Artist of the week: Albrecht Dürer

Artist of the week: Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer, born in Nuremberg in 1471, was unquestionably one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance. His art influenced everyone from Titian to Caspar David Friedrich, and remains a touchstone of German cultural identity. An exceptional draughtsman and painter with a thirst for knowledge, he combined new techniques found in Renaissance Italian painting with more graphic styles then prevalent in Germany, creating a muchimitated blend of northern and southern European art which reflected his interests in philosophy, medicine and theology. He was also a pioneering printmaker, and was one of the first artists to exploit the previously underexplored medium as a means of disseminating his work to a wide audience that encompassed not just the nobility of the day, but its growing middle classes too. When government guidelines allow, a new exhibition at the National Gallery will seek to demonstrate how Dürer, “an inveterate traveller”, drew much of his inspiration from a series of journeys he made around Europe, said Apollo Magazine. “Coinciding with the 550th anniversary” of his birth, the show will explain how Dürer’s forays outside his native Bavaria exposed him to new ideas and radically expanded his artistic horizons – in the process changing the course of Western cultural history.

Dürer’s “wanderlust” took him on three long journeys in his lifetime, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. He twice travelled across the Alps to Italy, where he based himself in Venice and visited many of its great cities; and in later life, up the Rhine to the Low Countries, then the centre of the continent’s wealth. He was a cultural magpie, taking an interest in everything from Egyptian hieroglyphs to the radical new religious ideas behind the Reformation. Travel exposed him to many novel artistic and scientific discoveries, and allowed him to absorb a great deal of what the burgeoning culture of Renaissance Europe had to offer. In 1505, for instance, he wrote a letter to a friend in Nuremberg explaining that he was setting off for Bologna, “where someone is willing to teach me the secrets of perspective”; he would subsequently begin to incorporate geometry into his work, allowing for unprecedented depth and realism. He also used travel to promote himself, presenting his work to luminaries and rulers including the humanist thinker Erasmus and Christian II of Denmark, both of whom he portrayed during his time in the Netherlands.

Dürer was arguably “Europe’s first great tourist”, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. He not only travelled widely, but kept detailed visual records and diaries that described the people he met, the places he visited and the marvels he encountered in them. His journeys exposed him to all sorts of spectacular sights. In Aachen, for example, he witnessed the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, then the most powerful man in Europe. He drew “walruses in Belgium and whales in Zeeland”. In Brussels, Dürer saw the Aztec plunder seized by Cortés’s conquistadors in what he called “the new land of gold”: a gold sun, a silver star, armour, clothing and weapons . He recorded that he “rejoiced in his heart” as he“marvelled at the subtle Ingenia [ingenuity] of men in foreign lands”. Dürer was a “restless visionary” whose exposure to other cultures allowed him to see through the medieval superstition of his time, said Jonathan Jones. Had he never set foot outside Nuremberg, our culture might look very different today.


 

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