, but also sculptures: Egyptian warriors, Asian Buddha statues, Peruvian deities.

The term "masterpiece" is broadly defined, only there does not seem to be any from the 20th century - that is one of the few flaws in this book. Hardly any of the big names are missing from the time before: And seeing and understanding the most important works by Rubens, Tizian and Caravaggio gathered in one volume - that alone makes this book a small masterpiece in itself.

The secret of the masterpieces

Page number:
304 pages
Illustrated book
Publishing company:
DuMont, 304 pages with 265 color and 20 monochrome illustrations
Order number:
39,99 €

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NDR culture | New books | 05/15/2011 | 5:20 pm