Infused with the spirit of discovery


In Dürer’s little watercolor, the city of Trento belongs to the pages of a fairy tale. Perched on a rock, its buildings are described in exquisite detail, its church reflected in the water below. Scale no longer makes sense: the streaks of the rock and the changing colors of the water are observed with as much care as in the artist’s painting. Large piece of grass, painted eight years later in 1503.

The watercolor embodies the spirit of discovery so characteristic of Dürer’s travels, which are the subject of this exhibition at the National Gallery. Between 1490 and 1521, he undertakes several trips from his birthplace of Nuremberg, the first to Colmar, Basel and Strasbourg, but later to Venice; his last trip took him to the Netherlands, where he visited Van Eyck’s famous masterpiece, the Ghent altarpiece.

Itinerant artists were to be commonplace on the highways and roads of Renaissance Europe, despite the harsh reality of travel during this era, evoked in Dürer’s half-finished watercolor of an alpine shelter.

Despite this, few influences absorbed and passed on as Dürer did, and in the Netherlands he was a special celebrity, honored with banquets in every city he visited. He recorded his experiences in his diaries, along with details of food and accommodation bills, people he met, and sights seen.

Sketches of animals and landscapes (1521) (Photo: Ian West / PA)

The exhibition explores very effectively the ways in which Dürer appropriates and appropriates new ideas: in Venice, he discovers blue paper for drawing, and he adopts the Venetian taste for head-to-shoulder portraits.

His own considerable influence spread through prints, which he could carry easily, although he preferred to travel light. The influence of its imprint Adam and eve (1504) extended to a boxwood sculpture by Conrad Meit, while that of Bellini The assassination of Saint Peter the martyr (c.1505-07) borrows from Dürer the motif of an ox’s hindquarters.

As fascinating as it is, this emphasis on artistic exchange and dialogue makes only limited use of the more singular glimpses of Dürer’s personal experiences provided by his drawn and written archives. The delicately crafted views of towns and landscapes now seem almost whimsical, while the distinctive regional costume designs are a vivid reminder that at that time an adventure began very close to home.

There are still some wonderful moments here, including the vigorous and energetic pen-and-ink portrait of Imperial Captain Felix Hungersperg in full face (1520), whom Dürer described as an “exquisite and very precise lutenist”, and drew in exchange for 100 oysters.

The exhibition doesn’t include enough of these wonderful vignettes, but the rare opportunity to see Dürer’s paintings, prints and drawings, hung with plenty of space around them for close viewing, is enough compensation. .

to February 27


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