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

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