Master strokes

‘Self-portrait at 13’ (1484)

The National Gallery’s exhilarating Albrecht Dürer exhibition opens with a portrait of a 13-year-old boy, executed by an artist whose brilliance left even ordinary geniuses behind. An inscription in the corner reveals that the youth and his maker are the same: “I drew this after myself from a mirror in the year 1484 when I was still a child. Albrecht Dürer.” With his confident gaze and an index finger pointed towards the future, the cocky prodigy portends a lifetime of swagger.

Many of his finest drawings, watercolours and prints have come from their home in Vienna for this show. Dürer was omni-talented, deft with every tool, and able to turn the most casual observation into an essay on pride, loss, insecurity, desolation, joy, tenderness and love. For the entrance banner, the museum enlarged his celebrated praying hands, but there are also other pairs, drawn in ink on blue paper, so exquisitely detailed, so weirdly insightful, that they seem like double portraits.

The show oscillates between the free-flowing precision of quick sketches and the more deliberate rhythms of woodcuts and etchings, between intimate glimpses and stiff ceremonial studies for an imperial frieze. These separate elements gather into an expressive crescendo, reaching a three-part climax of dramatic scenes: the abject depression of “Melencholia I”; a poignant St Jerome, scratching away in an incongruously spacious and sun-filled chamber; and a stolid Christian knight, riding serenely through a landscape of monstrous terrors.

That early self-portrait as wunderkind is a statement of precocious independence. Dürer was the son of a goldsmith who expected him to follow the family trade and was aghast when the child quit his apprenticeship in favour of painting. Although the father ultimately came around, he had the last word – or picture, to be precise. His riposte was a self-portrait that rivalled his son’s in meticulous detail and expressivity. Using the same silverpoint technique and three-quarter pose, Dürer the Elder depicted himself as a proud goldsmith clutching a metal statuette.

After finishing his studies, the young Dürer roved the continent for a year, perfecting his printmaking technique. Back in his hometown of Nuremberg in 1494, he married Agnes Fey, an alliance that inched him up the social ladder. He rendered his well-dowered bride in a disarming drawing, the first of three portraits of Agnes in this exhibition. Here, she’s a shy, graceless child with eyes downcast and elbows planted on the table, hiding her mouth behind twisting fingers. Dürer’s line is open and spontaneous, setting down a fleeting moment in a few lively strokes. It might even be an affectionate (if clear-eyed) record of the first time they met, since the marriage was arranged by the two fathers.

Studies of the artist’s left hand (1493-94)

A year later Dürer was in Venice on his own, wallowing in Renaissance revelations. The copies he made of Mantegna prints are better than the originals; his bodies are more agile, his shading subtler, his action more fluid. The Italians taught him about the beauties of the human form, but Dürer rendered unlovely flesh idiosyncratically, his women ranging from lithe to voluptuous, with butts and bellies pliant as risen dough. The “Female Nude Praying” turns her back to us, raising clasped hands to her unseen maker and presenting the viewer with a melon-shaped rear and adipose legs rooted to the ground like tree trunks.

Much as he loved the body, he never raised it above other forms. In “The Sea Monster”, a myth of his own imagining, an Italianate nude stretches, Venus-like, across the scaly limbs of a captor who bears her away across the waters. It’s hard to pay attention to the action, though, with so much else going on. A fortress with peaked towers rears up behind the distressed damsel. The tree-dotted hillside claims our glance; each leaf and brick competes with the nude’s ungainly toes.

In his famous print of Adam and Eve, Dürer lavished attention on the texture of Eden’s flora and fauna, contrasting the cat’s bristling coat with the rabbit’s sleek one, and both with the silken wing of the parrot and the scabrous skin of the snake. The wanton mushrooming of detail sends the eye careening from one corner, where Adam steps on a mouse’s tail, to another where a tiny goat teeters on a cliff. Dürer creates a constant, pleasant tension between his ostensible subject and the proliferation of everything else.

‘The Great Piece of Turf’ (1503)

Dürer found everything beautiful. The exhibition’s finest work, “The Great Piece of Turf”, is also its humblest. The watercolour takes in the blades of grass, dandelion heads and swampy mud that make up an ant’s-eye view of the world. Like a magician, he waved his brush across the surface and re-created reality, or rather a better, more vivid version. A proud, good-looking man, he often compared himself to God and even portrayed himself as Jesus – as if he found within himself the blasphemous (or divine) skill to improve on God’s first draft. “He can paint anything,” his friend Erasmus of Rotterdam said, even “the sensory perceptions, all the feelings and finally the whole human soul.”

The exhibition left me wanting to know more about the man and his family – about the father with whom he engaged in competitive art-making; about the mother whose death left him shattered and prone to anxieties; and about his brother Endres, who survived the illnesses that killed their 16 siblings and almost vanishes from his portrait, sadly turning his head away.

But it’s Agnes, the artist’s plain but loyal wife, who really haunts the show, leaping from girlhood to age. In a late drawing where she appears to be gazing through a window, her pointy chin, bulging eyes and beaky nose don’t add up to an alluring whole, but Dürer catches that intimate vacancy we only willingly reveal to those we love. In the end she returns in the guise of the Virgin Mary’s mother Anne, and now Agnes’s wandering eyes have settled into an intense and tender stare, as if finally to reveal the source of the quality that flows through every stroke of her husband’s pen: empathy.

‘Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors and Prints from the Albertina’, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC until June 9

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