Dürer’s Journeys review – magical-sensual mystery tour is slowed down to a sedate thump | Arts
In Albrecht Dürer’s print The Sea Monster, a woman lies very happy with her lot on the back of a bizarre beast that swims away with her. He has a scaly body, a bearded human face, and antlers. She wears only one necklace and rests her hand on her curved hip as she watches the screaming people from the shore, in front of a fairy tale castle on a rugged hill.
It’s strange and it’s wonderful. It also captures exactly what the Nationalgalerie’s foray into Dürer’s Wanderlust is about – or what it would be if it worked. When Dürer engraved this around 1498, he was eagerly recording what he had seen a few years earlier on his first visit to Italy. Albrecht, born in Nuremberg in 1471 as the son of a goldsmith, had barely begun his career when he set off across the Alps to Venice.
There he found a sexualized culture in which courtesans played a prominent role, licensed by pagan mythology. But Dürer is not only bringing the Renaissance to Germany. He turns it wildly. The sea monster takes Ovid’s story of Europe and the bull and transforms the (literally) horny male into a beast straight out of Nordic forest folklore.
In a nearby woodcut, he portrays the whore of Babylon as a real Venetian sex worker. Not that Dürer was heteronormative. On his next, better documented trip to Venice, he admired the build and style of the soldiers. His German friends teased him for picking up on the manner they attributed to Italian artists (“Florenzer”, Florentine, was a German word for a homosexual) and joked that he grew his beard to help his apprentice impress.
Unfortunately, not much of this gets through in Dürer’s travels. It sounds like a great idea – a micro-history of the Renaissance from the eyes of an artist who loves to travel, first to Italy, later to the lively Atlantic port of Antwerp, where he met people and works of art from outside Europe. But it doesn’t tell this story well or make us feel the power of those piercing eyes.
It’s not so much a magical mystery tour as a tranquil troupe. It will impress traditionalists as a no-frills dive into art history, free from annoying wall texts denouncing the past – this show only alludes to the grotesque anti-Semitic caricatures in Dürer’s Christ and the Doctors by explaining that the evil scholars “often call it caricatures Jewish people at this time ”. Well, this hatred of Jews obviously cannot find a modern response from an artist from Nuremberg.
For all its apparent seriousness, this exhibition does not take you into the heart of Dürer. It even made me doubt my admiration for his art. The old-fashioned mustiness – some rooms are painted brown and bricked up like in a dusty library – cannot hide a lack of clear arguments.
The trouble begins before Dürer even leaves. As far as he traveled, he kept coming back to his starting point in Nuremberg. Yet we don’t get much of what life was like there: the walled church with its prayers and festivals; the local market, where Dürer wasn’t too proud to have his mother whip his woodcuts.
This lack of sense of place pervades a large space about his second trip to Venice. You have to pinch yourself to realize that Giorgione painted his provocative naked bust portrait of a young woman (Laura) in Venice when Dürer was there in 1506, and that Titian forged his bones as Giorgione’s young rival. Judging by the selection of drab paintings, there is no telling why Dürer went there or what there was to see.
For all its pompous scholarship, this exhibition completely misses the point of Dürer’s travels to Venice. It was this: In addition to the enthusiasm for the freedom and sensuality of Venice, Dürer noticed a new idea of the artist in Italy. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael reached the heights as did Giorgione. With all these geniuses, someone had to define genius himself – in order to consciously portray the artist, no longer as a submissive craftsman like Dürer’s father, but as a godlike spirit with mysterious creative powers.
It was Dürer, who viewed the Italian Renaissance from the outside, who worked this out. He is the first artist who was aware of living in a renaissance – and who explicitly promotes the idea of the modern artist, of genius. That is almost lost here. But you can see it in his print Melencolia I, on loan from Fitzwilliam, Cambridge. In this unforgettable picture, Dürer embodies genius as a woman with her face in shadow, her head resting on her hand, as if she sits paralyzed between mathematical and sculptural tools. It’s a deeply enlightening rendition by his Italian contemporaries Leonardo and Michelangelo, who took pride in not finishing the art as they proved they were free minds, not artisanal hackers. Dürer celebrates the creative melancholy of the genius waiting for inspiration.
Then it’s off to Antwerp and Brussels. But the freshness and immediacy of Dürer’s own diary of his North Sea voyage is completely drowned out by a pedantic array of drawings. Really, couldn’t the National Gallery have dropped its hair to bring this bygone era to life? I am not calling for an amusement park boat trip on the Rhine, but couldn’t you have brought at least a few objects with you to imagine the wonder of it all? Because in the lowlands Dürer saw the golden, turquoise and feathered treasures of Moctezuma, which Cortés sent the new Emperor Charles V as booty. He was amazed and humble and wrote his admiration for “the craftsmen of the distant lands”. . It is the greatest homage that a European Renaissance artist has ever paid to non-European art. Some Aztec art from the British Museum would have sparked this exhibition.
It is currently fashionable to attack exhibitions that uncomfortably drag the past into the present, reminding us that 18th century Britain had a slave trade. But the past can also be killed by conservatism disguised as austerity.
Here I have sometimes lost sight of Dürer. On his journey along the North Sea coast, he writes in his diary, he and other passengers were trapped on a boat that was suddenly pulled out to sea by a storm. While everyone stood paralyzed, he took command and commanded the ship until they safely reached the bank. With every exhibition that buries the excitement of the Renaissance like this one, this dazzling age disappears, as if Dürer had not saved this ship and we saw his strong features fade in the fog, not with a rejection, but with a respectful whimper.
Dürer’s Travels: Travels of a Renaissance Artist is on view from November 20 to February 27 at the National Gallery in London.