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Georg Petel. Sculptor during the Thirty Years' War
Georg Petel, Augsburg, Dom, Ecce Homo (detail), um 1630, Lindenholz, gefasst, H. 179,8 cm. Photo: Bayerisches Nationalmuseum.

MUNICH, GERMANY.- Haus der Kunst will present Georg Petel. Sculptor during the Thirty Years’ War, on view from May 9 through August 19, 2007. The Early Baroque is one of the more neglected periods in the history of German art. Many interesting artists who were able to hold their own, despite the turbulent living and working conditions, lived in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. The painter and art writer Joachim von Sandrart (1606–1688) named many artists who were active at that time in his book, "Teutschen Academie der Edlen Bau- Bild- und Malereykünste." He particularly praised the achievements of a sculptor whose mobility and early death seemed to be characteristic of artists of this period: Georg Petel.

Life - Georg Petel was born in 1601/02 in Weilheim in Upper Bavaria, the son of the cabinetmaker Clement Petle, and grew up as an orphan following the early death of both parents. Bartholomäus Steinle, a local carver, became his guardian and is considered to be his first trade master. Petel learned ivory carving in the royal cabinet-making workshop of Christoph Angermair in Munich. He left Germany at the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War as an itinerate tradesman. He met Peter Paul Rubens in 1620/21 in Antwerp and traveled via Paris to Rome and Genoa, where he was considered the unsurpassed ivory carver of his time. In 1624 he returned to Germany as a traveling artist and worked for different princes and electors who tried to bind him to their courts. Petel preferred, however, to settle down as a master in the free imperial city Augsburg. In the liberal art city he also began to work in bronze. Commissions from the aristocracy and the church flowed in until the city succumbed to the war’s stranglehold, with thousands dying of starvation and from epidemics when the leader of the Catholic league took the city by siege. Petel’s traces were lost in the confusion. It is assumed that he died in 1634 when he was just 33 years old.

Work - While working in the service of the Counter Reformation, Georg Petel created many crucifixes, which he repeatedly bestowed with individual features. His ivory crucifix, recently discovered in the Carmelite convent in Pontoise, was carved in Paris in 1621 when he was just nineteen. His mastering of the difficult motif is an expression of his early mastership and emotional maturity. Petel also created figures of saints and repeatedly dedicated his efforts to the representation of Saint Sebastian, often considered the patron saint of the plague. He also represented subjects from mythology and antiquity and pioneered the preferences of his time for crudeness and eroticism when dealing with such themes.

During his repeated visits to Rubens in Antwerp Petel created some of his most famous small sculptures, based on drawings by the painter, including "Venus and Cupid" (Oxford) and a saltcellar depicting the triumph of Venus (Copenhagen). He worked primarily in wood and ivory, but with equal skill in bronze and his confidence remained unfaltered whether his works were large or small in scale. Detailed drawings and wax models preceded his final sculptures. The so-called Weilheimer School, his study of antiquity and the influence of contemporary Italian sculpture all characterized his style.

Petel, however, modeled his work not only on Late Mannerist and Baroque sculpture, but also adopted influences from painting. Petel translated Rubens’ manner of portraying the crucified with up-stretched arms in his small ivory sculptures in order to create the form from a single elephant tusk in a manner appropriate to the material. By orienting his works on Rubens and the study of nature, Petel was able to surpass the tendencies prevalent in Mannerist sculpture. His "Saint Magdalena" in the Regensburg Niedermünster has characteristics of a High Baroque work by Bernini.

Posthumous Fame and Rediscovery - Georg Petel’s contemporaries, Joachim von Sandrart and Rafaele Soprani, praised the sculptor greatly. Although called the "German Michelangelo" during the 18th century, he faded into obscurity in the 19th century because of the leading position of painting at the time. Since the second decade of the 20th century experts have worked on the reconstruction of his œuvre and stressed his exceptional status as a Baroque sculptor. The last exhibition of his complete works was mounted by the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich in 1964. A monograph, which included Karl Feuchtmayr’s writings on Georg Petel, the fruit of many years of research and based on the 1964 exhibition, was published in 1973 after the author’s death. The Haus der Kunst picks up the preoccupation with the artist that ended at that time.

The Exhibition - In contrast to the exhibition of 1964, which also focused on Petel’s contemporaries, the exhibition at the Haus der Kunst concentrates primarily on major works and new discoveries, and, with 25 works, displays approximately half of the artist’s preserved œuvre. The wood sculptures from his Augsburg years create a focal point of the show, a period that is represented extremely well with pieces – some of which have been restored especially for the exhibition – from the Barfüsserkirche, the Moritzkirche and the Augsburger Dom, as well as the church in Aislingen. Also on display are ivory works, as fragile as they are precious, such as the Pallavicino Family crucifix, carved in Genoa. The fountain figure of Neptune from the Munich Residenz creates the centerpiece of the exhibited bronze works. This sculpture, which represents the old-faced, war-tired god of the sea, has also been laboriously restored for the exhibition. The presentation is made complete with other small wood and bronze sculptures, as well as several drawings, displaying all the facets of Petel’s varied artistic styles.

A monograph by León Krempel will be published by the Deutscher Kunstverlag for the exhibition. Sponsored by the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung. In cooperation with Bayerisches Nationalmuseum München. Institut für Kunstgeschichte der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. Lehrstuhl für Restaurierung, Kunsttechnologie und Konservierungswissenschaft der Technischen Universität München.

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