While borders are closed around the world, London’s National Gallery is gathering rare precious loans — from the Louvre, the Prado, the Albertina, from Dresden, Berlin, Cologne — for Dürer’s Journeys, its spring exhibition celebrating the multiple voyages across Europe of one of the Renaissance’s most passionate, indefatigable, imaginatively responsive travellers.
The show spans out, biographically, geographically, from a core focus on Albrecht Dürer’s trip to the Low Countries exactly 500 years ago, and just a glance at his energetic activity there livens the mind with travellers’ tales of chance, inspiration, connections: from the artist’s first sight of lions, at Ghent zoo — a gorgeous, precise, surprisingly tender silverpoint drawing — to a sympathetic charcoal sketch of Denmark’s weary progressive king Christian II, petitioning in Brussels for imperial aid against threats at home. A dead walrus spotted from a boat off Zeeland fantastically metamorphoses into the dragon pulled on a lead by St Margaret in a “Virgin and Child”. And one of the greatest of all Dürer’s portraits depicts Danzig merchant Bernhard von Reesen in Antwerp in March 1521: clear eyes, forceful chin, pronounced cheekbones, spotlit angular features softened into charm — the picture of health and confidence. Months later Bernhard, 30, died of the plague.
Dürer is the prism here for a Europe madly spinning with new knowledge of nature and an enlarging world, torn apart by political and religious upheaval, with deadly disease the dread undercurrent. Dürer’s agitated lines, his packed graphic detail of surging movement — the galloping trampling “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, the dynamic agonised figures of “The Great Passion” — injected motion and emotion as never before into woodcut and engraving series. They spoke to and for a continent in crisis and made Dürer’s reputation — beginning with “The Apocalypse” (1498), visually distilling fears sparked by turbulence at the half-millennium.
Prints were called Flugblätter, flying leaves, and in the age when parchment yielded to paper, Dürer’s work with its emphatic AD monograph flew out before him, preparing his way. A youthful engraving of a rushing horse and rider carrying paper dispatches, “The Little Courier”, describes the Habsburg-Taxis relay, Emperor Maximilian’s postal service established in 1490; its centre was Nuremberg with its important trade routes. Dürer’s father, a Hungarian goldsmith, migrated to Nuremberg; Dürer was born there in 1471 and by his teens was already travelling.
Gap years — Wanderjahre — were encouraged for craftsmen to broaden experience; entrepreneurial Dürer aimed high: to meet the masters. In 1491-92 he made for Colmar and printmaker Martin Schongauer, who died shortly before his arrival; the same happened with Mantegna in Mantua, causing Dürer “more grief than any mischance” in his life. He was luckier with Giovanni Bellini, “very old but still the greatest artist of them all”, whose influence is palpable after Dürer’s first visit to Venice, 1495-96. During his second, 1505-07, the artists became friends and Bellini, and many Venetians, lauded the German: “here I am a gentleman, at home, a parasite”.
Anyone missing Italy will warm to sketches young Dürer made on his initial voyage across the Alps, such as the pen and ink “Lady in Venetian Dress Contrasted with a Nuremberg Hausfrau”, setting a small dainty figure with loose curls and low-cut bodice against an earthier German in bonnet and apron — like Renaissance palazzo versus Gothic town house, Erwin Panofsky suggested.
Washington will loan Dürer’s Bellini-esque “Madonna and Child” (1496-9), never seen in the UK and emblematic of converging Italian and native influences: stable pyramidal forms, sculptural modelling, deep rich colour all come from Bellini, but Mary’s position at a window opening on an Alpine landscape, and exact textures and surfaces, are unmistakably northern.
If this solid Madonna lacks Bellini’s grace and lightness, in the next decade Dürer refined his synthesis of northern naturalism and Italian proportion, perspective, lucidity. Adorned with jewels and gifts delineated with opulent intricacy by Dürer the goldsmith’s son, “Adoration of the Magi”, 1504, unfolds against theatrical receding architectural archways. Unusually in the central position stands the black king — in elegant classical contrapposto.
Nevertheless, in 1505 in Venice, Dürer was still considered essentially a draughtsman. His response was the dazzling-hued, symphonic “The Feast of the Rosary”, the Madonna and child beneath a baldachin surrounded by lute-strumming angels and adorers, including likenesses of Venice’s German merchants who commissioned the altarpiece. “Now everyone says they have never seen more beautiful colours,” Dürer boasted. Stunning too is an individual portrait of one of the merchant-worshippers, “Burkhard von Speyer”: psychologically intense, following Bellini’s late fluid/monumental head-and-shoulders format, with sumptuous semi-transparent layers.
Ever ambitious, Dürer aged 44 subsequently sent to Rome, unsolicited, a gouache self-portrait on silk for Raphael “which from every side showed equally, and without using white lead, transparent light areas . . . which thing seemed marvellous to Raffaello”, Vasari related. The younger Raphael sent back “Three Nude Men”, a pinnacle of eloquent spontaneous-yet-controlled red chalk virtuosity. Dürer gratefully annotated the gift — the only sheet in the world sharing marks by rival geniuses of the German and Italian Renaissance.
Six years later, when Durer made his long journey northward along the Rhine to chase imperial patronage in the Low Countries, he was 50 but as excited by every passing moment as ever — a dozing innkeeper, “Arnold Rucker”, captured in rapid loose strokes; Dürer’s watchful wife Agnes, sunlight falling on her tough, matronly face on a summer day in Boppard. In Mechelen Margaret of Austria rejected Dürer’s candid portrait of her father Emperor Maximilian — “she disliked it so much that I took it away with me again” — but he marvelled anyway at her collection, including Van Eyck’s “ Arnolfini Marriage” in her bedroom.
Although the Low Countries trip left him out of pocket and ill — the malaria he caught there probably caused his premature death — and, unlike Italy, did not change his art, for Dürer it was the journey of a lifetime for another reason: the Aztec treasures displayed in Brussels, arrived from Mexico via Habsburg Spain. “I saw the things that were brought to the king from the new golden land: a sun all of gold, an arm span wide, likewise an all-silver moon . . . In all the days of my life I have seen nothing that gladdened my heart so much . . . Because I saw amongst them wonderfully artistic things, and I wondered at the subtle ingeniousness of the humans in strange lands”.
Intellectual, tourist, businessman, networker, Dürer travelled for the same reasons we do now, and took home an empathetic vision of an expanded globe — a cheering yet poignant prospect for London at this moment of Brexit and Covid isolation.
The National Gallery will open its exhibition as soon as possible; Suermondt-Ludwig Museum, Aachen, July 18-October 24