"The World in Miniature--Engravings by the German Little Masters, 1500-1550" at UCLA's Wight Gallery is neither about short artists nor minor talents. The show highlights a cadre of young artists who, under the technical and classical influence of German painters-printers Albrecht Durer and Albrecht Altdorfer, produced tiny, complex engravings brimming with humanistic detail, sweeping perspectives and elaborate compositions.
Most are not much larger than postage stamps. Consider the process behind each inch-or-so image (compositions were incised on various surfaces, then inked, then transferred to paper by pressure), and the works are the more remarkable.
But it's not just a carnival curiosity with "the littlest" that attracts us to this show, which continues through May 21. In content and style, works in "The World in Miniature" encapsulate a major moment in German religious history, offer a let-your-hair-down peek at German customs unavailable in idealized painting and show the often bizarre hybrids born when 16th-Century Italian Mannerism seeped its way north into the expressionist spirit of Germany.
The Little Masters came of age in the reactionary atmosphere of the Catholic Reformation, and the works show the tension. In 1517, Martin Luther tacked up his indictment of Catholicism's corruption and German peasants took to the streets in approbation. The Catholic Church countered with special councils ostensibly formed to clean up the clergy but mostly serving as strong-arm agencies to keep heretics in line.
Like all good artist-radicals, most of the Little Masters lined themselves up on the side of socialism and agnosticism, balking at church authority in secularized, provocative, often downright kinky art. In 1525, some of these artists were officially expelled from Nuremberg and dubbed the "godless artists."
Fanaticism is fickle, and a few months later Nuremberg proclaimed Protestantism the official religion, welcoming the rebels back. They in turn mellowed and everyone made friends on the middle turf of commerce. These tiny etched slices of life became the thing for the up-and-coming German literati, who pasted them in books or stored them in private little cabinets built just for for personal collectibles.
Like our comic strip Doonesbury commenting on safe sex, the Little Masters held up a mirror of the 16th Century's foibles. In Heinrich Aldegrever's work, a monk and a nun have a less-than-sacred encounter under a tree. In a handsomely weird "Vanity" by Altdorfer, a woman primps while perched on the back of a grotesque coiled serpent.
Even biblical fare was given a profane and encyclopedic directness that makes these tiny works a giant treat. Illustrating the "Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus," Aldegrever uses a few inches and thousands of well placed little lines to give a packed composition of a rip-roaring night with the rich, complete with platters overfilled with food, uncircumspect ladies frolicking in tubs, musicians and the corpulent, well-costumed host.
Eroticism (camouflaged as mythology or Neo-Platonism) was imported to Germany from the Renaissance chambers of Italian clerics and humanists. Here the Germans give it a special unedited rawness, as scenes that are supposed to represent the folly of sexual love end up looking like titillation, plain and simple. These are often the best works, as two examples by the particularly perverse and pouty Sebald Beham indicate.
In one expertly detailed piece, Death courts a maiden; sillier is his inch-or-so engraving of two bathing women who sexually harass a hapless court buffoon (that's a switch!). Verisimilitude and tour de force technique aren't always put to bawdy ends, as the gorgeous "Nursing Madonna" by Barthel Beham and "Diana and Actaeon" by Georg Pencz bear out.