Hard on the heels of the blockbuster Nuremberg exhibition, The Early Dürer, of last year (reviewed in this journal November 2012), Frankfurt now presents its own reassessment with a wider reach. Let me start by saying that I love this catalogue, which could serve if widely available as a contemporary survey of our state of knowledge. Like his single-authored overview of the Städel’s collection of Early Netherlandish works, “Die Entdeckung der Kunst” (1995), Jochen Sander provides a comprehensive yet analytical overview, this time with very able co-authors to cover the multi-faceted Dürer. The catalogue entries of some 190 Dürer works in all media are interspersed with penetrating thematic essays by an international team of authorities who (as the subtitle suggests) connect the artist to both predecessors and contemporaries to draw out influences in both directions. Particularly significant is the reconstruction and close examination of the lost/dismembered Heller Altarpiece, a work produced after all for a Frankfurt patron between 1507-09. That essay (Chapter 8) by Sander with Johann Schulz provides a highlight in the volume.
In a short review the best one can do to assess this volume is to itemize its contributors and their topics. Sander introduces Dürer and Frankfurt not only with the Heller Altarpiece and the transit point in Dürer’s late journey to the Netherlands but also with the importance of the book fair for his Nuremberg publications. The artist’s earliest training as a goldsmith is the subject of Karoline Feulner’s essay, where metalwork links to the Schongauer circle are underscored besides the prints themselves. A later study of Dürer as designer by Berit Wagner complements this multi-faceted approach to the artist’s relation to craft production. If Katrin Dyballa’s essay on “Early Years: Training and Travels” does not emphasize the Nuremberg painting heritage as much as last year’s exhibition and Robert Suckale’s major book, it reiterates the links to early printmaking, the Rhineland of Schongauer and the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet. The Frankfurt exhibition features the entire run of Dürer’s early Basel drawings on uncut blocks for the comedies of Terence (no. 2.20). Following Panofsky, Hans Körner argues in “The Apelles of Black Lines” that Dürer would have carved the Apocalypse blocks himself, because so great was the quantum leap in conception that no woodcut artist had the vision yet to realize its bold refinements of modeling or intricate curves. A colored version of these new woodcuts (Dresden; no. 3.3) shows how Dürer’s black and white images altered the conventions and history of early woodcuts.
Like the recent Vienna/Munich exhibition, Die Entdeckung des Menschens (2011), Stephan Kemperdick focuses on portraits and self-portraits, a relatively new field in German art where Dürer also vastly expanded the range of imagery in all media. While Bodo Brinkmann re-examined Frankfurt’s canvas Young Woman and the version in Berlin (Frankfurt/Leipzig/Berlin 2006; nos. 4.3-4), Sander’s entry still emphasizes the mystery of a unique duplicate rendering of a female sitter. A particular strength of the exhibition is chalk portraits, both independent and studies for paintings.
To accompany Almut Pollmer-Schmidt’s essay on Dürer’s ongoing theory of proportion, the exhibition emphasizes links with contemporaries – de’ Barbari’s engravings, Antico’s gilt bronzes – as well as his study sheets (the Dresden sketch-book final draft on human proportions appears at no. 5.21). The reverse contact, Dürer’s influence on Renaissance Venice, is surveyed by Andrew Morrall. Here the exhibition includes (no. 6.1) an unfamiliar Aldus sheet with marginal illustration of jousting putti in antique armor, attributed to Dürer (accepted by Strauss, 1504/47) and flanking the arms of Pirckheimer. This image compares well to the marvelous Pastoral Landscape with Shepherds (Washington, National Gallery; illustrated in the 2013 Washington exhibition of Albertina Dürer graphics, p. 27). However, that Washington image is dated to the undocumented “first” Venice visit and appears on Theocritus’s Idylls (1495), whereas Sander’s entry places this newer image, though on the margin of an Aristotle volume of 1495, to the later career moment on the eve of Dürer’s trip to Venice in 1505. Thus the question remains moot about whether Dürer actually visited Venice a decade earlier, as challenged in Nuremberg (2012). Morrall gently reasserts the conventional wisdom about two trips to Venice, and the consensus still recognizes undoubted influence of Italian prints on Dürer, perhaps reinforced by these illustrated Greek folios by the Aldine Press. Whether he was actually in la Serenissima remains debatable, but Frankfurt seems still to affirm the proposition.
Christof Metzger’s essay on Dürer’s workshop fruitfully addresses a lacuna in Dürer scholarship. So often the genius of the “master” is reaffirmed that his copious use of associates, such as Schäufelein (a specialty of Metzger) and Kulmbach, gets neglected. This situation also underscores the attribution difficulties surrounding the Green Passion. The unusual relationship to Hans Baldung Grien is underscored by a new attribution by Sander to Baldung of the Mainz replica of Dürer’s Prado Adam and Eve (no. 7.6), also echoed again by a Baldung variant in the Uffizi. This thoughtful entry typifies the fresh imagery and evaluations in the Frankfurt catalogue, reinforced by the following essay by Sander and Schulz on the Heller Altarpiece.
Dürer’s prints take center stage next, just as they did after the Heller project. Karoline Feulner examines the 1511 Life of the Virgin for its influence as well as its early issues of copyright and plagiarism in Venice. Jeroen Stumpel thoughtfully returns to the Meisterstiche as Dürer’s supreme command of engraving. Among the objects on view here is the copper plate for the 1515 etching, Christ on the Mount of Olives (no. 10.5). Also particularly welcome, because neglected in conventional monographs, is Almut Pollmer-Schmidt’s discussion, “Conjoined Twins, a Monstrous Pig, and a Rhinoceros. Dürer’s Broadsides.” This study notes the importance of early scientific observation, recently reaffirmed in Harvard’s 2011 exhibition, Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (not cited; there the Rhinoceros received its own special segment). In addition, to focus on broadsheets underscores how much prints spread visual as well as verbal information, including portents along with battles and other embryonic “news” reports.
Jeffrey Chipps Smith surveys Dürer’s “service” to Emperor Maximilian and other princes; interested students should consult the glorious Maximilian exhibition of 2012 from Vienna’s imperial collections. A large catalogue section on Dürer and the Netherlands with many contemporary Flemish paintings follows an overview by Erik Eising.
The catalogue concludes with unconventional authors of thoughtful essays. Christian Feest, a specialist in early collections, discusses Dürer and the New World, a topic assessed so well only by Jean-Michel Massing (not cited). Finally, Ulrich Pfisterer, well-known for his Italian expertise, provides the last word, “Dürer in Discourse: Art Theories around 1500 and the Paths They Took North and South of the Alps.” When we recall how much of the actual recording of perspective and proportion studies, so often seen as the very hallmark of the Renaissance era in art, emerged from Dürer’s own publications, then his proper period significance clearly emerges. But the Frankfurt exhibition and its well chosen essays go further, to show the larger range and manifold career achievements of the Nuremberg artist as successfully as any of the best one-volume studies of Albrecht Dürer.
University of Pennsylvania