After four decades of professional study, I realize that exhibitions are cyclical, coming around every generation, whether for artists at the Museum of Modern Art (Pollock, Bonnard) or leading old masters at their local museums. The last great Dürer exhibition in his native Nuremberg was in 1971, and I got to see it as a budding scholar. Now the Germanisches Nationalmuseum’s own new generation of curators, led by Daniel Hess and Thomas Eser, has given us a gift of fresh thinking and beautiful display (and not just in an anniversary year like the last one). Notably, a funded research project for three years undergirded this massive catalogue, and some of its original essays stem from that team of scholars.
Wisely, this exhibition did not try to encompass the entire career of Albrecht Dürer, nor did it confine itself exclusively to his work, like the transcendent recent Vienna exhibition (Albertina, 2003), which had the advantage of drawing (pun intended) on its incomparable local collection. Nuremberg exploited its own holdings too, but by featuring earlier local paintings from both the GNM and major city churches (plus drawings from nearby Erlangen University Library). This choice was purposeful, as the introductory essay by the organizers makes clear, claiming that Dürer and his art sprang from Nuremberg soil. Building on the wonderful recent research on pre-Dürer paintings by Robert Suckale (2009; and on related Erlangen drawings by Stephanie Buck and Guido Messling), they assert that “renewal” of art in the city began a generation earlier in the circle of Hans Pleydenwurff. Conventional arguments about Martin Schongauer as the formative influence on the early Dürer are fully revised here (p. 15): “it is even possible that Pleydenwurff taught Schongauer in Nuremberg.” These innovations featured a concentrated narrative with fewer figures in naturalistic landscape settings. A major early section of the display focused on the painted altarpieces in Nuremberg and on “Franconian roots of Dürer’s art.” An effort was made to see even Dürer’s brilliantly inventive watercolor studies of “dominant backgrounds” as emergent from local painting traditions (e.g. Wolfgang Katzheimer, cat nos. 95-96). Hess wrote the catalogue essay, “Nature as Art’s Supreme Guide.” (117-31), and a related study by Stephanie Buck examines the early figure drawings and genre as outgrowths of German precedents (90-100). Indeed, there was enough non-Dürer material on the walls at the outset that the works on display by Albrecht himself were clearly mounted on red backgrounds.
Master LCz (only loosely associated here with Lorenz Katzheimer from nearby Bamberg) and Schongauer appear together as visual sources and models for prints, though with scarcely a mention (p. 314) of the Master of the Housebook/ Amsterdam Cabinet, studied so closely by Hess in his dissertation. On Dürer the printmaker, important essays for the catalogue were contributed by Peter Schmidt on early woodcut (146-59) and by Lothar Schmitt on engraving (160-70).
Most of the exhibition situated young Albrecht in a cultural geography, reinforced by the supplementary historical displays outside the main exhibit space (replicated in the final pages of this catalogue), showing the city layout and the Burgstrasse neighborhood of its leading patrons and scholars. Reinforcing larger claims in the exhibition, the essay by Sebastian Gulden presents “An Ideal Neighborhood. The Physical Environment of the Early Dürer as a Space of Experience.” (29-38). It is complemented by Michael Roth (39-51) on Dürer and Strasbourg.
One brilliant catalogue essay (208-20) focuses on an early woodcut, The Madness of Hercules (ca. 1496; cat. 146), where Thomas Schauerte reveals how this learned Dürer image also draws upon a network, specifically poet laureate and Nuremberg aficionado Conrad Celtis, for a scene from the tragedy by Seneca, Hercules furens. Thus the 2012 exhibition takes pains to undermine the prevailing local image of Dürer-the-genius, formed chiefly through travel to Italy, unique, and ahead of his time. It even begins ironically with a hagiographic sculpture by Friedrich Salomon Beer from the height of the nineteenth-century cult around 1882 (a rediscovery by Jeffrey Chipps Smith, p. 17, cat. no. 1), Young Dürer, modeled after the Albertina silverpoint self-portrait at age 13. Of course, through that precocious drawing – plus its later handwritten annotation – as well as his autobiography and other self-portraits, Dürer himself contributed to that novel concept of an individual and intellectual, liberated from the model of guild craftsman.
Eser’s introductory essay, “A Different Early Dürer,” (18-28) issues the clarion call for this reformulation process. He advances several observations as claims: 1) new esteem for drawings as diverse records of an individual hand (with monograms) already during the past generation; 2) related aspirations of a master’s authority and formulation of workshop norms, akin to scholarship classics rather than artistic autonomy (Dürer’s own later treatises, while published late, reinforce this claim); and 3) the importance of Bildung, personal cultivation in the form of learning and collecting (“latinity, literacy, and worldliness”), among the younger generation of Nuremberg’s patrician families.
