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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.


Salvador Dalí

12 Jun

I often start writing by asking myself, “Why is this artist so popular?”  In the case of Salvador Dalí the answer is simple:  He wanted to be.

More than being a great artist, Dalí was a master showman.  Most Surrealists wanted to be on the outside looking in, but Dalí wanted to be the one directly in the middle of things getting all the attention.  Every public appearance he made throughout his life was designed to have the utmost dramatic effect, including wearing a cape and his ever-present walking stick.   How much of this was genuine eccentricity on his part and how much was orchestrated for publicity is hard to gauge, but there is plenty of evidence for both.  Dali even appeared on talk shows such as The Tonight Show and the game show What’s My Line.  Now to be fair in modern times an artist would rarely be a guest on such a show simply because our popular culture has been diluted to the point where art is considered too high brow for national television, but even at the time it was a bit extraordinary.

He was also a highly controversial personality throughout his life.  He worked with figures such as the Marx Brothers and Walt Disney but was shunned from the Surrealist movement led by Andre Breton, a movement he didn’t really join until late, anyway.  The main problem was his political views, which the left-leaning Breton took issue with.  Even if he wasn’t a very political man, he took great flack for his acceptance and even support of the Franco regime.

1931's The Persistence of Memory, now in the Museum of Modern Art New York

Besides his waxed, upturned moustache, the thing Dalí is probably best known for is his 1931 painting The Persistence of Memory.  You know, the one with the melting clocks.  The painting style is certainly realistic, but the subject matter is significantly less so.  There’s the aforementioned clocks, of course, but other nonsensical images include the sleeping figure in the center, and the ants crawling out of the pocket watch on the block to the left.  It was all part of Dalí’s obsession with dreamscapes.  Like all good Surrealists, Dalí took major inspiration from psychology, especially the psychology of dreams.

We like Dalí’s work because it’s completely fantastic, yet easily understood.  At a time when artists were creating more and more abstract works, Dalí continued with his surreal style.  People could at least find images they recognized in the scene, even if it didn’t particularly make sense.  This quality, along with the sheer number and variety of his works as well as his publicity-seeking personality keep him in the public eye even today, even when art historians remain divided on his merit as an artist.

Perhaps Dalí can best be understood by his appearance on What’s My Line.  As I already said, the mere fact that he was on the show is very telling, but his answers are equally interesting.  One could make the case that it was a case of bad translation, but he claims he is a performer and writer, even an athlete.  This is a man who is clearly at the center of his own universe, but those glimpses he left for the rest of us are rather interesting at times, as well.

Daniel Libeskind

17 May

When I was visiting the Denver Art Museum recently I saw a book in one of their reading areas titled Daniel Libeskind and The Contemporary Jewish Museum: New Jewish Architecture from Berlin to San Francisco.  I thought it was interesting that the work of one architect was being seen as a complete Renaissance in Jewish architecture, especially when so many find those works less than inspiring.

Since his first main work, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, received international acclaim, Daniel Libeskind has been one of the starts of architecture.  He’s gone on to do additions for some of the major museums of the world and was also the lead designer of the new World Trade Center complex in New York.  All of this has happened after he spent most of his career as an academic – he was already 54 years old when the Jewish Museum in Berlin was constructed.  Libeskind’s time in the spotlight has been relatively brief, but he’s developed quite a name for himself in that time.

It’s this academic nature that irks people about Libeskind (myself included).  Sometimes he seems far too concerned with the philosiphy behind the architecture than the building itself.  Case in point is his most famous work, the Jewish Museum in Berlin.  Rather than being a place to tell a story and allow for exploration and interpretation, Libeskind has designed the building to be one big reminder of the oppression that the Jews have faced in European history, hardly telling a nuanced story or leaving room to appreciate the beautiful works of Judaica on display.   There is also the question of just how good of a museum it really is – if the display cases are laid out well, how accesible it is for visitors, and so on.  He has gone on to come up with all sorts of grandiose themes and symbols for work that is often very repetitive, such as the Royal Ontario Museum and the Denver Art Museum.

The thing is, when I started researching this post I was dead set on being against Libeskind, but after looking at some of his more commercial works I’ve come to respect him as a great architect.  He has created buildings that are extremely unique and beautiful to look at.  It’s unfortunate, then, that the museum buildings that he’s known for leave so much to be desired.  Even sadder is his refusal to stand up for his plan for the World Trade Center, which had the support of so many New Yorkers when it was first chosen but is now being watered down by corporate influences.

Perhaps, then, Daniel Libeskind is smarter than we all give him credit for.  His work often seeks to highlight uncomfortable truths in our society and in the process incites heated discussion on the nature of architecture.  If that’s his mission he’s certainly been successful.  But he’s much more captivating when he’s not trying to make a point and is instead just experimenting with his own aesthetic values.  I can only hope we see more of that from him in the future.

To view Libeskind’s Works:

Vincent van Gogh

10 Mar

Starry Night, from 1889

I start with van Gogh not because I believe he had a particularly great impact on the development of art (he did) or because he remains one of the most popular artists of all time (he is), but because of a bit of sci-fi.  OK, I’ll admit it, I’m a fan of Doctor Who.  I’m not going to spend time defending my enjoyment of British sci-fi, however, no matter how good I think it is.  This is about an artist.  The Series 5 episode “Vincent and the Doctor” got me thinking about why Van Gogh is so popular and the impact he had on art.  I also dare say that anyone who saw the episode will understand the emotional power that it had and why I would suddenly be drawn to the artist.

Unlike other artists it’s easy to see why van Gogh is so popular.  His paintings are absolutely beautiful.  Normally when an expert remarks on the “masterful use of color” by an artist it seems rather perfunctory and does nothing to explain the painting to a layman.  Not so with van Gogh.  The colors in his paintings almost seem like gemstones, they are so vivid.  His most famous paintings create a feeling of heightened reality that is common amongst our own favorite memories.  In short, van Gogh was such a great artist that you don’t need to know a thing about art history to appreciate them.  They are classic images that touch everyone on some level.

But where does the artist end and the legend begin?  Vincent van Gogh is the great archtype of the troubled artist.  Constantly suffering from mental illness, he famously cut off part of his left ear in 1888 and commited suicide in 1890.  It’s also a well-known fact that he was not a great success in his lifetime.  When we see a van Gogh we’re not simply seeing a great work of art, we’re seeing a great work of art that was created despite the artist’s madness.  This cult of personality goes a long way in explaining the enduring interest in van Gogh.  It’s not simply morbid curiosity, however.  Knowing what we do about his troubled life allows us to appreciate all the more how beautiful his artworks truly are.  They remind us in a way that there is always beauty in life no matter how dark things can be at times and of the transcendent nature of art to connect us to this beauty.

More on Vincent van Gogh:
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, with a detailed biography
Van Gogh Gallery, online resource with an extensive catalog of works
Don McLean’s “Vincent”, set to various van Gogh paintings