Dürer’s Travels offers a detailed examination of the socialite artist
LONDON – Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is by no means a successful name, although his prolific output of virtuoso and highly detailed engravings, woodcuts, drawings and, to a lesser extent, paintings remains significant in the history of art. However, the volume and breadth of his interests, as evidenced by his works on paper, allowed curator Susan Foister to mount a studious and rewarding exhibition even without major masterpieces. (The young hare, for example, or one of the main self-portraits rarely travels.) Dürer’s Travels: Travels of a Renaissance Artist at the National Gallery is not interested in proclaiming a new or radical headline-grabbing angle on the artist’s work. Perhaps as a result, the two times I visited the exhibition, located in the underground Sainsbury’s wing of the National, wasn’t exactly packed with visitors. In contrast, the recently closed Chick and the dance, in the main galleries upstairs, practically shouted its mission to present Poussin in “a new and exciting light,” and then steadily strove to deliver on that promise. Here, the general theme of travel allows for a chronological study which, through Dürer’s extensive documentation combined with unusual and compelling loans, achieves that rare thing among monographic exhibitions: a broader contextual understanding of Dürer’s practical world which is filled of interacting characters and artistic elements. exchange, and is richly rewarding to behold.
Each piece is organized by city and country in the order of Dürer’s visits, beginning with his home in Nuremberg, Germany, and moving to Venice and the Netherlands. Foister makes no attempt to demonstrate thematic or stylistic development, and the works defy such effort, varying widely in subject and medium. What emerges is the impression that travel facilitated Dürer’s learning and innovation, as he freely changed medium to suit each piece and followed his incessant curiosity from the start, as in two small studies unpretentious apparently made solely for his own interest and practice: “Ruin of an Alpine Refuge” (1514, from the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana) and “Trintperg – Dosso di Trento” (1495, Kunsthalle Bremen). The former is a metalpoint and watercolor that betrays an early interest in minute detail and unusual perspective, the latter a watercolor study of a curious mound overlooking the titular village. Nearby is the gouache study “A Lion” (1494, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Kupferstichkabinett), although its stark face and positioning suggest it was taken from heraldic sources, for the real lions were, just title, Rare Items in 16th Century Europe.
The open-mindedness continues in a section featuring a series of portraits from Dürer’s time in Venice, all made around 1506-1507. The captions for these otherwise unrelated portraits of “Burkhard of Speyer” (1506, on loan from the Queen), a “Young Man” (1506, Palazzo Rosso, Genoa) and “Young Girl” (1507, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) do indicate nothing. seek to establish a stylistic or thematic community; they simply describe what it was producing at the time. Where some curators feel the need to justify the presence of loans by forcing definitive links or relevance in the subtitles, the viewer is here invited to consider the works in the overall context of the exhibition and to form their own observations.
Where the curator chooses to establish direct stylistic or iconographic links, these are largely convincing. We are informed that a dog in Dürer’s engraving of St Eustace (c. 1499-1503, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) served as a model for works by other artists, such as the magnificent adjacent painting “The Adoration of the Kings” by Jan Gossaert (1510-15, National Gallery, London). The transportable and transmissible nature of the paper engravings increases the possibility that the design will at some point be right in front of Gossaert’s nose, but just look at the identical pose and stylized musculature of the two sinewy canines. Foister even identifies the unusual motif of an ox rump, seen truncated by the frame of Giovanni Bellini’s “Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr” (1505-57, National Gallery, London), as “identical” to a truncated rear similar in Dürer’s “Prodigal Prodigal”. Son” (c. 1497, British Museum). (In this case, however, the different tail positions suggest that the Bellini – and by extension the comparison – might be included as, conveniently, he normally lives two stories up in the Sainsbury’s Wing and did not require a loan .)
These comparisons highlight the medieval and Renaissance use of pattern books, in which drawings were produced by a workshop master so that apprentices could copy them and learn standardized ways of drawing a myriad of objects, such only animals and patterns. Along the same lines, we are shown examples of simply written exotic animals, for example a monkey in gray and pink on a page from “Sketches of Animals and Landscapes” (1521, Clark Institute, Massachusetts). By recording unusual sites encountered throughout his travels and disseminating them via studio practices, it is understandable why Dürer occupies such an important place in the history of art.
Dürer meticulously journaled his activities; this, combined with intimate letters, contributes to the idea of an artistic exchange based on the social interaction between many people. A letter from Dürer to his friend Willibald Pirckheimer, dated 23 September 1506 (British Library, London), deals not only with recent painting but also with quests to purchase materials such as enamelled glass and carpets. These mundane details flesh out a vivid picture of contemporary life beyond the works of art on display. Elsewhere in the exhibition is a stained glass panel from Dirk Vellert’s workshop of “The Flight into Egypt” (c. 5132-40, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Dürer’s meticulous documentation explains that he acquired a pigment from Vellert he had never encountered before, demonstrating that the process of artistic exchange encompassed not only stylistic transfer but material as well.
The importance of social interaction continues in a section of portraits featuring contemporary figures in Dürer’s orbit. He visited the collection of Margaret of Austria and the house of artist Quinten Massys in Antwerp. Thus, the exhibition includes a portrait of the first by Bernaert van Orely (1518, Royal Monastery of Brou, Bourg-en-Bresse, France) and several portraits of the second, in particular a double portrait composed of “Portrait de femme” (around 1520 , Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and “Portrait of a Man with a Rosary” (circa 1520, private collection). (Bringing these together from such disparate collections is a mini-triumph in itself.) It takes skill to add so many works by other artists into a monographic exhibition on Dürer without being accused of filling it with putty. In this case, the additional works are wonderfully effective in presenting a cast of artists and others operating on Dürer’s global stage. Obviously, his success as an artist is not due to production alone, but also to an active sociability facilitated by travel.
Using the theme of travel to examine Dürer’s work could easily have resulted in an unfocused and safe collection of all the works that could be acquired. Still, there is precision in the selections, which include relatively obscure collections. Foister is confident enough in the intelligence of the viewer to circumvent the predictable greatest hits in favor of peripheral works that go beyond simply presenting what, when, and where Dürer produced works of art. Instead of being spoon-fed examples that posit Dürer’s artistic “influence” as a path, we are asked to consider that his success and longevity in art history are closely tied to his complex social interactions across countries and time, recording what he saw as he went. along.
Dürer’s Travels: Travels of a Renaissance Artist continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London, England) until February 27. The exhibition is curated by Susan Foister.