Durer’s omnivorous eye

Detail, An Elderly Man of Ninety-Three Years, Durer

Detail, An Elderly Man of Ninety-Three Years, Durer


A week ago, I drove six hours, due south, from Rochester and arrived at the National Gallery during the final afternoon of the Durer exhibition in Washington, D.C. It would be a bit of an understatement to say a glimpse of some of the greatest art ever created was well worth the zigzag navigation of Pennsylvania’s state highways. Being able to stand a foot or two away from some of this work, from Vienna’s Albertina Museum, was a profound experience, and I walked away from this magnificent show with a much deeper awe over Durer’s genius. He may be the greatest draftsman who ever lived, not simply because of the accuracy and versatility of his representational skill—how true he could be to the way ordinary things actually look—but also, paradoxically, because of the idiosyncratic, obsessive extremity of his images, which always seem to convey something infinite and unknowable, even in the depiction of commonplace things. I’d be hard-pressed to think of any work of the Italian Renaissance that could compete with the intricate precision of Durer’s line.

It’s no accident that this exhibition focused on prints, drawings, and watercolor paintings—which, with Durer, are really drawings with color. His heart and soul, as well as his income, were in his drawings, not his oils. The show made clear he had a preternatural ability to reduce everything to line, especially when, standing close to one of his surfaces, you recognize that even when he was ostensibly “painting” on paper, he was often using parallel lines—as if he were doing an etching—to indicate shade. He established areas of mid-value simply by drawing straight or wavy lines, perfectly aligned and equally spaced, thick or thin, depending on the level of gray he wanted to evoke. Standing before some of this work, it’s hard to believe he could have done it without some kind of mechanical guide to steady his hand—the lines are so perfectly executed and uniform.

When Durer traveled to Italy, Giovanni Bellini refused to believe the artist could do what others said he could until he saw Durer demonstrate it. He asked Durer what tiny brushes he used, with multiple hairs that would produce the wavy parallel lines in his depiction of hair and fur and shaded areas. Durer showed him the ordinary, single-pointed brushes. “No, I don’t mean these but the ones with which you draw several hairs with one stroke; they must be rather spread out and more divided, otherwise in a long sweep such regularity of curvature and distance could not be preserved.” Nope, these are the ones, Durer said. Prove it, Bellini said. So he did. As Bellini later said, “Taking up one of the same brushes, he drew some very long wavy tresses such as women generally wear, in the most regular order and symmetry.” As a second observer recalled, “No human being could have convinced Bellini by report of the truth of that which he had seen with his own eyes.”The exhibition catalog expresses the same thing perfectly about The Great Piece of Turf, but this response also applies to much of the work in the exhibition:

Here individuality is enhanced by the soft light that surrounds each blade and leaf, every one at least slightly different from its neighbor in form and color. Yet all are unified not only by being a similar type of object but also by the complex layers of blade over blade, forming a dense skein with irregular interstices through which further and further objects are seen. Durer’s sophistication and manual dexterity at engraving—where each burin line must stand alone and not come so close to its neighboring line that the island of copper collapses, not even when multiplied and crossed into the densest hatching—must have facilitated his realization here. His craftsmanship astonishes when we see that the drawing is made almost entirely with the brush. Durer has worked not with the controllably stiff and sharp burin on resistant copper, nor even with the individual line formed by the delicate flow of ink through the nip of a pen, but with the pliant tip of the brush.

My reaction to the fact that this work was done with a brush, when I saw it in Washington, was exactly the same as Bellini’s: it’s a lie. He couldn’t have been using a brush. He had to be using a set of pens. In other words, the image would have been remarkable enough using the fine nib of a fountain pen, but to have painted it with a brush didn’t look humanly possible. There are few works of art that evoke that kind of reaction, but Durer does it again and again. And the amazement runs even deeper. After the shock of his incredible manual skill wears off, you realize that he put it into the service of a kind of hyperrealism, which was also a worship of nature’s complexity and particularity. The smaller and more complicated his subject, the better, because he recognized he had the ability to capture and enable you to see anything. If something was visible, it was a source of fascination for him, which meant that even a few blades of grass and a dandelion could become something worthy of long meditation. His artistic genius, for him and anyone looking at his work, turned everything in the world into something worthy of sustained, devoted attention.  When he was doing his depictions of grass or flowers or animals, without any superstructure of metaphor or religious belief to justify it, he was elevating the act of seeing into a kind of philosophical stance. A dandelion got just as much devotion as the face of a saint. With Durer, in effect, everything becomes holy.

I realized, as I walked through the show, that this new attention to nature, just as it is, was how the Northern Renaissance took Italy’s classicism and elevated it, or maybe lowered it, in a crucial way, by essentially giving birth to realism, for its own sake. It wasn’t always  done for its own sake. The game was still to convey the truths of Christianity, as the Italians did, but through darker, grittier depictions of life and death. As convincing as Michelangelo’s figures are, they remain Titanic idealizations of the human body. With Durer and then Brueghel (you can find some of this in Leonardo as well), you see the human body and the natural world as it actually is, all the more fascinating for its flaws and corruption and individuality—yet in a mysterious way this fascination with depicting the temporal world makes certain twilight spiritual states visible.

