‘St Jerome in his Study’
one of Albrecht Durer’s ‘master engravings’, 1514, 24.8cms x 18.9cms.
I’ve learnt two new things about Durer today, courtesy of the British Museum’s Giulia Bartrum: firstly, that he more or less invented the genre of landscape painting:
“His journey through the Alps is recorded in a series of striking topographical watercolours, which not only indicate the route that he took, but are also of immense historical significance because they are the earliest pure landscape studies to have survived in the history of Western art.”
and secondly, that one of his motivating ideas in the making of his art was to take the contemporary art of his period to a new level:
“Despite the fact that Durer’s paintings of the 1490s, particularly his self-portraits, show signs of his brilliant originality, he made a conscious decision to make a living chiefly from prints and, from the outset, determined on raising the artistic ambition of both woodcuts and engravings to a previously unimagined level.”
A few things to think about here. The whole idea of heralding a new genre isn’t as unlikely as it sounds. We may feel that we’ve got all possible genres covered now, at this stage of the progress of Western art, but that needn’t necessarily be the case. It wasn’t that long ago that there was no such thing as photography, or video, or installation. Who knows what other genres are waiting to come on stream? It makes me think that experimentation is always a good thing, along with an awareness of the increasing range of methods and materials. However, I’m not a ‘methods and materials’ kind of artist. I’m deeply into drawing at the moment, and when not drawing, I’m painting. Which strikes me as interesting, seeing that both drawing and painting are avenues no longer explored by the bulk of contemporary artists. Could there be an emergence of genres that take the more traditional routes of drawing and painting into territory that they’ve never been in to before? I would like to think that that’s a possibility.
And then there’s the issue of raising standards. No one questions that Durer took woodcuts and engravings from the banal to the sublime. In his determination to achieve that high ambition, he had similar ideas to his Renaissance contemporary Michelangelo. When Michelangelo informed his family that he wanted to be an artist they were very disappointed. In those days, the role of artist was alongside the manual worker, much as we might see a plumber or a joiner today, only a lot less useful. Michelangelo wanted to so elevate the role of artist that it would draw attention to the amazing levels of both philosophical thought and practical skill that are needed to achieve it. Both Durer and Michelangelo had high views of what art was, and pushed the boundaries to excel. Now in the twenty first century we are told that there are no boundaries, and that art need not be confined to the perameters of the past. That being the case, how can an artist today strive for excellence? And can art be elevated in today’s preoccupations with the materiality of the physical world? I would say yes, but how to set about it, well, that’s food for thought for a long time to come. Any ideas?