Albrecht Dürer: a Giant

Anne Gardom visits some old friends at the British Museum

Albrecht Dürer, 1471–1528 is a name that is widely known and recognized. Copies of his Praying Hands hang in chapels, bedrooms, classrooms and living-rooms throughout the Christian world. It is known and loved by many thousands of people who might know his name but would be quite unable to say when and where he lived, or even why he drew the hands in the first place.

The British Museum’s extensive exhibition, entitled Albrecht Dürer and his Legacy, shows us how his contemporaries saw him, how he regarded himself and his own work, and the wide-reaching effect he had on generations of artists who followed him.

As well as his work, some of which has never been shown in this country before, it shows the work of his contemporaries and successors. The artists and skilled craftsmen of the time stimulated and influenced each other, and this is shown in the great diversity of the work in this exhibition.

A particular self

Dürer was unique among his contemporaries in that he did a large number of studies of himself, he did self-portraits, drawings of his hands and legs, sketches and highly finished portrait paintings. Not until Rembrandt do we find another artist who studied himself with such a meticulous and unsparing eye. The drawing he did of himself at the age of fourteen is an extraordinary achievement for someone of that age, both in observation and execution. It is in silverpoint, a direct and delicate medium that allows no corrections or erasures. His later pen and ink studies are intense and compelling, and though there is none of his major self-portraits in the exhibition, there are engravings of them. The half-length portrait in the Prado in Madrid shows him exquisitely dressed and curled, a powerful image of confidence and sophistication. Two years later, in 1500, he painted a dramatic full-face portrait (now in Munich) with a mane of long curling brown hair and a gaze of intense contemplation. This portrait was extensively used both by him and his contemporaries in depictions of Christ, as well as in a large range of posthumous medallions and commemorative prints.

By 1500 Dürer, at 28, was Europe’s most famous living artist. He had travelled and painted in Germany and Italy, producing works of great beauty and originality (especially some exquisite watercolour landscapes). His initials, the letters "AD" superimposed on one another, a carefully marketed trademark, were world-famous and his images were being used by goldsmiths, artists, illustrators, and in ceramics, tapestries and medals all over Europe. His woodcuts and engravings were of a quality which had never been achieved before, and have never since been surpassed.

Journeyman woodcutter

His woodcuts, reproduced in considerable numbers, were readily affordable. Many of them were conceived in groups, a series of devotional exercises, and were bound into books with the appropriate Bible passages. We see and study them now as framed pictures on the wall, but this was not how they were intended to be seen – flamboyant and dramatic or small and intimate, they were intended as aids to prayer and devotion.

The Small Passion, thirty-seven woodcuts, was aimed at the popular market and was immensely successful and influential. They are, indeed, quite small and wonderfully varied in mood and design, from the gentle melancholy of Christ’s farewell to his mother, to the contained violence of his betrayal and capture. He worked for eight years on the Large Passion. The size of the prints is much bigger and the composition of the pictures is breathtaking, with a huge wealth of detail filling the picturespace, but always subordinated to the emotion and thrust of the message he wished to convey.

Erasmus said of Dürer’s work, ‘What does he not express in monochromes, that is in black lines: shade, light, radiance, projections, depressions … he accurately observes proportions and harmonies. He even depicts what cannot be depicted: fire, rays of light, thunderstorms, sheet lightning, thunderbolts … characters and emotions … in fine, the whole mind of man as it shines forth … almost the very voice.’

A fine line

As well as his magnificent woodcuts Dürer experimented with drypoint and etching techniques, and in 1513/14 he produced his most finished and celebrated engravings – the three so-called Master Engravings which have been the subject of much learned discussion and debate, not least because nobody is quite clear as to what two of them represent! They are Melancholia, The Knight, Death and the Devil, and St Jerome in his Study. The fineness of detail requires a magnifying-glass to be appreciated. The treatment of the sunlight coming through the tiny panes of glass in St Jerome’s study is magical. It was a print that was instantly popular and sold more than any other print during the time Dürer was working in the Netherlands.

Dürer’s watercolours and preparatory drawings are a joy to see, and were much admired. The Praying Hands was a study that he made of the hands of an apostle for an altarpiece that no longer exists. Another study for this work is a beautiful drawing of a standing apostle. The Praying Hands is exhibited for the first time in this country. Dürer also did fine watercolour studies of animals and flowers and these were much imitated. His spare, confident use of line and colour was not easy to copy, and his imitators and admirers often fell short of the master.

Two studies of the muzzle of a bull are a wonderful demonstration of observation of texture with totally confident economy of delicate brushwork – they almost breathe! When on his travels he did a number of landscapes in watercolour, most of them done in the 1490s – quite early in his career. They are delicately painted and the colour is still clear and brilliant. Some are unfinished and were probably made for his own private use.

Reality and Rhino

His famous drawing of a rhinoceros, an animal he never actually saw in the flesh, was vastly popular and repeated endlessly. It was, apparently, being reproduced in German school books as a representation of the real animal as late as the 1930s, photography and reality having no effect on the popularity of the image! There is a charming flower-decorated Meissen platter with the Dürer rhinoceros as its centrepiece, and even a large blue-and-white Chinese vase with a Chinaman astride one in a wonderfully improbable procession.

There is much else to be seen in this very large exhibition, including many portraits and portrait studies of heads and figures for his altarpieces and other commissions. There are drawings by artists showing how his work affected painting and engraving many centuries after his death. He was one of the major influences on European Art, and this exhibition goes some way to exploring and explaining the phenomenon that was Albrecht Dürer.

Albrecht Dürer and his Legacy is at the British Museum until 23rd March. Admission £6 (£3 concessions)

Anne Gardom is Art Correspondent for New Directions

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