Madonna and Child (Haller Madonna). Credit: Samuel H. Kress Collection via Wikimedia Commons

Nifty shades of grey

The National Gallery has surpassed itself, with a little help from its friends

Artillery Row

Was there ever a time when the arts didn’t rely on patronage? It seems unlikely. As part of a collaboration with the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, on the Wilhelmstraße at Aachen, the National Gallery’s latest offering, Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist, has been sponsored by Credit Suisse. The exhibition traces the European peregrinations of Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) on either side of the turn of the sixteenth century; it leads visitors through the Rhineland, to Venice, and on to the Netherlands.

A Madonna and Child, dating from the late 1490s, might well be subtitled “Startled Woman with Ugly Baby”

For Dürer these trips were transfigurative; they opened his eyes to new ideas, new landscapes, even new animals. A lion from 1494, sent from the Hamburger Kunsthalle, painted from a combination of heraldic devices and Dürer’s imagination, gives way to the creatures that he sketched from life twenty years later in the zoos at Brussels and Ghent. There’s a metaphorical element too, as Dürer transforms himself from lowly boy apprentice at Nuremberg in the 1480s into the established master whom the world continues to acknowledge, five centuries after his death, as one of the finest draughtsmen who ever lived.

In early Dürer we see the transition of high European art from medieval to renaissance; the stylised becomes more realistic, and the old rigid lines soften. The lion from Hamburg could have prowled off the page of an illuminated manuscript, painted by a freezing monk in a draughty scriptorium; a Madonna and Child, sent from Washington and dating from the late 1490s, might well be subtitled “Startled Woman with Ugly Baby”. This is not the later Dürer whom we know so well, but it is deeply illuminative; even at that stage we find his more recognisable work in the engravings and woodcuts with which he made his name.

Dürer began working for the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, in 1512, but he was a great artist in an age of great artists. Jan Mostaert and Jan Gossaert are here—the latter’s huge Adoration of the Kings from upstairs is reunited with his small Adam and Eve from Madrid—and so is Bernard van Orley, leading with his all-too-honest portrait of Charles V, complete with Habsburg chin and looking a bit like Virginia Woolf. One wall is given over to Quinten Massys, whose clinically perfect portraits gaze at a row of Dürers opposite; as the room attendant observed, they look much like neighbours in conversation through windows across a street. In that moment the point crystallised: Massys’ look like paintings, while Dürer’s look like people.  

Albrecht Dürer, The Crucifixion, 1521. The Albertina Museum, Vienna (3169) © Albertina, Vienna

Perhaps the starkest contrast comes with his 1506 Head of the 12-Year-Old Christ from the Albertina at Vienna; it is a preparation for Christ among the Doctors of the same year, now in the Thyssen at Madrid. The painted version is exquisite, notwithstanding the contemporary Jewish caricatures, but the preparatory sketch is superlative. This is an unspoken trope that comes over again and again, room by room and piece by piece. The space dedicated to his sketchbooks is a treasure-chest; workaday titles like “Man with Oar”, “Table with Jugs”, and “Standing Black Youth” belie scenes of such advanced accomplishment that it’s hard to look away. 

The exhibition oozes the self-confidence of a curatorial team who is in complete control of its brief

His composition seems effortless; his paintings, as good as they are, seem to emphasise one basic truth. Dürer is at his most powerful, his most effective, and his most colourful when he works intimately in black, white, and grey. It seems to make no logical sense, but it’s real; one only has to look at his kneeling Saint Catherine from 1494, or his fantastical Sea Monster of four years later, to see what lies ahead. The brightest star in this spangled show is his engraved Virgin and Child from 1519, all six-by-four-inches of it, a study in light and shade which radiates light, grace, and power from its tiny aperture. “Heaven and earth in little space”, as the old Advent carol goes, “res miranda.”    

Themes of light and shade abound; the seven rooms of the Sainsbury Wing in which the art is hung are all painted in solid colours—bold and muted—that run from blue to green, through ochre to red, before rushing headlong through gold to end in a blaze of orange. At first encounter it seems almost startling; anyone looking at the scheme on paper would think that it was a mad way to display anything at all. Nevertheless, it works brilliantly, for the purpose of the paintings is to set a particular aspect of Dürer’s genius in context. In one of each of them a detail—an angel’s robe, a marble column, the back of a leaf, the underside of a sleeve—is brought out by the colour of the walls. The impact is powerful and immediate; it draws the whole ensemble together, even before anyone’s had time to look closely at the art.

The overall effect is immensely reassuring, and Dürer’s Journeys oozes the self-confidence of an exhibition whose curatorial team is in complete control of its brief. It doesn’t disappoint in the smaller details, either. Dürer’s own journals feature heavily, and the descriptions accompanying the works are informative and unfailingly literate. This is true both historically and theologically (there is an inevitable preponderance of religious subjects) and difficult corners are navigated frankly and accurately. The content is superb, the scholarship accessible, and the presentation inspired. Who could reasonably ask for more?

Dürer’s Journeys: Travel of a Renaissance Artist is at the National Gallery until 27 February 2022.

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