In 1891, when the ministers of Bulgaria’s Prince Ferdinand first laid eyes on the prince’s latest art acquisition, they were so terrified that they made the sign of the cross before it.
The 100-plus years since then have done nothing to diminish the power of Franz von Stuck’s “Lucifer.” This ominous oil-on-canvas from 1890 is the spectacular centerpiece of a new show at the Frye Art Museum surveying the career of the German artist (1863-1928).
Stuck may never have topped “Lucifer.” But there’s plenty more in the Frye exhibit that will spook you or seduce you.
“Franz von Stuck,” curated by Frye director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, is the strongest of the museum’s recent exhibits profiling key figures of the Munich Secession. Along with securing rare artworks from institutions that aren’t frequent lenders (“Lucifer” comes from the National Gallery for Foreign Art in Sofia, Bulgaria), the show does a terrific job of placing Stuck in context.
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Franz Stuck (the “von” didn’t come until he was knighted in 1905) was born the son of a miller and a peasant. While his father disapproved of his becoming an artist, Stuck said in a 1901 interview, his mother understood him and “thought well of my ambitions.”
By 17 he was supporting himself as a commercial artist. By 26, in 1889, he’d made a splash as a painter. By the turn of the century he was wealthy and renowned.
Birnie Danzker is ideally suited to curate this exhibit. For 13 years, she was director of the Villa Stuck, the Munich mansion Stuck built himself in the late 1890s. In its layout, architectural detail and contents, the Villa Stuck is an artwork in itself, and Birnie Danzker has ensured it’s well represented in the show with a selection of vintage photographs.
But the paintings are what the fuss is about. Reproductions don’t do them justice. In many of them, Stuck favored a glossy darkness that masks lurking figures who take their time in catching your eye. To appreciate the effect, you have to see them in the real. Some are fantastical, like the frolicking fauns in “Fireflies” (ca. 1898). Others are religious in subject matter, like his “Pietà” from 1891.
Even better than “Pietà” is the oil study for it, in which Stuck used himself as the model for a dimly lit supine Christ. His craggy features are more stubborn and stern than the Christ in the finished painting, and the study is all the stronger for it.
Frye Museum founders Charles and Emma Frye would have seen “Pietà” at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and they later bought Stuck’s “Sin,” easily the strongest entry in the Frye’s own permanent collection.
Eros runs strongly through Stuck’s work, and his male figures and female figures are equally alluring. Though a few later works take a turn for the kitschy (the female object of contention in “Fight Over Woman,” from 1927, is ridiculous), several make clear that his powers were more erratic than faded toward the end.
In “Sisyphus” (ca. 1920), the combination of elastic strength and bendable frailty in Stuck’s male nude, as he struggles to roll a dark boulder up an even darker slope, is everything it should be.
Along with exploring veins of nightmare, sex and struggle in his work, Stuck has a bold, golden-hued manner as well, akin to that of his contemporary Gustav Klimt. Works like “Orpheus” (1891) and “Pallas Athene” (1898) lend radiant tonic notes to this mostly shadowy show.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com