Markers of intense intent: Self-Portrait by Dürer (circa 1491). Image: Graphische Sammlung der Universitat Erlangen, Inv B155. Courtesy of Courtauld Institute of Art.
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The Young Dürer: Blueprints for a career

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

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

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.