The Passion of Johann Georg Pinsel

It’s not often that a sculptor causes me to crisscross Europe in search of his traces. But Johann Georg Pinsel did just that. I took rickety marshrutka buses to distant Ukrainian villages to see his work at local churches. I visited many a palace where fragments of his sculptures were displayed–a wing of an angel, a headless saint, a saint motioning one to come closer and listen to the revelation. Finally, I made it to Lviv, a western Ukrainian city, and later to Vienna, the center that once exerted considerable political power over Lviv. These journeys spanned almost a year, intertwined as they were around other trips and exploration, but somehow, Pinsel, a mysterious 18th century master, was the leitmotif.

Very little is known about Pinsel. His name was only established with certainty in the 1990s. Where was he born? With whom he did study? The area where he chose to work was the Lviv region, at the time a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and after the first Partition of Poland in 1772, a part of the Habsburg Empire. After Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, these territories once again exchanged hands and ended up in the Soviet Union. This bloody and brutal history had consequences for the master who has been dead for almost two centuries–he was forgotten.

I stand in front of the sculptural group depicting Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac. Isaac is bound and kneeling, while his father bound by a promise to God is standing over him. He grips the sword, staring at Isaac, love, pain and suffering producing a violent emotion. Isaac looks up at his father, tense and uncertain, but he’s not afraid. He’s defiant. Could this defiance and the possibility that every minute is a gateway of miracle–Isaac, after all, is saved by the same God who demanded him–explain something of Pinsel and the fate of his works?

According to the historian Timothy Snyder, between the 1930s and 1940s Ukraine was the most dangerous place on earth, and the destruction of human lives and cultural heritage that it experienced can’t be quantified. Pinsel’s works suffered for numerous reasons–war, poverty, ignorance and destruction of the churches where most of his sculptures were displayed. Moreover, Pinsel worked in wood, one of the most fragile materials. That we have anything left of his oeuvre is itself a miracle.

The motifs of suffering and resilience run through Pinsel’s works, although at first, what struck me the most was their expressiveness and drama. Everything feels urgent in his sculptures–angels are caught mid-flight, saints are in the throes of ecstasy, mythological heroes appear in the midst of a battle. They bite their lips. Their robes are swept by the wind. Their blood, tears and sweat appear real.

Since Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, art historians have been rediscovering Pinsel, and while he has enthralled many with the striking originality of his work, he also continues to puzzle. It’s hard to classify him or to explain him. Partially, the issue is that with the displacement of sculptures from their original locations, we have lost the context. The sculptures were supposed to be arranged in groups to tell a story, but today they appear as torn pages from a lost book, enigmatic and haunting.

Pinsel was a master of Late Baroque, but on a recent visit to Vienna, after I walked through the halls of the Belvedere with their exhibits of Munch and other 20th century expressionists, I found much kinship between Pinsel’s raw emotions and expressionism’s preoccupation with the themes of human vulnerability and anguish. The difference is that Pinsel offers hope. His Christ suffers on the cross, but he doesn’t give up his faith. Eventually he will rise in glory.

From 28 October 2016 to 12 February 2017, the Belvedere in Vienna honors Johann Georg Pinsel and gives viewers a rare chance to see his work up close. Otherwise, his works can be discovered in Lviv and Buchach, Ukraine.

The Belvedere Winterpalais
Heavenly! The Baroque Sculptor Johann Georg Pinsel
28 October 2016 to 12 February 2017

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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24 Comments

  • Patrick: Thank you for an interesting post, Victoria. It made me realize how much there is to learn about that part of the world. February 3, 2017 at 9:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Same here. I didn’t learn about Pinsel until recently, and I also enjoyed exploring. He was really only rediscovered in the 1990s, with one exhibit at the Louvre and now this one in Vienna. February 3, 2017 at 11:46am Reply

  • Liz: Haunting is right! Your photos are excellent, btw. February 3, 2017 at 9:49am Reply

    • bellaciao: yes! much better than the official ones on the Belvedere website! Thank you for drawing my attention to that artist! February 3, 2017 at 10:41am Reply

      • Victoria: His works are so moving. I’m happy to share my passion for Pinsel. February 3, 2017 at 11:47am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Liz! February 3, 2017 at 11:46am Reply

  • Jillie: Your photos actually made me shed tears – these works are so full of pain I could almost feel it …. but also they show the human spirit and, as you say, hope.

    I have never heard of Pinsel. Thank you for bringing another amazing artist to us. February 3, 2017 at 12:03pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also find them incredibly moving. Seeing his works at the church was especially striking, as you can see how it was meant to be displayed. I’m so glad that you noticed the same thing I did. February 3, 2017 at 4:18pm Reply

  • Geri Ethen: I think that Johann Pinsel is the best portrayer of raw emotions in the sculptural world! And done with wood! Thank you for educating us about his work. I would so love to see the exhibit in Vienna. I hope someone transports his work to the US. Please let us know if this happens. February 3, 2017 at 1:41pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’ll definitely let you know if I learn anything about the new exhibits.

      Isn’t it incredible that they’re in wood? And it’s not like they were saved in the climate controlled conditions during all these years. February 3, 2017 at 4:20pm Reply

  • Alicia: Thank you very much for this post. Although I studied History of the Art for years at the Ecole du Lovre, I never heard of Pinsel. I know well the extraordinary Late Baroque of Spain, Latin America and Southern Italy, but this is different Perhaps because Hispanic Baroque is polychromatic and supremely realistic Pinsel’s naked expressionism is so touching. Impressive. February 3, 2017 at 2:32pm Reply

    • Victoria: He’s still a mystery, although some facts have been established beyond doubt. Modern technology lets us discover so much.

      Yes, I can’t agree more. There is an interesting synthesis of styles. Definitely something of the Italian baroque, but in a very different key. February 3, 2017 at 4:24pm Reply

  • zephyr: It’s all so beautiful. Thank you, Victoria! February 3, 2017 at 5:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure to share! His work is truly unique. February 4, 2017 at 4:44am Reply

  • Marilyn stanonis: Wonderful, Victoria! I love this entry! Did you write something about Pinsel earlier, or did I dream it? I seem to remember enjoying it before, here on your site. I thank you so much for all you have to share with us. February 3, 2017 at 8:51pm Reply

    • Victoria: I made a short announcement of the Vienna exhibit when I first learned of it. This time I wanted to share the photos and my impressions in more detail. But honestly, he deserves a whole book. February 4, 2017 at 4:46am Reply

  • Tiamaria: Thank you for this wonderful post Victoria and for bringing Pinsel to my attention. I can understand why you would travel long distances for them. The humanity he captures in those sculptures is extraordinary and fascinating. I am putting a trip to Vienna on my wish list for the end of the year! February 4, 2017 at 2:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: Vienna is one of my favorite European capitals. Every time I visit, I find something else to enjoy about it. February 5, 2017 at 3:39pm Reply

  • Alex K: Thank you for sharing this artist with us. I’d love to see his sculptures in real life, but your photos as many here already said are beautiful. February 5, 2017 at 4:36am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Alex! February 5, 2017 at 3:39pm Reply

  • Aurora: A stupendous sculptor and I didn’t know about him. Your wonderful post and photos do him justice. I loved especially what must be Abraham and Isaac. February 5, 2017 at 12:11pm Reply

    • Victoria: The way he’s able to capture the slightest emotions is extraordinary. I have seen pieces of his lost sculptures, and even those lone hands and wings are moving. His style is a curious mix of realism and abstraction. February 5, 2017 at 3:41pm Reply

  • Notturno7: Thank you so much! This article and the photos are wonderful! 😊💖 February 12, 2017 at 3:16pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m glad that you enjoyed it! February 13, 2017 at 1:44am Reply

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