Art review: Durer at the National Gallery

After seeing the exhibition of works by Albrecht Durer at the National Gallery of Art, I was happy to emerge into gray skies, a bit of drizzle and emptier streets than usual. This exhibition of drawings, watercolors and prints borrowed from Albertina Museum in Vienna, is so good and captivating that you’ll want to walk home alone, avoid the crowds and preserve the fragile sense of awe and melancholy it inspires for as long as possible.

The Albertina’s collection of prints and drawings is one of the largest and finest in the world, and its Durer hoard is second to none. The National Gallery has borrowed most of the best pieces, over 90 drawings and watercolors and 27 prints, supplemented by works from the gallery’s own collection. The show is billed as the largest collection of watercolors and prints by Durer ever presented in the United States. Several of them, including two hands clasped softly in prayer, and a watercolor of grass, dandelions and damp earth, are among the most famous images in the history of Western art.

The cumulative impact is staggering, not so much a reassessment of an artist long and rightly recognized as one of the supreme geniuses of his time, but a kind of rebaptism for anyone who has forgotten the strange and idiosyncratic force of his vision. . Durer’s images, especially his woodcuts and etchings, have been with us for so long and have been so consistently admired that they are hard to revisit. This exhibition weaves some of the most familiar images into a larger sense of its graphic accomplishment, so that they present themselves to us not completely finished, as divinely revealed works, but as the product of labor and dedication. a revision, the fruit of too much human enterprise.

If Dürer sometimes seems cold to you, think again, especially in the presence of a small sketch of his wife, Agnes, made quickly in 1494, which also seems to contradict the long-held view of her as a bit of a shrew, a scold and an executioner. If you remember Durer as a gothic artist, filling every inch of the picture with the cluttered mysteries of a feverish religion, spend some time with two evocative and evocative late drawings, “Christ Kneeling in Prayer” (c. 1515) and “The Lamentation” (1519). In the latter, the cross of thorns, hammer and nails are in the foreground and the cross stands empty above. Their job is done. Just as images are inanimate abstracts of an active world, these inanimate tools of Christ’s death take on greater power than even the living figures that fill the middle of the image.

The exhibit also reminds us of Durer’s humor, his peculiar visual fixations, his apparent personal anguish after the death of his mother, and the storms of religious anxiety and passion as the ideas of his beloved Martin Luther grew stronger. in Germany. Through woodcuts and etchings, which circulated to a far wider and less elite audience than the work of any artist before him, Durer served a wider taste than those who painted for court and church. . Like Shakespeare a century later and Hollywood filmmakers in mid-century, Durer makes work that seems sociologically overloaded with ideas and contradictions and a myriad of small, accessible real-world details.

All of this would be obvious given any broad and representative selection of his work. The particular strength of this exhibition is not just the richness of the Albertina’s collections, but the intelligence behind the selection and display. The exhibition is carefully structured to give not only an insight into Durer’s exceptional graphic skills, but also an insight into his working method. Throughout his career, Dürer grappled with the visual ideas of Italy, and in 1494, when he was about 23 years old, he produced what at first appear to be exact copies of two engravings of Andrea Mantegna, one a riot of unruly sea-gods, another a bacchanalia centering on the fat and dissipated Silenus, companion of Bacchus. But they are not exact copies at all. Durer breaks away from the rigid, parallel hatching of his Italian predecessor (whose images date from around 1475 to the 1480s), producing softer, more streamlined lines that give human forms a fleshier, shinier and livelier sculptural presence. .

The exhibition also gives the prehistory and the afterlife of some of Dürer’s most renowned visual ideas. The iconic engraving of “Adam and Eve”, which in 1504 helped bring the physically ideal nude into the realm of northern European art, is visible in three separate prints, a first and a second proof in which the Figures of the guilty couple are partially seen. completed on a detailed naturalistic background, as well as a final proof. Even more exciting are two double-sided drawings, one of Adam and the other of Eve, the former almost certainly related to the prints and the latter most likely as well. Did they precede the engraving as a trial attempt? Or was it, as was often the case with Durer, other developments after the end of the iconic public pictures?

