Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) was a virtuoso graphic artist whose woodcuts and engravings raise him to the first rank of Renaissance artists. Seizing the opportunity provided by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1450, he embarked on an ambitious scheme to document the wonders of nature and to illustrate Europe’s dominant narrative, the Bible. His dramatic works, conflating late medieval iconography with re-emerging classical humanism, continue to haunt our imaginations. “Albrecht Dürer: Art in Transistion,” an impressive survey of 106 images from the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany, is touring the United States, after opening at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City.
It is easy to paint the Renaissance with a broad brush as a paradisal era of serenely sensuous beauty, but the picture is more complex. Botticelli, whose Primavera and The Birth of Venus make him the quintessential neo-pagan, fell under the sway of the ascetic Savonarola. A resurgence of millennial anxieties, as the year 1500 approached, was even more pronounced in Northern Europe. In 1498, at the age of 28, Dürer published the first artist’s book, a sequence of fifteen woodcuts illustrating the Apocalypse, accompanied by the Latin Vulgate text, in the first edition, and a German translation, in the second. Perhaps the most famous image from the series, The Apocalyptic Riders, shows the Four Horsemen trampling a tangled mass of human bodies. Skeletal Death astride a bony nag is particularly chilling. But the real drama comes not from the incidental grotesque but from the dynamic composition. A sense of irresistible momentum is established by the repetition of galloping hooves and scudding clouds, with a vigorous angel poised above a horseman’s raised sword. The period costumes and densely worked surfaces of the Apocalypse series give it the feverish intensity of late medieval art.
With Dürer’s engraving Adam and Eve (1504), the classical Renaissance finds its own Northern practitioner. The superb naturalistic detail—in the bark and foliage of the trees, in the small menagerie of creatures, including a parrot— has the particularity Ruskin admired in the Gothic. But these details are subordinated to the central couple, pale against the dark background, in their elegant contrapposto nakedness like a pair of antique deities. The Expulsion from Paradise (1510), a woodcut from Dürer’s Small Passion, is more expressionistic. Classical symmetry has given way to narrative impetus: the sword-wielding angel pushes Adam and Eve toward an uncertain future, as they turn their heads in longing for lost Eden. Dürer was the principal conduit of Italian Renaissance ideas to the North. He first visited Venice in 1495 and lived there from late 1505 to early 1507. The influence of Bellini, Leonardo and— especially noticeable in the Expulsion— Mantegna can be seen in Dürer’s expansive exploration of ideas and visual idioms, but he remains a highly idiosyncratic artist.
While the bulk of his oeuvre was devoted to Biblical subjects, several of Dürer’s iconic images are testaments to his sense of wonder. His enthusiastic investigations of nature—remarkably detailed drawings of a rabbit and a clump of grass, for example— give some works a proto-Romantic look. His Rhinoceras woodcut (1515) depicts an exotic animal of monumental dignity, although the armor-plating of the hide suggests something closer to an armadillo. Dürer’s most enigmatic image taps into the deep and widespread occultism of the Renaissance, which surfaced in the Florentine neoplatonism of Pico della Mirandola and the magical arts of John Dee, celebrated mathematician and astrologer to Elizabeth I. Dürer’s engraving Melancholia I (1514) is an allegory of one of the four humors believed to govern human personality types. Melancholics were characterized as brooding intellectuals; Hamlet and most artists are usually cited as examples of breed. Dürer presents a winged woman seated, supporting her head on a clenched fist and surrounded by curious objects— each with its iconographic meaning to be puzzled out— and a thin, sad-faced dog. The elaborate correspondences of the attributes tell their rich story, but the body language of the figure communicates so immediately that this has becomes a timeless, universal image of the seduction and risk of the life of the mind. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue by Mechtild Haas of the Hessisches Landesmuseum. “Albrecht Dürer: Art in Transistion” travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida in January 2009, on the web at www.fine-arts.org