Why Dürer endures
As a major exhibition opens in Nuremberg, is Germany’s greatest artist a nationalist symbol as well as a national treasure?
By Bernhard Schulz. Features, Issue 235, May 2012
Published online: 22 May 2012
In 1500, Albrecht Dürer painted his Self-portrait Wearing Fur-trimmed Coat, now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Unlike his earlier paintings, Self-portrait with Flower, 1493, in the Louvre and Self-portrait at 26, 1498, in the Prado, this work continues to baffle observers. Despite the fact that Christian iconography is now more or less forgotten, most experts believe that the pose shows associations with representations of Christ. Now, half a millennium after the work was completed, the self-portrait seems to equate Dürer with the Saviour of the World. One doesn’t have to know much, or indeed anything at all, about Dürer to get the feeling that the painting came into being at a turning point in history, and Dürer’s importance in the German national consciousness has as much to do with the era in which he worked as with his phenomenal talent.
Dürer’s entry in the handbook of Munich’s Alte Pinakothek states that he “was, until the last century, considered to be the greatest German artist”—as if to say that he no longer merits such a description. Be that as it may, Dürer has come to be seen as a compelling personification of German history, in an era in which nationalism is no longer socially acceptable.
Too precious to lend
The last time the self-portrait went on loan was in 1971—to Nuremberg for the 500th anniversary of Dürer’s birthday in 1471. There, for the first and probably the last time in history, it was shown together with his other two self-portraits. “Die Zeit” proclaimed it the “highlight of the exhibition, the most important event of the Dürer year”. But the trip was not a good one for the wood panel painting. After its return, it displayed an enlargement of a crack that first appeared in 1928, when it was previously on loan to Nuremberg. Back in 1971, little fuss was made of this—but this year, the controversy was huge.
Martin Schawe, who is responsible for old German and early Netherlandish painting at the Alte Pinakothek, is still amazed by the dynamic that has developed around the exhibition, “The Early Dürer” at the German National Museum in Nuremberg (24 May-2 September). From the very first conversations between the Munich and Nuremberg museums, the representatives of the Alte Pinakothek pointed to the 114-strong list of “unmoveable” works in the collection, including the self-portrait. Three other early works by Dürer were requested, of which two were approved, and one rejected for conservation reasons. Klaus Schrenk, the director general of the Bavarian State Painting Collections, which include the three Munich pinakotheks and 13 art galleries throughout Bavaria, even says that there was “never an official loan request” for the self-portrait. Only when politicians from the Franconian parts of the region began to publicly support the Nuremberg loan, did the museum’s internal process become a political issue with enormous public resonance.
All the parties in the Bavarian state parliament—from the Christian Socialists to the Greens—issued emergency motions to make the image available to the German National Museum. Supporters of the local team, FC Nuremberg, held up protest banners at football matches, demanding that the portrait be shown in the city of the artist’s birth. Klaus Schrenk remains upset: “If we had yielded to the pressure, it would have had an enormous effect. It would have meant that the treasures that lie in the museums, could be made available because of political concerns.”
Meanwhile, the president of the German National Museum, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, penned a letter to the Association of German Art Historians defending the exhibition. “The Dürer exhibition” was “never an event-project”, he wrote. Rather, it was the conclusion of a research project that could have led to “new findings of Dürer’s early work, which the exhibition will show through direct comparison of original objects”.
At any rate, thanks to the row, it has become clear to everyone that when it comes to Dürer, it is about more than art from 500 years ago.
“In his day, Dürer was a world-famous artist,” says Schrenk, and the self-portrait, “a humanist icon”, represents “the humanistic view that human capabilities and progressive thought were no longer divinely preordained”. Dürer’s paintings “tell us with great self-assurance what it means to be human”, he adds. Dürer was the first artist north of the Alps—and one of the first anywhere—to apply the notion of what it is to be human to his own self-image.
The year in which the self-portrait was completed, 1500, was predicted to be the year the world would end and the Last Judgment would take place. But the new century was to become one of the most brilliant in the history of humanity. The Renaissance, the revival of interest in classical antiquity, made its present felt right across Europe, spreading across the Alps into the German Empire, which dubbed itself the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation”, emphasising its age-old connections with the capital of Christianity and Rome’s classical and post-classical culture. For centuries, German rulers had gone to the city to be crowned emperor by the Pope: Rome and the Papacy played a decisive role in the political history of Germany.
