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Craftsman-Master

A quiet, darkened place to contemplate Dürer’s genius.

Jan 18, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 17 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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Albrecht Dürer

Virtuoso Printmaker
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Until July 3, 2010

Boston

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.” 

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