Albrecht Dürer

11 Oct

Knight, Death, and the Devil, 1513

I try not to make a habit of agreeing with Germans.  I like them, I live with them, I love their beer, but we still have some fundamental differences.  There is one topic, however, on which I’ve developed a wholly German attitude: Albrecht Dürer.  Dürer has the misfortune of constantly being upstaged in public memory by the flashier artists of the Italian Renaissance.  His artistic talent, intellect, and lasting impression on art can easily compare to anything produced south of the Alps, but classifying Dürer simply as a “Northern Renaissance” artist does no justice to his complex legacy.

Albrecht Dürer spent most of his life in the city of Nuremberg.  At the time the city was one of the largest in Europe and a major center for trade and, important for Dürer, printing.  As much as the city came to be reflected in his work, Dürer was equally influenced by artists and scholars both in Italy and the Netherlands.  During his life he made two trips to the former and one to the latter.  All of this combined to create the unique style Dürer was associated with his entire life.

Contrary to other great Renaissance artists, Dürer was and is perhaps best known for his engravings and drawings.  His engravings such as The Fall of Man (Adam and Eve) and Knight, Death, and the Devil completely revolutionized the genre.  Never before had an artist shown such attention to detail and realism in prints.  Indeed, Dürer made most of his livelihood during his lifetime through the sale of his prints and they continue to be among the most recognized engravings in the world.

The Four Apostles, 1526

Not to say that Dürer wasn’t a painter of importance, as well.  The Four Apostles has always been one of my personal favorite paintings.  The realism of the figures is a breath of fresh air in comparison to all the overwrought religious paintings done before.  Every time I see it I’m amazed at how much personality is suggested by the painting.  I can imagine how these men talked and conducted themselves.  At a time when religious painting was meant to glorify more than question Dürer’swork, done without a commission and given to the city leaders of Nuremberg, is absolutely fascinating.

Every artist is unique, but Albrecht Dürer stands out for his ability to defy convention and capture our imagination.  His two most reproduced works, the Praying Hands and Rhinoceros, are by no means the best examples of his artistic talent, but both act as illustrations of two of human nature’s most enduring traits – faith and curiosity.  His Melancolia I, with its magic square and mysterious subject matter, has been beguiling viewers and art historians for centuries.  Despite leaving numerous diaries and records, it is what we don’t know about Albrecht Dürer that makes him so interesting today.

If you’re ever in Munich go to the Alte Pinakothek (which you should do anyway) and really take a look at his self-portrait.  It’s obvious that it represents a larger than life individual.  Much like Dürer it is vastly different from anything else of the time.  He has been both admired and criticized for painting himself as one traditionally depicts Christ.  Some argue that it was hubris, others that it was only an artistic exercise.  Whenever I’m there I’m more than aware of the artistic talent and at the same time wonder if he really could have been so arrogant as to compare himself to Jesus.  Above all I have a feeling that if I stay there studying the painting long enough I’ll somehow figure out the answers.  I know I never will, though, which is why I and many others will continue to study Albrecht Dürer and revere him as one of the world’s great artists.

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One Response to “Albrecht Dürer”

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  1. An Introduction to the Pinakotheken « The Flying Buttress - November 19, 2011

    […] like seeing Michelangelo in Rome and Monet in Paris, one should really see the masterpieces by Albrecht Dürer while in […]

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