Busy Precision in Black and White:
The Prints of Albrecht Dürer
It’s a small gallery, maybe a thousand square feet, but you can spend an hour looking at just two walls of the Museum of Fine Arts’ wonderful show, Albrecht Dürer: Virtuoso Printmaker. And that’s not even half the exhibit, which also includes several cases containing contemporary copies of the artist’s printed books. Dürer, a sixteenth-century German visual artist, intellectual, and craftsman, was a master of the art of the print, and it was through this easily reproducible medium that he earned his fame. The astonishing and innovative works in this finely curated exhibit demonstrate Dürer’s accomplishment in four printmaking techniques: woodcut, etching, engraving, and drypoint. Unsurprisingly, all but one of the pieces here are black and white—but this fact should not deter museum-goers. As the show’s curators point out, “the great scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam marveled that Dürer’s black-and-white prints achieved everything that most artists could only express in color.”
And, indeed, even some five centuries later, Dürer’s prints are sharp, exact, and luscious: the black of his lines and shadows is juicy, the white space a soaring, refreshing rest for the eye. The pieces here are literate and readable, they teem with interpretable detail and seek to communicate so much that it is both exhilarating and wearying to engage with them. What may surprise viewers more used to contemporary art is how little Dürer’s work intends to puzzle or confuse: these prints are mysterious and emotive, to be sure, and some are even deeply allegorical, but they are not deliberately obscure. They tell stories, present moments, suggest broader narratives. They want to be understood. Of course, Dürer’s audience would have been able immediately to locate themselves in the moments he presents from the Bible or the lives of saints, but even an audience of today will connect with the expressive faces and busy, emotional scenes in these prints.
Each technique, from woodcut to drypoint, has a different communicative mood. The woodcuts were my favorites. Rich with detail and seductive white space, they present interiors and forests you want to plunge into, idiosyncratic rocks and shoes, funny hats, and stolid, dogged, lively people. The engravings are finer but less dynamic, awash in detail, rather than bristling with it. But whatever the technique, it’s the boldness of Dürer’s line that is astonishing, as well as his captivating, out-of-the-way details: the goat looking before he leaps in the background of “The Fall,” the little ship under full sail that looks like a perfect, stylized snail in “Samson Rending the Lion,” or Saint Catherine’s hair sweaty at her cheek as fire rains from the comic-book sky in “Martyrdom of Saint Catherine.”
The wall texts stress that Dürer is particularly important because his work straddles two aesthetic and intellectual periods: the medieval and the renaissance. It’s easy to see that this is true. This exhibit includes several images of Saint Jerome done over a number of years, as well as works from the series The Large Passion and Life of the Virgin, each of which Dürer produced in what the curators refer to as “campaigns” five to ten years apart. (The military metaphor is apt, since Dürer produced his own treatise on fortification, and lived much of his life during central Europe’s prolonged military struggle with the Ottoman Turks.) The earlier prints from each series are flatter, the lines more bold and calligraphic, the details stranger. The later images show the rising influence of the renaissance: the figures bear their weight in sophisticated contrapposto stances, the realistically-rendered bodies are more beautiful. It’s illuminating to see these works grouped together, to follow their stories in and out of changing historical styles and Dürer’s own artistic and intellectual development.
The four Jeromes are some of the most exciting images in the room. Dürer’s idea of the saint is not static; both he and his faithful lion change depending on the medium and the mood. It isn’t one Jerome or lion in a variety of situations; each piece is its own self-contained world with newly-imagined characters. The earliest print, “Saint Jerome in Penitence,” is an engraving from about 1496 in which the wild, humanoid face of the lion seems reflective of Jerome’s posture of impending self-injury (he holds a stone in his hand, his outstretched arm about to beat his bare chest). The landscape, too, is mystical and sinister, the flaky sedentary rocks in their deep shadow relieved only by the precision of the little church that peeks over the hill. The next Jerome seems not even a cousin to this skinny fanatic. In the 1511 woodcut “Saint Jerome in his Cell,” he is a solid, scholarly figure with an intent, grumpy, this-worldly expression. The lion, too, is bulkier, and everything in the interior is snugly in its proper place: shears, quills, and little books are pinned to the lectern and walls, the white space of the curtain sweeps richly across the room, and a firm reminder of life’s mortal aspect is represented by the hourglass and clock at center.
