Review of Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist

By Christian Kile

http://www.sehepunkte.net/2021/11/36192.html

Remembered especially for his graphic print work, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) remains one of the archetypal Renaissance figures and through his surviving records one of the best documented. Dürer’s Journeys accompanies two exhibitions, one planned for London’s National Gallery and one in the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen under the German title “Dürer war hier. Eine Reise wird Legende.” [1] It comprises essays that follow Dürer’s path with a distinct focus on his 1520-1521 visit to the Low Countries. Two copies of his complete journal from this time are known to exist today; while the original was lost, these versions are said to be copied directly or at least taken from an earlier copy of this journal and present an exceptionally precise picture of Dürer’s dealings, artistic growth and beyond – even encompassing his physical condition, diet and banquet invitations.

Since the catalogue has such a conceptually cohesive and coherent form, and the contributions dovetail happily with each other, it – and probably the exhibition as well – can be seen as a unit. The authors emphasise the consummate entrepreneurship of Dürer, whose approach comes across as one of astute self-promotion and merciless aspiration: on his journey he brought a sizable number of his own prints which, judging from his records, he would sell or give away. It was through gifting his works that Dürer attempted to build links with powerful patrons, noting in his journal offerings of his prints made to Margaret of Austria – Regent of the Netherlands, her treasurer Jean de Marnix, as well as the exiled King Christian II of Denmark, a guest of Margaret’s court. He went as far as to design a house for Margaret’s physician, throwing in a Saint Jerome engraving for added measure. He must have been doing something right, for Dürer’s developing relationship with Margaret allowed him access to her personal living quarters that housed her art collection, which included Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.

Before arriving in Antwerp his engravings and woodcuts were already in high demand by artists and would greatly contribute to the development of Netherlandish print making. 1497 saw contracts arranged for international distribution of Dürer’s work and when it came to marketing and selling his prints it was a family affair with the artist employing his wife and mother. With the wide dissemination of his prints through trade, awareness of his work increased hugely, enhanced by his famous commercial decision to brand the work with his initials. Motifs from these works influenced other leading artists of the time from Giovanni Bellini in Venice to Jan Gossaert in the Low Countries.

Certain essays provide a comprehensive insight into the social history of artists at that time: while still in the Low Countries Dürer was lauded in the cities he visited, celebrated by artists, invited to banquets and the recipient of much wine. That such a vast quantity of wine is noted in his journal is thought to indicate not only the lack of clean drinking water but also the artist’s standing, for wine, even amongst royalty was considered a significant gift. The painter Cornelis van Dalem installed a bust of Dürer on the façade of his home inscribed ‘GERMANORVM DECVS’ (the jewel of the Germans) and painted his own versions of the German’s engravings.

Between August 1520 and July 1521 in Antwerp Dürer produced an oil painting of Saint Jerome for his friend the trader and Roman Catholic Rodrigo Fernandes de Almada; this image spawned a demand for copies that found a large market within the city’s commercial hub. Gone are the saint’s traditional penitential symbols and red cardinal’s hat. Perhaps this reflects the influence of Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus whose concept of self-knowledge as consolation for a disturbed conscience may have been a reason for this change. Indeed, the painting of Saint Jerome may “be considered as a painted argument in their [Dürer and de Almada’s] intellectual exchange of ideas.” (261) Rightly then, it is one of the most important works presented and highlighted in the catalogue.

In the Low Countries an opportunity was spotted by Dürer to open up a market for large portrait drawings. At times these works were used as gifts and over eighty were made by the artist for clients and friends. Drawing rather than painting portraits did away with the many demands, such as studio space, oak panel supports, panel and pigment preparation with assistance and other materials – all of which would have been more challenging for a travelling artist. It was possible for Dürer to complete three such drawings in one night as against four or five days for a painted portrait. Aside from Lucas van Leyden, it seems no other artist seriously adopted this approach, perhaps because of the inevitable comparisons that would come with it: “The portrait drawings functioned within his [Dürer’s] check-and-balance system not simply as works of art that he was able to sell for money – although that most certainly happened – but also as tools to obtain services from those portrayed or in return for gifts or invitations.” (205)

Thoughts about Luther and the Reformation – as emphasised in one of the contributions – collide curiously with Dürer’s journal notes. There is an outpouring known as the Lutherklage (‘Lament on Luther’), passionately asserting its writer as a committed Lutheran. Following this outburst, the subject is not again mentioned. The sudden transition back to Dürer’s prosaic daily comings and goings is so abrupt that the Lament has been seen as an intervention by another hand. Jeroen Stumpel argues in his essay that although not composed by Dürer, it was absorbed into the journal by accident, or with the intention of presenting the artist as a Lutheran sympathiser. The writer is thought to be Jacob Probst, previously cloistered at Erfurt, where Luther had stayed, who became the prior of a convent of Augustinians near Dürer’s Antwerp home. In the Lament “(t)he rhetoric, the indignation, the despair, the theological references, the use of the Latin vocative […] are completely in line with Jacob Probst’s position, training and whereabouts at the given date.” (235)

The many descriptions of Dürer’s works throughout the volume often drag on and in view of the good quality images are unnecessary. What commands most interest is the life of the artist and his efforts to forge a career in the midst of the political intrigue and upheavals of the early Reformation. With Dürer’s independence, phenomenal commercial success and political acumen we can understand how he became what John Berger described as “the first, one-man, avant-garde.” [2] No less remarkable was his masterful sense of timing: he managed his departure from the Low Countries evading the imminent adverse reaction towards Lutheran supporters, some of whom had formed part of his circle.

One reason why the long-planned exhibition in Aachen and London is particularly timely and resonates so strongly with us is that Dürer laboured under a similar sense of impending calamity that we have been experiencing with the worldwide pandemic. In September 1494 there was an outbreak of the plague in his home city of Nuremberg and he may have gone to Venice during 1505-1507 to escape another. Further trials and tribulations he faced ranged from the petty, permits for various regions, and dealing with different currencies to the more serious, robbery attempts and the demands of journeying in changeable weather over harsh terrain on foot or by horse and boat. Yet, ultimately, this volume and exhibitions are a testament to Dürer’s enduring triumph for we continue to admire his work today.


Notes:

[1] Peter van den Brink (ed.): Dürer war hier. Eine Reise wird Legende, Petersberg 2021.

[2] Tom Overton (ed.): John Berger, Portraits. John Berger on Artists, London 2015, 60.

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