What rotten luck to be an artist born after Albrecht Dürer! Artists of the fifteenth century, especially printmakers, are forgiven technical inadequacies and creative shortcomings because Dürer had not yet forged the artistic path. After Dürer, however, artists, critics, collectors, and curators have been forced to do battle with the artist’s legacy. Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, presents the dual goals of the exhibition and catalogue, Albrecht Dürer and his Legacy: The Graphic Work of a Renaissance Artist, in the book’s preface: ‘to present the development of Dürer as a graphic artist’ and to examine ‘his astonishing artistic afterlife, the absorption and adaptation of his work by artists through the centuries.’ The catalogue includes four short essays: ‘Dürer Viewed by his Contemporaries,’ by Giulia Bartrum; ‘Albrecht Dürer: a Sixteenth-Century Influenza,’ by Joseph Koerner; ‘The Celebration of Dürer in Germany during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,’ by Ute Kuhlemann; and ‘On Stasis in Progress: Variations on Dürer’s Engraving Melencolia I,’ by Günther Grass. The remainder of the book comprises twelve chapters with catalogue entries, the first half laid out through a chronology of Dürer’s life and work (à la Panofsky) and the second half chronologically ordered by the artist’s legacy, from his lifetime through the nineteenth century.
The legacy detailed in the book is that of artistic transmission – the influence of Dürer’s prints and drawings on his artistic heirs. The great strength of the catalogue is the wide range of artists and artworks it documents. It includes the work of ceramicists, goldsmiths, metalworkers, painters, and sculptors, from Europe and Asia over four centuries. And what better collection to draw these objects from than that of the British Museum, replete with its vast collection of prints and drawings, as well as hordes of work in other media. Chapter 11 ‘Dürer’s Rhinoceros’ best demonstrates the stated objective of the book. It uses Dürer’s 1515 woodcut of the Indian beast as a case study of the afterlife of a single artwork by the artist. The survey of Dürer’s rhinoceros begins with the artist’s drawing of the animal, one of the treasures of the BM’s collection. The selection of depictions then meanders across countries (the Netherlands, Italy, France, and England), as well as centuries and media, including delftware and German porcelain. Dürer’s depiction of the rhinoceros was the model for images of the animal for centuries after its creation, from prints to pots. The inclusion of examples from the ‘minor arts’ was an eye opener for me as a print specialist. I was astounded by the scope of Dürer’s influence beyond painting and the graphic arts.
But the chapter of Dürer’s rhinoceros also points towards a limitation that pervades the book. The survey of rhinoceros images begs the question of why Dürer’s anatomically incorrect representation of the animal came to have such an important afterlife, in fact achieve iconic status? What is it about this woodcut and other of Dürer’s prints that fostered their repeated replication? Was it simply the technical and creative genius they demonstrate? Or were there other forces at work promulgating Dürer’s legacy? Koerner’s essay best confronts this question. It is a provocative account of Dürer’s influence on his contemporaries – those who through the unfortunate course of history will always be compared to him. He chalks up the appeal of copying Dürer’s prints to the combination of three factors: the ease of duplicating images through printmaking, the establishment and recognition of Dürer’s monogram/trademark, and the artist’s great skill, primarily the desire of other artists to co-opt it. (He also makes the astounding claim that in the 1500 self-portrait, he sees Dürer holding his left hand in the shape of his monogram, AD. Is this the legacy of Michael Fried’s argument that the figures in Courbet’s painting, The Stonebreakers, take the shape of the artist’s initials, GC?)
Although the show and catalogue were intended to delineate the artistic transmission of Dürer’s designs, it also includes numerous references to the critical reception and the history of collecting his work. Essays on Dürer’s reception in Italy and the Dürer Renaissance would have been welcome additions to the book. Both are discussed in the introductions to the chapters and the catalogue essays, but neither is addressed in a comprehensive manner. Because there is no essay in English on the Dürer Renaissance, it seems like a missed opportunity. This, however, is probably more a consequence of the climate of inclusivity that pervades public art museums today. Because the catalogue is geared towards a general museum readership, it demands the reiteration of basic biographic and iconographic information and cannot be the forum for bigger, more theoretical questions.
Baltimore Museum of Art