Dürer’s Journeys, Travels of a Renaissance Artist

National Gallery, Sainsbury Wing
Until Feb 27
Organised in partnership with the Suermondt-Ludwig Museum, Aachen.

 

Billed as the first major UK exhibition of Albrecht Dürer in nearly 20 years, ‘Dürer’s Journeys’ explores how travel filled him with wonder, stocked his mind with images and shaped not just his art, but that of his contemporaries.

As venturing to foreign lands reverts to the historical default of being difficult, dangerous and requiring permits, it’s a salve to those with wanderlust to enjoy vicariously Dürer’s departures from his native Nuremberg as an artist-entrepreneur, seeking to further his career and, on occasions, to escape the plague.

In the mid-1490s, he travelled to the Alps and Italy; in 1505-7 to Venice; and in 1520-1 to the Low Countries.  The trips provide a broad structure but not a clear narrative in the one failing of this inspiring exhibition.  It could be that it was my mistake to reject the offer of an audio guide and rely on the patchy written notes, which don’t always do justice to Dürer’s greatness, later supplemented with the meticulously researched catalogue, which does.

Born in 1471, Dürer was the son of Albrecht Dürer the Elder, a Hungarian goldsmith.  From the age of about 12, he learnt metalworking from his father.  We shouldn’t be too surprised, therefore, that his earliest preserved drawing, a self-portrait when he was 13, was in silverpoint, which, before graphite, was widely used by European artists, including goldsmiths to prepare their intricate designs.  It involved scratching a prepared surface using a stylus, or stift, which could be made of any metal, but silver was favoured as it did not blunt as easily as base metals.

The precision of the medium informs Dürer’s entire output and a silverpoint sketchbook, together with diaries, provided the records on which this exhibition relies.

We begin with an oil portrait by Dürer, dated 1497, which depicts his father as possibly stern, but kind, sensitive, thoughtful and whose life-like eyes exude intelligence.

Dürer mastered animal as well as human portraits and his recurrent studies of Saint Jerome, renowned for removing a thorn from a lion’s paw, allowed for both.

The first version we see, from 1496, sets Saint Jerome against the kind of backdrop that could have taken inspiration from travels in the Alps.  The lion, yet to be informed by observation, recalls heraldry and has a face as much human as animal.

Other early joys include the first UK showing of a double-sided painting (1496-9) loaned by the National Gallery of Art, Washington.  On one side is a Madonna and Child; on the other Lot and his Daughters, clutching their worldly goods and sporting pregnant bellies, apparently oblivious to the pillar of salt they’re leaving behind.

Painted in oil, they are already proof Dürer could depict colour.  However, his trip to Venice at the start of the 16th-century, where he encountered Bellini, made Dürer feel the need to demonstrate he could master more than the black and white wood cuts for which he was revered.

The proof was to be the resplendent Feast of the Rose Garlands, in which Dürer lurks in the crowd in an opulent golden fur.

From Venice, Dürer returned to Nuremberg where he was employed by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I.

This is the exhibition’s cue for Dürer’s Meisterstiche, or master engravings – Knight, Death and the Devil (1513), Melancholia (1514) and Saint Jerome in his Study (1514).  All three are characterised by virtuosic detail – the joints in the knight’s armour, the creases in Melancholia’s robes, the light shafting into Saint Jerome’s study through bottle-glass windows.  While the knight’s horse is keenly observed from life, the lion, peacefully sleeping while Saint Jerome works, is almost as fabulous as the horned devil who fails to distract the knight from his virtuous path.

The engravings have been read as spiritual self-portraits, perhaps influenced by the philosophy of Erasmus, whose portrait is one of the standouts of the exhibition’s next section on People High and Low.

This Erasmus is the work of Quinten Massys and is half of a diptych, which Massys painted in 1517 while Erasmus was in Antwerp as the guest of his friend Pieter Gillis, who forms the other half.  The two sides no longer fit together as the Gillis half was later enlarged.

Maximilian I died in 1519, prompting Dürer to travel to Aachen for the coronation of his successor Charles V to ensure the continuity of the pension Maximilian had promised him.

The mighty Charles V is conjured for us, not by Dürer but by another of his contemporaries Bernaert van Orley, who captures the hereditary distended chin.  Besides him, also painted by van Orley, is Charles’ aunt Margaret of Austria, a widow in white mourning.  Dürer unsuccessfully sought to win her favour too during his travels to the Low Countries.  His diary notes he visited her and “showed her my Emperor and wanted to present it to her, but she disliked it so much that I took it away with me again”.

In what now seems a travesty, Dürer later exchanged the portrait of the Emperor in Antwerp for a piece of white cloth from England.

His trip nevertheless had many highlights.  A section labelled Observations brings us closer to Dürer the man as he marvelled at the “ingenio” of Mexican gold he saw in Brussels and Livonian costume, which he sketched.  In Aachen, one of his silverpoints captures a chest and firedog in a public house that the engraver of the virtuous knight and studious Saint Jerome visited to gamble.

In the Low Countries, he also enjoyed visits to the zoo where he saw real lions, as faithfully recorded in his Sketches of Animals and Landscapes, 1521.

The lion does not feature, however, in his radical reworking of the Saint Jerome story in 1521, made for Rodrigo Fernandes de Almada of the Antwerp Portuguese trading establishment.  Instead of the full-length portrait with a lion at his feet and references to his Vulgate translation of the Bible, Dürer gives us a close up of a melancholic Saint Jerome with his finger on a skull.

As with the other larger works in the exhibition, it was based on studies.  In this case, a portrait of a 93 year-old man, described by Dürer as “still sane and healthy”.

As in the painting of his father right at the start of the exhibition, Dürer faithfully depicts the physical signs of age, while allowing the eyes to communicate a still active mind.  The effect is to make this Jerome a real person, not a stereotype.

Meanwhile, Erasmus was impatiently awaiting Dürer’s portrait of him.  He had even suggested that it could be modelled on Quinten Massys’s medal of 1519, which depicted Erasmus.

Eventually in 1526, two years before Dürer’s death, he completed an engraving that depicts Erasmus standing, while writing at his desk.  Acutely observed and brilliantly executed as it is, the great humanist apparently disliked his portrait by the artist he so admired.  It’s a subdued ending to an exhibition that takes us to the beating heart of Dürer’s prodigious output.

Barbara Lewis © 2021.

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