Albrecht Dürer’s journal of 1520-21, written during his year-long escape to the Low Countries from his plague-ridden hometown of Nuremberg, drove Roger Fry mad. When the Bloomsbury artist and arch-rationalist came to edit a 1913 version of the Renaissance artist’s diary, he could not believe how boring it was. Instead of insights into the work of the greatest Northern Europe artist of his age, Fry found a man obsessed with recording how much he paid to pass tollgates, what souvenirs he bought, and how much he paid for his socks. To Fry, Dürer was the equivalent of a modern tourist, arriving back at the airport with a sombrero hat.
And yet this unique record, which provides the National Gallery’s new exhibition with its narrative peg, tells us much about the artist, precisely because of its list-like quality. Dürer’s quotidian writing gives chapter and verse to his amazement when halls filled with Flemish merchants rise as one to applaud him, even as they document his pathological desire to collect. On his journey, this journeyman bought or bartered with his own prints for shark’s fins, parrots, coconuts, shells, arrows, citronate vases and capuchin monkeys—all crated up and sent back home as if he were an early modern version of Andy Warhol, determined to document his existence by the assembly of things.
On his journey, Dürer bought or bartered with his own prints for shark’s fins, parrots, coconuts, shells, arrows, citronate vases and capuchin monkeys
It is this obsessiveness that gives Dürer’s art its power. His works are filled with the same sensibility and sometimes the actual animals he found, and it is this quality that makes this exhibition so fascinating. The range and beauty of Dürer’s work dumbfounds us; as with Shakespeare, it is hard to believe all this could be the work of one man. Solemn portraits of merchant princes look on dourly, yet such is Dürer’s magic that these bread-and-butter commissions transcend the formulae of formal portraits with odd quirks: a slightly neurotic look in the eye, a surreal tilting-out of a head and shoulders from the frame. Dürer makes the most anodyne aristocrat dramatic, actors in their own parts. The exhibition’s extensive display of work by Dürer’s contemporaries and antecedents gives welcome context to his brilliance.
But it is the animals that scamper about through these galleries like fugitive familiars that lend it an elusive charm. A frankly anthropomorphic Lion (1494), more Wizard of Oz than St Mark’s Square, smirks smugly as he gambols in a tiny, exquisite gouache; he might be a lively man in a lion skin, stretching out his pantomime paws and shaking his shaggy mane. That Dürer devoted as much detail to this big cat as he did to a burgher or an emperor—down to the dark meadow streaked with brushstrokes of pure gold—evokes his more famous Young Hare (1502) or The Great Piece of Turf (1503), nature studies that imbue animals and plants with a sort of personhood all their own.
And then the same lion bounces across the room to sit at the feet of St Jerome in the Wilderness (around 1496), beholden to the saint having pulled a thorn from its paw. As his master beats his chest with a rock, in reparation for his unknown sins, we spin round to the back of the panel, and there, at exactly the same point where the stone hits the penitent’s heart, is the epicentre of an exploding star. In fact it’s a meteorite that landed near Basel in 1492. But in Dürer’s near-Blakean rendering, this tiny panel, no bigger than a hardback book, becomes a vision of the big bang, seen through his telescope in his rooftop observatory. Two rooms later, and on his travels Dürer has finally seen real lions, in the Brussels menagerie, and the effect is electric. In a delicately drawn sheet, with added colour and animation (there is still a little of Disney to this), the lion roars after slumber, accompanied by a sleepy lioness, and
a blue baboon.
Darkly lit as these rooms must be, Dürer’s art bursts out of them like that star. Here are his three master engravings arrayed side by side, a line of enigmatic beauty that makes this show worth the admission. St Jerome in His Study (1514) is now tucked up in his cosy cell, based on Dürer’s own room, sub-aquatically lit by bottle-glass windows, his snoozing lion and dog at his feet. In The Knight, Death and the Devil (1513), more properly called The Rider, a Renaissance Clint Eastwood rides into the valley, to be accosted by worm-eaten figures of the devil and death. You can only appreciate these details in the real presence of these engravings: the rider’s free lance over his shoulder, tied with a fox’s brush to indicate his prowess; a sprig of oak leaves entwined in his steed’s own tail signifies courage; and running along the ground, his loyal hound leading his master out of danger. Dürer’s animals often seem to appear as avatars of the artist himself.
Flanking these feats engraved with the artist’s own lance, his burin, wielded with intimacy and grace, is Dürer’s most cryptic work: Melencolia 1 (1514). Its ungendered angel, head in hand, sits in contemplation, not, as some critics report, with a scowl on their face, but with a musing glow. Surrounded by masonic tools and an alchemical sea, this luminescent image is lit by another shooting star, while a sperm-shaped bat flies in the air, holding a banner proclaiming the title of this, the most mysterious image in all of Western art.
This is a refreshingly old-school show, and perhaps some attention could have been paid to the shape-shifting aspects of Dürer’s art. For instance, Portrait of A Girl with Red Beret (1507), painted on the artist’s return from Venice, became Portrait of a Boy with Red Beret by 1633, before changing sex again in the next century, slipping genders like Orlando, a pearl dangling off its hat like a lure while the unfocused eyes and mannish décolletage invite us to wonder which way this person might go next.
A raw deal in life
Nor is there any speculation on Dürer’s own own ambivalent sexuality (perhaps because the exhibition lacks loans of his three lavishly narcissistic self-portraits, respectively imprisoned as they are in Munich, Madrid and Paris). Instead, Dürer himself stands away, marvelling at his own work over our shoulders, pointing at the fly on the Virgin’s white-robed knee in The Feast of the Rose Garlands (1506) as a symbol of sacrifice, or at the murmuration of starlings, each bird a pinprick in an avian cloud spinning round the distant tower in his engraving of St Eustace of around 1501. “I believe it was in my stars that I got a raw deal in life,” Dürer had complained from Italy. “Here I am a lord, at home I am a parasite.”
But Dürer gets a great deal here: all you can do when you leave this exhibition is go back to the beginning and start all over again. Preferably armed with the wonderful accompanying book, Dürer’s Journeys (National Gallery/Yale University Press) edited by the curators, Susan Foister and Peter van den Brink. In it, Foister and her fellow authors display deft sensibilities and deeply enjoyable scholarship. Yet Roger Fry was right to complain. It is what Dürer does not tell us in his words that resounds in his art; and that remains as ambiguous as his melancholic angel’s smile. Dürer scatters light everywhere in this superb exhibition, but he himself remains a dark star.
• Philip Hoare’s book Albert & the Whale: Albrecht Dürer and How Art Imagines Our World is published by 4th Estate/Pegasus, 304pp, £16.99/$28.95 (hb)