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Albrecht Durer, Draftsman of Doom

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 18, 2004; Page C01

RICHMOND -- The Monstrous Pig of Landser was born near Basel on the first of March in 1496, the year that Albrecht Durer began to cut the pear-wood blocks with which he printed his "Apocalypse." Now at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, this fantastic and factual 15-woodcut narrative marks one of the wow! moments in the 30,000-year history of pictures. It made people gasp. So did the pig.

The eight-footed, four-eared, two-tongued Monstrous Pig of Landser didn't live long, but as Durer engraved it he imagined that piglet of evil omen as a grown-up. He knew what it meant: The Antichrist is near. Many beasts with many heads appear in the "Apocalypse" to deliver the same message. "Oh ye Christian men," the German super-artist pleaded in his diary, "pray to God for help, for His judgment draweth nigh."


Getting medieval: Durer's "Monstrous Pig of Landser," on view in Richmond. (Courtesy The Graphic Collection Of The Academy Of Fine Arts, Vi)

The prints of the "Apocalypse," which were recognized at once as strikingly believable shiver-causing wonders, made young Durer famous. When the movies started moving, or black-and-white went color, the viewers, amazed, felt just that sort of jab. Nobody had ever seen prints like these before.

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) made them using very sharp and very small steel chisels to cut his slender lines, or to be precise, to cut the wood away around them, leaving the lines standing, ready to be inked.

Durer's black lines aren't just outlines, nor do they just fill in. His swelling, swooping markings summon air and shade and sunlight -- even as they detail the most minute particulars. Five hundred years ago, when images were coarse and scarce, seeing ones such as these must have been like watching St. John's Revelation on high-definition TV.

Here's hermaphroditic Satan being thrust into the pit. He's solid as a statue and scaly as a snake. His horns are like a ram's, his claws are like a lizard's, his face is like a dog's.

There's the Whore of Babylon, a looker out of Hollywood, beautiful and brazen in a rich off-the-shoulder gown. Lots of Durer's draperies are crinkly and crisp, like those cut into gray stone on Gothic churches, but in 1496 he'd just come back from Italy, and his Whore is costumed in the latest Venetian fashion.

The Celestial Jerusalem, turreted and spired, has just come down from Heaven. There are the Four Horsemen, riders in the sky. Such pictures sold and sold. You could bring them home. They scared you at a time when the populace of Europe had reason to be scared: The Sultan of the Turks, who was certainly no Christian, was marching into Europe, and the plague, the King of Terrors, was abroad in the land, and the year 1500 (a big, round, scary number) was inexorably approaching, to say nothing of the warning delivered by the pig. The pope in Rome, decisively responding to the widespread consternation, ordered witches burned.

Durer's dragons swish their muscled tails. As his angels fly and float, the viewer gets to see each feather on their wings. His gentle landscapes roll deep into the distance. What he could imagine he could make us see.

He's a superstitious scientist. The Christian faith that rises from the Richmond exhibition is as simple and devout as that of any piglet-dreading, witch-pursuing peasant. His imagination was incredibly vivid. And yet he always kept an iron grip on fact.

He wrote: "Nothing is less pleasing to a man of good sense than mistakes in painting."

At the same time he sought marvels, animal marvels, particularly. One of his woodcuts is a plate-by-armored-plate description of a rhinoceros, an animal he'd never seen. He also drew a walrus. The monstrous delighted him. The logical did, too.

"Albrecht Durer: A Renaissance Journey in Print" presents 83 sheets borrowed from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, which has been using them as teaching tools since the 17th century. Durer's prints are that instructive: They demonstrate the newest visual technologies masterfully controlled.

One of those technologies sets solid forms in structured space in accordance with the laws of mathematical perspective. Another new technology, that of archaeology, has also stamped these pictures. Adam, in "Adam and Eve," a 1504 engraving, had no living model. He is based on an antique marble statue, the Apollo Belvedere, just unearthed in Rome.

One thinks of metallurgy, too, for these pictures weren't just drawn, they were also engineered. Behind them, one imagines teams of gouge-fashioners and steel-sharpeners and plate-polishers and pressmen. For his delicate engravings (in which the ink sits in scratched grooves instead of on raised ridges) Durer needed burins sharp as needles, and the smoothest copper plates, and presses that, with wooden screws, applied high and even pressure. Consider, too, the orchardists who tended Durer's pear trees and the smiths who forged their saws, their pruning hooks and axes. This is early industrial art.

Metallurgical technology came to Durer as a birthright. In Nuremberg, the Meistersingers' town, his father was a goldsmith, his godfather a publisher. Of the skills he mastered early on, many had been developed to reproduce the printed word. Durer used them making pictures as no one had before.

Printing, at first, was a curiosity and a luxury. Johann Gutenberg's Bible (circa 1452), though printed with moveable metal type, was almost as opulent as the costly and handwritten books it superseded. Its pages weren't paper, they were vellum, with illuminations. Durer's paper pictures -- which were printed in the hundreds -- were aimed at a broader market. Even tradesmen could afford them. When he produced them, he wasn't a hireling of some patron. He cut the blocks, he bought the paper, he was on his own. The "Apocalypse" made him rich. On his second trip to Venice, in 1505-07, he was acclaimed as a celebrity. He bought a mansion, formed an art collection, wore expensive clothes and dressed his long blond hair with perfumed oil. The beard he grew, which made him look a bit like Jesus, was regarded by his friends as an outrageous affectation.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts wants you to look closely at these pictures. It hands out little magnifying glasses, which show you that the images in Durer's "Melencolia I" (1514) and "Knight, Death and the Devil" (1513) are entirely the product of seas of stippled dots and sets of scratched-in lines -- and yet produce grays as numerous and subtle as those in an Ansel Adams photograph.

But these aren't photographs. That's Death himself, riding on his nag, with snakes around his throat and crawling on his crown. Who today thinks that way? That's the odd thing about Durer -- who scares us still, and strikes us with his special effects, and often seems to be as modern as the movies, but had a medieval mind.

Albrecht Durer: A Renaissance Journey in Print will remain on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, on the Boulevard at Grove Avenue, through Jan. 9. The display, curated by Donald Schrader, was organized by PONTE in cooperation with Washington's International Arts and Artists. The galleries are open Wednesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Adult admission is $6.


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