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

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

Show Hide image

The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood