The Ability To Bring A Man Back To Life – Johann Georg Pinsel: A Recognition (Lviv: The History of One City Part 41)

We have all heard the stories of artists, musicians and writers who toiled in obscurity, barely able to eke out an existence while alive. Only after they were dead did fame finally arrive as there work received acclaim, but by then it was too late. They were never able to enjoy the recognition which would have been so justly deserved. No one ever mentions the opposite of this situation. What about those artists who during their lifetime were able to gain wealth and fame while enjoying the respect of peers? Only after their death did they then fade into oblivion. This happened even though their artistic work continued to be studied and revered. Such cases are rarely talked about, though they certainly exist. A fine example of such a phenomenon is Johann Georg Pinsel. For those few who have heard his name, Pinsel is known for his sacral sculptures in what is today western Ukraine. The Johann Georg Pinsel Museum of Lviv Sacral Baroque Sculpture features many of his original sculptures. This is a good place to learn about Pinsel’s work, but not the best. The most outstanding examples of his sculpture are not to be found in a museum, but on the exterior of St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv. It would seem that being featured at such a prominent architectural site would make Pinsel’s work well known. This is not the case, as an examination of what is known of Pinsel’s life makes clear.

Column with a statue of the Virgin Mary by Johann Georg Pinsel in Horodenka, Ukraine

Column with a statue of the Virgin Mary by Johann Georg Pinsel in Horodenka, Ukraine (Credit: Olexa Yur)

From Resurrection To Recognition  – The Second Life of Pinsel
Pinsel’s biography is filled with gaps. What is known only came to light during the last one-hundred and ten years. This was due to the work of Polish and Ukrainian scholars who had the ability to bring this master artist back to life. At the start of the 20th century Pinsel was almost entirely unknown. Then in 1906 his name was first connected with the sculptures now attributed to him on the portal of St. George’s Cathedral. In the late 1930’s more documentation came to light in the form of receipts showing payment to Pinsel for specific works. Then in 1993 information was uncovered about Pinsel’s immediate family along with his date of death. There is certainly the possibility that more details will come to light, but at this time the unknown outweighs the known when it comes to Pinsel’s life.

No one is quite sure exactly when or where Pinsel was born. Due to his name it is likely that he was of German or Czech origin. Born sometime in the early 18th century, Pinsel must have had the schooling, apprenticeship and talent necessary to learn the fine art of Baroque sculpture.  Sometime around the mid-18th century he moved to what was then the southeastern region of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Pinsel’s artistic abilities brought him to the attention of Mikolaj Bazyli Potocki, one of the wealthiest Polish nobles. Mikolaj Potocki was a starosta, an administrator of Polish crown lands in the region. Pinsel worked in Potocki’s court as a master sculptor in Buchach (known by its Polish name Buczacz at the time). Soon thereafter, he produced carvings to adorn the Buchach Town Hall (Potocki was the building’s benefactor) which still stands today. He also completed sculptures and bas-reliefs for churches in the town and surrounding area. Pinsel worked in both wood and stone. He was a master at what is known as the Baroque plastic arts, a sort of Slavic Michaelangelo.  His skill was such that he started a new tradition of Baroque-Rococo sculpture in the region. This was taught at a school he founded in Buchach that trained at least forty sculptors in learning his techniques.

"Samson tearing the Lion’s Mouth" by Johann George Pinsel

“Samson tearing the Lion’s Mouth” by Johann George Pinsel

The Passion Of Pinsel – Sacred Senses
Pinsel’s emotionally expressive and dynamic style can be seen in his works that still exist today. The sculptures have a charisma all their own, communicating profound senses of anguish, passion and the entire range of human emotions. Some of his finest stylistic examples include “St. George slaying the Dragon” atop the portal of St. George’s Cathedral and a piece that displays “Samson tearing the Lion’s Mouth.” Some scholars have likened Pinsel’s style to a synthesis of the Italian Renaissance fused with the northern European Gothic. The emotiveness of Pinsel’s sculptures is without precedent. He achieved a level of artistry rarely seen in the farther reaches of Eastern Europe, before or since his time. The 20th century rediscovery of Pinsel along with the fall of the Iron Curtain led to greater recognition of his works. Religious art, such as his sacral sculpture, was no longer a taboo subject.

Pinsel once again garnered attention in both Ukraine and the west. In 1996 the museum showcasing many of his works along with other artists was opened in an architectural monument, the Church of Poor Clares in Lviv. Thirty-two works of Pinsel, which had been saved from the destructive clutches of the Soviet atheistic regime, were put on display. Even greater things were to come, as twenty of his sculptures were displayed at the Louvre in Paris during late autumn and winter of 2012-2013. This was the first time that an artist associated with Ukraine was given an exhibition at the world’s most famous art museum. Despite this surge of recognition, few are still aware of Pinsel’s sculptures. His achievements have been lost to the wider art world. Ukraine is seen as a backwater to aficionados of European Baroque art. This ignorance, while unfortunate is likely to endure.

St. Leo and St. Athanasius by Johann Georg Pinsel at the entrance to St. George's Cathedral in Lviv

St. Leo and St. Athanasius by Johann Georg Pinsel at the entrance to St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv (Credit: Alex Zelenko)

The Test Of Time – An Uncompleted Pinsel
Will there ever be a complete picture of who Johann Georg Pinsel actually was or what his motivations were? Despite many devoted years of research and investigation there are as many questions as answers about Pinsel’s life and work. Yet it must be remembered that at the advent of the 20th century virtually nothing was known about the man. The famous sculptures outside St. George’s Cathedral were said to be the work of a nameless, faceless entity. In 1906 the name of their creator was discovered, one of the finest masters of Baroque Plastic Arts in Europe had resurfaced. His celebrity has ebbed and flowed ever since then, but his artistic achievement has stood the test of time, if only the same could be said for his biography.

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