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The Strange World of Albrecht Dürer at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, through March 13, 2011

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Albrecht Dürer, Knot with a Heart-Shaped Shield, c. 1507, Woodcut. Sterling and Francine Art Institute 1968.280
Albrecht Dürer, Knot with a Heart-Shaped Shield, c. 1507, Woodcut. Sterling and Francine Art Institute 1968.280

The Strange World of Albrecht Dürer
Curated by Jay Clarke
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
November 14, 2010, through March 13, 2011

The Clark has over the past few years achieved an impressive record of extraordinarily beautiful, impeccably researched, and above all original exhibitions, among which Picasso Looks at Degas was perhaps the most striking. The average art history professor might well discourage a student from pursuing this topic, unless she were sufficiently unpromising to ensure that no one’s time would be wasted, except perhaps the grader’s. On the contrary Richard Kendall and his colleagues took the subject, showed how germane it was to Picasso’s work, and created a revelatory exhibition out of it, which truly changed the way we look at Picasso. That can be said of very few exhibitions.

In The Strange World of Albrecht Dürer, the Clark produced a fundamentally different sort of exhibition, and a most enjoyable one, which should prove a fertile opportunity for Williams undergraduates and the general public to discover an important body of work from one of the West’s very great artists, Albrecht Dürer. Very few American museums can boast the depth in their holdings of a single artist to attempt this. In Abstract Expressionism the Museum of Modern Art has, with one of the strongest areas of their collection, just created the kind of experience one might find at the Prado or the Uffizi. The Clark’s holdings of Dürer prints are so extensive and of such high quality that they make it possible to offer a survey of similar quality, with 75 of 300 prints in all.  The Clark possesses most of Dürer’s subjects and many impressions are of the highest quality. Hence, this exhibition is an ideal opportunity to get to know a body of work that occupies a central place in western culture — as much as the plays of Sophocles or Shakespeare or the music of Bach and Beethoven. It is absolutely essential for any educated person to know them. Yes, there are such realities…in any case, in this day and age, it feels good to say it.

I stress this, because the exhibition avoids the many questions posed by art historians, connoisseurs, and, to some extent, iconographers in favor of a generalized cultural approach, which presents the artist and his work partly in the context of his time and place and partly as artefacts present-day viewers respond to literally, without much explanation, as images that will strike them as strange or alien, either because of a cultural disconnect or because of the uniqueness of Dürer’s imagination. Yet Jay Clarke, the curator, sees many points in common between Dürer’s creations and our own time. And this, I believe, is a rather effective solution to making these treasures available to the general public.

Most of the Clark’s Dürer prints were acquired by purchase in 1968 from the collection of Tomás Harris, the distinguished Goya scholar, who was also an artist, a dealer, and, during the Second World War, an intelligence officer for the British. He had died in a car accident in Mallorca in 1964. His Dürer collection was divided between the Clark and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which also purchased Harris’ matchless collection of prints and drawings by Goya.

Since Dürer’s development as an artist is not one of the subjects of this exhibition, the prints are divided, room by room, into themes “that draw parallels to contemporary society: The Apocalypse, Battle and Anguish, Symbolic Space, Gender Anxiety, and Enigma.” I assume that by “contemporary” our own time and not Dürer’s is meant. The first room is devoted entirely to Dürer’s 1498 woodcut illustrations of the Apocalypse of St. John, which are shown together with a copy of the volume with the woodcuts bound into their proper places, which are indicated by captions below each section of the text. Indeed, 1500 loomed large in theological, astrological, and prophetic literature in the years that preceded it, not to mention sermons and pamphlets, as the year appointed for the end of the world. Dürer’s visualization of St. John’s vision is probably the most familiar version of the prophecies today, except for those who study the hermetic text in the Bible itself. Each of the fifteen woodcuts is identified by title in the labels, but there is no quotation of the illustrated text or textual reference to them. This way, presumably, the public can concentrate on the images themselves without being unduly conscious of their textual sources. On a visual level there were numerous sources among the unique and multiple representations of the Apocalypse in the medieval tradition which extended up to Dürer’s large and complex versions, as outlined in Panofsky’s classic book on Dürer.

The volume of the Apocalypse borrowed from Chapin Library at Williams College is opened to the scene of St. Michael Fighting the Dragon, indirectly offering the visitor an opportunity to train his eye a bit in the connoisseurship of these woodcuts. The lines, which were produced by ink transferred from the relief lines carved out on the wood block, are somewhat broken in the Chapin impression, indicating that it was made later, after the blocks had begun to wear. You will also notice, if you stand back a little, that the forms, the pictorial space and the inter-relationships of the figures within it are striking and clear in the Clark impression while they are much less distinct in the somewhat muddled bound version. In judging impressions, this distant estimation of the overall composition is always a good place to start, although eventually the connoisseur will bring out his loupe or the indispensable Optivisor.

