CHRISTOPHER ALLEN ON DURER AND THE CLASSICAL IDEAL
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