SUPREME MAS­TERY

CHRISTO­PHER ALLEN ON DURER AND THE CLAS­SI­CAL IDEAL

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - Christo­pher Allen

THERE are two re­mark­able ex­hi­bi­tions in Frank­furt that should in­ter­est the many Aus­tralians who fly into Europe through this air­port dur­ing the hol­i­days. In fact, Frank­furt de­serves bet­ter than to be treated as a tran­sit hub for other points in Europe: it was the birth­place of Goethe, and his fam­ily house is still worth vis­it­ing, even though it was en­tirely re­built af­ter be­ing de­stroyed, like most of the city, by bomb­ing in World War II.

The city has sev­eral im­por­tant mu­se­ums and gal­leries, above all the Staedel, which has a strong pro­gram of schol­arly ex­hi­bi­tions in­clud­ing the present mono­graphic sur­vey of the great­est Ger­man artist of the Re­nais­sance, Al­brecht Durer.

Durer was born in Nurem­berg and trained by his fa­ther as a gold­smith, which led nat­u­rally to a ca­reer in print­mak­ing, in which he is the supreme mas­ter both of wood­block and en­grav­ing, just as Rem­brandt is the mas­ter of etch­ing and Goya of aquatint. Wood­block, the older medium, is a relief print, and an un­fin­ished se­ries of blocks in a dis­play case makes the process very clear: the de­sign was drawn in ink on the block — in re­verse — and the artist, or a tech­ni­cal as­sis­tant, cut away the sur­face of the block around the lines of the draw­ing. The re­sult is a straight­for­ward stamp of the im­age, which is inked and trans­ferred to a sheet of pa­per.

Durer’s Ger­man pre­de­ces­sors were al­ready mas­ters of this medium, pro­duc­ing vivid im­ages of mainly bib­li­cal or other re­li­gious sub­jects, filled with anec­do­tal di­gres­sions and grotesquely ex­pres­sive de­tails in­tended to make their sto­ries more real and in­ter­est­ing to the viewer. But Durer sur­passes them all, both in his un­der­stand­ing of the graphic pos­si­bil­i­ties of the wood­cut line and, above all, in his abil­ity to sub­or­di­nate a wealth of de­tail to an over­all unity of con­cep­tion.

This is clear in his se­ries on the life of the Vir­gin, but even more strik­ing in the great Apoc­a­lypse prints, where the sur­real and al­most in­com­pre­hen­si­ble im­agery of the Book of Rev­e­la­tions is re­duced in each plate to a co­her­ent and mem­o­rable com­po­si­tion.

If any­thing, Durer’s en­grav­ings are even more re­mark­able. Once again, a num­ber of metal plates help the viewer un­der­stand the na­ture of an in­taglio print, the op­po­site of a relief block in that it is the grooves cut into the metal sur­face that hold the ink and form the de­sign of the im­age. A com­par­i­son with Ital­ian pre­cur­sors shows early en­grav­ings fre­quently re­tain habits in­her­ited from relief prints; Durer al­most im­me­di­ately de­vel­oped en­grav­ing to its fullest po­ten­tial, with sub­tle mod­el­ling of bod­ies, an al­most in­cred­i­ble re­fine­ment and pre­ci­sion of de­tail and deep chiaroscuro em­pha­sis­ing the prin­ci­pal fig­ures.

Some of th­ese en­grav­ings, like the three gen­er­ally re­garded as his great­est master­pieces and dis­played here to­gether, have re­mained among the most mem­o­rable and thought- pro­vok­ing im­ages of the north­ern Re­nais­sance. The Knight, Death and the Devil (1513), St Jerome in his Study (1514) and above all the enig­matic Me­len­co­lia I (c. 1514) are less il­lus­tra­tions of any canon­i­cal sub­ject than com­plex pic­to­rial med­i­ta­tions in them­selves.

Durer’s mas­tery of en­grav­ing, even more than his skill at paint­ing, com­mended him to the artists of Venice, which he vis­ited on two oc­ca­sions, be­com­ing the most im­por­tant point of con­tact and ex­change be­tween Ger­many and the new world of the Ital­ian Re­nais­sance.

