Published: November 9, 2004
Revered by all who knew his imaginative, meticulous work, including admirer Michelangelo, Albrecht Dürer was a genius beyond his time who etched his soul on German culture, Renaissance life and the craft of design throughout the art world. Dürer (1471-1528), widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential artists of the Renaissance, transformed the art of printmaking forever.
A current exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts reveals his daunting intellectual capacity and lifelong passion for creation through prints from the artist’s northern European homeland. Drawn from the collection of one of the oldest institutions in Europe, the Academy of Visual Arts in Vienna, founded in 1692, “Albrecht Dürer: A Renaissance Journey in Print,” presents 83 of his most celebrated prints. The exhibition will be on view through January 9.
Dürer’s prints, which were sold throughout Europe during his lifetime, brought him international celebrity, and he was considered to be the most famous artist of his period. Most familiar among them is his Apocalypse woodcut series, first published in 1498, which presents a haunting vision of the Book of Revelation. Dürer’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” print is one of the most famous images from the German Renaissance. The entire series will be on view, as will his woodcut series on the “Passion of Christ” and on the “Life of Mary,” admired particularly for their beautiful compositions and imaginative architectural material.
“Dürer’s work incorporated the highest level of artistic skill and the most complex and exalted intellectual content,” said Dr Donald Schrader, VMFA’s consulting curator. “It’s phenomenal. All of these prints are full of exciting details.”
Dürer’s staggering imagination made his prints a significant source for other artists who, for centuries, copied figures and other details from them. His engagement with one of the most turbulent periods of Western history renders his prints an exceptional resource for the study of the thought and society of the Renaissance and the Reformation. “The real miracle of Dürer’s prints, though, lies not in their role of proselytizing for the Renaissance,” said Schrader. “Their wonder rests in their astonishing beauty and complexity. They reveal the mind of a creator whose imagination and ingenuity seem endless.”
Dürer’s work not only revealed beauty through complexity and painstaking detail, but a love of light and life. “He had a sense of wonder of life and the world we see,” said Schrader. “He loved a lot of things. He was in love with flowers and plants and insects, everything unusual in the natural world. He was voracious and fascinated by everything.
“Dürer was among the first northern European artists to understand the significance of Italian Renaissance. He traveled twice to Italy, intent on bringing Renaissance ideas to other artists of the north. It was through prints that he undertook his mission. His work gives you a window into the mentality of the Sixteenth Century,” Schrader said. Though he is most famous for his prints, Dürer also created many paintings, religious works and altarpieces during his lifetime.
Dürer was born May 21, 1471, the third son of a Hungarian goldsmith who settled in Nuremberg. His godfather, Anton Koberger, was also a goldsmith who began the most important printing business in Renaissance Germany. Dürer’s earliest training was with his father, but in 1486 he began to study painting as an apprentice to Michael Wolgemut, Nuremberg’s leading painter, whose workshop happened to be on the same street as Dürer’s father’s house. From 1490 to 1494, he traveled in Germany and likely in the Netherlands, working mostly as a woodcut designer. When he returned to Nuremberg, his parents had arranged a marriage for him with Agnes Frey. Soon after, he departed for Italy, where he spent time in Venice to learn the artistic theory of the Renaissance, which was of enormous significance for him and for the subsequent history of art in northern Europe.
On his return to Nuremberg, he worked sporadically as a painter, but concentrated on woodcuts and engraving. He became a friend and protégé of one of the great classical scholars of the time, Willibald Pirckheimer, an important influence for the remainder of his life. In autumn 1498, Dürer published his first great series of prints, the famed Apocalypse woodcuts, which quickly elevated him to international prominence.
From that time to present, there has been an unflagging demand for Dürer’s prints. He continued as a painter and printmaker in Nuremberg, and in 1505-07, made a second trip to Venice, where he was received as a celebrity. On returning to Nuremberg, Dürer was awarded the most prestigious commissions for paintings from the leading rulers and richest merchants of the day. In 1509, he purchased a large house; in 1512, the emperor Maximilian I visited Nuremberg and granted him a life pension. Dürer later traveled in Rhineland and the Netherlands; Antwerp, Belgium, the leading artistic center of the time, served as his base.
In his lifetime, Dürer was celebrated everywhere he went, and was offered citizenship and exemption from taxation from the city government of Antwerp had he chosen to settle there. In the summer of 1521, he again returned to Nuremberg, working as a printmaker and on a treatise on the Renaissance theory of human proportions. He was much affected by the Lutheran cause, but never repudiated the Catholic Church himself. On his death, on April 6, 1528, he was eulogized by Catholic and Lutheran scholars alike and venerated as almost saintly by his pupils.
For subsequent generations, Dürer remained a figure of central importance, particularly in German culture, where his is seen as perhaps the most significant exponent of a German national identity before Goethe. Dürer’s study of Italy influenced numerous artists, including Pieter Bruegel, Peter Paul Rubens, Joshua Reynolds, Dominique Ingres and Edouard Manet.
“I hold that the perfection of form and beauty is contained in the sum of all men,” wrote Dürer in 1528, in Four Books on Human Proportions.
“Albrecht Dürer was both a man of his time and a man before his time,” said Dr Michael Brand, museum director. “He lived in another information age: just as the Internet and technology have transformed the way we communicate and the way we experience our world, the invention of the printing press in the middle of the Fifteenth Century transformed early Renaissance Europe. Suddenly, information was available on an unprecedented scale – and to nearly every segment of society.
“Dürer grasped the amazing potential of the printed page to spread ideas quickly throughout large geographic areas. He also had astonishing technical, aesthetic and intellectual talents that were ideally suited to the medium of the printed image,” said Brand.
“The opportunity to see a large collection of Dürer’s prints in one space at one time is rare and special,” says Schrader. “Even the finest reproductions of his prints distort the scale, the clarity, the delicacy of line, and the interplay between ink and paper that make them such affecting objects.”
“The images in this exhibition transport us to another time,” states Brand, “but the subjects of Dürer’s explorations – spirituality, anxiety about the future, the brevity of life and human connections – continue to resonate today.”
According to Brand, the exhibition will include a perspective drawing device, modeled on an apparatus invented during the Renaissance, and visitors will have a chance to make a drawing using a device similar to one Dürer used. “Viewers will also have an opportunity to explore comparisons between northern European and Italian Renaissance works in the museum’s permanent collection.”
“Albecht Dürer: A Renaissance Journey in Print” is organized by PONTE, Organisation fur kulturelles Management GmbH, in cooperation with International Arts and Artists. The exhibition will be shown exclusively at VMFA prior to a larger tour set for 2007.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, an educational institution of the Commonwealth of Virginia, is Metropolitan Richmond’s most popular cultural attraction. The museum is on the Boulevard at Grove Avenue. The galleries are open Wednesday-Sunday from 11 am to 5 pm. For information, 804-340-1400 or .
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