The selection in the next room relates to “War and Suffering.” Here scenes from the Passion of Christ and scenes of martyrdom are interspersed with military subjects — sights familiar enough in unstable times, like Dürer’s and our own. Dürer’s stylish if ferocious Landesknecht and Standard Bearer are shown here together with his almost clinical view of the Siege of a Fortress, as well as some extremely gruesome devotional material. The rationale for this is explained in the text label: “Just as the media of the twenty-first century — whether films, video games, or comic books — reflect the pervasiveness of violence in our culture, Dürer’s images mirrored his own society’s fascination with human torment.”

The third, central room, entitled “Enigma” is the most diverse, and, for me, the most satisfying. This section included Dürer’s three engraved masterpieces, St. Jerome in his Study, Knight, Death, and the Devil, and Melencolia I, the etchings, a series of subjects in which animals are prominent, shown felicitously as a series, and the embroidery woodcuts, the knots. Dr. Clarke had the good sense to show five of the six — not complete, but in exhibitions we must usually settle for only one — no more than a taste. In this way, the visitor can compare them and study the intricacies of Dürer’s decorative modulations in depth. The point, really, is to enjoy them as a series.

Albrecht Dürer, Saint Eustace c. 1501, Engraving. Sterling and Francine Art Institute 1968.51
Albrecht Dürer, Saint Eustace c. 1501, Engraving. Sterling and Francine Art Institute 1968.51

The animal subjects aren’t at all a series. The section brings together images as diverse in purpose and ambition as The Monstrous Pig of Landser, 1496, the Virgin and Child with a Monkey, c. 1498, and the St. Eustace of around 1501. While the St. Eustace is one of Dürer’s greatest achievements in engraving and a locus classicus for the interweaving of a mystical event with nature in many of its countless forms, the deformed pig may be seen as a sensationalistic exploitation of a freak of nature, as if Dürer might have been a valued employee on the National Enquirer. There was great curiosity about such freaks in Dürer’s day as in ours, but the tendency to view them as portents of change or disaster piqued interest and added a larger dimension to the phenomenon. In any case, it was not lost on Dürer as an opportunity for the profitable exercise of his art. Virgin and Child with a Monkey is one of the master’s most beautiful madonnas, typically complicated by the symbolism of the vividly drawn monkey as a beast of unbridled lust, here bound to the same fence on which the Virgin serenely sits.

Etching was not one of Dürer’s favorite media, but he made several experiments in it, no less important or fascinating than his polished engravings and woodcuts. Etching developed a following in Italy in the early sixteenth century as a medium that was more like drawing. (Painters, who were typically not trained in the use of the burin, the basic engraver’s tool, found it difficult to master.) Etching was accomplished by coating a copper plate with varnish and drawing over it with a stylus. In order to make the ink-carrying incised lines, it was immersed in an acid bath which ate into the fine lines exposed to it by the stylus. Dürer, as the son of a goldsmith, had grown up with the techniques necessary for engraving. Hence he was only interested in etching as a medium which might create unusual effects. Etching was also limited by the delicacy of the plate, which was more prone to wear than engraved plates, since the burin cut a deeper and sturdier incision. The Clark’s selection included some of Dürer’s most enigmatic images: a field cannon observed in perfect perspective from above, a Turk standing at its side, and the Tormented Man, an image of a kneeling nude male, seemingly tormented by apparitions — an image seemingly ahead of its time, proleptically evoking Redon, Klinger, Ensor, Rops, and others.

The fourth room is devoted to Dürer’s 1511 Life of the Virgin, one of his more Italianate works. Here the artist sets his narrative in perspectivally consistent, classical architectural settings — perhaps intended as a later summa of what he had learned on his two study trips to Venice the first in the mid 1490s and the second in 1505-07. This was the least satisfactory of the sections. The cycle should be shown in its entirety, and a bit more explanation of Dürer’s intentions is in order beyond the highly compressed text label.