The next year, Dürer produced “Saint Jerome by the Pollard Window.” In this drypoint, the saint is abstracted like an anchorite, the lion beatific, gazing into a pool in which his reflection does not appear. The piece is blurry and expressive, but Dürer is completely in control, and the saint’s face is pale, exact, and suggestive. But the engraving “Saint Jerome in his Study,” which Dürer finished in 1514, is deservedly the most famous of the four and a delight to see face-to-face. It is full of wonderfully-observed detail: the slippers under their bench, the sleeping dog, the human skull, the halo that successfully competes with the watery sunlight coming through the round-paned windows. The lion now is totally feline, totally accurate and sensual, the saint at his desk, toes nudged together, is tense but comfortable. Words fail, you have to see it.
The images from the New Testament, too, are extraordinary. “The Betrayal of Christ” from The Large Passion is crowded, violent, and chaotic; even the armor and sword hilts have sentient, malignant faces. The “Lamentation” includes so much to see: The two thieves are still on the crosses in the background, the face of the curly-headed apostle who supports the shoulders of the dead Christ looks crazed and puffy with grief. Only Mary is marginally serene; the mourners all look like people who have been crying for a long time, their faces stretched and distorted, and the body of the dead Christ is accurately, frighteningly floppy.
The exhibit also includes two prints on the subject of the agony in the garden. The 1508 version is a perfect, dazzling emotional miniature, maybe five inches tall and half as wide. In the etching from 1511, it’s the angel in dialogue with Christ who looks really agonized; Judas at the left, leading soldiers into the garden, is merely an eloquent scribble, but totally recognizable, a tiny gestural figure predating Picasso’s iconic Don Quixote by nearly four hundred and fifty years. The “Nativity” of 1504 is another that has to be seen in person: minute and precise, it presents a cross-section of a crumbling inn in the process of returning to nature, a tree sprouting from its roof. The friendly beasts appear in far, shadowy perspective, and the line of water Joseph pours carefully into his jug is so clean and sharp it makes you thirsty.
The curators have done an excellent job presenting the technical issues of printmaking and explaining just what makes Dürer such a master of the medium, often by showing two versions of the same print side by side. For example, using two prints of the 1496 engraving “The Prodigal Son amid the Swine,” they demonstrate how an engraved plate erodes with time and use. The change in quality is startling, the first print infinitely sharper and more lively, with central black shadows you want to dive into, and brightly demonic little piggy faces. The second print, which was pulled close to thirty years after the creation of the plate, is plainer, less dynamic, the lines less well-defined. Similarly, the one color piece in the room is a painted print of the woodcut “The Bearing of the Cross” from The Large Passion. The pigment was added not by Dürer himself but by a professional colorist, or Briefmaler, and it’s easy to see that it has not enhanced but rather muddled the self-contained world of the image and obscured some of its nuances. Dürer’s prints are complete in themselves, relying on the high contrast of their limited palate to convey their crowded, emotional moments. Seeing the colored version makes this fact exquisitely clear.
On the whole, the exhibit could do more to situate the artist in his proper intellectual context. The show includes an unsparing but affectionate portrait of Erasmus, the creases in his robe and open books mimicking those in his face—but Dürer’s association with other figures of the reformation period, including Luther, is barely suggested. The wall texts note the artist’s increasing interest in the ideals of the renaissance, but do not make explicit what this might mean historically or aesthetically. Another flaw is the lack of explanation that accompanies the famous allegorical pieces like “Nemesis (The Great Fortune)” and “Melencholia I.” Dürer’s contemporaries would likely have been familiar with the symbolism, but present-day viewers may find themselves puzzled and wishing for more information. Why, they might ask, is there a naked woman balancing on a ball floating in the sky? What is the significance of the numbers over the head of the bored-looking angel? A few lines on the popular conception of Fortuna or the so-called magic square would be helpful. So would more information on Dürer’s influence on later intellectuals, including twentieth century figures like Thomas Mann and Günter Grass.
But overall, the wall texts are excellent, giving viewers just the details they need in precise, exact language. And Dürer’s marvelous works speak volumes for themselves. Museum-goers will be rewarded even by the smallest, least portentous prints in the room, a quartet of simple, ordinary characters. There is so much delight to be had from the mercenary struck dumb, holding the lady’s lovely forearm as she looks at him from her horse, the pensive bagpiper, the hilarious cook and his wife, or the cozy little Turkish family. There are wonders in this small, dim room. If you’re lucky enough to be in Boston before the show closes on July third, make time to take them in.