Art review: Durer at the National Gallery

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.

All of this would be apparent given any wide and representative selection of his work. The particular strength of this exhibition isn’t just the richness of the Albertina’s holdings, but the intelligence behind the selection and display. The exhibition is carefully structured to give not just an overview of Durer’s superlative graphic skill, but insight into his working method. Throughout his career, Durer grappled with the visual ideas of Italy, and in 1494, when he was about 23 years old, he produced what appear at first to be exact copies of two engravings by Andrea Mantegna, one a riot of unruly sea gods, another a bacchanal centered on the fat and dissipated Silenus, companion to Bacchus. But they aren’t exact copies at all. Durer breaks with the rigid, parallel hatching lines of his Italian predecessor (whose images date from around 1475 to the 1480s), producing softer, more contoured lines that give the human forms a fleshier, shinier, more vivid sculptural presence.

The exhibition also gives the prehistory and afterlife of some of Durer’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 seen in three separate prints, a first and second proof in which the figures of the guilty couple are seen partially finished against a detailed naturalistic background, and a final proof as well. Even more exciting are two double-sided drawings, one of Adam and another of Eve, the former almost certainly related to the prints and the latter very likely as well. Did they precede the engraving as trial efforts? Or were they, as was often the case with Durer, further developments after the iconic public images were finished?

Practice makes perfect, which explains why artists make multiple trial runs before a finished work. Unless, as seems to be the case with Durer, there is no such thing as perfect — he once said, famously, “I do not know what beauty is” — so practice continues, before and after a “final” work, with ideas continuing to evolve. Particularly touching are double-sided images of the body in which one version gives us Durer’s rationalized analysis of the form, its proportions and basic geometry, derived from his efforts to systematize anatomical structure; on the reverse side the image often comes alive as the artist departs from this formal rigidity and allows intuition to enliven intellect.

One art historian, seemingly in admiration of Durer’s talent for absorbing the lessons of Renaissance Italy, has called him “the cleverest school boy of all,” a comment that perpetuates a lingering sense of condescension that has paralleled centuries of admiration for the artist. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the great Enlightenment art historian, said that Durer might “have become equally as great” as the greatest artists of Italy, if only he had lived and worked in Italy. Winckelmann was only parroting Vasari, the pioneering art historian of the Renaissance, who argued that Durer “would have been the best painter of our land” . . . if only he had been born in Tuscany.

A very different sense of Durer the schoolboy emerges from this exhibition, beginning 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 silverpoint stylus on a piece of paper prepared with a coating that would register the fine inscriptions as an image. It was a tricky way to make a picture, related to Durer’s early training and his family heritage as a metalworker. Revising was difficult and the paper still bears the trace of changes to the placement of a finger, sleeve and hat. The eyes are also rather odd, slightly protuberant and puffy, and a few strands of hair curl in the wrong direction.

But it is a touching image of a young artist who has captured his own particular youth, rather than project his features onto any easily available schema of an older person, or idealized child. He is indeed a clever 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 his mid-20s) and destiny (as he approached 30, and was already successful and famous).

Schoolboy suggests precociousness, and perhaps a slightly annoying eagerness to demonstrate knowledge, all of which is apparent in Durer’s sense of himself. But it also suggests a continuing engagement with learning, an ongoing project of self-improvement, a drive to erase seemingly infinite stores of ignorance and fallibility. Pride, and anguish about pride, are close to the surface when Durer is at his best, not surprising given the complicated Renaissance contradictions of being both pious and curious at the same time, certain of revealed truth yet open to new knowledge, humble and humanist.

I find the most powerful images in this exhibition involve a turning away from the viewer, a mix of observation and obfuscation. A fleshy woman is seen from behind, looking upward with her hands held together perhaps in prayer. Light gleams on the pages of an open book lying on a reading stand, underneath which more books and a shut box suggest forbidden or yet unaccessed ideas. The artist’s brother, sketched in brown ink the same year his mother died, sits at a table, with his body and face turned away, perhaps a projection of Durer’s own grief through the polite refusal to exploit it in his brother’s face.

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

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

Even more, the double goblet is a closed form, perfect and symmetrical, and hiding within itself a dark space. Every image in this show leaves one with the sense that there is something still unexplored beyond what is immediately apprehended in the lines on the page.

Albrecht Durer: Master Drawings, Watercolors, and Prints From the Albertina

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

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