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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Albrecht Dürer - An artist whose works still exude mysteries

Albrecht Dürer (Nuremberg, 1471-1528) is the most renowned figure in German Renaissance art. His work reflects an era of change, in which he discovered a valid artistic form for a new concept of the world. More than any other contemporary, Dürer combined the painterly tradition of the late Middle Ages in the northern Alpine regions with the influences of the Italian Renaissance as it rediscovered classical art. At the same time, he redefined the social and spiritual role of the artist under the influence of Humanist thought. In this way, Dürer’s work transcended his age and had a major influence on the development of art, particularly German art, until well into the modern era.

Among Dürer’s graphic works are more than one hundred copper-plate engravings and around 330 woodcuts, not to mention hundreds of book illustrations. The Department of Prints and Drawings at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt, holds well-preserved examples of nearly all the artist’s graphic production. The exhibition showcases a wide selection of the artist’s masterpieces—most originating from the private collection of the museum’s founder, the Frankfurt banker Johann Friedrich Städel (1728-1816) — providing a global, representative overview of Dürer’s development as an engraver.

Son of a Nuremberg silversmith, Dürer learned the technique of engraving in metal while still a boy. He trained as a painter in the city workshop of Michael Wolgemut, who also designed illustrations for woodcuts for the first editions of books. Sometime around 1495, after his “end-of-studies” trip and his first visit to Italy, Dürer began to make his name in the “new media” — the 15th-century techniques of copper plate engraving and woodcut. More so than drawing or painting, which relied on customer demand, engravings gave Dürer the chance to experiment and develop his own concepts and ideas. His engravings enjoyed huge print runs and were widely distributed, bringing the artist financial rewards and fame throughout Europe.

Some major series of woodcut prints, such as The Apocalypse (1496–98) and part of The Great Passion, made Dürer famous before the turn of the 16th century, a process helped along by his sensational copper engravings, featuring completely new themes and a technique to rival painting. In 1504 he published his engraving Adam and Eve, which, while following the models of classical art, attempts to establish the ideal proportions of the human figure. Dürer’s three “master engravings” The Horseman (The Knight, Death and the Devil), St. Jerome in his Cell, and Melencolia I (Melancholy) take copper-plate engraving to new heights of expression, laying the groundwork in the medium for generations of later artists. After these masterworks, Dürer subsequently experimented with new techniques such as dry point and etching and worked with other artists on major projects involving woodcut for his patron, the Emperor Maximilian I. In later years, Dürer concentrated on his treatises on the theory of proportions and the understanding and graphic representation of nature.

Along with Rembrandt and Goya, Dürer is considered one of the greatest creators of old master prints. He was born and died in Nuremberg, Germany and is best known for his prints, often executed in series, including the Apocalypse (1498) and his two series on the passion of Christ, the Great Passion (1498–1510) and the Little Passion (1510–1511). Dürer's best known individual engravings include Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), Saint Jerome in his Study (1514) and Melencolia I (1514), which has been the subject of the extensive analysis and speculation. His most iconic images are his woodcuts of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1497–1498) from the Apocalypse series, the Rhinoceros, and numerous self-portraits. His work reflected the apocalyptic spirit of his time, when famine, plague, and social and religious upheaval were common. He was sympathetic to the reform work of Luther but remained Roman Catholic. At his death, Luther wrote to a friend, "Affection bids us mourn for one who was the best." Dürer probably did not cut his own woodblocks but employed a skilled carver who followed his drawings faithfully.

Dürer was born on May 21, 1471, third child and second son of his parents, who had between 14 and 18 children. His father was a successful goldsmith, originally named Ajtósi, who in 1455 had moved to Nuremberg from Ajtós, near Gyula in Hungary. The German name "Dürer" is derived from the Hungarian, "Ajtósi". Initially, it was "Thürer," meaning doormaker, which is "ajtós" in Hungarian (from "ajtó" meaning door). A door is featured in the coat-of-arms the family acquired. Albrecht Dürer the Elder married Barbara Holper, from a prosperous Nuremberg family, in 1467.

