Saturday, September 13


Albrecht Dürer, Albrecht Dürer, Riding Through the Glen

It all started with an Indian rhinoceros. My fascination with Albrecht Dürer goes back to a little story I read in one of my first-grade exercise books about the engraver's wildly inaccurate and imaginative rendering of a tame rhino picked up by the Portuguese fidalgo Afonso de Albuquerque. The German never actually saw the animal and relied mostly on written descriptions. The thing had died off the Italian coast in a shipwreck sometime afterward. Yet, as I later discovered when the rhinoceros and his woodcut doppelgänger made an appearance on a yellowing old nature program, Dürer wasn't too far off the mark in depicting the strange, armored, lumbering tank of an animal; the only major slipup were the scales he covered its legs with, and an inexplicable extra horn on the animal's plate-articulated neck. (Watching World of Survival was a big part of my after-school ritual; for the full total regression effect you need a Cuban grandmother, guava paste, and crackers. And a fax machine going full-tilt printing out dispatches from elderly exiles in Miami, but that's another story.)

As I got older, the rhinoceros kept popping in and out of my life. I copied it by hand at some point; and eventually I was given Dürer's Complete Woodcuts for Christmas. I still have the book around, and refer to it frequently, though the binding's since split right between The Martyrdom of St. Katherine and St. John Before the Latin Gate, which is unfortunate as they're two of my favorites. I started trying, by turns wobbly and fuzzy, to imitate Dürer's style, though seldom his exact subject matter. I wanted to create more Dürers, or at least the first draft equivalents thereof.

I remember one somewhat sketchy attempt to render Don Quixote's combat with the knight of the moon in a highly Germanic manner, spliced together from various Albrechtian tropes. Dürer, in his breadth of subjects and rich tangles of secondary detail seemed not so much a master to be followed as the producer of the best book of clip art ever. But then, in the true Germanic fashion, his work is so stuffed-full of things--turbans, gem-set brooches, fantastically ugly pontiffs and bull-necked bishops, little pugs, half-classical nudes--sometimes even to the detriment of the big picture, it's hard not to love him for it. Eventually I started to develop my own style, but I always go back to visit when I need help with drapery.

I discovered today that the Museum of Biblical Art, a shiny outgrowth of some bland non-denominational denominational organization based on the West Side, was doing a show of the great man's engravings and woodcuts. I went, humming the Monty Python Fliegender Zirkus Dürer song, a blatant ripoff of the old Robin Hood theme--Oh Albrecht, Albrecht Dürer, Du reitest durch die Länder... And spent the afternoon squinting up close at dozens of tiny, delicate engravings set in gigantic archival mats. There was a level of refinement I'd missed out on before when I stuck to his woodcuts. I'd have to get a thinner pen now. Much of it was religious, but, being a good businessman, he also did genre scenes of peasants, mythological figures, nudes, even a pleasantly mythopoeic scene of a satyr and nymph and their child.

And all of this transposed into something simultaneously medieval and classical at the same time. (This is no more apparent than in The Monstrous Sow of Landser, an extraordinarily weird print of a pig with two bodies and one head, which combines both the tabloid-ish medieval sense of the mirabilis crossbred with polished Renaissance voyeurism.) They are quietly and elegantly hybrid, full of the last hints of medieval wonder and dynamism and the full brunt of Renaissance gravitas. We have left behind the clumsy charm of charioteer Mars as an armored knight sitting in an incongruous haywain but not yet reached the sterile archaeology of the neoclassic.

It's easy to reduce Dürer to a collection of images without much sense of the man. We find his more conventional work in Catholic missalettes and Protestant kitsch, and it is easy to lump him in with the quirky, cluttered, devotional world of Van Eyck and the Flemish masters. But he was more allied to Italy than he was Flanders, and despite his charmingly-envisioned recreations of scenes from the Golden Legend, he had a strong Protestant streak towards the end. Indeed, set against the gemütlichkeit of pre-Reformation Germany, his out-of-context Renaissance man act can seem almost psychopathically grandiloquent--the self-portrait as a dandyfied Christ figure seems rather ill-advised in retrospect. He also didn't seem to get along too well with Mrs. Dürer. (They never had kids, and he never seemed to be around much.)

Yet, it is sometimes possible to separate the work from the worker, so long as you know what to watch out for. Dürer's Italian humanist leanings, while perhaps giving him an ego the size of Schleswig, nonetheless considerably livened up his work, and offer much to learn in terms of bringing out that tricky third dimension. His engravings and woodcuts blur into the medieval to the uneducated eye, and indeed he stayed, for quite some time, far closer to the intricately-detailed (even at times, cluttered) medieval iconographic tradition tan his southern forbears, and when he broke with it tended to be subtler, and with a more ideological than artistic charge. You have to read the symbols carefully; a Last Supper from his earliest days will be a straightforward if visually innovative composition, fully-imagined but thoroughly plugged into the medieval mainstream. Later versions might look the same until you notice the paschal lamb is missing, or the platter and bread relegated to the floor. But no artist is perfect, and the brilliance of his technique, and the mingled iconographic brilliance and purity of his early years still stand.

As I was rounding out my time at the exhibit, I passed back by the plates from Dürer's action-thriller take on the Apocalypse. An old man with a pocket Bible was pointing at verses and asking the youngish lady next to her to read them aloud, like a scriptural tourist. "And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand," she read. And with a bit of consultation, they found Famine in the great woodcut swirl before them. And standing there, I could not decide if this was a post-modern scene, the result of America's endemic millenarian fascination with the Rapture, or something else, more elemental, more medieval--the universal, Golden Legend familiarity of the sacred in action--the universe I know and understand. Perhaps, given Dürer, it's both.

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