Albrecht Dürer at the National Gallery of Art
March 24 – June 9, 2013
by Sarah Katherine Jorgensen
The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC has organized a phenomenal exhibition of Albrecht Dürer’s watercolors, drawings and engravings from the Albertina Museum in Vienna. There are so many astounding works that it is impossible to take a full accounting of them.
Master draftsman, engraver, printmaker, theorist, and painter, Albrecht Dürer was born in 1871 in Nuremberg, Germany. His father, a goldsmith, trained him to be a goldsmith. Incised lines of a metallurgist made with a firm touch, closely spaced but distinct, characterized Albrecht Dürer’s earliest drawings. Recognizing Albrecht Dürer’s precocious talent as a draftsman, his father sent him to train with successful painters.
Dürer was constantly asking questions. He wrote treatises on human proportion. He made countless studies of the human figure, hand positions, fauna, and landscapes. Great Piece of Turf, a watercolor and gouache created in 1503, is perhaps one of the most famous images of nature and of draftsmanship. Piece of Turf could be presumed to be a study, but it is indeed a complete work of art in and of itself. The painting is a virtuoso patch of meadow seen from the perspective of a small creature. Each of the plant species is identifiable- from the dandelions and the plantain grass to the spikey flowers. While each of the plants was probably studied separately in the artist’s studio, they come together in a unified whole in the painting. The washy band of dirt at the bottom gives way to the tips of grass that are so finely detailed with dry brush gouache. It is both scientific and artistic. This work of art is a reflection of how Dürer ‘s nature details are not studies for other things, but a reflection of how intensely Dürer viewed the world around him. As Erasmus of Rotterdam said at Dürer’s eulogy in 1528: “He can paint anything, even things one cannot paint- fire, sun rays, thunder, electric storms, lightening, and banks of fog, so to speak, the sensory perceptions, all the feeling and finally the whole human soul as revealed in the body’s form, and almost even the voice itself.”
Albrecht Dürer is credited with bringing the Italian Renaissance to Northern Europe. After visiting Venice a second time in 1505, Dürer began making studies for paintings on colored paper. The technique of using blue paper (made from blue rags in Northern Italy) to form a middle ground for drawings came from Northern Italian artists. The Italian technique of chiaroscuro (of shading of light and dark) highlighted the subtleties in light and dark. Using the colored paper as a middle ground, Dürer added lights with white chalk and darks using charcoal or ink. Subtle shading allowed him to makes one of his most evocative works in his studies of hands and draperies. In Praying Hands (1508) Dürer outlined the hands folded in prayer in find brush strokes. Then he enhanced the darkest areas and heightened the lightest ones with thick layers of diluted India ink and opaque white. His precise hatching both reveals tendons that protrude slightly and realizes the slender fingers, rough nails, creased knuckles, blood vessels and flesh. Suspended alone on the blank page- the hands in prayer are an image of highly personal piety.
A treat in the exhibition is his rare cityscape watercolors. The paintings are made up of great spans of watercolor washes. The images have a streamlined aesthetic; not highly detailed, they are more an examination of space than an accounting of place. The absence of people and activity give his cityscapes an almost modernist sensibility.
Many of Dürer’s obsessions come together in his famous engraving, Melancholia I (1514), made shortly after his mother’s death. In this piece a massive winged, brooding woman sinks in despair next to a putto (angel). There are two versions of this in the show, both made by Dürer. One is crisp and clear, the other rich and smoky- both made by subtle variations in wiping and tone. Perched on a worn down millstone in the middle of the picture, a little boy scribbles on a tablet- symbolizing scholarly activity. To his right are a compass, a straight edge, a saw hammer, and a huge polyhedron carved of stone. In the distance is a lake overarched by a comet crossing a nocturnal sky. Attached to two visible walls are a set of scales, an hour glass (symbolizing the passage of time, of life running out), a bell with a rope, and a magic square whose sides add up to 34 and the top row adds up to the date of the death of Dürer’s mother: 16/3 +2 =5 [May]/13 [1+3=4, that is (151) 4]. Above the square of numbers the bell tolling death knoll refers to the passing of his mother, Barbara Dürer. This was perhaps Dürer’s most personal piece. Some consider this to be an allegorical self-portrait.
Resting ones head on ones hands had been a symbol of depression, mourning and melancholy since antiquity. The word melancholy comes from a Greek word meaning black gall. That is the reason Dürer’s winged figure has a black face. Many details of this engraving can be understood in ancient ideas of bodily humors, certain planets, seasons and concepts of temperaments. While melancholy was consistently condemned in the Middle Ages, it was ennobled in the Renaissance by neo Platonist philosophers who came to see melancholy as proof of genius and creativity.
Meloncholia I, in the words of Renaissance art historian Giorgio Vasari, “astonished the world.” This exhibition makes it clear that Dürer’s masterworks continue to astonish in their diversity and innovation.