His godfather was Anton Koberger, who left goldsmithing to become a printer and publisher in the year of Dürer's birth. He quickly became the most successful publisher in Germany, eventually owning twenty-four printing-presses and having many offices in Germany and abroad. His most famous publication was the Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493 in German and Latin editions. It contained an unprecedented 1,809 woodcut illustrations (with many repeated uses of the same block) by the Wolgemut workshop. Albrecht Dürer may well have worked on some of these, as the work on the project began while he was with Wolgemut.

It is fortunate Dürer left autobiographical writings and that he became very famous by his mid-20s. Because of this, his life is well documented from a number of sources. After a few years of school, Dürer started to learn the basics of goldsmithing and drawing from his father. Though his father wanted him to continue his training as a goldsmith, he showed such a precocious talent in drawing that he started as an apprentice to Michael Wolgemut at the age of fifteen in 1486. A superb self-portrait, a drawing in silverpoint, is dated 1484 (Albertina, Vienna) “when I was a child”, as his later inscription says. Wolgemut was the leading artist in Nuremberg at the time, with a large workshop producing a variety of works of art, in particular woodcuts for books. Nuremberg was a prosperous city, a centre for publishing and many luxury trades. It had strong links with Italy, especially Venice, a relatively short distance across the Alps.

After completing his term of apprenticeship in 1489, Dürer followed the common German custom of taking "wanderjahre" — in effect a gap year — however Dürer was away nearly four years, travelling through Germany, Switzerland, and probably, the Netherlands. To his great regret, he missed meeting Martin Schongauer, the leading engraver of Northern Europe, who had died shortly before Dürer's arrival. He was very hospitably treated by Schongauer's brother, and seems at this time to have acquired some works by Schongauer he is known to have owned. His first painted self-portrait (now in the Louvre) was painted in Strasbourg, probably to be sent back to his fiancé in Nuremberg.

Very soon after his return to Nuremberg, on July 7, 1494, at the age of 23, Dürer was married to Agnes Frey following an arrangement made during his absence. She was the daughter of a prominent brass worker (and amateur harpist) in the city. The nature of his relationship with his wife is unclear, but it would not seem to have been a love-match, and his portraits of her lack warmth. They had no children. Within three months Dürer left for Italy, alone, perhaps stimulated by an outbreak of plague in Nuremberg. He made watercolour sketches as he traveled over the Alps. Some have survived and others may be deduced from accurate landscapes of real places in his later work, for example his engraving Nemesis. These are the first pure landscape studies known in Western art.

In Italy, he went to Venice to study its more advanced artistic world. Through Wolgemut's tutelage, Dürer had learned how to make prints in drypoint and design woodcuts in the German style, based on the works of Martin Schongauer and the Housebook Master. He also would have had access to some Italian works in Germany, but the two visits he made to Italy had an enormous influence on him. He wrote that Giovanni Bellini was the oldest and still the best of the artists in Venice. His drawings and engravings show the influence of others, notably Antonio Pollaiuolo with his interest in the proportions of the body, Mantegna, Lorenzo di Credi and others. Dürer probably visited Padua and Mantua on this trip also.

On his return to Nuremberg in 1495, Dürer opened his own workshop (being married was a requirement for this). Over the next five years his style increasingly integrated Italian influences into underlying Northern forms. Dürer lost both of his parents during the next decade. His father died in 1502 and his mother died in 1513. His best works in the first years of the workshop were his woodcut prints, mostly religious, but including secular scenes such as, The Men's Bath-house (c1496). These were larger than the great majority of German woodcuts hitherto, and far more complex and balanced in composition.

It is now thought unlikely that Dürer cut any of the woodblocks; this task would have been left for a specialist craftsman. His training in Wolgemut's studio, which made many carved and painted altarpieces, and both designed and cut woodblocks for woodcut, however, evidently gave him great understanding of what the technique could be made to produce, and how to work with block cutters. Dürer either drew his design directly onto the woodblock itself, or glued a paper drawing to the block. Either way his drawing was destroyed during the cutting of the block.

His famous series of sixteen great designs for the Apocalypse are dated 1498. He made the first seven scenes of the Great Passion in the same year, and a little later, a series of eleven on the Holy Family and saints. Around 1503–1505 he produced the first seventeen of a set illustrating the life of the Virgin, which he did not finish for some years. Neither these, nor the Great Passion, were published as sets until several years later, but prints were sold individually in considerable numbers.

