If Albrecht Dürer, “so skilful, so diligent, so versatile, had Tuscany for his country. . . he would have been the best painter in our country ”. Giorgio Vasari’s backhanded compliment carries the truth – Dürer’s paintings are not comparable to those of the Italian Renaissance. It also lacks the essential: the magnificent imagination of the Nuremberg artist did not turn to classical beauty or sensual color; he needed the grotesque. Gothic strangeness, complexity, extravagance fueled “fantasies and inventions” which quickly became an inventory of expressive forms and poses copied across Europe.
This lasted for centuries: Dürer’s Christ “The Little Passion” appears to Rembrandt, the fallen angel in “Melencolia” is the ancestor of Rodin’s “Thinker”. Through his prints, explains Gabriele Finaldi, director of the National Gallery, Dürer entered “the blood stream of European art”.
Dürer’s travels, a big exhibition feast, traces the journeys of man – journeys of cultural formation through the Alps to Venice; a subsequent trip, by slow river boat, to Antwerp – and the dissemination of his images and ideas. With abundant and fabulous graphic work making up for just nine small paintings (unfortunately, no self-portraits or altarpieces) by the artist’s hand, as well as contextualizing works that sometimes seem randomly chosen, the show winds, like the long tours of Dürer, and is not entirely cohesive. But, as in the best trips, its rewards are surprises: Dürer the supreme passer, not only by geography but by history, sensitivity, even genre.
The glittering “Portrait of a Young Woman in a Red Beret”, a cap perched at a slender angle on blond corkscrew curls, is he really a pervert boy? ‘Four Naked Women’ may be sturdy and elegant versions of Venus and the Three Graces, but they come together in a conspiratorial fashion, with the sinister undertones of medieval superstition – this engraving is also known as’ The Four witches ”. And medieval folklore mingles with empirical observation and the ancient ideal in “The Sea Monster” – a voluptuous classic nude kidnapped by a bony, scaly newt against a realistically demarcated watery backdrop.
The ambivalence strikes at the start: the opening work is the robust “Madonna and Child” (c. 1496-99), produced immediately after Dürer’s first trip to Venice, and marketed until the middle of the 20th century. under the name of Bellini. Abundant drapery, triad of blue dress against red curtain and green pillow, delicate skin tones, are all Venetian, but no Italian would have painted such awkward figures.
Young Dürer’s forces were elsewhere. The image of the exhibition poster is the captivating engraving “St Eustache” (c1499-1503), piled up, sumptuous, a collection of motifs – forest, fortress-like settlements dotted over thorny outcrops, hills, horses, dogs – which Dürer has twisted and reconfigured over the decades for sacred and secular narratives.
Trees, a proud deer, hunting dogs on variable alert, standing, sniffing, crouching, and the tower and the winding staircase through the mountainous rocks: the landscape is all traced, delighted with details, to tell how he transfigures himself into a vision of the splendor of God for Placidus, the Roman general kneeling at the center of the composition. While hunting, Placidus saw a crucifix between the antlers of a stag, fell from his horse, and became a Christian, baptized Eustace.
The path that winds around the mountains is perhaps reminiscent of Dürer’s alpine journeys; it’s also his – our – steep journey through life. The metaphor conveys conviction through pure virtuoso naturalism: Dürer’s authority, control, determination of black lines evoking tufts of plants and protruding rocks, perilous drawbridge, uneven turrets. We read the supernatural through the real – the glory of the mimetic impulse of the Nordic Renaissance.
“St Eustache” hangs in a corner of the largest gallery next to Jan Gossaert’s immense and sumptuous painting “The Adoration of the Kings”, apparently juxtaposed because Gossaert appropriated one of Dürer’s dogs. . The Gossaert, a formidable example of late Flemish figurative ingenuity and elongated Gothic figures, is there to contrast with a nativity scene, “Fête des garlandes de roses” (here only in copy), which Dürer, influenced by Italian models, painted for a Venetian. church on his second visit in 1506.
On the same journey, the incredibly ugly “Christ among the Doctors” – 12-year-old Jesus surrounded by hideous and harassing old men – shows Dürer still defiantly the artist from the North. It is the pictorial disharmony that makes the threat so frightening – a strong argument visualized by distortion and a close-up of the face. But next to one of the most beautiful sheets in the show, Albertina’s brush and ink studies on blue paper, heightened with white, are exquisitely refined, for two innocent faces from another world. : the adolescent Jesus of the “Doctors”, looking down, and the angel lute player for “Rose Garlands”, looking upwards that flies – Dürer sublimely harmonious.
“What beauty is, I don’t know,” Dürer concluded. He was still questioning, wondering – a natural traveler. In Venice, her portrayal of male beauty is made up of delicate skin tones and mysterious looks. A window mullion is reflected in the watery eyes of melancholy youth in “Portrait of a Young Man”, which recalls Giorgione.
“How I will freeze after the sun”, lamented Dürer as he left Venice in 1507. But he did not. He brought home the memory of Bellini and Italian monumentality, and merged it with Nordic dynamism and meticulous accuracy, which is seen here especially in the Antwerp portraits of 1521.
Warm highlights soften the crisp features of “Bernhard van Reesen”, a Danzig merchant consciously cutting a figure with a floppy hat. Flattening the hood to push his head forward from dark red ground, Dürer emphasizes strength and eagerness – all the more poignant as months later, 30-year-old van Reesen has passed away. of the plague.
In Prado’s intense psychological study of an unknown model wrapped in fur with gray curls, light penetrates at an angle to illuminate an authoritative, tense face – restless eyes; stern and pinched mouth – and also casts the shadow of the man on the background like an anxious abstract alter ego. At the bottom of the image, sharp hands, clutching a scroll, are another pool of light and contained nervous energy.
The show ends with “St Jerome”, inspired by a gnarled and tired 93-year-old Dürer met in Antwerp: a representation of old age meditating on the ephemeral – a diagonal going from the crucifix to the stack of books via the skull exteriorizes a line of thought. What was Dürer’s position on the Reformation? “Luther” by Cranach and “Erasmus” by Quentin Massys set the scene; Dürer’s position is uncertain, but “Saint Jerome” is the essence of a portrait of humanist contemplation. Some 120 lines and variations – such as those of Joos van Cleve and Marinus van Reymerswaele here – appeared during the religious crises of the following century.
Dürer lived in changing times, but history is always a world that turns: what fascinates above all throughout this exhibition is the turbulence of the artist’s mind.
November 20 to February 27, 2022, nationalgallery.org.uk
To follow @ftweekend on Twitter to discover our latest stories first