Dr Mark Stocker, Curator Historical International Art, introduces us to one of his all-time favourite artists, Albrecht Dürer, who is represented by over 40 works in Te Papa’s collection. He explains why Dürer is brilliant, fun, and highly relevant today.
To admire or to like?
In art history, there are plenty of artists that you feel you ought to admire, but you can’t quite bring yourself to like: Nicolas Poussin (classical and cerebral, but chilly); Sir Joshua Reynolds (especially when he paints boring Anglican bishops, rather than talented and beautiful actresses); and even, dare I say it, Colin McCahon (profound and powerful for sure, but darkly depressing to many).
Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) is, however, an artist to like and admire. If you’re tired of Dürer, you’re tired of life!
Dürer and me
Many years ago I was personally privileged to study Dürer at Cambridge University with one of the world’s finest scholars in the field, Professor Jean Michel Massing. But if I can’t explain the appeal of Dürer in accessible terms, I’d be letting Professor Massing down, not to mention Albrecht himself.
This is the first of two blogs on the great man, providing readers with a friendly overview. Next up is a more in-depth study of five Dürer prints from Te Papa’s terrific works on paper collection. Enjoy!
10 reasons why Dürer is über-cool
He’s interested in everything and everybody around him.
Try asking Michelangelo to lovingly depict a hare or a rhinoceros and he’d hurl his paintbrush at you! Not so Dürer: he could paint the noblest of holy families but could equally depict a clod of turf with wondrous exactitude.
He’s a brilliant woodcut artist
With his woodcuts, he revolutionised this humble, gothic art form, which hitherto had been a bare indication of outlines, to a wonderfully subtle, pictorial art, with gradated tones and a real sense of solid objects – and flesh and blood. He used this technique to tell stories, often Biblical, which appeal to people of all faiths and atheists too.
He’s a brilliant engraver
With metal engravings, Dürer is an equally dazzling technician, producing prints of a refinement and scale never seen before. Although engraving is a more sophisticated medium than the woodcut, he happily worked in both these arts right through his life.
He’s a brilliant watercolour painter, raising it to the status of an independent medium
Mention watercolours and we may well think more in terms of Gainsborough, Constable, and Turner working 250–300 years later, but creating magical landscapes out of light and colour starts with Dürer.
He’s a brilliant draftsman
The marginal drawings in his prayerbook, The Hours of Maximilian I, have been described as ‘one of the most precious and beautiful works in the entire history of book illustration’.
He’s got a wicked sense of humour
The potentially naughty goings-on in the all-male bathhouse, and the detail of the suggestively placed cock-topped tap are a hoot. So too are the grotesque elders who are locked in theological dispute with the angelic young Jesus in Christ among the Doctors.
He can touch our beliefs and our hearts
His drawing of Praying Hands, along with Monet’s poppy-fields and Van Gogh’s sunflowers is almost a case of ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. But we should stop and realise that like ‘Ode to Joy’ or even ‘My Way’ in music, it’s an all-time classic and rightly so.
He can be intellectual, reflective, and enigmatic
In part two of this blog, I will look at his incredibly complex engraving Melencolia I. You could write a book about this single, small work, and several people have already.
He’s a Renaissance man – and Gothic too!
Dürer keenly absorbs trendy new Renaissance ideas about anatomy, perspective, proportion and the culture of antiquity. Yet he never turns his back on his Gothic roots in Nuremberg. On the one hand, this is the artist of the sophisticated, Venetian-influenced Feast of the Rosary.
But on the other, he’s a witness to the end of the world with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Talking of which, where is the Dürer for our scary times to forestall unstable world leaders, terrorist attacks on teenagers and the imminent apocalypse of global warming? We badly need such an artist.
He’s the first great ‘selfie’ artist
Dürer wasn’t falsely modest. He knew he was rather good looking, evident in his sweet – and remarkably precocious – silverpoint self-portrait, made in his early teens.
And he knew he was gobsmackingly talented too, evident in his frontal, iconic, Christ-like painting, made when he was nearly thirty.
He’s not being blasphemous but is saying God has given me powers to depict myself in this way. Nobody did anything like it before him, and it was almost another 150 years before Rembrandt, the next great artist of the self-portrait, appeared on the scene.
For more on Dürer, watch out for my next blog!