One Fine Show: Israhel van Meckenem at the Chazen Museum of Art

What makes Von Meckenem an artist, rather than an influencer, is that his copies weren’t direct.

A pint etching of a man with a long beard and turban
Israhel van Meckenem, German, 1440/1444-1503, ‘Head of a Man Wearing a Turban’, last third of the 15th century, Engraving, Platte: 20,8 x 13,1 cm, Albertina, Altbestand, Albertina Museum, DG1926/1273. Courtesy Chazen Museum of Art

Personal branding is a major focus in the “Art of Enterprise: Israhel van Meckenem’s 15th-Century Print Workshop,” recently opened exhibition at the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and this isn’t necessarily a bid for relevance. The German printmaker, artist and publisher was among the first creators to use his name as a trademark, so it is fair to highlight his business flair in the show’s name and introduce him in the catalogue as a “media influencer and entrepreneur.” Still, in 2024 this is probably the least appealing thing about him. These days you’re luckier if you can escape a personal brand—the only people really cashing in on theirs are stand-up comedians and folks who sell pictures of their feet.

Like that latter group, Van Meckenem was prolific. This exhibition features more than sixty objects and presents Israhel Van Meckenem’s engravings with several images he copied from Master E.S., Martin Schongauer, Albrecht Dürer and other contemporaries. This is a major show, with loans from the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others.

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What makes Von Meckenem an artist, rather than a mere influencer, is that his copies weren’t direct. He would take editorial liberties and usually improve the work along the way. Take Martin Schongauer’s Death of the Virgin (1470-1474), called by one 16th-century commentator, the embroiderer Hans Plock, “the finest work of German art” when it was made. But Von Meckenem’s is better. His changes make the composition feel less crowded, emphasizing the angularity of the robes on the many faithful who came to say goodbye. He decreases the size of Mary, which one feels was the artist’s intent, losing her in the hubbub. And as with all his copies, the lines are so much bolder and clearer. If we’re going to make technological analogies, all of Von Meckenem’s copies are more hi-def than their originals.

Are these enough changes to remove the names of the original artists, as he was stamping his own I.M. into these? In any case, we should be grateful for his efforts, both because they are so good and because some of the initial works have been lost to history. It’s best not to think of the concept of originality when seeing this show. Is Head of Man Wearing a Turban (15th Century) a reproduction? Documentary journalism from Turkey? A portrait of Von Meckenem’s father or a self-portrait of the engraver himself late in life? Who cares? Check out the detail in the curls of that beard!

Indeed, my favorite piece in the show is Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons (1470-1475), another definite copy of Schongauer via another engraver. But it is only in Von Meckenem’s third version that his face is clear enough that you can see every aspect of his distress.

Like the personal brand, image dissemination is something we take for granted these days. Whatever else all that comes with it, we owe Van Meckenem for helping to develop our current culture of looking and seeing.

Art of Enterprise: Israhel van Meckenem’s 15th-Century Print Workshop” is on view at the Chazen Museum of Art through March 24, 2024.

One Fine Show: Israhel van Meckenem at the Chazen Museum of Art