Dürer’s Journeys: a Short Haul of a Long Legacy

Albrecht Durer, 'A Lion', gouache on parchment, 1494
Albrecht Durer, 'A Lion', gouache on parchment, 1494

Dürer's Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist

Daily, 10:00 - 18:00 (Fri 10:00 - 21:00)

From: 20 Nov 2021

To: 27 Feb 2022

The National Gallery
Trafalgar Square

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Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) transcends territorial and intellectual borders. In journeys from Nuremberg across the Alps, to Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Venice, Dürer documented a wide range of subjects in paint and print – dodging the Plague on every path.

The escape promised by any Dürer exhibition is certainly heightened in the context of our own pandemic. Yet Dürer’s Journeys instead focusses upon recurrent motifs, particularly religion, permitting the viewer to plunge into the subtle changes in the artist’s approach over time.

Take the languid lion of his Saint Jerome (1492) woodcut, a nod towards a religious tale in which the figure plucks a thorn from his paw. Dürer wouldn’t see a real lion until the 1520s, drawing on other models for inspiration. The result is an ambiguous, human-animal hybrid, a boundary-blurring beast with human limbs and eyes – perhaps his most compelling work.

Albrecht Durer, 'A Lion', gouache on parchment, 1494
Albrecht Dürer, ‘A Lion’, gouache on parchment, 1494

Imperial Nuremberg was a hotspot for craft-skilled migrants, attracting Dürer’s own father from his Hungarian homeland. His father’s goldsmith trade influenced the fine detail of his later woodblock prints and engravings – favoured over paintings, for their fast-paced production and ability to reach wider audiences.

Albrecht Durer, 'Proportion Drawings of Infants', ink on paper, before 1513
Albrecht Dürer, ‘Proportion Drawings of Infants’, ink on paper, before 1513

We see the numeric precision of his proportion drawings, mapped out bodies of plump babies and ‘well shaped men’. But we also see apocalyptic chaos, in the spontaneous flames engulfing Sodom and Gomorrah of Lot and His Daughters (1469-1499). The fact that this painting appears on the reverse of his Madonna and Child perhaps suggests his optimistic outlook on rebirth – or his pessimistic take on human nature.

Any darkness is lifted by the muted colours of the gallery walls, each room set around a location, or loose theme. Curating Dürer’s tos and fros is no mean feat, and at times, the narrative is confusing. Elsewhere, it excels, as we are reminded of Martin Schongauer’s macabre engraving of The Road to Calvary (1475), featured in the first room, in the artist’s final paintings.

Albrecht Durer, 'The Procession to Calvary’, paint on panel, 1527
Albrecht Dürer, ‘The Procession to Calvary’, paint on panel, 1527

Often, studies sketched on blue rag paper stand out as powerful works of themselves; gentle, ghostly traces of the grand paintings placed adjacent. The dark, folded fabrics that swaddle his Kneeling Donor (1506) stand to attention, where they are lost in the scale and shading of his final Venetian altarpiece.

Albrecht Dürer, 'Kneeling Donor', I257c, recto
Albrecht Dürer, ‘Kneeling Donor’, brush and black ink on blue paper, 1506

Yet many rooms are occupied by other artists’ works, leaving little space for Dürer’s diverse depictions within these themes. Quentin Massys dominates the Portraits space, and concludes the show with his depiction of Erasmus. Even the towering print of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I belongs to Hans Weiditz, modelled after the master.

Hans Burgkmair crops up in Dürer’s Observations space, but this insertion feels slightly performative. His image of Black subjects is used to diversify Dürer’s gaze of imperial Antwerp, one that otherwise exclusively features White captains and colonists. But this classical, even dated, curation is not necessarily reflective of the artist’s own gaze – something hinted by his ambiguously shaded Head of a Woman (1520).

Albrecht Durer, 'Head of a Woman’, brush drawing, 1520
Albrecht Dürer, ‘Head of a Woman’, brush drawing, 1520

Dürer practised at a time when a portrait served as public proof that political hostages like Martin Luther were still alive. His paintings and prints speak to a burgeoning public and political interest in the power of art. This artistic pursuit of new knowledge, and the exciting, experimental works that are produced as a result, deserves even more attention.

All images courtesy of the National Gallery. With thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic (Twitter: @jelsofron) for this review. Their podcast Empire Lines is available on all streaming platforms. 

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