Practice makes perfect, which is why artists try several times before a finished work. Unless, as seems to be the case with Durer, perfection does not exist – he once famously said, “I don’t know what beauty is” – then the practice continues, before and after a “final” work, with ideas continuing to evolve. Particularly touching are the double-sided images of the body in which one version gives us Durer’s rationalized analysis of form, its proportions, and its basic geometry, derived from his efforts to systematize anatomical structure; on the reverse, the image often comes to life when the artist deviates from this formal rigidity and allows intuition to enliven the intellect.

One art historian, apparently admiring Dürer’s talent for absorbing the lessons of Renaissance Italy, called him “the smartest schoolboy of all”, a comment that perpetuates a lingering sense of condescension that has parallel centuries of admiration for the artist. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the great art historian of the Enlightenment, said that Dürer could have “become as great” as the greatest Italian artists, had he lived and worked in Italy. Winckelmann was only repeating Vasari, the pioneer of Renaissance art history, who claimed that Dürer “would have been the best painter in our country”. . . if only he had been born in Tuscany.

A very different sense of Dürer the Schoolboy emerges from this exhibition, starting with the first image, which may be the first self-portrait in the history of Western art. In 1484, at the age of 13, Durer drew himself using a silver-tipped stylus on a prepared piece of paper with a coating that would record the fine inscriptions as an image. It was a delicate way to make an image, tied to Durer’s early training and family heritage as a metalworker. The revisions were difficult and the paper still bears the trace of changes in the placement of a finger, a sleeve and a hat. The eyes are also rather odd, slightly protruding and puffy, and a few wisps of hair curl the wrong way.

But it’s a touching image of a young artist who has captured his own peculiar youth, rather than projecting his features onto any readily available sketch of an older person or idealized child. He is indeed an intelligent schoolboy, and later self-portraits (not in this exhibition) show him keenly aware of his own physical beauty (around the age of 22), intelligence and drive (in the middle of the twenties) and his destiny (when he was approaching 30 years old, and already had success and notoriety).

Schoolboy suggests precocity, and perhaps a slightly dull eagerness to demonstrate knowledge, which is apparent in Durer’s sense of himself. But it also suggests an ongoing commitment to learning, an ongoing project of self-improvement, a willingness to erase seemingly endless stores of ignorance and fallibility. Pride and the angst of pride are close to the surface when Dürer is at his best, which is not surprising given the complicated Renaissance contradictions of being both pious and curious, certain of the truth revealed but open to new knowledge, humble and humanistic. .

I find that the most powerful images in this exhibition involve a diversion of the viewer, a mixture of observation and obscuration. A plump woman is seen from behind, looking upwards, hands clasped perhaps in prayer. Light shines on the pages of an open book placed on a reading desk, under which other books and a closed box suggest forbidden or inaccessible ideas. The artist’s brother, sketched in brown ink the year his mother died, sits at a table, body and face turned away, perhaps a projection of Durer’s own grief through denial polite to exploit it in his brother’s face.

Durer’s teenage self-portrait is accompanied by a book at the end of the show with a very finely crafted and somewhat cold design for a double goblet. Probably made for an official commission, it is a return to Durer’s origins in metalwork, although the actual goblet, if ever produced, has never been located. But it’s a fitting concluding image, reminding us not only of Durer’s origins, but also of his success as an artist patronized and adored by emperors and royalty, including the men who assembled Albertina’s collection. .

The shape of the double goblet – two ornate cups that could be stacked to form a mirror image of each other – is also reminiscent of the opening self-portrait, of which Durer wrote: “I drew this after myself of a mirror in 1484.”

More so, the double goblet is a closed shape, perfect and symmetrical, and hiding in itself a dark space. Every frame in this spectacle gives the feeling that there is something unexplored beyond what is immediately apprehended in the lines of the page.

Albrecht Durer: master drawings, watercolors and prints from the Albertina

opens Sunday at the National Gallery of Art and closes June 9. 202-737-4215. www.nga.gov.