During the same period Dürer trained himself in the difficult art of using the burin to make engravings. Perhaps he had begun learning this skill during his early training with his father. The first few were relatively unambitious, but by 1496 he was able to produce the masterpiece, the Prodigal Son, which Vasari singled out for praise some decades later, noting its Germanic quality. He was soon producing some spectacular and original images, notably, Nemesis (1502), The Sea Monster (1498), and Saint Eustace (1501), with a highly detailed landscape background and beautiful animals. He made a number of Madonnas, single religious figures, and small scenes with comic peasant figures. Prints are highly portable and these works made Dürer famous throughout the main artistic centres of Europe within a very few years.

The Venetian artist Jacopo de' Barbari, whom Dürer had met in Venice, visited Nuremberg in 1500, and Dürer said that he learned much about the new developments in perspective, anatomy, and proportion from him. He was unwilling to explain everything he knew, so Dürer began his own studies, which would become a lifelong preoccupation. A series of extant drawings show Dürer's experiments in human proportion, leading to the famous engraving of, Adam and Eve (1504); showing his subtlety while using the burin in the texturing of flesh surfaces. This is the only existing engraving signed with his full name.

Dürer made large numbers of preparatory drawings, especially for his paintings and engravings, and many survive, most famously the Praying Hands (1508 Albertina, Vienna), a study for an apostle in the Heller altarpiece. He also continued to make images in watercolor and bodycolor (usually combined), including a number of exquisite still lives of meadow sections or animals, including his Hare (1502, Albertina, Vienna).

In Italy, he returned to painting, at first producing them on linen. These include portraits and altarpieces, notably, the Paumgartner altarpiece and the Adoration of the Magi. In early 1506, he returned to Venice and stayed there until the spring of 1507. By this time Dürer's engravings had attained great popularity and were being copied. In Venice he was given a valuable commission from the emigrant German community for the church of St. Bartholomew. The picture painted by Dürer was closer to the Italian style — the Adoration of the Virgin, also known as the Feast of Rose Garlands. It was subsequently acquired by the Emperor Rudolf II and taken to Prague. Other paintings Dürer produced in Venice include, The Virgin and Child with the Goldfinch, Christ disputing with the Doctors (supposedly produced in a mere five days), and a number of smaller works.

Despite the regard in which he was held by the Venetians, Dürer was back in Nuremberg by mid-1507. He remained in Germany until 1520. His reputation had spread throughout Europe. He was on friendly terms and in communication with most of the major artists of Europe, and exchanged drawings with Raphael.

The years between his return from Venice and his journey to the Netherlands are divided according to the type of work with which he was principally occupied. The first five years, 1507-1511, are pre-eminently the painting years of his life. He worked with a vast number of preliminary drawings and studies and produced what have been accounted his four best works in painting, Adam and Eve (1507), Virgin with the Iris (1508), the altarpiece the Assumption of the Virgin (1509), and the Adoration of the Trinity by all the Saints (1511). During this period he also completed the two woodcut series, the Great Passion and the Life of the Virgin, both published in 1511 together with a second edition of the Apocalypse series.

He complained that painting did not make enough money to justify the time spent, when compared to his prints, and from 1511 to 1514 concentrated on printmaking, in woodcut, and especially, engraving. The major works he produced in this period were the thirty-seven woodcut subjects of the Little Passion, published first in 1511, and a set of 15 small engravings on the same theme in 1512. In 1513 and 1514 he created his three most famous engravings, The Knight, Death, and the Devil (or simply, The Knight, as he called it, 1513), the enigmatic and much analyzed Melencolia I, and St. Jerome in his Study (both 1514).

In Melencolia I appears a fourth-order magic square which is believed to be the first seen in European art. The two numbers in the middle of the bottom row give the date of the engraving, 1514.

In 1515, he created a woodcut of a Rhinoceros which had arrived in Lisbon, from a written description and brief sketch, without ever seeing the animal depicted. Despite being relatively inaccurate (the animal belonged to a now extinct Indian species), the image has such force that it remains one of his best-known, and was still being used in some German school science text-books early last century.

