20 July 2011

Albrecht Durer is a continual source of inspiration to me. 

I have spent literally hours gazing at his drawings and prints, fascinated by the combination of high technical skill with such an empathetic rendering of his subject matter.  I am turning to his work once more, and it is bringing back to my mind the breath-taking experience I had earlier on this year when I held some of his original drawings in my own white-gloved hands on a visit to the British Museum.  How exquisite his work is.  How masterful of the range of tiny marks that make them up.


This is his ‘Self Portrait at 28’, painted in 1500, a mere 67cms x 49cms, oil on panel. 


For some reason I presumed this painting was much larger.  Webmuseum Paris website explains that the Christ-like pose is deliberate, and that rather than being blasphemous, it illustrates Durer’s conviction that the artist’s creative spirit is God-given.  It’s a very confident piece of work for a young man.


As the Artchive website will tell you, a great deal of Durer’s work survives today.  We still have access to more than  350 woodcuts and engravings, at least 60 of his oil paintings, and thousands of drawings and watercolours. 



This is his woodcut ‘Rhinoceros’ made in 1515, and it is now in the British Museum.



Durer made drawings and sketches of some unusual objects from nature, and this woodcut is a good example because he had never actually seen a real rhinoceros, and made this image from verbal descriptions alone.  He wasn’t that far off the mark, was he?  And the exotic take on the drab grey animal that we are all now familiar with is very welcome.  I would have thought that for an artist in the early 1500s, this subject matter was uncommon.  However, the choice of this subject is consistent with his views about beauty, an area of real interest to Renaissance artists:

“Nature holds the beautiful, for the artist who has the insight to extract it.  Thus, beauty lies even in humble, perhaps ugly things, and the ideal, which bypasses or improves on nature, may not be truly beautiful in the end.”

This seems to me to be quite a modernist view.  Didn’t the twentieth century Impressionists say the same thing when they chose as their subject matter scenes of ordinary life around them?  It seems to show that Durer was a man who was not narrow or constrained in his thinking about art. 


The image below is ‘Melencolia 1’, engraving, 1514.


To quote Webmuseum Paris again:

“There is almost obsessive quality about a great Durer.  One feels the weight of a sensibility searching into the inner truth of his subject.  It is this inwardness that interests Durer, an inner awareness that is always well contained within the outer form … but that lights it from within.”

I think this can be clearly seen here.

Another piece of magic that I held in my hands at the British Museum.  What a privilege.


Carmen Mills








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