After viewing the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition of works by Albrecht Durer, I was glad to emerge to gray skies, a bit of drizzle and streets emptier than usual. This exhibition, of drawings, watercolors and prints borrowed from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, is so good and so absorbing, you’ll want to walk home alone, avoid 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 trove is second to none. The National Gallery has borrowed most of the best pieces, more than 90 drawings and watercolors and 27 prints, supplemented by works from the gallery’s own collection. The show is billed as the largest gathering of Durer’s watercolors and prints ever shown in the United States. Several of these, including two hands clasped gently together in prayer, and a watercolor of grass, dandelions and damp soil, are among the most famous images in the history of Western art.
The cumulative impact is stunning, not so much a reappraisal of an artist long and rightly acknowledged 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 engravings, have been with us for so long, and have been so consistently admired, that they are hard to see afresh. This exhibition weaves some of the most familiar images into a broader sense of his graphic accomplishment, so that they present themselves to us not fully finished, like divinely revealed works, but as the product of toil and revision, the fruit of all-too-human endeavor.
If Durer sometimes seems cold to you, rethink that, especially in the presence of a small, rapidly made sketch of his wife, Agnes, made in 1494, which also seems to argue with the long-held view of her as a bit of shrew, a scold and a taskmaster. If you remember Durer as a Gothic artist, filling every inch of the picture with the cluttered arcana of feverish religion, spend time with two spare and evocative late drawings, “Christ Kneeling in Prayer” (c. 1515) and the “The Lamentation” (1519). In the latter, the cross of thorns, hammer and nails lie in the foreground and the cross looms empty overhead. Their work is done. Just as pictures are inanimate summations of an active world, these inanimate tools of Christ’s death take on a greater power than even the living figures that fill the middle of the image.
The exhibition also reminds us of Durer’s humor, his peculiar visual fixations, his apparent personal anguish after his mother’s death and the gathering storms of religious anxiety and passion as the ideas of his beloved Martin Luther gathered force in Germany. Through woodcuts and engravings, which circulated to a far wider and less elite audience than the work of any artist before him, Durer served a broader taste than those who painted for the court and the church. Like Shakespeare a century later and the filmmakers of mid-century Hollywood, Durer makes work that feels sociologically overstuffed with ideas and contradictions and myriad small, accessible details of the real world.