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October 13, 2013 9:15 pm
Erasmus called Dürer the “Apelles of black lines”, able to suggest “the whole mind of man as it reflects itself in the behaviour of the body”. Growing up in the essentially medieval city of Nuremberg, Dürer was noted for his precocious draughtsmanship and apprenticed young to a woodcut designer. But it was from the age of 19, during his Wanderjahre – the 15th-century equivalent of several gap years, when student-artists travelled to learn skills from other workshops – that he dispensed with the late medieval copy-book tradition and, seeking greater fidelity to nature and expressive power, set out to master the anatomically correct rendering of the human body. He left Nuremberg in 1490 and returned in 1494 a Renaissance artist. This focused connoisseur’s show chronicles that development.
Dürer’s most famous work is his self-portrait with flowing golden locks of 1500 but he had always scrutinised his features and body – Erlangen’s contemplative pen and ink “Self-portrait” (1491-92), where he clasps his brow as if trying to understand, is an arresting early example. In the Courtauld’s “Study of the artist’s left leg from two view points” (1493), and the Albertina’s lovely “Three studies of the artist’s left hand” (c1493-94), he meticulously observes the anatomy of his limbs and hand adopting different gestures. (The latter anticipates the Albertina’s great, white-heightened “Praying Hands”, 1508.)
These intense studies underlie the complex new figure compositions with which Dürer made his name – the graceful twisted form in elaborate drapery in the Courtauld’s “A Wise Virgin” (1493); the British Museum’s “Prodigal Son” (c1495-96), whose wringing hands, bare legs, dynamic pose all convey the moment of spiritual crisis; and, in an accompanying display exploring the influence of classical models, Hamburg’s frenzied “The Death of Orpheus” from late 1494. Dürer’s importing of Italian ideas was decisive for himself and for German art yet, above all, he was convinced by then that “art lies hidden within nature; he who can wrest it from her, has it”.
From Thursday until January 12, courtauld.ac.uk
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