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How Dürer’s travels reveal his voracious appetite for art

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Albrecht Dürer, “Saint Jerome” (1521), oil on oak, 60 x 48 cm. Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon (© Instituto Portugues de Museus, Minstero da Cultura, Lisbon)

LONDON – Despite the fact that Albrecht Dürer, that extraordinarily talented and arrogant son of a Hungarian goldsmith from Nuremberg, died in 1528 at the age of 56, my last meteoric encounter with him actually occurred in the spring from last year.

A miracle? Something more prosaic. A publisher had ordered a book review from me. Someone, a former BBC, had let it down. Would I get on the plate? I want. I want. It was a book on Dürer, written by an author who had recently won a grand prize for a work of non-fiction. I dove.

I came back with a shudder. I didn’t like the book very much. His breathless, head down confusion irritated me. It seemed to try to mimic the character, the temper, of Dürer himself, but in a way that was far too clever, too half-self-smoothing. What’s more, the physical object itself was in my opinion a miserable piece of book-making, the images tightly packed into its final pages as if they were an afterthought at best, and far too small. for their own good, the paper the book was already printed on while exhilarating… I told the publisher everything. I made him understand that my criticism would not be a hymn of praise. She suggested that I don’t write about it after all. Fine.

Albrecht Dürer, “Lady of Brussels” (1520), pen and brown ink, 16 x 10.5 cm. Albertina Museum, Vienna (3161) (© Albertina, Vienna)

And now I’m at the press briefing Dürer’s Travels: Travels of a Renaissance Artist at the National Gallery, and as I look at the map of his travels through Europe, I read about the tumult of man, his impatience, if not his impetuosity, to be, to see, to learn, and of his rather unattractive level of self-confidence, of his stubbornness, of his irritability, of the fact that he was bloated with self-praise …

Yes, Dürer couldn’t stop. He swallowed it all. The Nuremberg boy had to outdo everyone who came before him. Always on the lookout, always restless, he immersed himself in the art of woodcutting, the art of the engraver. He scrutinized the fine linework of illuminated manuscripts. He studied the formation of rocks. He scanned the quarries and drew what he saw. He learned lessons from Vitruvius on how to conceive of the perfectly formed and perfectly proportioned “well-trained man”.

But that was not enough. A chubby baby 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 deliciously whimsical in their physical make-up, all smelling of the luscious flesh of real babies.

Albrecht Dürer, “Burkhard of Speyer” (1506), oil on panel, 31.7 x 26 cm. On loan from Her Majesty the Queen (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020)
Albrecht Dürer, “Head of Jesus of Twelve Years” (Study for “Christ Among the Doctors”) (1506), brush and gray ink, heightened with white, on blue paper, 27.5 x 21.1 cm. Albertina Museum, Vienna (3106) (© Albertina, Vienna)

Dürer was a frequent traveler – he went to Colmar, Basel, Strasbourg, Venice, the Netherlands and elsewhere, always in search of art and artists. He learned from them – and others learned from him. He met old Giovanni Bellini in Venice, where he lived from 1505 to 1507, and, despite the Venetian’s advanced age, Dürer still considered him the greatest artist of his time. During his stay in Venice, he also paid particular attention to the art of portraiture: how to frame, enhance and individualize; how to sculpt almost in two dimensions; how to crop tightly, head and shoulders only. One of the finest examples of such works is the large head of “Doge Loredan” by Bellini (1501), presented as if it were a Roman bust. This painting was made two or three years before Dürer arrived in Venice and he may have even 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 a fantastic flight from Bible stories, from the lives of saints. These are among his greatest works – and these are the greatest works in this exhibition. These densely symbolic prints, as small as they are intense in their subject matter, and whimsical, even strangely surprising, in their detail, are emotionally and intellectually inexhaustible. And they’ve been written by so many people – rightly so too. Who has ever grown tired of the image of “Melencolia I” (1514) or has fully penetrated its depths? Why such melancholy? Or was not thrilled with his thunderous Apocalypse Horsemen, a series of 15 woodcuts he self-published, loosely based on the wild and often terrifying visions of St John of Patmos, as the story goes. Book of Revelations, the very last book in the Bible? What an engraver has never achieved so much in singles – in singles! – monochrome? Who has ever demonstrated so well how to open a background, or (except Mantegna perhaps) given such perfect shortcut lessons? Such was the impulsive fruitfulness of his imagination.

Albrecht Dürer, “A lion” (1494), gouache on parchment, heightened with gold, 12.6 x 17.2 cm. Kupferstichkabinett, Hamburger Kunsthalle (23005) (© Photo Scala, Florence / bpk, Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Berlin / photo: Christoph Irrgang)

Dürer also aspired to be a painter equal to the best of them. Unfortunately, the difficulty with painting – and he yearned to be a great painter to prove he was as much a master of color as he was of black and white – was that the oils were too slow to dry, and Dürer always wanted to to move. on, to be somewhere else – at the zoo, for example. He wanted things to happen real, real fast, at least as fast as his own quicksilver mind.

And this show teaches us a lot about Dürer’s mind. Among his more accidental delights are samples of written recordings of what Dürer himself thought and felt – fragments of his diaries, diaries and letters; or a list, in a large leather-bound book from 1520, held by the British Museum, of the texts he possessed by Martin Luther, an equally stubborn and confident contemporary, written by the very fine hand of Dürer. It’s times like this that Dürer feels breathless in all his brawling intellectual voracity and head down.

Albrecht Dürer, “Two Women from Livonia” (1521), pen and brown ink, watercolor, 18.4 × 19.5 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris (20DR) (© RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre museum) / Thierry Le Mage)
Albrecht Dürer, “Madonna and Child” (c. 1496-1499), oil on panel, 52.4 x 42.2 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.2.16.a (courtesy Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)

Dürer’s Travels: Travels of a Renaissance Artist continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square London, England) until February 27, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Susan Foister, Deputy Director and Director of Collections at the National Gallery.

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