The con­trast be­tween the Ger­manic spirit and the Ital­ian is epit­o­mised in the jux­ta­po­si­tion of a pair of wooden ar­tic­u­lated fig­ures at­trib­uted to an artist known as Mas­ter IP and the gilt bronze minia­ture of the Apollo Belvedere by An­tico. The two wooden fig­ures, a man and woman, are exquisitely ex­e­cuted, and yet you can see that it has never re­motely oc­curred to the artist to think of the body as an in­her­ently beau­ti­ful thing.

It was the Greeks who first, and per­haps alone, con­ceived of the body not just as more or less at­trac­tive or re­pul­sive, but as po­ten­tially beau­ti­ful and a sym­bol of all that was ad­mirable and har­mo­nious in man. This idea, so con­trary to the Chris­tian sense of the body pol­luted by sin and con­demned in con­se­quence to suf­fer­ing and mor­tal­ity, is the cen­tral in­spi­ra­tion of the clas­si­cal tra­di­tion in art from the Re­nais­sance on­wards, ul­ti­mately un­der­pin­ning the key place of the fig­ure and of hu­man ex­pres­sion in mod­ern art.

An­tico’s ver­sion of the Apollo em­bod­ies this ideal most clearly in the way the whole torso is con­ceived as a struc­tural unit from which the limbs are nat­u­rally ar­tic­u­lated as part of a co­her­ent sys­tem. The lit­tle wooden fig­ures, in com­par­i­son, seem to be made up of dis­jointed el­e­ments; most no­tably, the torso is not a sin­gle sig­nif­i­cant form but is com­posed of a spindly chest and a swollen ab­domen. It is, above all, this promi­nence of the belly, the seat of man’s baser na­ture, that is em­pha­sised in the Ger­man work — in both the male and fe­male fig­ures — and down­played in the clas­si­cal im­age.

Durer’s en­gage­ment with the clas­si­cal ideal is ev­i­dent in sev­eral draw­ings and prints, per­haps es­pe­cially in his en­grav­ing of Adam and Eve in Par­adise (1504) — in which Adam’s at­ti­tude is the mir­ror of Apollo’s — and in the pair of life-sized paint­ings of the same sub­ject ex­e­cuted by his stu­dio (the au­to­graph ver­sion is in the Prado in Madrid). It may seem al­most para­dox­i­cal that the artist should choose to dis­cover the ideal clas­si­cal form in the bod­ies of Adam and Eve, who brought sin into the world, but the choice is the­o­log­i­cally in­tel­li­gi­ble be­cause he is rep­re­sent­ing them as orig­i­nally made by God, per­fect be­fore the fall.

The lit­tle wooden fig­ures are strik­ing in another re­spect too: rather than be­ing generic in fea­tures as one might ex­pect, each has a highly in­di­vid­u­alised quasi-por­trait head; the im­pli­ca­tion is that all the hu­man­ity and dig­nity of the fig­ure re­sides in the face and the body is sim­ply a cor­po­real ap­pendage with no spe­cial value of its own.

Portraits are a cor­re­spond­ingly im­por­tant part of Durer’s painted oeu­vre, al­though his re­li­gious work is also well rep­re­sented here. They ap­pear in all me­dia, from wood­block prints of the em­peror to fine draw­ings and paint­ings be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter his vis­its to Venice. They are pow­er­ful im­ages of in­di­vid­u­als and his Ger­man re­al­ism is par­tic­u­larly ev­i­dent in a will­ing­ness to re­pro­duce the asym­me­try of his sub­ject’s fea­tures. And yet if there is any cause for dis­ap­point­ment in this oth­er­wise ex­cel­lent ex­hi­bi­tion, it is the ab­sence of the best known of his self-portraits (Lou­vre, Prado, Alte Pi­nakothek); you would never know from the works pre­sented here that Durer was the au­thor of the most im­por­tant se­quence of self-portraits be­fore Rem­brandt.

The other out­stand­ing ex­hi­bi­tion is de­voted

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