In the years leading to 1520 he produced a wide range of works, including portraits in tempera on linen in 1516, engravings on many subjects, a few experiments in etching on plates of iron, and parts of the Triumphal Arch and the Triumphs of Maximilian which were huge propaganda woodcut projects commissioned by Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor. He drew marginal decorations for some pages of an edition of the Emperor's printed prayer book. These were quite unknown until facsimiles were published in 1808 as the first book published in lithography. The decorations show a lighter, more fanciful, side to Dürer's art, as well as, his usual superb draftsmanship. He also drew a portrait of the Emperor Maximilian, shortly before his death, in 1519.

In the summer of 1520 Dürer made his fourth, and last, journey. He sought to renew the Imperial pension Maximilian had given him (typically, instructing the city of Nuremberg to pay it), to secure new patronage following the death of Maximilian, and to avoid an outbreak of sickness in Nuremberg. He, his wife, and her maid set out in July for the Netherlands in order to be present at the coronation of the new emperor, Charles V. He journeyed by the Rhine to Cologne, and then to Antwerp, where he was well received and produced numerous drawings in silverpoint, chalk, and charcoal. Besides going to Aachen for the coronation, he made excursions to Cologne, Nijmegens-Hertogenbosch, Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, and Zeeland. In Brussels he saw "the things which have been sent to the king from the golden land" — the Aztec treasure that Hernán Cortés had sent home to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V following the fall of Mexico. Dürer wrote that this treasure trove "was much more beautiful to me than miracles. These things are so precious that they have been valued at 100,000 florins". Dürer appears to have been collecting for his own cabinet of curiosities, and he sent back to Nuremberg various animal horns, a piece of coral, some large fish fins, and a wooden weapon from the East Indies.

He took a large stock of prints with him, and wrote in his diary to whom he gave, exchanged, or sold them, and for how much. This gives rare information on the monetary value placed on old master prints at this time. Unlike paintings, their sale was very rarely documented. He finally returned home in July 1521, having caught an undetermined illness which afflicted him for the rest of his life, and he greatly reduced his rate of work.

Back in Nuremberg, Dürer began work on a series of religious pictures. Many preliminary sketches and studies survive, but no paintings on the grand scale ever were carried out. This was due in part to his declining health, but more because of the time he gave to the preparation of his theoretical works on geometry and perspective, the proportions of men and horses, and fortification. Although having little natural gift for writing, he worked diligently to produce his works.

The consequence of this shift in emphasis was that during the last years of his life, Dürer produced comparatively little as an artist. In painting there was only a portrait of Hieronymus Holtzschuher, a Madonna and Child (1526), a Salvator Mundi (1526), and two panels showing St. John with St. Peter in front and St. Paul with St. Mark in the background. In copper-engraving, Dürer produced only a few portraits, those of the cardinal-elector of Mainz (The Great Cardinal), Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony, and his friends the humanist scholar Willibald Pirckheimer, Philipp Melanchthon, and Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Despite complaining of his lack of formal education, especially in the classical languages, Dürer was greatly interested in intellectual matters, and learned much from his great friend Willibald Pirckheimer, whom he no doubt consulted on the content of many of his images. He also derived great satisfaction from his friendship and correspondence with Erasmus and other scholars. Dürer succeeded in finishing and producing two books during his lifetime. One on geometry and perspective, The Painter's Manual (more literally, the Instructions on Measurement) was published at Nuremberg in 1525 and it is the first book for adults to be published on mathematics in German. His work on fortification was published in 1527, and his work on human proportion was brought out in four volumes shortly after his death at the age of 56, in 1528.

It is clear from his writings that Dürer was highly sympathetic to Martin Luther, and he may have been influential in the City Council declaring for Luther in 1525. However, he died before religious divisions had hardened into different churches, and may well have regarded himself as a reform-minded Catholic to the end.

Dürer died in Nuremberg at the age of 56.

He left an estate valued at 6,874 florins — a considerable sum. His large house (which he bought from the heirs of Bernard Walther in 1509), where his workshop also was, and where his widow lived until her death in 1537, remains a prominent Nuremberg landmark, and is now a museum.

