* * *
Say this for the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528): he was not lacking in self-esteem. A painter, draftsman, and printmaker of preternatural skills, Dürer depicted himself, at the wizened age of twenty-eight, as Jesus Christ or, at the very least, in the tradition of devotional images. The allusion in Self-Portrait (1500), a cornerstone of the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, is unmistakable even as the intent of the picture remains elusive. That Dürer nevertheless risked the comparison speaks to an unapologetic and, as history has proved, well-earned chutzpah. Visitors to Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors, and Prints from the Albertina get a handle on the artist’s gift right off the bat. The exhibition begins with Self-Portrait at Thirteen (1484), a delicate, if at moments awkwardly delineated, silverpoint drawing. It’s paired with a self-portrait, heavier in patina and considerably less animated, by Albrecht Dürer the Elder. Was this an attempt by the father to best young Albrecht or, perhaps, comprehend the son’s gift? Whatever the case, the curatorial point is obvious: Dürer was a phenomenon.
Is a phenomenon, if the response of the crowds attending the show is any indication. Huddling around the works, viewers can’t look closely enough at the images—because of their small size, sure, but mostly because of Dürer’s huge talent. Ensconced, as it is, in the East Wing, the section of the museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art, the exhibition may (as a friend suggested) prompt doubts about the progress of art: Sixteenth-century Northern Europeans had the meticulous intensity of Dürer; we have to settle for the decorative flourishes of Ellsworth Kelly, the subject of a concurrent exhibition at The National Gallery. An apples and oranges comparison, perhaps, and any museum-goer seeking proof of art’s forward march will inevitably be frustrated. But if Dürer the man is history, then Dürer the artist is forever our contemporary, a figure whose virtuosity—at once both clinical and deeply intimate—withstands anything so mundane as time passing.
Albrecht Dürer, Agnes Dürer as Saint Ann (1519), brush and gray, black and white ink on grayish prepared paper; black background applied at a later date (?), 15-1/2″ x 11-1’/2″; courtesy the Albertina Museum, Vienna and The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
* * *
The exhibition features close to one hundred-and-twenty pieces, a smattering of which belong to the National Gallery, but most are culled from Vienna’s Albertina Museum, among the world’s great repositories of works-on-paper. The Albertina has a comprehensive collection of Dürer drawings, watercolors, and prints thanks to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, whose enthusiasm for the artist was boundless: He was not above wielding political influence to acquire Dürers. Rudolf’s collection includes Dürer images whose purchase on the imagination extends well beyond the parameters of the art world. Certainly that’s the case with Praying Hands (1508), an ink-and-gouache drawing of understated elegance and uncanny specificity, and The Great Piece of Turf (1503), a watercolor whose botanical accuracy doesn’t preclude a fairy tale–like ambiance. Even cursory students of world art will recognize Adam and Eve (1904), an engraving seen in a range of proofs, and Agnes Dürer as Saint Anne (1519), wherein the title figure is imbued with a sense of resignation distinctly absent from the oil painting for which it was a study.
Arranged chronologically, Albrecht Dürer follows the young artist as he tussles with precedent (Mantegna was a touchstone), investigates human anatomy, and indulges in an occasional reverie—a pen-and-ink portrait of his wife, Mein Agnes (1494), is haiku-like in its tenderness and informality. Myths and biblical tales are endowed with steely grandeur, and the earthly—a bridge in Nuremburg, a woman dressed for a dance, a squirrel, a friend from Antwerp—is delineated with tight-lipped appreciation. All the while, Dürer’s line—wiry and tactile, at times all but ineffable—gains in authority. Among the most arresting works are those done on paper toned a dusky blue, green, or gray. Working with ink and white gouache, Dürer creates images that seem to coalesce from the ether, even as he paradoxically endows them with unnerving dimensionality. The pieces are ghost-like in character, fleeting and evanescent, but unmistakably there. The ability to simultaneously pay homage to the tangible and the otherworldly goes some way in explaining the iconographic power of Praying Hands. Rarely has faith been embodied with such pith and poetry.
Albrecht Dürer, Head of an Apostle Looking Up (1508), brush and gray ink, gray wash; heightened with white on blue prepared paper, 20-3/4″ x 18-3/8″; courtesy Albertina Museum, Vienna and The National Gallery of Art Washington, D.C.
* * *
Dürer the rationalist is on view as well. His diagrammatic breakdowns of the figure recall Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man (ca. 1490) in their insistence on establishing a logical means by which the human anatomy could be formulated. But Dürer was more than an immaculate technician. Any draftsman beholden to what-meets-the-eye realizes fairly quickly that nature’s variety humbles any attempt to codify it. However much Dürer may have been entranced by scientific fact, he was also an engaged sensualist. True, the eroticism informing his ample nudes or, for that matter, filtering through his drapery studies is severe in nature. Dürer isn’t Rubens. But whether his burin was weaving an undulating tapestry of cross-contour lines, or his pen nib was skittering across the page in the attempt to capture a rare encounter with a lion, or his chalk was delineating the contemplative features of an African met in Venice, Dürer brought to the subject at hand a fullness of sensation, of experience both tempered and enlivened by reason. Albrecht Dürer is both one of those exhibitions that can change a life and, as such, a gift.
© 2013 Mario Naves
This review originally appeared in the June 2013 edition of The New Criterion.