Stephanie Buck and Stephanie Porras, The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure. Cat. exh. Courtauld Gallery, London, October 17, 2013 – January 12, 2014. London: Courtauld Gallery 2013. 287 pp, fully illustrated in color. ISBN 978-1-907372-53-7.
Marcus Andrew Hurttig, Antiquity Unleashed: Aby Warburg, Dürer and Mantegna. Translation from the German by Kristin Lohse Belkin. Exh. The Courtauld Gallery, London, October 17, 2013 – January 12, 2014. London: The Courtauld Gallery and Paul Holberton Publishing, 2013. 55 pp, b&w illus. ISBN 978-1-907372-58-2.
The practice of writing a history of art involves drawing boundaries that distinguish between styles, functions, and the periods of an artist’s career. Categorization allows for the pronouncement of changes and the examination of similarities. Since the first decades of the twentieth century, with monographs by Kurt Pfister and Hans and Erika Tietze, “the early Dürer” has referred to works created prior to the artist’s journey to Italy in 1506. More recently, in the summer of 2012, the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg mounted an exhibition, Der frühe Dürer (reviewed in this journal November 2012), which provided a fresh look at the formative years. In collaboration with the Nuremberg team, the Courtauld Gallery in London developed a focused segment of the research in The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure. The Courtauld presentation treats the work of the 1490s from the artist’s Wanderjahre, which began when he finished his apprenticeship with Michael Wolgemut and traveled beyond his native town.
The exhibition’s catalogue, edited by Stephanie Buck and Stephanie Porras, provides technological data and interpretive models that mark an outstanding contribution to scholarship on Dürer. The book will also engage readers interested in early modern drawings, the role of prints in inter-artistic influence, theories of copying, and notions of stylistic development. Together the entries build a picture of how, through the practice of drawing, Dürer gathered sources from artistic predecessors and scrutinized his own body, combining the study of both art and nature to “form his hand.”
The catalogue’s four essays are exemplary for the manner in which they forge connections and articulate distinctions. Stephanie Buck carefully describes the components of Dürer’s travel years that are secured by documentation (his visits to Colmar, Basel, and Strasbourg), and the destinations about which we can reasonably speculate (Würzburg, Frankfurt, Mainz, Cologne). In “Dürer’s Limbs,” David Freedberg promotes two anatomical studies on opposite sides of the Courtauld’s drawing from 1493 as prototypes that appear in other compositions. On one side the artist drew his own leg from two viewpoints; on the other the hand of the Wise Virgin bends back at the wrist. In the second half of his essay, Freedberg describes the artist’s attention to musculature as evidence of his desire to arouse feeling in his viewer, thereby prying open the discourse surrounding an artist so given to self-portraiture by positioning him as thinking across the boundary of the frame to communicate with the beholder.
The next two essays in the catalogue offer important organizing principles for the study of drawings and prints. Stephanie Porras’s “Dürer’s Copies” argues that it was through the emulation of the techniques and compositions of others, such as Schongauer’s cross-hatching and Mantegna’s figural groups, that Dürer developed a distinctive style. His graphic line became increasingly expressive and adept at volume and texture even as he borrowed compositions from Franconian and Italianate sources. These auto-didactic exercises seem to have been confined to the period prior to 1496. His later copies that he documented as such render monstrous beasts and births – inventions belonging to God, not man. Michael Roth’s “The Young Dürer and Drawing for a Purpose” argues that in developing his graphic line Dürer learned how to advance the pictorial qualities of both woodblocks and engravings, importing cross-hatching into relief carving, and enhancing the modeling effects of intaglio to increase the medium’s tonal range. Roth’s study reminds the reader that two techniques that are often classified under the rubric “prints,” in fact originated in separate craft traditions. Dürer, recognizing drawing as “a common denominator,” advanced the expressive capabilities of both.