Martin Luther, an obscure Augustinian monk, had not yet formulated his 95 theses criticising Catholic theology, which he then posted on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. That happened—if it really did happen this way—in 1517. But these were nonetheless troubled times. As the first artist in Germany to sign his work, Dürer was the prototype of a new breed—the independent artist not the dependent court painter. While in Venice in 1506, Dürer famously remarked: “Here I feel like a gentleman, at home I am a parasite.” He wrote at length about his career, particularly in his 1524 family chronicle. Written in the artist’s mature years, this was a highly unusual document for the period.
He travelled to Italy. And on this first journey in 1494-95, he produced the first pure landscapes and city vedute ever seen in northern European art. During celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the artist’s birth, the Dürer watercolours, which disappeared from the Kunsthalle in Bremen after the Second World War, were described as “the most serious wartime loss of German works of art”. (They turned up again in Russia in the possession of a private collector who refused to return them to Bremen.) By the time of his second visit to Italy in 1505-06, Dürer had become famous throughout Europe. He spent most of the time in Venice, the republic where artists could practise as professionals, free to decide whom they worked for and what subjects to tackle. His meetings with fellow artists, especially with the older and much-admired Giovanni Bellini, made a great impression on Dürer. It was Bellini’s use of colour that would have the most lasting impact on his art.
An artist who crossed boundaries
The fact that Dürer crossed the Alps, and when he returned home found ways of fusing the realism of the north and the southern “art of the mind”, led him to be regarded as the supreme representative of the north-south synthesis. In the early 19th century, this idea was seized upon once more as it found new and more intense expression than ever before in allegorical paintings of Italia and Germania. Historical circumstances after the mid-16th century, only a few decades after Dürer’s death in 1528, made it impossible to emulate the artist and his travels. The tragedy of the Thirty Years’ War left the German Länder devastated in every sense, sidelined as modern territorial states took shape across Europe.
In many aspects, Dürer was an innovator. Not only did he devise techniques and explore modes of representation, he exploited them with a virtuosity that is unequalled. With his Apocalypse, 1498, Dürer succeeded in creating graphic art for a mass audience. At the same time, he produced a popular edition in German, paving the way for Luther’s translation of the Bible which, with the publication of the New Testament in 1522, established German as a written language. Dürer was the first artist on German territory to publish theoretical works. Since he went to great lengths to demonstrate the scientific basis of art, he also achieved prominence as a naturalist and mathematician. Finally, Dürer entered the political arena as a member of the Great Council in his home city of Nuremberg. If ever there was a renaissance man in Germany it was Dürer: the first to so describe him was none other than the Italian Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists.
The German Apelles
Dürer was celebrated by his contemporaries as “the German Apelles”. The title was first coined by the humanist scholar Conrad Celtis as early as 1500. The self-portrait seems less presumptuous when we consider the fulsome praise heaped upon its creator. Apelles, the Greek painter at the court of Alexander the Great, was chosen to reflect not only Dürer’s stature as an artist but also his relationship with Maximilian I, the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor and King of the Germans. For its time, it would be difficult to imagine a greater honour. Nuremberg and the contemporary cultured elite, as well as Germany as a whole, saw Dürer as a heroic figure who could be compared with the great artists of the Italian Renaissance while remaining unique. Dürer himself was aware of the status he held. This is clear from his writings in which he repeatedly alludes to a “German nation” transcending all political boundaries existing at the time. In writing about art, Dürer uses a word of his own invention—Wiedererwaxsung, a composite of the German Wiedererwachen (reawakening) and Wachstum (growth). He uses the same word as his own unique translation of the Italian rinascita (renewal or rebirth), with which he was familiar through his close contact with Nuremberg humanists and his own experience in Venice.
Admiration for Dürer has never diminished. A century after the artist’s death, Elector Maximilian of Bavaria, who was obsessed with the desire to amass a collection of Dürer’s work at his official residence in Munich, acquired the Four Apostles from the Free Imperial City of Nuremberg. The sale of the diptych created specifically for the city, which came about through “diplomatic pressure”, soured the relationship between Munich and Nuremberg. All the more so, when the Catholic Elector ordered the quotation from Luther’s translation of the Bible at the foot of the painting, with its obvious Reformist connotations, to be covered up. (It was not until 1922 that the text that was crucial to the understanding of the painting was returned to its rightful place.)
