Review: Trusting the Viewer: Albrecht Dürer at the National Gallery

by Benjamin Devin (London, UK)

THE National Gallery exhibition, Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist (November 2021-February 2022), offered a refreshingly sophisticated exploration of Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and the pan-European reach of his art and ideas. Eschewing the widespread tendency to limit viewers by over-explanation, the National Gallery opted for a sweeping and longue durée exploration of Dürer’s œuvre. From the first room, the tone of the exhibition was clear: wide-reaching, at times tangential, but grounded in the best available examples of Dürer’s work and intelligent in its visual arguments. While some critics viewed the exhibition’s lack of a single argumentative thread as a pitfall, I consider this to be its greatest strength.

Given that London had already hosted two Dürer exhibitions in recent years, the curators, Susan Foister and Peter van den Brink, may have felt they could skip certain niceties. Thus, rather than being greeted by a self-portrait of the artist, as one might expect, we were introduced to his artistic antecedents: a 16th-century copy of the lost 1497 portrait of the painter’s father, the goldsmith Albrecht Dürer the Elder, under whom Dürer began his training, and two prints by Martin Schongauer, The Road to Calvary (1475) and Christ as Teacher (1469).

The exhibition was structured in two distinct halves. The first three rooms chronologically recounted Dürer’s major travels: his early trips on the Rhine, his trip across the Alps into Italy soon after his marriage, and his extended journey into the Low Countries as an established and mature artist. A room devoted to portraits that Dürer made for the nobles and unnamed sitters he met on his travels shifted the exhibition into the final three rooms, which explored how Dürer made art on his travels with his silverpoint sketchbooks, how his art traveled across Europe and into the workshops of his contemporaries, and how he evolved intellectually and stylistically through his experiences abroad. Unlike the first three rooms, the objects displayed in the latter half were not bound to the time and place of their origin, encouraging the viewer to reflect on how the theme of travel figured into Dürer’s aesthetic project beyond the first order concern of mimetically reproducing what he saw.

These curatorial moves alerted the viewer to how Dürer’s art was fed by his insatiable desire for travel and how his reproducible media, largely engravings, were able to take his ideas far beyond where he himself could go. Dürer’s observations of the physical world loom large in the history of art partly because of the revolutionary capacity of his workshop for mechanically reproducing and widely disseminating these images. As Philip Hoare remarked in a lecture connected to the exhibition, Dürer was the Andy Warhol of the Northern Renaissance.

Dürer did not inherit an artist’s workshop from his father, a routine occurrence among artists during the Renaissance, owing partially to looser guild regulations in his native Nuremberg. His artistic trajectory was in his own hands from the age of fifteen, when he elected to transfer his apprenticeship from the goldsmith’s workshop of his father to train under the painter Michael Wolgemut. When he undertook his initial journeys beyond his homeland, Dürer was still trying to determine what kind of artist he would be. He had planned to meet the great master Martin Schongauer in Colmar, but by the time he arrived, Schongauer had died. His three surviving brothers received Dürer well, and he was able to observe the successful business of woodcuts and engravings they had inherited.

Inspired by what he saw, Dürer’s later artistic output would focus largely on reproducible engravings, and while he did take on commissions for panel paintings and altarpieces, he lamented the length of time these projects took and the one-time payment he received. With copper engravings, however, he could produce up to 300 prints from a plate before it had to be re-engraved. A particular strength of the National Gallery’s exhibition was the quality of the prints displayed. Nearly all of these were impressions made early in the life of a plate before the incisions were dulled by successive printing runs, retaining a high level of their original clarity and revealing the subtle variations in lines and hatching which articulate depth and texture.

Exhibited in the first room was a woodcut print titled St. Jerome in his Study (1492), a title page illustration from an epistolary publication. The print was produced in Basel during Dürer’s early “bachelor travels” after completing his apprenticeship in 1490, a kind of travel that was common practice for young artists and served to familiarize them with different artistic schools. The print was so successful that it led to three successive offers by publishers, effectively launching Dürer’s career as a graphic artist. Dürer treated the woodcut like an engraving by using undulating lines, which evoke the grain of wood, and exaggerated the curves in the folds of his figure’s drapery to delineate the space in a well-proportioned pictorial field. The picture centers on openings and action, with an open cupboard to the right and St. Jerome shown in the act of removing the thorn from a lion’s paw, a common theme during the Middle Ages. A view through an open window discloses a wider world beyond the composition, including, among other things, the backside of a horse.

St. Jerome by Albrecht Dürer. Image credit: Wiki Art.