Everything I could have wanted to see was included in this exhibition, except for maybe a few more of the Apocalypse woodcuts: An Elderly Man of Ninety-Three Years; Melencolia; Knight, Death and Devil; St. Jerome in His Study; The Sea Monster; The Great Piece of Turf; Young Hare; A Blue Roller; A Tuft of Cowslip; Praying Hands; Head of An Apostle; and Whore of Babylon from the Apocalypse series. As I walked from room to room, the intensity of Durer’s vision seemed to accumulate, as if each successive image compounded the state of mind induced by the previous ones until I felt I were walking around inside his visionary world.

Durer was more or less a child prodigy. He grew up in Nuremburg, an exceptionally prosperous city. His father, an artist who made a living as a goldsmith, recognized Durer’s talent and nurtured it. Germany wasn’t a nation, but a region of the Holy Roman Empire, a network of cities and petty states, with large areas ruled by various princes, yet Nuremburg answered directly to the emperor who actually, toward the end of Durer’s life, offered the artist an annual pension as a reward for his work. Durer learned what he could in his teens as an apprentice and then began roaming from city to city in 1490, hoping to meet the artists whose work he’d studied. In 1494, his father summoned him home for an arranged marriage, which Albrecht suffered for two months before deciding he’d had enough and left for Italy. (He remained married, though, for the rest of his life.) He went to Italy primarily to study the “naked pictures of Italians” and thus began a lifelong analysis of human proportion. He used his journeys to find and draw animals unavailable to him in Germany. He did a marvelous drawing of a crab from life in Venice in 1495. (Years later, in the Netherlands, he finally saw an actual lion after having drawn sculptures of the animal in Italy or by working from pure imagination.) In Venice, he became friends with Bellini at a time when Titian and Giorgione were that master’s apprentices. On his trip home, he did watercolors which stand as some of the first examples of pure landscape painting in Western art, consistent with his compulsion to depict whatever he saw, with no allegorical or religious pretext to justify it.

In his final years, he journeyed to Brussels to secure that pension the Emperor Maximilian had bequeathed him, which was withheld after the ruler died. Not only did he draw what he saw in that city, including a walrus, and that lion at the zoo, he also encountered Aztec art—a huge sun fashioned from gold and one from silver, which Cortez had brought back from the New World. Even after all the wonders of German and Italian art he’d studied in earlier years, he said, “I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much as these (Aztec) things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art, and I marveled at the subtle Ingenia of men in foreign lands. Indeed I cannot express all that I thought there.” While in Brussels, insatiable as ever to see what he had never seen before, he traveled to Zeeland to study a whale that had been stranded on the beach, but it had been washed out to sea by the time he arrived.

He was a fascinating, cosmopolitan individual—modern in his entrepreneurial drive to make money while doing something no one else could do quite as well, never aligning himself as a court artist, always finding ways to market his work to give himself the freedom to do whatever he felt like doing as an artist. In his best years, he had all the money he needed and indulged himself. He loved sweets, marzipan, candied citron, and he would happily chomp on a stalk of sugar cane “just as it grows.” Yet income was never a sure thing, and he suffered from depression and nightmares. His spent his last years fighting illness, and he aged prematurely, virtually an old man already in his fifties.

He was a shrewd businessman and made far more money by distributing his prints than through oil painting, which was costly and never returned much of a profit, though it took far longer to complete. He lived off the way he made and marketed his work independently, not through patronage. His prints were international sensations. And he brought many of them to sell when he traveled. Raphael kept Durer’s prints in his Rome studio. Michelangelo said that he weren’t allowed to be Michelangelo, he would choose to be Durer.

To paint Young Hare, he kept a live rabbit in his studio as a model: you can see his windows reflected in the animal’s eyes. What came together for me as I spent time with so much of Durer’s work was how it must have felt to do what he did, as he realized the act of seeing was actually what his art was about–the light reflected in that rabbit’s eye says it all. He wanted to see and convey everything. He made much money from his depictions of Biblical scenes, and through his enigmatic prints, which were honeycombs of ambiguous spiritual and philosophical symbols and significance. Yet when he began doing his most innate work—his drawings and paintings of animals and flowers and landscapes—it must have felt as if he were learning to see all over again. On the way home, I listened to an episode of In Our Time, a BBC podcast about anything and everything—fittingly enough—and it happened to be a recent discussion of Montaigne. The French writer, who was born only a few years after Durer died, underwent a similar transformation when he realized that he could sit down and think about any possible subject and simply follow the path of his own mind through the course of writing an essay. His essays have different titles and different subjects, but in reality there was only one subject: to capture the unpredictable, meandering act of thinking. He invented the personal essay, a new, undogmatic way of exploring the world and the human mind—without any inherited system of thought to govern his musings. Like Durer, he was willing to look at anything as a fit subject for contemplation because his actual subject was the elusive play of thought. For Durer, the act of seeing played the same revolutionary role in his life as thinking did for Montaigne. The world was constantly daring him to draw it, and his hunger to represent it in paintings, drawings and prints still vibrates with the controlled energy of his ability to pay attention to everything and anything to a degree that few, if any, other human beings have ever achieved.

(For this post, drew some facts from The World of Durer by Francis Russell, but also some details from the exhibition catalog and a great article about Durer in The Economist.) 



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