The Albertina’s current exhibition of Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer includes much of his celebrated work, but its the sketches and watercolours found in his personal archives that impress the most, writes Anna Parker.
Albrecht Dürer, often named as central Europe’s greatest artist, lived his life on the threshold between the Gothic and the Renaissance. The son of a goldsmith family, he was born in the thriving commercial city of Nuremberg in 1471. In 1484, a 13-year-old apprentice in his father’s workshop,he sat in front of a looking glass and drew himself in silverpoint. The lines of this extremely accomplished image are decisive – silverpoint is impossible to correct once drawn, which lends to this picture’s powerful intensity. Two years later, Dürer left his father’s workshop to train as a painter. He went to enjoy great success, attracting the support of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, among other powerful patrons. Keen to develop his skills, Dürer travelled across Europe, adopting and re-working the styles of the Renaissance into his own German tradition. He went twice to Italy, in 1495 and in 1505-7, where he most probably met Giovanni Bellini (who he described as ‘very old’), and to the Netherlands in 1520-1, where he caught the degenerative illness that would kill him in 1528.
An exhibition at Vienna’s Albertina Museum offers an unparalleled collection of Dürer’s work. It brings together prints, drawings and watercolours considered too fragile for permanent display, shown in rooms kept in a state of gentle twilight. Described as a ‘blockbuster’ exhibition with extended opening times to match, it includes Dürer’s most celebrated images. The lustrous, variegated hues of the Left Wing of a Blue Roller (c.1500) are printed onto the sweeping stairs leading up to the Albertina’s entrance, on which people posed for Instagram shots under a watery winter sun. Inside, his Young Hare (1502), with fibrous whiskers, bright eyes and the velvet pile on its pricked ears, almost quivers under the viewer’s gaze. This collection of extraordinary images was not sold during his lifetime, and has been together since his death in 1528, a puzzle merrily debated by art historians. The exhibition’s curator, Christoph Metzger, argues that the images were not intended for sale: they were designed to remain in Dürer’s workshop, where they would be presented to possible customers as examples of his skill and exactness. In short, they were Dürer’s way of showing off.
Yet, for all the exhibition’s celebration of Dürer’s ‘splendour’ and isolated ‘genius’, it is most striking when evoking his personal life and social world. These were the pieces that Dürer wanted to keep; pieces he ordered, archived and deposited in his workshop and brought out only to be admired. They form a visual tapestry, weaved through the warp and weft of his professional associations and of the personal connections he forged across his life. His wife, Agnes Frey, the daughter of a wealthy citizen, appears many times in multiple guises. Most strikingly, she is drawn as St. Anne (1519), the mother of Mary and the grandmother of Jesus. As the visitor moves through, the later rooms make clear Dürer’s rise. Portraits of wealthy German citizens appear, as well as major commissions, such as a large-scale altarpiece, Feast of the Rose Garlands (1506), ordered by German merchants for their church in Venice. However, for an exhibition that is also a biography, the end seems a little abrupt. We are presented with works produced as Dürer struggled with the illness that would kill him, but there is no mention of this fact in the titles. Right by the exit, there is a photograph of his gravestone, then you step out from the twilight into a bright corridor.
The exhibition is structured around each stage of Dürer’s life and sheds light on his development as an artist who was instrumental in bringing the Renaissance to Germany. One of the most enjoyable parts of the exhibition is a small section of one room where Dürer’s prints are shown next to the original from which he worked. Renaissance printmakers often copied one another’s images, the scene re-imagined and adjusted as it moved between artists. Dürer’s Bacchanal with Silenus (1494), which shows Silenus, the tutor of Bacchus, revelling with satyrs and nymphs, sits alongside the original 1470s print of the same scene by the Northern Italian artist Andrea Mantegna. This placement, allowing visitors to look back and forth between the works, makes clear the fluid artistic influences of the Renaissance. At the same time, it shows what made Dürer unique. In Dürer’s version, the lens is tighter, the bodies feel closer, the space between them more intimate. This effect is generated by reduced shading, which makes the darkness behind feel like the reveller’s own shadows, rather than just background. Dürer has paid great attention to the effect of light on skin, to the softness of hair, while the fur of the centaur’s legs become feathery fibres rather than tight coils.