The final room contains Dürer’s depictions of women and the relationship between the sexes. The section is called “Gender Anxiety” and appeals to the notion that “The tension expressed in these prints centers on the perceived power struggle between women and men and the threat of unleashed passions. […] The impact of these images is no less powerful today, when issues of gender equality remain fraught in every sphere of life.” It covers a great deal of diverse ground, including Adam and Eve, The Promenade (Young Couple Threatened by Death), the Dream of the Doctor, the Men’s Bath, the Great Fortune, The Cook and his Wife, the Ill-Assorted Couple, and others. A perusal of this room leaves one with a general impression of pessimism about marriage and the relations of the sexes in general. Other subjects show women as witches or allegorical figures of a rather threatening character, for example the Great Fortune, or Nemesis.

Albrecht Dürer, Nemesis (The Great Fortune) c. 1502. Engraving. The Sterling and Francine Art Institute 1968.53
Albrecht Dürer, Nemesis (The Great Fortune) c. 1502. Engraving. The Sterling and Francine Art Institute 1968.53

The femininity of the latter is easily explained, since both the Latin noun “Fortuna” and the Greek noun “Nemesis” are grammatically feminine and were traditionally deified as female gods in ancient popular religious life. The concept survived into the Christian era as allegorical figures of feminine gender. In Dürer’s print, the inconstancy of Fortune and the universality of her power were leading ideas, and, while that may draw on the old notion of woman as a changeable creature, it is most tellingly shown by her treading of the shifting ball and the swaying of her figure. While this is what Dürer’s finished print expressed, one can look to his work as a draftsman for sympathetic, realistic portraits of women of all ages. In this show Dürer’s images of that sempiternally sympathetic female type, the Virgin Mary, are in other rooms. While the well-formed nude woman in the Dream of the Doctor seems a medium for a devil, the Witch Riding Backward on a Goat does the devil’s work herself and is appropriately hideous. The Men’s Bath, on the other hand, may suggest homosexuality for modern viewers, but it is clear that Dürer’s purpose was to show the male figure in all the variants created by dominant humors. Dürer showed a similarly characterful group of female figures (included in the show) as witches, and there is a drawing of a women’s bath, quite similar in purpose to Dürer’s woodcut. It has been proposed that Dürer may have been homosexual, and it is reported that his marriage was not a love-match — on the contrary, rather bitter. None of these issues are mentioned in the exhibition materials, but I would caution visitors from jumping to conclusions on issues that are not clearly documented, as they are in the lives of other major artists of the period, like Michelangelo. (Dürer’s classic homosexual subject, the Death of Orpheus, is depicted in a pen drawing in the Hamburg Kunsthalle after a lost print by Mantegna.) Traditional typology is enough to account for most of Dürer’s imagery. If there is more than a hint of misogyny in these prints, it comes as much from the common beliefs of the times as from the humanistic circles of Dürer and his friend and patron Willibald Pirckheimer, or the depths of Dürer’s psyche. The leading idea is that Dürer, in these commercial multiples, which were intended to be sold to strangers as finished products, appealed to popular tastes and preconceptions. The fat cook and his enigmatic wife are a case in point, like the Ill-Matched Couple, in which an elderly suitor is fleeced both willingly and unawares by the object of his adoration. In this way Dürer was a pioneer of the mass-produced multiple, although an intaglio print can hardly be considered mass-produced. Enough of this historical stuff…just go to the Clark and form your own conclusions. If you want to read further, Panofsky has not been surpassed in over 65 years, and the book is still in print.

The outstanding quality of these impressions from Tomás Harris’s collection make this sampling quite a feast for the eye. A great, fully realized impression of a master print will satisfy anybody as a unique work of art, and you will see quite a few of them here. In German engravings, connoisseurs tend to favor very dark, intense impressions over lighter, more delicate ones of a greyer tone, but it is not as simple as that. A lighter, later impression may give you a better view of the detail in the work, above all in the shadows, even if such impressions are rejected by the most discriminating collectors as later, even posthumous printings. (N.B. This is not true of Italian engravings, which tend to be lighter in tone.) The Clark St. Eustace, Great Fortune, Adam and Eve, St. Jerome, and Knight, Death, and the Devil all show the most characteristic traits of the best early impressions. You can even see the relief lines of the dense, black printer’s ink through the Clark’s plexiglas. The great scholars of print-making made meticulous notes of every significant detail in every impression they studied, and they have gone to great expense and effort to see as many impressions as they can. While this exhibition does not show comparative impressions, which would be possible from the Clark collection, there is plenty of opportunity for comparison of different subjects. The Cook and his Wife, for example, is a rather mediocre impression.

Go to this important and fascinating show, and go again and again, and you will come away with an incomparable storehouse of knowledge of one of the great artists of the West.

Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514, Engraving. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute 1968.89
Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514, Engraving. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute 1968.89

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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