Albrecht Durer( 1471-1528 ) is usually called the greatest German artist, despite the importance accorded to Matthias Grunewald, whose more wild and fantastic fervor, even hallucinatory art, is more to the modern taste than Durer’s methodical exploration of the world and humankind’s place in it. Durer’s Germanness is intrinsic to him, and a mention of his name is somehow incomplete without reference to it.He is credited with bringing German art out of a teutonic moat and into the international front rank.
It is however, a strata of Germanness that should be dissociated from Wagner and the post-Wagner excesses that followed. It is almost Martin Buber-esque. Mania, disorder and violence , all of which have characterized recent German history, and been well documented, are present in Durer’s art only as devils and ghosts that haunt the northern mind and must be beaten back by intellectual discipline and spiritual purification. Durer’s two central themes are the will of God and the dignity of man which are notions that on all thinkers have found compatible or complementary but that Durer, influenced by Erasmus, could conceive of as identical.
Durer always remained part intellectual mystic and part mystical scientist in spite of his determination to build his art on a rational basis. He studied and recorded nature as the visible expression of a double miracle, much as Leonardo da Vinci did. The exception being that Durer was more tormented by the relationship between man, his church and his god in a way that the anti-clerical Leonardo simply dismissed without further ado. Like Leonardo, Durer made studies of anatomy and geometry, relating them to the standards of ideal beauty and to the mechanics of creating works of art. And both went outside the field of art into engineering and they were both as much botanists or zoologists when drawing plants and animals; not so much interested in the pattern of natural forms as in the systems of growth and construction that accounted for those patterns. They were both fascinated by human beings as natural objects who have been modified by artifice. That is, they recognized dress, coiffure, and manners and eccentricities not as superficies of style , but as expressions of ways of thought. However, their similarities come to an abrupt halt when their applications in art are compared.
”Leonardo’s art becomes enigmatical, rather soft, often a little perverse. In some of his most elaborately studies paintings, Leonardo relinquished the world that has fascinated him as a study and yielded to the languor of escape into a more shadowy world of dream and fantasy. Although his notebooks, never meant to be seen, show us the Leonardo of universal intellect and insatiable curiosity, his paintings are more evasive than inquiring in spirit, a private art” ( John Canaday )
Durer, by contrast appears much more decisive even though the work is often quite complicated. Even when Durer recognized the doubts and confusions that beset him, he recognized them with anguish instead of resignation. It seemed that art for Durer was a vehicle that served a moral obligation imposed on himself to clarify by rational examination and not be satisfied by half answers. Durer did avoid the trap that befalls and clarifies the difference between a minor artist and a great artist ; avoiding the intuitive response by which the artist, as a special and chosen kind of being, transports the uninitiated to a shared world that one can somehow understand if they surrender to his guidance although the explanations are never explicit or precise. Durer was known to be always explicit and thorough, qualities that almost by definition make a dull person and a tiring and boring artist, except Durer had a nature that was as passionate as he was rational by self discipline.
It was not by accident that Durer attached himself to the cause of Martin Luther. He fit the profile of the perfect Protestant in being devout, but unable to leave conventional observances unquestioned. He could accept the mystical and miraculous nature of Christianity only when the final salvation promised by faith was earned by the daily salvation that a man found in examining his own conscience. The spiritual leaders of the Protestant reformation however, were completely off the trail and lost without a compass in recognizing the potential for a Protestant art that would rival the grandeur of Catholic art in Italy. Instead, they recognized that art contained elements of opulence and sensuousness, and uncritically held them synonymous with corruption.
Durer’s first trip to Venice was a revelation. Germany was largely indifferent to change, indeed the Renaissance seemed to bypass the North which clung to the late Gothic style. In fact the renaissance was beginning to wane from the age of faith and optimistic affirmation to a period to a period of doubt marked by the rise of the age of power. In Italy, artists for the first time in history had become members of an intellectual aristocracy, as the equals and companions of noblemen and popes. In Germany, the artist was viewed as a form of ”craftsman” who might be a respected employee, but not an equal of the ruling classes. These craftsman were not expected to invent new means of expression, but to apply in their own way an accepted set of conventions for artistic representation and narrative form that deeply conformed to a theoretical conception of the world that was untheoretical, narrow and filled with constraints. ” For the northern artist, the world was a conglomeration of objects that could be reassembled as a conglomeration of standardized symbols to explain a picture’s subject”.
Durer found this formulation inadequate and unfulfilling in an age when theoretical explanation and rational analysis were challenging the legitimacy of blind faith and Durer applied the Renaissance and its wider expressive range and objective discipline with an intensity to his own tradition.
It was an age when the craftsman was expected to fill his role of of being typically solid, conventional and dependable; men who would run a steady prosperous shop and not a man like Durer who had ambitions towards learning and culture. in made for an unhappy marriage in Durer’s case. Wife Agnes Frey found such ambitions to be impractical nonsense though from Durer’s point of view humanistic investigation of man’s spiritual nature was the goal in life. Irreconcilable differences.
After being the third of eighteen children, Durer now lived in a childless marriage with the jealous and resentful Agnes who was later accused by the learned humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, of having killed her husband by her pious nagging and by demanding that he augment his revenues. The difference in vision is that Durer as artist, fulfilled the function of revealing and interpreting the world. Durer had not so much imposed order on the world as discovered an order already inherent in it. Agnes held the medieval concept of the world as a vast encyclopedia of objects, each existing in isolation except as it is found catalogued on a certain list, like a census or inventory.
The allegorical premise is even more important in understanding how Durer, a religious and reverent man, could have the audacity to do a self portrait in which he assumes the role of Christ. There can be no question that this resemblance is intentional, but how does one explain it without avoiding absurdity and blasphemy. As a quasi allegory, it is a statement of Durer’s conviction that the artist is the recipient of a gift from God. The self portrait is conceived in humility, by which the artist accepts the divine gift and acknowledges the obligation to be worthy of it insofar as human limitations permit him to be.