This page brought to you by Albrecht Durer

A half-millennium ago, the great German artist forever joined printed words with pictures.


January 07, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Albrecht Durer was the greatest German artist of the Renaissance, a powerful personality endowed with amazing technical facility and an obsession with his own genius rivaling that of his great Italian contemporary Leonardo da Vinci.

To the people who bought his works, Durer's woodcuts and engravings were little short of miraculous. Durer's prints based on scenes from the Bible and classical myth were rendered with such meticulously realistic detail that to 16th-century viewers, they probably seemed more factual records of events than fruits of an artist's fancy.

Yet despite his amazing verisimilitude, Durer's art seems less accessible to us today than Leonardo's, notwithstanding the fact that Durer, in the words of art historian Kenneth Clark, "combined an iron grip on the facts of appearance with an extremely fertile invention."

Inventive Durer was, but where Leonardo's serpentine lines and sinuous rhythms suggest a natural grace and joy in the vibrancy of organic life, Durer's style, for all its graphic virtuosity, owes more to the stern northern Gothic tradition, with its deep ambivalence toward the body and pious distrust of the senses.

Not surprisingly, those are the qualities apt to strike viewers first in the Baltimore Museum of Art's show "Book Arts in the Age of Durer," a careful, thoughtfully organized exhibit that examines the powerful impact Durer had on book printing in Germany shortly after the invention of movable type in the mid-15th century.

Durer was a pioneering figure in the development of book publishing because his career coincided with the revolution in printing made possible by Gutenberg's invention. His genius turned the woodcut illustration into an art form in its own right, and his prints and engravings helped cement the marriage between text and illustration that today we take for granted.

The exhibition, which occupies the two small print galleries on the museum's first floor, represents a joint effort of the BMA, the Walters Art Museum and the Peabody Library of Johns Hopkins University, each of which has contributed works from its collections.

Early book publishing

In the first room, the curators have assembled examples of 15th-century illuminated manuscripts and early printed books to show the state of book publishing in Germany during Durer's time (the artist lived from 1471 to 1528).

In the second room are displayed woodcuts from Durer's three magnificent series: "The Apocalypse" "The Large Passion" and "The Life of the Virgin," which were the first books of prints ever designed and published by an artist.

This room also contains Durer's engravings and woodcuts on various other subjects, among them two acknowledged masterpieces, "Nemesis (The Large Fortune)" of 1502 (if ever an artist expressed simultaneous fascination and horror at the female body, Durer did it here) and the only slightly less fevered "Melancholia I" from 1514, an allegorical study of the creative temperament. Both works were created when the artist was at the peak of his powers.

In the brief but highly informative brochure that accompanies the exhibit, Walters curator William Noel reminds us that in its 1,700-year history, the technology of book publishing changed remarkably little in the West, except for the brief span of about 100 years between 1450 and 1550, when Gutenberg's printing press with movable type revolutionized the industry.

Five hundred years later, we live in an age awash in media images whose influence pervades every aspect of modern culture. Our media-saturated environment makes it difficult even to imagine the revolutionary impact of Gutenberg's invention when it first appeared.

Sharing thoughts

The mass-produced book (in the 15th century, a typical edition numbered around 2,000) made possible an extension of the mind through the printed word. It was similar to what the visual arts had accomplished thousands of years earlier, when the painted image made possible the enlargement of the human spirit.

Printers learned to illustrate books using woodcut plates that could be inserted directly into a "form" of movable type and that, like the type itself, could be reused in different combinations to illustrate different texts. A specialized group of artisan woodcutters, who carved the block from designs supplied by artists, grew up to meet this new demand.

Durer served apprenticeships with the woodcut artists in his native Nuremberg and in the Swiss city of Basel, where he contributed many unsigned illustrations to texts published there, before returning home to make his fortune as a painter.

But from his earliest years, Durer was also incredibly self-absorbed, vain about his appearance and obsessed with his own genius -- he once painted a self-portrait in which he appeared as Christ.

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