Arts & Culture

A Kimbell art exhibit brings a beautiful German city to life, down to the tiny details

Elke Estel/Hans-Peter Klut

To many Americans, the mention of Dresden conjures an image of horrific 20th-century ruins.

We tend to know little about the German city except that it was largely destroyed toward the end of World War II in an Allied carpet-bombing campaign.

That was February 13-15, 1945, actually, making this week the 74th anniversary of the event. Photographs from that year show a ghostly hive of blasted-out walls with no buildings behind them and no life anywhere. At least 25,000 lives were lost, maybe 50,000 (there’s no definitive number).

Many of us learned about this horror in a visceral way from Kurt Vonnegut’s bestselling novel “Slaughterhouse-Five”; the author, an American witness to the event, wrote about how beautiful he found Dresden when he first glimpsed it. It was hard to imagine.

Today, much of Dresden has been rebuilt, but the best evidence of its former splendors remains a series of paintings made by the visiting Italian Bernardo Bellotto in the middle of the 18th century. Large-scale veduta, or “view,” paintings, they’re grand landscapes in the style that Bellotto’s uncle, the famous Venetian painter Canaletto, perfected in his scenes of Venice.

The Kimbell Art Museum gathers these in “The Lure of Dresden: Bellotto at the Court of Saxony,” an exhibition it co-organized with the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden (Old Masters Picture Gallery, Dresden State Art Collections). The exhibit opened last weekend and runs through April 28.

In the 18th century, well before German unification and the birth of the modern nation, Dresden was the capital of independent Saxony, which was ruled by a series of monarchs known as “electors.” Two electors of Saxony, Augustus the Strong and his son, August II (they also were Kings August II and August III of Poland, respectively), are credited with making Dresden into an important artistic center.

They collected the finest artwork (and artists) from around Europe, erected grand buildings and bridges, and forged a lovely baroque cityscape befitting a major capital. Inspired by the culture of Venice and also by the opulent French court at Versailles, they created a showplace that some called the Venice of Germany.

And then Bernardo Bellotto came to document the city’s Golden Age. Bellotto was a Venetian who trained in the studio (and the style) of his uncle, who made serene paintings of Venice’s canals and buildings that were coveted by aristocrats and eventually monarchs all over Europe.

The veduta paintings became souvenirs for well-heeled tourists, especially British aristocrats making the so-called Grand Tour of Europe’s notable centers of art and architecture.

In the 1740s, August II lured the young Bellotto to the court of Saxony. Over about a decade, he painted numerous grand-scaled views of Dresden in the glamorous Venetian style.

The exhibit includes works by another Dresden court painter, Johann Alexander Thiele, and by the elder Canaletto (real name Giovanni Antonio Canal; confusingly, Bellotto also used the name Canaletto at first). But it really kicks into gear with a big central gallery that’s lined with Bellotto’s massive scenes of Dresden. Many of the paintings are 8 feet long. It’s not enough to stand in front of them — you’ll want to walk alongside each for a bit to better enter their world and grasp the whole. And then lean in to examine little details of everyday life.

The most famous of Bellotto painting’s of Dresden, we’re told, is “Dresden from the Right Bank of the Elbe below the Augustus Bridge” (1748), popularly known as the “Canaletto View.”

The stately Elbe River slices diagonally through the scene. On the far bank is Katholische Hofkirche (the Dresden Cathedral), still under construction, its tower clad in scaffolding. Also visible are the Frauenkirche (a Lutheran church; Saxony was where the Reformation was born) and the Augustus Bridge, 400 meters long with a rhythmic series of arches rising out of the Elbe. The buildings’ reflections on the river are a duplicate city, as the catalog points out.

It’s only the second view of Dresden the artist painted, but it is still shaping the way we see the city, writes scholar Andreas Henning. Some of the buildings depicted were soon to be damaged or destroyed in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) — Dresden’s two terrible bombardments are poignant bookends that are frequently referenced in the exhibit.

Other notable paintings depict the Zwinger complex from various viewpoints.

The Zwinger, inspired by Versailles, comprised multiple pavilions used to house scientific exhibitions, curiosities, a library and art collections. It’s where the Old Masters Gallery is housed today (these paintings are traveling while renovations to the building are underway). Thankfully, the Bellottos and other treasures were evacuated to a safe place at the start of World War II.

One of the pleasures of the exhibition are the small scenes within these huge paintings that depict everyday life and a more human scale. Look for the little vignettes in the shadows of the enormous public buildings. You can see dogs, street vendors, boaters, people in conversation, Bellotto himself making sketches and hanging with other artists, even a man relieving himself.

The architectural detail is impressive, too.

One of the most poignant things we learn is that these paintings were used in the 20th century to help in reconstruction of key buildings and public spaces of the city center. That’s testament to carefully these scenes convey the whole picture — paintings that were meant to be paired show closely related scenes from two points of view, for example. And to how wonderfully rich with details they are.

Bellotto was conveying to us that this truly was a Golden Age in a city that rivaled any other European cultural center. It shouldn’t be overshadowed by the tragedies it has survived.

The Lure of Dresden: Bellotto at the Court of Saxony

$18; $16 for seniors, students with ID and ages 6-11; free for younger children

Through April 28 at the Kimbell Art Museum, 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth