Arts: Indeed Albrecht Durer is Strange

The Strange World of Albrecht Durer: An exhibit of Durer prints highlighting the fantastic aspects of the artist’s imagination and iconography. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Mention the name of German artist Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) and you will always have a respectful and positive reaction. This renowned printmaker, draughtsman and theoretician produced one of the most identifiable and imaginative bodies of work of the last millennium and this exhibit at The Clark put more than 50 of his timeless prints on display.

The Clark owns 300+ original Durer prints and this show smartly gives perspective by considering those selected under five subject headings – The Apocalypse, Gender Anxiety, Enigma, Symbolic Space and War and Suffering. And with Durer’s flair for the dramatic you should cinch your seat belt when you enter.

This exhibit demonstrates once again that good art is powerful in any scale. No print is more than 18 inches tall and they are beautifully framed and presented by the always-dignified Clark. The whole installation is top drawer with a superb presentation, a highly informative pamphlet, and large-scale reproductions of Durer images on the walls including a 7-headed monster and a blown-up detail of a Durer self-portrait engraving greeting visitors at the exhibit’s entry, showing the fine details of his oeuvre. Hats off to this show’s organizer(s) and curators for their thoughtful details.

The woodcuts and engravings throughout the five rooms show us just enough to offer variety and to keep our interest but not so many as to overwhelm us with repetition which can be a problem with Durer prints. This restraint is another strong Clark hand. Less indeed is more.

Above are details of (top) Hercules, a woodcut from 1496, and (bottom) Nemesis, an engraving from 1502. Obviously the engraving process offers much more tonal nuance.

The show has many woodcuts, and what is immediately noticeable is how detailed they are. For anyone who has ever attempted the medium Durer’s achievement seems otherworldly. He must have used a very hard, dense wood and surely worked a super-sharp cutting tool with strength and precision because every feature in every print is done deftly – clothing folds, clouds, facial expressions, animals, plants, trees.

Christian imagery abounds in all of the woodcuts in the Apocalypse series. Then the first engraving of the exhibit, the small, dark Christ Bearing the Cross of 1512, gives us the introductory example of Durer’s awesome skills in that medium, while Lamentation, a woodcut of 1498 shows the Prince of Peace’s crown of thorns like a casual detail in the lower corner of the image but very finely done like every inch of any Durer print.

In Virgin & Child with a Monkey of 1498, the Virgin Mary is posed in an updated Euro setting with the remnants of a Bavarian-type building behind her. The monkey is said to be an icon of base passion, which makes you wonder what it is doing next to the Blessed Mother. But that is Durer for you. Some of us would call it blasphemous.

In another woodcut series called The Life of the Virgin from 1511, the Theotokos is shown at stages in her life within various architectural tableaux from a rustic cottage to a cathedral-type interior. In Christ Taking Leave of his Mother, Jesus is seen standing outside the simple timber structure in both a symbolic and literal separation.

These architectural elements prove again that Durer always seemed to be reaching for new and provocative visual material to spice up his work.

For Durer lovers, there is nothing quite like his engravings, however. This is where The Clark hits another smart note by offering magnifying glasses to visitors which add greatly to the ability to appreciate the ultra-fine work.

So you pick up a glass and start to marvel at the extraordinary detail in every engraving, a technique in which the artist carved extremely fine lines with a sharp metal stylus directly into a flat, rectangular copper plate (today it is generally zinc). To print the plate, you cover it with thick gelatin-like ink and wipe the excess from the surface of the plate. The ink remains in the lines. You then run the plate through a press with dampened paper to pick up the ink under pressure.

Woodcuts, on the other hand, do the reverse, where the white areas are precisely nicked out or gouged out of the block. Raised areas – some of Durer’s are remarkably fine – are inked with a roller and then the woodcut is run through a press with dry paper.

One visitor to the show was remarking to a friend about the fact that the prints’ paper was hundreds of years old but looked very fresh. Considering that modern curatorial techniques did not exist until the 20th century, it is quite an achievement. You often wonder how so many precious artworks have survived the ravages of the centuries. Of course we will never know about those that haven't.

Durer prints include cornucopia of keenly observed human forms, suits of armor, rocks, plants, trees (both dead and living), landscapes, distant castles on hills, forests, witches, allegorical animals of all natures from subtly menacing to surreally fierce (none seems perfectly innocent except the horses), clouds, and of course the trademark Durer agglomerations of knights, multi-headed monsters, swords, lances, demons, dark thickets, religious figures, onlookers and every other possible iconographic parable imaginable.

