Opening on March 24, 2013 at the National Gallery of Art, “Albrecht Durer: Master Drawings, Watercolors, and Prints from the Albertina” features the best works of the artist. Albrecht Durer is an iconic artist from one of the greatest moments in the history of art.
This exhibition is a joint effort between the Albertina museum in Vienna and the National Gallery and is ten years in the making with curators Klaus Albrecht Schroder and Andrew Robison, respectfully. The Albertina is a state museum committed to educate the public in its history of art and is a major contributor to the preservation of culture in Vienna.
The exhibition is the most comprehensive coverage of a Renaissance artist to come to the National Gallery in a long time. The exhibition is particularly significant as Durer is the most recognizable non-Italian Renaissance artist.
The curators and contributors relay their joyous gratitude for this loan from the Albertina in the beautiful catalogue, which consists of superior quality reproductions complemented by in-depth art historical analysis.
The Renaissance posed new ways of thinking of art. Where once paintings were valued based on the precise economic value of the precious materials used – i.e. lapis lazuli and gold leaf – now paintings were treasured purely for their artistry.
Artistic expression exploded into the public realm in the Renaissance like never before and never since – and Durer was at the center of it all creating paintings, drawings and lavishly experimental prints. Durer grew up learning the trade of his father as a goldsmith, but followed his artistic passion and achieved greatness as a professional artist, most notably for his prints.
As viewers of art we’re trained to expect that the most significant works in an artist’s repertoire are the large-scale, completed, elaborate paintings. But in Durer’s case smaller works are the true treasures.
Durer’s hand studies are of the most intimate drawings from the Renaissance, next to Leonardo DaVinci’s sketches. But unlike DaVinci, Durer’s drawings stand alone as completed works of art.
The exhibition opens with Durer’s self-portrait, completed at age 13, is the earliest surviving self-portrait in the history of art. The exhibition consists of 118 small works of drawings, watercolors, and prints of exquisite quality, detail and skill that can only be Durer.
Durer’s thorough, systematic studies in the beginning of the exhibition draw the viewer further into the gallery with a foundation for appreciating his visual language and superior artistic intellect.
Durer was truly the first realist. As he traveled for his art he developed a distinctly realistic visual vocabulary in his intensely precise drawings. Throughout the exhibition his drawings shine as independent works of art that stand alone in their detail, significant content, and mature technique.
With small framing and intimate lighting the exhibition invites close, prolonged examination of the artworks.
The exhibition shows Durer’s process and technique by placing his studies in relevance to completed prints to give the viewer a sense of how meticulous Durer’s endeavor for perfection played out throughout his career. Even Durer’s conviction for religion and nature remains respectfully in tact in the hands of the curators.
Unlike most comprehensive retrospectives this exhibition includes the best and most recognizable works by Durer along with the significant lesser-known works.
The exhibition delights the viewer’s expectations by including his famous “The Great Piece of Turf” and “Praying Hands.”
Durer’s “Praying Hands” is probably the most reproduced artwork from the Renaissance – even more so than the iconic “Mona Lisa” – as it is seen in so many churches and printed Bibles across America.
Durer set the Renaissance standard for drawing, even the celebrated Italian artists asked for his secrets in technique and tools.
But what makes Durer so incredible is his devout commitment to his craft. Natural talent combined with practiced craftsmanship is essentially Durer. He stood out amongst his peers for his impossible experimentation with materials and printmaking.
In the final rooms of the exhibition Durer’s work turns more personal. Later in life he experienced traumatic personal strife. He was deeply affected by the uneasy passing of his sick mother. He introduces theme of morality, mortality, and after life in his engravings.
The exhibition treats this darker turn in Durer’s work with the respect of a separate section signifying the complexity of this content. But the works are kept within the same room as Durer’s works of politics, religion, and nationhood, to give the viewer a chronological context for the place of the tragic works in Durer’s repertoire.
In the final exhibition room is probably the most unique and surprising of Durer’s drawings – “Head of an African” (1508). It’s unknown where and when Durer may have interacted with Africans. But it is obvious that Durer felt an empathetic connection with this particular African in the gentle, evocative, sensitive way in which Durer presents the man.
In ending with this rare image of an African the exhibition presents a holistic understanding of Durer’s breadth of work – that he traveled, he developed a distinct hand in drawing, and he had an eye for portraiture as well as landscape and history painting. But this image also signifies Durer’s place amongst his contemporaries. Very few artists depicted Africans at all and those who did often exaggerated the distinct black features, demonizing or making the sitter ugly. Durer is sensitive to the lighting and realistic features of this black man, in effect treating the man as a human and not merely a subject.
The exhibition concludes with an appreciation of Durer’s unmatched sensitivity, technique, and talent through the most mysterious of his works, leaving the viewer to continue to ponder Durer as a particularly unusual yet ever-relevant artist.
The exhibition is open through June 9, 2013. The National Gallery of Art East Building is located at 4th and Constitution Avenue, NW Washington, D.C.