Jan Gossaert's Renaissance, National Gallery, London

The man who brought the Renaissance to Flanders was drawn to Eden, yet there is something of Mickey Duck about his work

Jan Gossaert's Adam and Eve, on loan to the National Gallery from the Thyssen museum in Madrid, is odd in a number of ways, not the least being how Northern it is.

If there is one thing everyone knows about Gossaert, it is that he brought the Italian Renaissance to Flanders, a view left to posterity by the Dutch painter and art historian, Karel van Mander. Van Mander says that Gossaert, also known as Jan Mabuse, accompanied Philip of Burgundy on a diplomatic mission to Rome in October 1508, and that while there he sketched Roman vedute, or vistas: the chalk View of the Colosseum is the only one known to survive. He also drew various of the antique sculptures in Roman collections, including the Spinario and Apollo Belvedere. These deeply un-Dutch things he took home to Antwerp, at a stroke suffusing Netherlandish painting with a beaker full of the warm South. Or so Van Mander says, although you wouldn't know it from Adam and Eve.

If historians are right, then the Madrid panel was painted in 1510 or thereabouts, within a couple of years of Gossaert's return from Rome. Sure enough, Adam looks like the Apollo Belvedere. But the sculpture's pose is reversed, its left hand raised and right one dropped rather than the other way around. Gossaert hasn't taken his Apollo from the flesh, but from a famous engraving of Adam and Eve made in 1504 by Albrecht Dürer. Whether Dürer actually went to Rome on his two trips to Italy is a matter of hot debate in art history. The general conclusion is that he did not. Thus Gossaert, who had seen the Apollo Belvedere, chose to copy his Adam from someone who hadn't; an artist who, like him, wasn't even Italian.

Why he did such a perverse thing isn't easy to say. The story of the Fall – one to which Gossaert returned again and again in his 30-year career – is all about the dangers of knowledge, a paradise lost by listening to foreign voices. Perhaps Gossaert saw Italy in this way, as something seductive but finally wicked. At any rate, this early Adam and Eve seems like a declaration of Dutchness, its hero and heroine modelled with that emphasis on light hitting a surface for which the art of the cold North is famed. Gossaert seems to have gone to Rome and come back with ... well, Dürer, and maybe the older Cranach.

Fast forward a decade, though, and things are quite different. The Adam and Eve we're looking at now, lent by the Queen, was made around 1520. Gossaert has clearly been studying Dürer again, but he has also cast his eye on another Adam and Eve, this time by the Bolognese engraver, Marcantonio Raimondi. Raimondi echoes Dürer in placing Adam to the left of his composition and Eve to the right, and in giving each of the pair a tree. There the similarities end.

If Dürer was all about surface, Raimondi's interests are in emotional intensity and erotic charge. To put a not too fine a point on it, Adam seems to be offering Eve his testicles: the phrase "ball-breaker" springs to mind. Gossaert certainly doesn't go that far, but this new painting is both far more animated than the earlier one, and far more expressive. Something has happened to the rendering of flesh, too, a softening and warming-up, as though Gossaert were Pygmalion working in paint.

By 1530 – the end-date for a third Adam and Eve, from the Berlin state museum this time – the Italian serpent has well and truly entered the garden. Dürer's sculpted surface has been replaced by the heavy cast shadows and torqued postures of Michelangelo; Adam and Eve seem to dance out their drama in a masque. Although they are not embracing, their postures beg the eye to fit them together in a sexual knot puzzle. That decadent decline from the High Renaissance which had swept Italy was taking hold in the North as well: Gossaert would be a leading light in the Antwerp Mannerism movement.

For all that, he remains too weird to be lovable in the way that, say, Van Eyck is lovable. I'm reminded of the Heath cartoon in which two men look pityingly across a Hollywood street at a tramp-like figure with a beak and big, round ears. "Poor old Mickey Duck," says one. "He never quite made it, did he?" It is, of course, a simplification to see Gossaert as the victim of a clash of cultures. All the same, there is something odd and unresolved about his work – the strange, North-South Virgin and Child from the Prado, for instance – that makes you wonder if geography isn't partly to blame for his not being more loved than he is. Maybe this show will convert you. Then again, maybe not.

(020-7747 2885) to 30 May

Next Week:

Boyd Tonkin views Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, at the British Museum

Art Choice

Check out the combined efforts of two of the art world's leading ladies: Do Not Abandon Me, by the late Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin, is at London's Hauser & Wirth gallery (to 12 Mar). Mexican Gabriel Orozco's wide-ranging works – from photo-graphy to sculpture – are brought together for a retrospective at Tate Modern, London (to 24 Apr).

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy