Albrecht Dürer

Virtuoso Printmaker

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Until July 3, 2010


It is still possible in our time of the blockbuster/must-see show to leave a low-key, one-room exhibition in an American museum in that state of elation and happiness that comes with the experience of having spent a rich hour or two in the presence of intense and exquisite works of art.

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has just opened with little fanfare a small show of prints by the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Wedged incongruously between a show of austere photographs by Harry Callahan and the museum’s permanent display of Oceanic artifacts, the slightly darkened Dürer room contains some of the greatest and best-known prints by the artist, including superb sheets of the so-called three master engravings of 1513-14: “St. Jerome in His Study,” “Knight, Death and the Devil,” and the ever-enigmatic “Melencolia I.”

One may naturally quarrel with the decision to pull just 45 prints from extensive holdings of 500 works by Dürer. But for visitors, the enforced focus on the absolutely great means that they may proceed from highpoint to high point without having to descend into the valley of lesser works or alternate sheets, and that they may greet the assembled cultural icons like a party of old friends. The problem with such rigorous exclusiveness, however, is that none of the series are shown in full—not the riveting “Apocalypse” or the moving “Large Passion” or the charming “Life of the Virgin.” It also means that the show could not be hung chrono-logically, enabling the visitor to trace the effects of Dürer’s two sojourns in Italy (1494-95 and 1505-07), where he deeply absorbed the new insights incorporated by Venetian and Florentine painters into their craft regarding perspective and the depiction of an idealized human form; and his last journey to the Netherlands (1520-21), which resulted in a flurry of portraits. Curator Clifford S. Ackley has solved the problem by hanging the prints in thematic groups, which work more or less well as ensembles.

One of the very good groups presents four images of St. Jerome. The 1496 engraving of “St. Jerome in Penitence” shows the half-naked saint fasting in a rocky, vaguely Alpine setting that allowed Dürer to show off his rapidly developing competence with the engraver’s burin as he sought to represent the different textures of smooth sun-lit and mossy crumbling stone. “St. Jerome in His Cell” (1514) shows the saint at work at his desk in a comfortably furnished, though tight, interior without much depth. The 1512 drypoint “St. Jerome Seated near a Pollard Willow,” one of only three drypoints Dürer ever made, locates a slightly surly looking old man once again outside amid craggy rocks. The soft lines produced by the slightly smudgy dry point technique create an incongruously velvety atmosphere that contradicts the austerity of the rough setting. Yet the fur of the iconic lion appears realistically smooth compared with the stylized hairiness of his counter-part in the woodcut. And finally, the pièce de résistance, “St. Jerome in his Study” (1514), in which Dürer’s use of exact geometrical per-spec-tive creates an atmosphere of enchanted beatitude. At the far end of an orderly sun-drenched room, whose threshold is guarded by a dozing lion, we see the saint calmly at work on his Bible translation. The print displays Dürer’s mastery of both engraving technique and composition. The extreme shortness of the perspective distance, combined with the lowness of the horizon, determined by the eye level of the seated saint, creates a sense of intimacy; while the high variability of light and shade on the various surfaces of the room, achieved by Dürer’s masterful handling of the burin, brings the room to life.

In the immense literature about Albrecht Dürer, this depiction of St. Jerome is usually not seen as the high point of his six depictions of the saint, but as the counterpoint both to the 1513 master engraving “Knight, Death and the Devil,” representing vita activa and vita contemplativa, respectively, and to “Melencolia I,” contrasting the intellectual life in service to God to (as Erwin Panofsky put it) “what may be called a life in com-pe-tition with God.”

The complications that suddenly seem to open up in one’s reading of Dürer’s prints remind me of a sentence in the great (but long out of print) Saturn and Melancholy by Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl, in which the three authors declare, à propos of their 400-page deciphering effort of “Melencolia I,” that “it is in fact the distinction of a great work of art, that whether it represents a bunch of asparagus or a subtle allegory it can, on one particular level, be understood by the naïve observer and the scientific analyst alike.”

The truth of that sentence seemed revealed when, on a recent Sunday, crowds in sneakers and sweatshirts and pumps and pearls were stacked three-deep around the modest-sized prints. And it is true that certain pictures seem immediately accessible, such as the seemingly plebeian “Prodigal Son” (1496) with its merciless depiction of slightly devilish swine surrounding a remorseful young man; or its counterpoint, the aristocratic “St. Eustace” (1501), with its realistic depiction of courtly animals (hunting dogs, horse, and stag). And surely it was quite witty of Ackley to hang the very early “Young Woman Attacked by Death” (1494) next to the mysterious “Abduction of a Young Woman on a Unicorn” (1516), since in the first picture Death does not appear as your ordinary medieval skeleton but as a senex amans looking a bit disheveled by the onset of decomposition. The prints’ proximity highlights the fact that both images portray the rape of a young woman.

But easy accessibility ends if not with the stately “Knight, Death and the Devil,” then certainly with its neighbor in the show, “Melencolia I.” We see a winged young woman with a dark, brooding face, supporting her head with her left hand that is balled into a fist, the elbow resting on her left knee. She sits idly but is surrounded by items of theoretical and practical geometry, one of the seven liberal arts. A bat is holding the title banner suspended over an overflowing body of water arched by a rainbow. A comet is racing toward a city in the distance and a putto sits absorbed in his scribbling on a mill, or whetstone, next to a ladder arising out of a polyhedron.

Something is going on here that is not immediately accessible as, say, the print of “The Four Horsemen” is to readers of Revelation. At first flush it appears that here, too, Dürer simply drew on sets of traditional emblems, creating a synthesis of allegorical depictions of melancholy and the arts (especially geometry and astronomy), suggesting an affinity between melancholy and mathematics in imaginative people. But as Panofsky and Saxl showed in their 1923 study of “Melencolia I,” Dürer goes radically beyond -tradition in this densely encrypted picture, asserting the need of a mathematical foundation for the arts, demanding that the artist have complete technical control over the means of execution, and finally arguing that what is ultimately required for the production of great works is a creative enthusiasm based on an intellectual penetration of the world that may look to outsiders like deep melancholy brooding. In short, Panofsky and Saxl read “Melencolia I” as the portrait of the inner disposition of an artist who felt compelled to achieve perfection in form, content, and execution.

The prints in this show demonstrate amply that Dürer rarely fell short. Leaving the museum the visitor passes through a newly opened gallery with flat print works by Toulouse Lautrec, and you cannot help but mourn how much has gotten lost on the way to modernity.

Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.

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