VIENNA — When one thinks of the Renaissance it is arguably the big Italian names that enjoy most prolific exhibition coverage. Not least was the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci in 2019, marked by a flurry of museum activity, surely augmented by the now elusive enigma that is (allegedly) his “Salvator Mundi.”
Albrecht Dürer represents a Northern European counterpoint, whose precise, crisp work — which privileges technical virtuosity over the Italians’ softer sfumato — is far less exhibited, certainly outside of Europe. One reason for this is that Dürer primarily created drawings and engravings; these works number near 1,000 and are sensitive to light, preventing regular display. The Albertina in Vienna owns 130 drawings which, for this reason, are rarely exhibited; its most famous masterworks by such artists as Dürer, Schiele, and Rembrandt are represented in its Hapsburg State Rooms by high-quality digital lithography facsimiles, with discreet captions notifying visitors. This, combined with a tight policy against lending, makes the Albertina singularly capable of staging a retrospective of its Dürer collection. The last, in 2003, drew 500,000 visitors.
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For the current show, Albrecht Dürer, curator Christof Metzger positions the drawings as central to the survey, reversing the more commonly held belief in art history that they are merely preparatory to paintings. Here, a handful of paintings support the drawings and, as the show progresses, the latter emerge as standalone artworks in their own right, turning on its head the very role of the medium at that time.
Dürer was born in 1471 and apprenticed as a goldsmith before developing a natural flair for drawing, engraving, and watercolor. The goldsmithing clearly played into his distinct drawing style; designs for goblets and fantastical water fountains are crammed with minutely observed flourishes, grotesqueries, and tightly coiled decorative curls that anticipate the densely articulated surfaces of his engravings and woodcuts, consuming the pictorial space. Adding to this tendency toward detailed surface pattern is his technical proficiency, combined with a tendency to observe nature. This is apparent early on in a startling nude self portrait of ca. 1499. A technical exercise in capturing his own body full-length at a time when only small mirrors were available, its swift strokes unflinchingly render the gazing eyeballs, twisted torso, and hanging testes.
Rapid ink studies of his wife, Agnes, or of frogs, beetles, and bats further evidence this fascination with nature and observable reality. Metzger argues that his inclusion of identifiable botanical specimens and leaping rabbits in “Holy Family with Three Hares” (ca. 1497) injects natural vivacity into the traditional Holy Family theme, which Dürer had viewed among the works of his idol, the engraver Martin Schongauer. The installation of large-scale, standalone studies “Bugle and Lily of the Valley” (1503) and “Iris” (1495) (the latter requiring multiple sheets of paper to achieve the desired size) next to the painting “Madonna of the Iris” (1503/7), on loan from London’s National Gallery, underscores this.
In medieval workshops, model books were collections of drawings and designs by the master that served as templates when constructing larger paintings. The iris is mirrored in the oil painting (which was a joint effort between master and assistants). Though there is less finesse and depth in the oil versions of the flora, it is rendered with more detail, with more importance given to botanical accuracy, than the other elements receive: the Virgin’s red robe, which takes up most of the surface area, is minimally articulated and frankly feels like an afterthought. The scale, delicacy, and precision of the botanical drawings speak to Dürer’s passion for nature and the medium; in the paintings, the same elements have none of the same vibrancy. In this context Metzger’s argument that the drawings are “artistic” works in the own right, leaping out of the functional role of the model book, is convincing and startlingly modern.
Nowhere is this more brilliantly demonstrated than in the three masterworks brought together here: “The Great Piece of Turf” (1503), “Wing of a Blue Roller” (ca. 1500), and the Albertina’s most famous image and adopted mascot, “Young Hare” (ca. 1502). That the originals are on display is reason to travel to Vienna alone; minute textual details are lost in reproductions. (Worth reading on the subject is Noah Charney’s essay questioning at what point the use of facsimiles to protect artworks turns into duping the viewer.) Much has been said of the technical tour-de-force that is the hare, yet with the naked eye one absorbs more unseen details: an opacity in the leftmost hindquarters; lowlights in black pinpricks in its pupils; tiny reflections of domestic windows indicating this was a specimen drawn in the studio. Where Dürer excels is in pinprick-sized brushstrokes. The minute scale reflects his early metalwork, the body constructed methodically in precision laid patches of color. The sheer level of detail and rendering make these far more than preparatory works.
Dürer’s hand, so used to the tightly packed hatching and shading that complements metalwork and engraving, does not naturally adapt to the larger brush used in his paintings. The “Feast of the Rose Garlands” (1606-12), Metzger argues, answered contemporary critics who charged that Dürer was less adept at painting, and upon its completion commissions in paint notably increased. Yet, surrounded by drawings that were conceived as preparatory — “Hands of the Virgin” and “Hands of Maximilian,” for example — the oil versions lack in loving care. Dürer’s notes show that he recorded comments from his Venetian contemporaries stating that they “had never beheld more beautiful colors.” That he lamented the lack of money in painting shows, in Metzger’s words, a “resistance against the medium,” emphasizing his preference for working on paper.
It would have been easy for the Albertina to gather its extensive drawing collection for a basic, and unremarkable, exhibition. Instead, Albrecht Dürer presents major works and whole sequences, such as the iconic Apocalypse woodcut series (published 1498), the Nemesis engraving (1501-2), the Rhinoceros woodcut (1515), the Passion on green paper (ca1504), and studies of hands on blue paper (1508). When one reaches the trio of the hare, grass, and bird — described persuasively as “miracles” of art — one will likely find it impossible to argue otherwise.
Albrecht Dürer continues at the Albertina Museum (Albertinaplatz 1, Vienna, Austria) through January 6.