The Young Dürer: Blueprints for a career

The centrepiece of the show isn't Mary, or Christ, it's Dürer.

New Statesman
Markers of intense intent: Self-Portrait by Dürer (circa 1491). Image: Graphische Sammlung der Universitat Erlangen, Inv B155. Courtesy of Courtauld Institute of Art.

The Young Dürer
Courtauld Institute, London WC2

After four years as a goldsmith’s apprentice, Albrecht Dürer asked for his father’s permission to retrain as an artist. Luckily his father was a wealthy artisan in the “unofficial capital” of the Holy Roman empire, Nuremberg, and had been impressed by his son’s aptitude for drawing. He agreed to pay for a second apprenticeship with the master printmaker Michael Wolgemut, after which Dürer set off on his Wanderjahre, or “journeyman years,” from 1490 onwards.

Wanderjahre were a kind of prolonged medieval gap year undertaken by artists in training, the purpose of which was to make contacts, undertake commissions and seek technical expertise from regional masters. By modern standards, Dürer didn’t go far. He learned to draw the creases, rolls and folds of drapery in Strasbourg and absorbed the intense, textured draughtsmanship associated with the Upper Rhine region in Basel. He made an important pilgrimage to the Alsatian city of Colmar to meet the painter and engraver Martin Schongauer, whose ideals of beauty and composition defined Dürer’s native Franconian drawing style.

Schongauer died before Dürer arrived in Colmar but his influence on the younger man’s early work is made clear at the Courtauld Gallery’s exhibition “The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure”. On entering, we see Schongauer’s Madonna and Child on a Grassy Bench, a serene engraving in which Mary and the Christ Child are framed by a thatch fence, the intimacy with the viewer fostered by separating the figures from the landscape. Dürer’s imitation, The Virgin with the Dragonfly, is the next sheet along. He adds a dwarfish Saint Joseph, a rich, naturalistic landscape, wildlife and a luminous God the Father with the Holy Spirit above, destroying the intimacy of the original but demonstrating the scale of the capable young artist’s ambition. The star of the show isn’t Mary, or Christ, it’s Dürer.

The centrepiece of the show is a doublesided study of a Wise Virgin and Dürer’s left leg which the Courtauld owns. This is the nail on which the whole exhibition hangs. The Virgin is used to situate Dürer in his creative milieu (there are many lamp-bearing virgins by other artists along one side of the room), while the curvature of the leg is a studied fixture that recurs throughout his later work.

Far more striking, however, are two simple ink sketches on paper that seem to reveal something of the artist’s personality – his seriousness, devotion and self-regard.

One is Dürer’s spectral Self-Portrait, drawn around 1491-92, when he was 19 or 20. At first approach, it seems as though the artist is preparing himself to become an archetypal face in the crowd. He shields one side of his face with his hand: glassy-eyed, even a little bored. But on closer inspection it becomes clear he is working to achieve a certain look and make a statement about himself. A single, solid crescent is used to show his raised cheek, squashing his eye and making his head appear heavier.

This is an early attempt at “melancholia”, an impatient, ruminative state cultivated by artists in the early-modern period to depict creativity, difficulty and potency. It signified a developing sense of self – Renaissance selffashioning, as it’s called nowadays. Another sketch of biographical and technical importance is the effortless composition Mein Agnes, an affectionate sketch of the artist’s wife, Agnes Frey, sitting half asleep at a table shortly after their marriage in 1494.

Two adjunct exhibits focus on the development of the artist’s work after successive journeys south, beyond the Alps. After 1494 Dürer’s figures take on the more ambitious mannerisms of those by his Italian, classically inspired counterparts Andrea Mantegna, Vittore Carpaccio and Giovanni Bellini. The cultural theorist Aby Warburg (1866-1929) was instrumental in contextualising Dürer’s classical inheritance, and a second exhibition is dedicated to his research.

“The Young Dürer” would be a terrible introduction to those unfamiliar with his work. If so much as a postcard of his cosmic, Christlike Self-Portrait of 1500 was placed among these loose early sketches, they would appear slight. In some ways, they are: without the texture, colour and sublime Gothic subject matter, there is only the outline – blueprints for a career. That is no bad thing. One of his most studied paintings is his Salvator Mundi, an unfinished portrait that enables us to inspect the technique of a great master at work. The second display rewards close attention, guiding participants towards the quiet, revelatory joys of historians and scholars.

There are so few Dürers in Britain. At the far end of the Warburg room there’s a print of the enigmatic Melencolia I, completed in 1514, one of his best-loved engravings. Seeing it a second time after the main exhibit, I found it transformed. It is a study of melancholy as an allegorical figure, complete with heavy head and raised cheek. Likewise the curiously soporific Christ as the Man of Sorrows from 1493: again, here is Dürer.

“The Young Dürer” closes 12 January 2014

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Art

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The Young Dürer

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Courtauld Institute, London WC2