The fine lines of the engravings allow much more tonal nuance than the woodcuts. The engravings’ rich inky blackness morphing through every step of chiaroscuro to white through use of only line shows a commitment to a more formally precise medium than the woodcut. Looking closely with a glass, you imagine that Durer himself must have used magnification; it is hard to imagine making any of these prints without it.

In St. Eustace, an engraving from 1501, there is the subject, five greyhound-type dogs milling in the foreground, a horse, a deer, a castle on a hill, a forest (an oft-used pictorial subject in Durer’s prints) and a dead bark-less tree that twisted as it grew, a nice touch known to anyone who has spent time studying trees as art subjects. In a tiny detail of ducks in a pond scene, all no bigger than two inches square, every reflection is accurate. It is amazing.

The engraving called The Large Horse is no more than 6 inches tall and shows a massive white beast in shortened perspective, its muscles far beyond any horse on this earth, its tail braided and its mane looking oddly human. It seems to suggest not just any horse but a very special one that comes out of Durer’s fertile mind like everything else in this wildly imaginative show.

The exhibit also includes work that many Durer aficionados may not recognize – seven ‘Knot’ prints from 1507 including Knot with Seven Wreaths and Knot with Seven Hexagonal Stars. These are interwoven forms on black circular backgrounds that resemble doilies, each one a separate symmetrical pattern. They really are outstanding and a nice discovery, a new dimension to this artist’s wide and deep body of work.

In a totally oddball woodcut, a humorous Rhinoceros is presented with a series of plate-like armors all over its body, each one different from the others as if the animal is halfway between the natural and the man-made as if to challenge us about the very nature of the beast. This is a common theme in Durer – nothing is ever quite what it seems – and this rhino is the type of surprise image that keeps this show fresh.

In Landscape with Cannon of 1518 there is a new element – modern war technology – which Durer handles with the usual aplomb.

In Melancolia of 1514, the year Durer’s mother died, we see the artist’s passion for iconography. A winged angel with a dead expression on her face is surrounded by various items to which every significance imaginable has been ascribed by Durer-philes. The print is small and relatively simple until you look at all the details.

Melancolia is called one of the four ‘humors’, which all people were said to possess in unequal proportions. Melancolia was described as the least desirable humor because it was responsible for depression, apathy, and even insanity and it tended to be associated with the most creative and intelligent individuals including carpenters, mathematicians, artists, and grammarians.

The details in this engraving include a hammer (carpenter) a compass (mathematician), putto with notebook (grammarian), keys (power), a purse (wealth), a bell (eternity), a wreath (made from a plant which was believed to be a cure for melancholy), a comet (a sign of Saturn, a god affiliated with melancholy) and a 4X4 ‘magic square’ of numbers each line of which (horizontal, vertical, diagonal) adds up to 34, which just happens to be a so-called Fibonacci Number on which the mathematically and visually monumental Golden Rectangle is based.

Phew!

Under the heading Gender Anxiety, Durer portrays women in various shapes and dispositions, some of them highly unflattering. One is called The Four Witches of 1497 and another bizarre image is called Witch Riding Backward on a Goat (1500) both of which give you some insight into how Durer perceived the gender gap in his day. In Nemesis (1502) – is the title an indication of the artist's perception of women? – the nude female figure appears to be holding treasure which is considered either retribution, luck or both.

In one of Durer’s best-known prints, Adam and Eve of 1504 – which is well-known beyond art – the two figures are highly detailed with deep tonal aspects, while the print is full of classic Durer iconography; bull, rabbit, elk, cat, mouse, mountain goat, parrot and of course the serpent, which needs no introduction. The following traits were ascribed to each: Bull – phlegmatic humor, calm, unemotional; rabbit – sanguine humor, sensual, courageous, hopeful; elk – melancholic humor, despondent, sleepless, irritable; cat – choleric humor, cruel, easily angered, feminine; mouse – male weakness; mountain goat – lust and damnation; parrot – salvation, the antidote to the serpent.

The mountain goat is a tiny accent standing on a bare rock precipice in the upper right corner of the image, barely noticeable.

Lust and damnation?!

Phew again!!

This exhibit also includes two books, one of which Durer produced about human proportion, a lesser-known, theoretical side of his life’s work.

All in all this is the kind of exhibit that gives you just enough Durer to want to return to see new things each time.

The Clark Art Institute is free admission from September to June. And if you have never visited or heard about The Clark, go see it even if you have to pay the modest admission fee in the Summer.

(Note: During 2012, the Clark is undergoing renovation and expansion and is operating a limited schedule.)

This elegant museum, located in northwestern Massachusetts, is a true gem that is growing rapidly in stature from the fine institution it always has been to a superb one that is attracting art and interest from all over the world. Its website is clarkart.edu

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