With entries by eight different authors, the middle section of the catalogue presents the findings of analysis of seven ink drawings from the Wanderjahre. (The extended report can be found on the website http://duerer.gnm.de/tintenwiki/Tintenprojekt). The results of miscroscopy, reflectography and X-ray treatment distinguish between iron gall and carbon-based inks and offer new distinctions and connections across the early drawings. Some were drafted in single campaigns while others progressed over stages; some include monograms and dates inscribed coevally with the image, while others point to a later documenting hand. As he gained confidence in his graphic expression, Dürer began using the thin corner of the quill tip (instead of charcoal underdrawing) to plan. These analyses also help to interpret what the eye can see. A drawing that looks as though it is comprised of separate inks may be showing the effects of time, over which thinner applications of iron gall fade to brown, while thicker coats retain a grayer hue.
At the center of the study is the Courtauld’s own sheet, whose front displays one of the wise virgins from the New Testament parable. On the back is Dürer’s repeated rendering of his own left leg, and the date, 1493. The double-sided page establishes oppositions about the pace of execution and the source of subject matter. Through a careful comparison with other works from the 1490s, the authors demonstrate how both sides of the drawing belong to larger programs: one to a sequence of Dürer’s engagements with Schongauer (on whom Dürer based the virgin), the other to a series of studies of the self that lead to the incorporation of parts of the artist’s body into narrative compositions.
The third segment of the catalogue organizes the works exhibited in the gallery into four thematic groups: Drawing the Figure; Responses: The Animation of Tradition; The Wise and The Foolish; and Saints and Lovers. The comparisons across the gathered prints and drawings show Dürer collecting the art of his predecessors, working through awkward attempts at foreshortening, and finally surpassing the styles that he studied. The focused study on the artist’s travel years reveals a generative competitive spirit that drove him to gather, record, and improve upon.
What is the significance of reconsidering the early years of Dürer’s career? One answer is to see an increasing interest in the movement of images and the role played by prints in the facilitating of exchange as an occasion to recalibrate what was considered “local” and what was “foreign.” The Wanderjahre come into focus because the program for such artistic training was predicated on the notion that an artist learned from being away before he established his workshop at home. Another impulse has been to scrutinize the means by which certain artists have achieved canonical status by filling in the maps of their influences. Robert Suckale’s Erneuerung der Malkunst vor Dürer (2009) has reminded us of just how much work there is to be done to survey fifteenth-century art in German-speaking lands.
To best understand the stakes involved, consider the Young Düreralongside two other exhibitions (and catalogues) that attend to the artist’s pre-1506 work. The Germanisches Nationalmuseum’s Frühe Dürer describes Dürer’s local environment: his neighborhood, the culture of humanists that surrounded him, the emerging changes to the status of the craftsman, and the printing and collecting of books in Nuremberg. The attention to what his Franconian culture offered quiets what another exhibition revives: an argument for Dürer’s status within the canon of Renaissance artists due to his assimilation of lessons from Italian art. Antiquity Unleashed: Aby Warburg, Dürer, and Mantegna, organized by Marcus Andrew Hurttig, originated in Hamburg and opened at the Courtauld Gallery simultaneously with the Young Dürer. The aim was to recreate an exhibition that Warburg designed to accompany his lecture of October 5, 1905, on the influence of Italian antiquity upon Dürer’s art. It was on this occasion that Warburg introduced the term Pathosformel to describe the survival of Dionysian passions through classical poses.
Although the fifty page manuscript at the Warburg Library has been published only as an abbreviated abstract, its application of the Burckhardtian notion of the Renaissance as a revival to Germany’s most famous early modern artist had an indelible impact on the terms by which “northern” and “southern” have been compared. In an essay first published in 1921-22, Panofsky broadened Warburg’s claims and asserted that it was through the mediation of Quattrocento art that Dürer came to know the classical past. Antiquity Unleashed combines Warburg’s original grouping (drawings and prints by Dürer, engravings by Mantegna and anonymous Florentine and Ferrarese artists) with documents from his library (the slide list that he distributed to his lecture’s attendees, his notes that map the appearance of classical myth in fifteenth-century art and literature). Taken together, the three exhibitions form a rich sense of the many roles that movements play in tracking artistic influence and development. Images circulate, artists travel, figures lunge, compositions slide between cultures, and scholars shift the terms by which distinctions are made between epochs in the history of art.