The Enterprise of Art

Niklaus Manuel Deutsch is an artist all but forgotten in the modern age. I’m not claiming this is some great travesty, for his work, while quite good, is not necessarily outstanding, nor was he particularly prolific. In fact, Manuel abandoned painting and etching in the last decade of his life to focus on poetry, play writing, and one of the trickiest arts of all, politics. Had he stuck with one or two disciplines perhaps he might have produced a single work that endured through the ages, as opposed to creating many worthy but unexceptional pieces that have been swept away in the great flood of history, occasionally bobbing to the surface in this coffee table book or that academic tome on plays of the Swiss Renaissance.  Of course, that’s simple conjecture–it’s entirely possible that had Manuel lived an extra thirty years and painted every single day of every single one of them he may never have produced anything more memorable than what we already have of his work. It is possible, uncharitable an observation as it is to make about any artist, that the man was simply not a genius, not a savant, that he was as good an artist as he ever could have been.

Which is exactly what drew me to him. I’m not a genius or a savant, either, and while I hope to improve with years of experience, as Manuel did, it’s entirely reasonable to suppose that my work will be forgotten shortly after my death save by the occasional fan of old, weird things. There’s a certain delight in discovering the works of a long-forgotten artist, almost as if you are being initiated into a cabal, and when I stumbled over Manuel’s Death and the Maiden, the piece that at last found its way onto the cover of the finished novel, I had that heady rush of excitement at finding someone fresh at the bottom of a five hundred year old grave. Metaphorically speaking.

That image perfectly captured the ambiance of the project I had planned, and when I saw that the title of the piece was attributed, possibly incorrectly, as Enterprising Death, I quickly realized I had a name for my next novel. Fine and good, especially since finding a good title can be so elusive, but as I said, there’s a certain sort of excitement that arises from discovering a long dead artist whose work speaks to you so strongly, and though it had no further bearing on my planned project, I began to look into the artist responsible, never having heard of him before.

This took some digging, as information on the man was hard to come by, but while I liked his work a great deal, the more of it I found the more apparent it became that I was discovering not some neglected genius but simply a talented artist, one very much a part of his time. Whether it was Saint Anthony and his demons or the artist himself as Saint Luke, Manuel’s paintings weren’t exactly groundbreaking, even if they are capable takes on popular motifs of his day.  Yet even if the rest of his work failed to captivate me quite as thoroughly as that first, unexpected image did, the life of the artist more than made up for what the art itself lacked.

Manuel was, cheesy though it certainly is to describe him as such, the quintessential Renaissance Man. In addition to being an artistic polymath (and possibly apprenticing under Titian), he tried his hand at just about every career imaginable, and in addition to making money from church commissions, such as the now-destroyed Danse Macabre on the cemetery wall of the Dominican monastery in Bern, he served as a mercenary soldier in the Italian Wars. His time fighting with his Swiss Confederates in Lombardy greatly influenced his work–as with his contemporaries, even as Manuel’s subject matter took its inspiration from the Biblical and the newly rediscovered Classical world, he adorned his subjects in the regalia of his time, particularly the flamboyant mercenary attire of his fellows, and signed his work with a dagger. Yet as he grew older, abandoning the Catholic Church and becoming a religious reformer as well as a political one in Bern, Manuel came to question the mercenary lifestyle that had so informed his art and early life, and as a statesmen he actively campaigned against everything he had once championed.

Niklaus Manuel Deutsch was not a great man living the life of the mind in a golden age of art–he was a social-climbing everyman, a clever, hypocritical artist doing his best to stay afloat in a turbulent time. To me, that’s what makes him such an interesting figure, and why as I further planned the novel that became The Enterprise of Death I kept coming back not just to his atmospheric Death and the Maiden but to the artist behind it. Before I knew it Manuel had entered the novel itself, elbowing his way past those perhaps more worthy than himself to become one of the main characters–he appealed to my interest in conflicted, flawed individuals, and in the end I hope I have done him some small measure of justice with my interpretation of what sort of man he might have been.

It’s the least I owe him, after he gave so much to the novel–in addition to putting in an appearance himself, every single one of his paintings that I’ve referenced here, as well as a couple of others, figures into the plot of the book. It’s funny how something as seemingly small as a mostly forgotten drawing by a Swiss mercenary can in turn inspire another artist working in another medium half a millennium after the fact, but that, I suppose, it the power of art: it transcends its time and place, if luck conspires to preserve it, and continues to cast its artist’s shadow long after the individual throwing it has vanished into history.

Thanks, Manny, and what I said about your not being outstanding or a genius? I take it all back, if only for your Death and the Maiden. Nicely done, old man, very nicely done, indeed.