Such details of skin, hair, fabric and fur attest to Dürer’s distinct artistic eye. While he is most celebrated for his nature studies, Dürer was also obsessed by the human body and its surfaces. Inspired by Italian art, he devoted great attention to recording the body’s gestures, poses and physiognomy. He spent his last years putting together a text on human proportion, the drawings of which are thick with annotations and mapped-out numbers. The multitude of self-portraits that Dürer created, through which he constantly visually vivisected himself, has generated a critical familiarity with his appearance. In his Life and Times of Albrecht Dürer (1860), the German artist and historian August von Eye called him the ‘handsomest man’ north of the Alps. Certainly, Dürer took significant pains to cultivate his own appearance. Letters record his friends teasing him for being precious about his hair: the gently waved tresses in the image of the 13-year-old Dürer became gleaming, tightly coiled and fastidiously oiled golden ringlets in his 20s. In his Nude Self-Portrait (1499), arguably Dürer’s most striking image, his curls are pulled back under a hairnet. Dürer’s naked body is set against an almost graphic black line, and he looks forward, his gaze inquiring. Like the portrait as a 13-year old, this image was created in a looking glass, and thus shows him in the act of creation. The effect of light on his bare skin is skilfully rendered to reflect the anatomy underneath. For example, only one side of his angled thorax, on the right side, catches the light – only his protruding kneecaps receive the same level of illumination. The green paper on which this image is drawn adds to the chiaroscuro effect, showing Dürer’s innovative experimentation with medium as well as subject and style.
Dürer paid the skin’s coverings similar levels of attention. He was an expert drawer of fabric, producing a number of images of drapery, in which he set himself the challenge of depicting textile’s cascade. Like his Renaissance contemporaries, Dürer treated clothing as a way to understand the inner world of his subjects. His travels inspired observation – although many of his costume studies would have also been produced through written records and hearsay. In A Young Woman in Netherlandish Dress (1521), a woman dressed in trimmed skirts holds a string of large, spherical rosary beads, her forearms supporting a rich fur mantle – all depicted in high contrast on Dürer’s beloved coloured paper. These costume studies show an impulse to understand the world and to map it ethnographically, at a time that travel across Europe was becoming more and more common. On Dürer’s return from the Netherlands that same year, he drew his wife Agnes, imagined in Netherlandish clothing (essentially, for her, fancy dress), her body the foundation on which he pinned his costume study.
The Albertina’s Dürer exhibition effectively positions Dürer as a ‘masterful’ Renaissance genius, the creator of extraordinary studies that made evident his prowess. But, more excitingly, the collected images provide a visual account of Dürer’s life, his intimate relationships and his broad artistic influences. These examples of artistry, technique and experimentation show how the textures of the body, of fur and of fabric were a way of organising, understanding and interpreting the world as the Renaissance transformed Europe.
Albrecht Dürer will be shown at the Albertina Museum, Vienna, until 6th January 2020. Click here for more information or to book tickets.
- Albrecht Dürer, Left Wing of a Blue Roller, c. 1500, Watercolour, body colour, heightened with opaque white. © The ALBERTINA Museum, Vienna.
- Albrecht Dürer, A Ninety-Three-Year-Old Man, 1521, Brush and black and gray ink, heightened with white© The ALBERTINA Museum, Vienna.
- Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471 – 1528), An Oriental Ruler Seated on His Throne, c. 1495, pen and black ink on laid paper, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund.
- Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait at the age of thirteen, 1484, Silverpoint. © The ALBERTINA Museum, Vienna.
- Albrecht Dürer, Nude Self-Portrait, c. 1499. Weimar, Klassik Stiftung © Klassik Stiftung Weimar.