Dürer exerted a huge influence on the artists of succeeding generations; especially on printmaking, the medium through which his contemporaries mostly experienced his art, as his paintings were mostly in private collections located in only a few cities. His success in spreading his reputation across Europe through prints was undoubtedly an inspiration for major artists such as Raphael, Titian, and Parmigianino, who entered into collaborations with printmakers to distribute their work beyond their local region.

His work in engraving seems to have had an intimidating effect upon his German successors, the Little Masters, who attempted a few large engravings, but continued Dürer's themes in tiny, rather cramped, compositions. The early Lucas van Leiden was the only Northern European engraver to successfully continue to produce large engravings in the first third of the century. The generation of Italian engravers who trained in the shadow of Dürer all either directly copied parts of his landscape backgrounds (Giulio Campagnola and Christofano Robetta), or whole prints (Marcantonio Raimondi and Agostino Veneziano). However, Dürer's influence became less dominant after 1515, when Marcantonio perfected his new engraving style, which in turn, traveled over the Alps to dominate Northern engraving also.

In painting, Dürer had relatively little influence in Italy, where probably, only his altarpiece in Venice was to be seen, and his German successors were less effective in blending German and Italian styles.

His intense and self-dramatizing self-portraits have continued to have a strong influence up to the present, and may be blamed for some of the wilder excesses of artist's self-portraiture, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

He has never fallen from critical favor, and there have been revivals of interest in his works Germany in the Dürer Renaissance of c.1570–1630, in the early nineteenth century, and in German Nationalism from 1870–1945.

He is commemorated on the calendar of the Lutheran Church with other artists on April 6.

A self-portrait of Dürer is used in the George Lucas movie THX 1138 to represent OMM 0910, the "god" worshiped by residents of the underground city.

The crater Dürer on Mercury was named in his honor.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The New Vanguard

The New Vanguard: A collection of Contemporary Indian Art’ offers a glimpse of the artists and artworks that capture India’s diverse contemporary art practices, drawing on the wide-range of idioms and interpretations that help shape this genre.

Each work in this exhibition offers a unique perspective of the evolving trends in contemporary Indian art, riveting in both scale and narrative. Some of the works on display capture the artist’s ongoing examination of identity and social history; some reorganise nostalgia within the struggles of everyday life, highlighting the dramatic contrasts that exist in the artist’s eye. There is a riot of emotions that envelopes the viewer, drenched in stark colours and intriguing forms. The artist’s personal reaction to an evolving world plays out across various stages: sometimes passive and rueful, and sometimes cohabitating with fluidity.

V Salaskar’s figurative art touches upon socio-political influences, capturing the inherent conflict between traditions and modern life. Salaskar is an alumnus of the Vidyapeeth College of Fine Arts, Pune. Drawing on similar themes is R Magesh. A graduate of the Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai, Magesh borrows his imageries from socio-political issues and the rapid advent of globalization. However, it is the disturbing aspects of inhumane progress and suffocation within the system that inspire Santiniketan alumni Mantu Das to speak out through his art.

Durga Prasad Bandi’s stark, monochromatic canvases bring together both the artist’s personal thoughts and the expressions of the social milieu. Bandi is an alumnus of the MS University, Vadodara. For Bikash Karmakar, an artist is the equivalent of a storyteller. Santiniketan alumni Karmakar believes in strongly connected forms that reach out and build bridges. Stories inspire Apu Dasgupta too, but his canvases focus on the turbulence engulfing the young generation today. Dasgupta is a graduate from Santiniketan.

A Fulbright scholar and Santiniketan alumni, Satadru Sovan Banduri uses his canvas space as a gateway and tool to see a psychedelic world. Vivid colours cohabitate with forms and idioms in Tuhin Ghose’s expressions also, liberating in their fluidity. Ghose is a Santiniketan alumnus. Perpetual seeker and CN College of Fine Arts graduate Jignesh Panchal uses his canvas to map a search for his identity mired amid the various social roles he plays. And it is this very, rich, multi-textured fabric of modern life, with both its mundane reality and inherent magic that is depicted by Santiniketan alumni Nakul Mondal.