LONDON — In spite of the fact that Albrecht Dürer, that extraordinarily talented and cocky son of a Hungarian goldsmith from Nuremberg, is certified to have died in 1528 at the age of 56, my most recent blistering encounter with him in fact happened in the spring of last year.
A miracle? Something more prosaic. An editor had commissioned a book review from me. Someone, an ex-BBC man, had let her down. Would I step up to the plate? I would. I would. It was a book about Dürer, written by an author who had recently won a major prize for a work of non-fiction. I dived in.
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I came up shivering. I didn’t much like the book. Its breathless, headlong confusingness irritated me. It seemed to be trying to ape the character, the temperament, of Dürer himself, but in a way that was far too clever-clever, too self-preening by half. What is more, the physical object itself was a wretched piece of book-making in my opinion, the images tightly squeezed into its final pages as if they were at best an afterthought, and far too small for their own good, the paper on which the book was printed already edging off to gray … I told the editor all of this. I made it clear to her that my review would not be a hymn of praise. She suggested that I not write about it after all. Fine.
And now I am at the press view of Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist at the National Gallery, and as I stare at the map of his travels around Europe, I read about the tumultuousness of the man, his impatience, if not his impetuosity, to be, to see, to learn, and of his rather unappealing level of self-assurance, of his headstrong character, his irritability, the fact that he was puffed out with self-praise …
Yes, Dürer could not stop. He gulped down everything. The boy from Nuremberg had to surpass everyone who had gone before him. Ever questing, ever restless, he absorbed the art of the woodcut, the art of the engraver. He closely scrutinized the fine line work of illuminated manuscripts. He studied how rocks were formed. He peered into quarries and drew what he saw. He learnt lessons from Vitruvius about how to conceive of the perfectly formed, perfectly proportioned “well-shaped man.”
But that was not enough. A pudgy babe was not perfectly formed or perfectly proportioned. To idealize or to standardize was to lie. You will notice that various images of infants are in this show, all delightfully wayward in their physical making, all smacking of the pulpy flesh of genuine babes.
Dürer was a great traveler — he went to Colmar, Basel, Strasbourg, Venice, the Low Countries, and elsewhere, always seeking out art and artists. He learnt from them — and others learnt from him. He met the elderly Giovanni Bellini in Venice, where he lived from 1505 to 1507, and, in spite of the Venetian’s advanced age, Dürer judged him still to be the greatest artist of his time. While in Venice, he also paid particularly close attention to the art of portraiture: how to frame, set off, and individualize; how to almost sculpt in two dimensions; how to crop tightly, head and shoulders only. One of the finest examples of such works is Bellini’s great head of “Doge Loredan” (1501), set forth as if it is a Roman portrait bust. This painting was made two or three years before Dürer arrived in Venice, and so he may even have seen it. It is on permanent display elsewhere in this building. (What else did he learn in Venice? The virtues of drawing on blue paper.)
He made extraordinary cycles of prints, taking fantastical flight from biblical stories, saints’ lives. These are among his greatest works — and they are the greatest works in this show. These densely symbolic prints of his, as small as they are intense in their subject matter, and finicky, even bizarrely surprising, in their detailing, are emotionally and intellectually inexhaustible. And they have been written of by so many — quite justly, too. Who has ever tired of the image of “Melencolia I” (1514), or fully fathomed its depths? Why such melancholy? Or failed to be thrilled by his thunderous horsemen of the apocalypse, a series of 15 woodcuts that he self-published, loosely based on the wild and often terrifying visions of St. John of Patmos, as told in the Book of Revelations, the very last book in the Bible? What printmaker has ever achieved so much in mere — mere! — monochrome? Who has ever demonstrated quite so well how to open up a background, or (excepting Mantegna perhaps) given such perfect lessons in foreshortening? Such was the impulsive fertility of his imagination.
Dürer also yearned to be a painter equal to the best of them. Unfortunately, the difficulty with painting — and he aspired to be a great painter to prove that he was just as much a master of color as of black and white — was that oils were too damnably slow in the drying, and Dürer always wanted to move on, to be somewhere else — at the zoo, for example. He wanted things to happen very, very quickly, at least at the speed of his own quicksilver mind.
And this show does teach us much about the mind of Dürer. Among its more incidental delights are samples from the written records of what Dürer himself thought and felt — fragments from his journals, his diaries, and his letters; or a list, in a fat, leather-bound book of 1520, held by the British Museum, of the texts that he owned by Martin Luther, an equally headstrong and self-assured contemporary, written in Dürer’s own very fine hand. It is at such moments as this that Dürer feels breathingly close in all his brawling, headlong intellectual voraciousness.
Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square London, England) through February 27, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Susan Foister, Deputy Director and Director of Collections at the National Gallery.