In his day, Albrecht Durer was a high-tech whiz kid. An obvious prodigy, he chose an emerging medium, print-making, and mastered it in a way not seen since. • For about three months, the comprehensive exhibition of his prints is being shown at the Museum of Fine Arts, one of three U.S. stops the show is making on its tour from the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Germany, which is being renovated. Because old prints are so fragile, we'll probably not have another show of this scope by the artist considered the greatest of the northern Renaissance. • Like Leonardo, his predecessor to the south, the term Renaissance Man seems invented for Durer, an artist, writer and theorist who was born in 1471 in Nuremberg. His father was a goldsmith, and the boy apprenticed in his workshop. At 15, his skill in drawing earned him a place with one of the city's leading artists whose specialty was woodblock prints. The mid-century invention of moveable type had revolutionized bookmaking, and the need for equally reproducible illustrations for mass consumption spawned a new industry. Though he was a first-rate painter, Durer, like many others, seized the chance and by the time he was in his early 20s, was famous for his widely disseminated prints.
This exhibition of 100 of those prints demands more time and concentration from the viewer than many exhibitions. It has no color. The prints are small by today's standards. And a good amount of wall text accompanies the works. So while there's plenty of glamor because of Durer's stature, there's no glitz: It's the equivalent of an elegant black dress rather than one covered in sequins.
We should start with the basics. There are two types of prints in the show, relief and intaglio. The reliefs are woodcuts in which a block is carved and ink is pressed onto the raised parts of it. The intaglios are mostly engravings, in which lines are carved into a copper plate and ink fills those grooves.
You'll see the difference. Engraving produces a more nuanced range of gray tones because finer details are possible; woodcuts, even those by someone as proficient as Durer, have a higher contrast between black and white, thus can have great clarity.
Durer merged the virtues of each type, creating astonishingly elaborate woodblocks. (He probably drove his carvers crazy with his demands for ever more subtlety.) He also revolutionized the way a printed image was composed. Treating it like a painting, he emulated Italian masters in their use of perspective, the richness of the landscapes and the anatomical correctness of his figures.
Two images illustrate those points. On the Latitudes cover is an enlarged detail from The Rhinoceros, a woodcut dated 1515. The entire print, also shown here, is smaller than 9 by 12 inches. We enlarged the animal's head so you could see the extraordinary workmanship of it. True, someone else executed it, but Durer introduced to that craftsman the idea of those minute hatched and curved lines, probably demonstrating how they should look.
Another detail shown is from one of his greatest works, Melencolia, done a year earlier. It's an engraving. The meaning of its subject matter, full of symbols, has been debated for centuries, and you can read more about that when you visit the museum. For now, marvel at the way Durer "painted" using only one color — black — in his tiny dots and lines inscribed into the copperplate. (Little wonder he took months to complete one.) Notice, too, the richness of the scene, the female main figure in the foreground thoroughly integrated into the middle- and backgrounds in perfect perspective.
Old becomes new
The majority of Durer's prints (about 250 woodcuts and 90 engravings) have religious themes. He created three large series based on the life of Christ, one on the Virgin Mary and a series of apocalyptic drawings, all accompanied by text and often bound as books. His influence was enormous, as was the number of admirers and imitators. His prints stood out not only for their technical excellence but for the indefinable quality that separates very good art from the truly great: a unique personality and point of view. Even in the most over-told biblical scenarios or hackneyed genre scenes, Durer was able to infuse new drama or charm, to bring something fresh to the retelling. We don't pick up on that today; it all looks old to our eyes.
But consider again the rhinoceros. It commemorates a strange and remarkable historic footnote. In 1515, an Indian rhinoceros was sent from Lisbon by the Portuguese king as a gift to the pope. The creature died in a shipwreck en route, but it caused a sensation because of its exotic rarity. Durer never saw it and drew his based on a written description. It was riddled with inaccuracies. Yet such was its sense of truth that for centuries it was used in textbooks as an example of the real thing.
I always enjoy exhibition catalogs, but I consider the catalog for this one a real aid to appreciating the art. And I would suggest you take your time with the show; it's spread through three galleries and you'll probably want a break at some point. (Maybe lunch: The museum has a nice cafe, and there are restaurants around the neighborhood.) The show is arranged thematically rather than chronologically, so the catalog is especially helpful in showing how Durer grew as an artist.
He died in 1528 and produced little during his last years, mostly portraits and illustrations for treatises he wrote on mathematics and artistic issues such as perspective and anatomical proportion. This exhibition doesn't address those polemical achievements or his excellence as a painter. In that genre, for example, he's considered the first western artist to treat the landscape as a primary subject rather than a background. But he pretty much stopped painting because he made far less money at it. Nor did a painting have the public reach of a print, and Durer, who had little formal education of his own, was in many ways a passionate educator. Nearly 500 years later, he's still teaching.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.