Curator Gregory Jecmen is quick to point out that the focus of this exhibition, Augsburg, is unique, shifting attention away from Nuremberg, where artists such as Albrecht Duerer were making what would be a stronger impact on art history. Duerer, who on occasion worked in Augsburg, is represented, most notably by his none-too-flattering portrait of Maximilian and by a long, almost comically grandiose woodcut on eight joined sheets of paper that depicts the same megalomaniac in an elaborate chariot, pulled by teams of horses and accompanied by allegorical figures; it recalls the classic Roman triumph, an orgy of flattery and aggrandizement.
This kind of hype, for imperial figures and for the city itself, is a prominent theme throughout the show. An early map, useless for navigation but revealing of Augsburg’s sense of itself, places the wealthy mercantile city almost in the center of the world, just below Jerusalem.
Maximilian’s ample self-regard led him to commission elaborate and self-glorifying books, replete with images. The “Kaiserbuch” was meant to trace his genealogy back to Julius Caesar. The “Freydal” celebrated a fictional version of Maximilian, recounting his tournament exploits like those of a superhero. These books and other imperial projects needed illustrations, and illustrators needed inspiration, which sent them in search of precedents from their Roman past. Thus the Renaissance is felt here as an efficient machine, a cultural looping process, with imperial vanity harnessed to humanist study, spitting out images as a delicious byproduct.
And yet, in spite of this almost mechanistic efficiency of image-making, it is the rare hand-drawn work that lingers. Hans Holbein the Elder’s “Portrait of a Woman,” from around 1508, is a small silverpoint-and-ink drawing showing an unknown woman with her neck and hair loosely swaddled in cloth. Her nose glistens ever so slightly, and her eyes have just a hint of puffiness about them, as if fussy children have kept her up for too long. There’s a range and nuance of texture and shading in the drawing, and an emotional directness, that give one the illusion of a real window into the psychological world of Augsburg.
It’s an illusion because we in fact know very little about who she is or what she’s thinking, and because the woodcuts and etchings in this exhibition encode just as much information about life as this little drawing. But the prints require an extra effort, a tangible act of interpretation, while the drawing just hums its simple tune. It’s a relief to have it, and all the more rewarding if you save its pleasures for last.
Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475-1540
on view in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art through Dec. 31. For more information, visit www.nga.gov.