At the beginning of the 19th century, with the break-up of the old German Empire during Napoleon’s German campaign, the Franconian region and the hitherto independent city of Nuremberg became part of Bavaria—a reward from Napoleon to mark his alliance with Bavaria against the old German Empire. This territorial gain, which virtually doubled the size of Bavaria, was confirmed nine years later at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The 19th century saw efforts by the kings of Bavaria—the Wittelsbach ruler also had the French conqueror Napoleon to thank for this promotion in rank—to integrate the Franconian regions, whose population was and is mainly Protestant, into Catholic Bavaria. Even in Dürer’s lifetime, Nuremberg showed support for the Reformation, while feelings of national consciousness were emerging. When Dürer died, the humanist Willibald Pirckheimer quite independently described him as “the pride and glory of our nation”.
A Christian artist
Some go further, believing that Dürer personifies the religious conflict that split Germany into Catholic and Protestant regions (albeit to some degree settled by the Peace of Augsburg in 1555). In his later years, Dürer embraced the ideas of the Reformation, as did most educated people, not only north of the Alps but far beyond Italy. At the same time, however, as the Council of Trent, 1534-63, formulated the ideals of the Counter-Reformation, it named Dürer as a prime example of the Christian artist.
It was precisely this limited view of Dürer as the painter of Christian subjects—including altarpieces like The Feast of the Rosary, 1506, now in Prague—that romantic artists appropriated around 1800. Mostly from the Vienna Academy, practising in Rome and calling themselves the “Brotherhood of St Luke”, the young artists chose Dürer and Raphael as their role models. Before his premature death, Franz Pforr produced a drawing entitled Dürer and Raphael before the Throne of Art, 1810, a symbolic depiction of the fusion of art and religion. Then, in 1815, came Friedrich Overbeck’s Italia and Germania, an allegory of the German yearning for Italy, which still attracts visitors in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich. In 1833, King Ludwig I of Bavaria acquired the painting which, according to Overbeck “speaks of the perpetual yearning of the north for the south, for its art, its countryside and its poetry”. This philosophical view of art adopted by the Nazarenes, a group of young painters in Rome, influenced the entire German romantic movement in the early decades of the 19th century. Dürer was seen no longer as a representative of the secular Renaissance but as an artist with a Christian approach to art and life.
In the course of the 19th century this view became overlaid by a burgeoning nationalism, connecting the age of Dürer with a flourishing German Empire under a strong ruler, epitomised by Maximilian I and later by Charles V. The term “the age of Dürer” became synonymous with this idea and Nuremberg a place that Germans longed to see. The citizens of Bismarck’s newly-created Germany identified with the upper classes of Nuremberg and took Richard Wagner’s 1868 opera “The Mastersingers of Nuremberg” as a guide to art appreciation. Wagner ends his opera with a couplet claiming that although the Holy Roman Empire may fall, “holy German art” will endure. At this time, reproductions of Dürer’s Young Hare, 1502, Great Piece of Turf, 1503, and especially Praying Hands, 1508, became regular features of the interior décor in the homes of the German bourgeoisie, while intellectuals adorned theirs with one of the three so-called “Meisterstiche”, or master prints, notably Melancholia I, 1514, which is still not fully deciphered.
It was a comparable surge of political nostalgia that led to the creation of the German National Museum, which will shortly be staging the exhibition at the heart of the dispute. The museum founded in 1852 was, and still is, funded by the Bavarian government, a compensation for Munich’s status as Bavaria’s political centre. In the 20th century, however, the museum paled in significance, especially after the destruction of Nuremberg in the Second World War. Nevertheless, when it staged an exhibition to mark Dürer’s 500th birthday in 1971, it attracted 360,000 visitors, the first blockbuster in German post-war history.
It also seemed obvious in 1948, with the introduction of the new West German currency the Deutsche Mark, that Dürer illustrations should adorn the new banknotes. The most commonly used ten-mark banknote showed the portrait of a young man, strongly resembling the one depicted in Dürer’s self-portraits. Dürer was literally in everyone’s hand.
In a showcase at the exit of the Alte Pinakothek, a copy of the museum catalogue lies open at page 104—a double-page spread showing the Dürer self-portrait. A note mentions the simmering dispute with Nuremberg and the importance of the Alte Pinakothek as a museum for everyone. There is no mention of the fact that, in 1805, the painting was sold in suspicious circumstances to the Elector, later King, of Bavaria, by someone we would now call a con artist. By today’s standards, Dürer’s portrait is a looted work of art. Nuremberg’s pain is still deeply felt, for it concerns the most important artist Germany has ever produced.
“The Early Dürer” is at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, 24 May-2 September.
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