Reinforcing the local emphasis is a corresponding de-emphasis on Italy. Indeed, the exhibition argues (like Katherine Luber, who made a negative argument on purely technical grounds of painting process; 2005) that Dürer’s experience of Italy was indirect and that the evidence for the supposed early trip of 1494 is thin (no dispute about the 1505-07 trip to Venice, of course). After all, most of Dürer’s imitation of Italian art comes from graphic sources, which traveled more easily than artists. Mantegna and Pollaiuolo engravings as well as the Ferrara Tarocchi all clearly influenced Dürer, but not necessarily enough to draw him to visit Italy directly. Moreover, Jacopo de’ Barbari spent a year in Nuremberg in 1500 before moving from court to court in Northern Europe. Beate Böckem, author of a 2010 Basel dissertation on Barbari, also contributed an important catalogue essay, “The Young Dürer and Italy: Contact with Italy and the Mobility of Art and Artists around 1500.” (52-64) Technical study of Dürer paintings before 1505 is reexamined in the essay by Daniel Hess and Oliver Mack (171-93). Problems remain with the Italianate Madonna paintings, which seem to stand close to Giovanni Bellini models from Venice. Peggy Grosse considers these works in an essay (236-44) that reevaluates whether these images are truly by Dürer himself, a point not stressed clearly on the walls (the Washington Madonna and Child, cat. no. 52, still accepted as authentic, actually served as a surprising choice for the poster image).
But the Innsbruck, Trent, and northern Italian watercolors do show travel by Dürer, though not necessarily a study visit to Venice, as assumed. The study by G. Ulrich Grossmann, “Architecture in the Work of the Young Dürer,” provides one touchstone (221-35), but Eser’s initial essay (24-28) also makes one final claim, positing that the Dürer travel watercolors “of his first Italian journey” document his experience “outside” tight Nuremberg circles but only as far as the language border, to confront the “welsch” alternative to “deutsch” (to employ Baxandall’s antinomy). Thus this issue is hardly resolved (the very first line of Buck’s essay also still refers to Dürer’s “second trip to Italy”). This basic component of the artist’s formation remains subject to ongoing reflection.
Inevitably, but importantly, this exhibition emphasizes works by Dürer for local Nuremberg patrons, notably his early portraits, discussed in an essay (101-16) by Dagmar Hirschfelder, recent author of a dissertation on the Dutch tronie (reviewed in this Journal April 2011). Also the Dürer contribution to Nuremberg stained glass, richly reconsidered in the 2000 Getty-St. Louis exhibition, Painting on Light, plays a visible role here (and prompted me to return with binoculars to St. Sebald’s), well discussed in the learned essay by Hartmut Scholz (132-45). For such works the Nuremberg nexus is quite firm: prominent patrician commissioners, Dürer drawing designs, and Veit Hirsvogel execution in glass, much of it in situ .
However, the exhibition’s more tightly argued, coherent vision begins to dissolve in later sections. “Powerful Art: Dürer as a Dramatist” encompasses the very disparate book work, mythological prints, and even religious paintings and stained glass (which I have grouped instead with issues raised earlier in the exhibition). Several fine essays discuss Celtis: Schauerte’s text mentioned above, but also contributions by Jörg Robert on Celtis’s Germania illustrata in relation to early landscape painting (65-77), and by Anja Grebe, revisiting studies by Dieter Wuttke, “The ‘Other Apelles’ and the ‘Painter with the Bushy Beard.’ Dürer as a Subject in German Literature around 1500.” (78-89)
Even more puzzling and partial, the final section provocatively posits the topic, “What is Art?” These issues are more fully explored by the mature Dürer (who deserves a separate exhibition) in his anatomical studies and measurement treatise. But a display divided into abstract categories considered diverse images around these notions: Norm, Ambition, “the Wild,” Perfection, and Autonomy. As a kind of Ariadne’s thread through this labyrinth, the essay section concludes with a synthetic study by a young American scholar, Stephanie Porras (an HNA member, recently hired at Tulane), an intern on the research team. “‘Ein freie hant:’ Autonomy, Drawing and the Young Dürer” (245-59) considers drawings’ functions and status as defined within polarities of finish, date, and signature (or their absence) and adds nuance with supporting evidence for the bold initial claims by Eser. Her conclusion is worth quoting: “Whether in the supremely performative studies of nature . . . the notation of places and costumes, the act of copying/interpreting both German and Italian sources, or in the process of picturing the self, drawing became an activity closely tied to the projected identity of the young artist.” (258-59)
Though it focuses on a single work, the 1493 Paris Self-Portrait, I also want to call attention to an elegant complement to Porras’s essay by another American intern on the research team, Shira Brisman (recently hired at Madison). Identifying the plant attribute, significantly, as Sternkraut, she draws astrological conclusions (precisely in accord with the artist’s inscription) from contemporary illustrated herbals as she revises the dominant interpretation of eryngium as Mannstreuethat reaches back to Goethe. Quite an achievement for a foreign scholar working in Dürer’s hometown!
It will take years, perhaps another generation, to absorb all the knowledge and (re)interpretations that comprise this tome of a catalogue and to evaluate its careful rethinking of the artist through his formative early career within Nuremberg around 1500. All of us who study and admire Albrecht Dürer will want to tender our deep gratitude: to both Daniel Hess and Thomas Eser as organizers and to their scholarly team. They all provide such rich stimulation, both visual and intellectual – how appropriate for this particular artist – about The Early Dürer.
University of Pennsylvania