Dürer produced images of St. Jerome throughout his life, and they were well accounted for in several iterations throughout the exhibition, acting as wayfinding totems on the viewer’s journey. The viewer could return to these familiar compositions at any moment in the exhibition and observe how Dürer’s style evolved throughout his life. In this particular print, the lion was rendered unconvincingly since it was produced long before Dürer was exposed to real lions during the 1520s, on his visit to the royal menageries of the Low Countries. For this picture, he was working from artistic convention, not life.

Dürer continued his travels with a sojourn to the Italian peninsula soon after his marriage—to Agnes Frey, in 1494—a requirement for opening his Nuremberg workshop, which he did the following year. He recounted his trip across the Tyrolean Mountains in a sensitive watercolor titled Ruin of an Alpine Shelter made post-factum in 1514. A timeworn hut overlooks the indeterminate cliff, highlighted by the unfinished right half of the sheet. The derelict interlocking planks of wood which form the roof give order to the composition and suggest that this is where the artist may have rested his head on his journey. Dürer’s subjective perspective in this picture marks an aesthetic rupture with other landscapes of the Renaissance. Rather than furnishing the background for figures in the foreground or presenting a god-view of the world, as seen in the work of his contemporary, Joachim Patinir, Dürer gave a distinctly human view of his subject.

The fifth room of the exhibition displayed a series of sheets taken from Dürer’s silverpoint sketchbooks, which were never far from the artist’s reach during his travels across the mountains and into the sodden Low Countries. This method of drawing was best suited to Dürer’s travels because it did not depend on ink pots, pigments, or frequent tool sharpening. Rather, the act of drawing with a silver-tipped stylus on paper prepared with a chemical treatment produced traces that would oxidize and turn silver after a period of exposure to air.

The sheets, long since cut out of their original binding for resale, were shown vertically in freestanding cases, enabling viewers to see both sides of the pages. Not intended for immediate commercial reproduction, they documented anything that Dürer was interested in, often with several different studies crammed onto a page to avoid waste.  A silverpoint titled Lazarus Ravensburger and the Tower of the House of Mayor Arnold van Liere in Antwerp (1520-21) depicts Ravensburger, an agent employed at an Antwerp mercantile operation, and, on the same page, the mayor’s tower that Dürer admired in his travel journals. The other side of the sheet contains a study titled Two Young Women in Netherlandish Costume from the same year. The figures in this work, one shown in profile, the other turned at three-quarters, show how Dürer made studies whenever he could.

At the age of 22, Dürer made a rapid ink drawing of his left leg, from two different perspectives, on the verso of a portrait of a Wise Virgin from Matthew 25. This drawing, held at the Courtauld Gallery in London, merits our consideration even though it was not featured at the National Gallery. While the inclusion of a date between the disengaged thighs easily establishes the viewer’s perspective on them, the work was drawn by Dürer at 180 degrees opposite this view. One can imagine the artist peering over his sketchbook at his legs while assigning a different point of view to the viewer, one that was physically impossible for the artist himself to assume.

Indeed, Dürer’s art untethers the viewer’s eye from what was humanly possible, taking the viewer along for the ride as the artist traveled farther than most could dream of during the Renaissance. Still, Dürer never left his viewer behind: oscillating between the artist’s personal view, and the viewer’s given view, the variations of perspective in his work suggest an aesthetic dependency on the viewer’s subjectivity. This is what makes his art so enduring to the modern viewer.

Study of a Left Leg from Two Viewpoints (verso) by Albrecht Dürer. Image credit: The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust), CC BY-NC-ND.

Much like Dürer’s art, the National Gallery’s exhibition demanded more than a passive viewer, illustrating the institution’s ability to foster a critical audience. A strong exhibition should not impose a narrative on its audience; rather, it should allow viewers to arrive at their own conclusions from the exhibited objects. The theme of travel is a good fit for Dürer, given the artist’s own travels and the reproducible nature of much of his work, but a tight narrative would have been a disservice to artist and work alike. Dürer’s Journeys did not dramatize the artist’s legacy; instead, it used effective strategies of visual argumentation to demonstrate how travel influenced his art, discretely showing how Dürer observed the world throughout his entire working life, how he documented it in his personal sketchbooks, and how his art traveled into the artistic zeitgeist. While this lack of a singular narrative was met with disappointment by some critics, I applaud Dürer’s Journeys for resisting the temptation to turn an artist’s work into a clear-cut story, instead elucidating a singular element of his œuvre understood as a set of works open to a plethora of interpretations.