Complex, intelligent and absorbing like the works he produced, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) has proved a fascinating figure for people since his rapid rise to fame in the late 1490’s. However, particularly in his early career, the artist was still prone to mistakes. And in The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure, the Courtauld Gallery, while showing the missteps in Dürer’s development, makes a few mistakes of its own.
In many ways, the ideas behind the exhibition are good. The two-room top-floor gallery is an intimate setting that shows a reasonable number of prints without drowning them in spare wall space. Hung on a softly lit, sea green backdrop, the works shine out, most set in simple frames. Notable exceptions are the double-sided works. These drawings are set upright in glass cases around the floor, giving visitors a look at both sides of the paper. Not only does this provide a sense of the immediacy of the artist’s hand, it also shows the beautiful delicacy of the paper as it has survived for over 500 years.
Both rooms show Dürer during his journeyman years when he was between 19 and 25 years old. The first room is dedicated to Dürer’s Germany, where he travelled in the hope of expanding his knowledge and meeting other artists such as the famous Northern European engraver, Martin Schongauer (1448-1491). While it is not clear whether he achieved the latter, the evidence of his artistic development between 1490 and 94 is clear. This development continues into the second, smaller room, which focuses on the works produced during his Italian travels.
As it turns out, Dürer as a young man was interested in many young-man things — notably romance, success and himself. He had set off looking for fame, and several times around the gallery, such as in A Youth Before a Potentate, his works quote directly from earlier works. Along with using figures from other artists’ images, Dürer used himself as a model. A triple study of his left hand from 1493 is both accurate and distinct, while his 1491 self-portrait is illustrative not just of his physical appearance, but also of the concentration and character apparent in his works.
His face appears repeatedly in various works – notably as a youth kneeling before a judge and as the faces of a man as well as his female lover walking together. Works of other artists as well as his quick sketches work in the exhibition to show that it was both the work of the past and Dürer’s own observations that informed his creative genius.
Still, not all of Dürer’s works were as successful as others, which is made clear in the centerpiece to the exhibition. Dürer’s pen and ink drawing of a wise virgin from a biblical parable is distinctly his work: neat crosshatching, the fine drapery work and the movement of the hand and arms are all indicative of his style. Even more indicative of the artist is the fact that he has put his own face in the place of female features again, with the result that the figure, otherwise graceful and elegant, has a rather startling visage. Though works were brought from an impressive list of places including the British Museum, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Italy, the exhibition’s centerpiece is the property of the Courtauld, which apparently the reason for its centrality.
However, it is at this point in the exhibition that the message starts to scatter. Other virgins from the same parable are shown from the pens and styluses of other artists, including the full set of ten wise and foolish virgins by Schongauer. Beautiful and strange as the collection of small virgin engravings is, Dürer himself never completed the collection or attempted the subject again more than once. Nevertheless, it kicks off a comparison of virgins by other artists, all of which are to be compared to the one image by Dürer. Appreciating the beauty of the wise virgins and raising a wry eyebrow at the apparent pregnancy of the foolish “virgins” is rewarding. Still, it’s not entirely clear why the viewer is asked to do so in this exhibition.
Throughout the focus tends to veer suddenly away from Dürer himself to his forerunners and contemporaries – whose efforts are often less accomplished than that of the young artist. While the exhibition is careful to make it clear that these other works are included to give a sense of the artists’ colleagues and influences, in practice, it takes on a feeling of free association, particularly in the second room when a string of images of women with their lovers is interspersed with images of holy women. While there are gossamer threads of reasoning, sorting out the interconnections and the purpose of each image can become a bit of a chore.
Even so, it has plenty of rewards. Take the study for and engraving of The Prodigal Son (1495-96). Executed just on the cusp of Dürer’s rapid rise to fame, the engraving is precise and distinct, both like and even better than the work of artists both German and Italian that fill the show. With the complex psychology of the son’s face, movement of the disengaged animals around him and the depth of field within the print, the image comes to life. Including the study for it, which shows the parts of the work that Dürer has worked out before creating the finished piece brings the artist to life.
Going to the exhibition may not be for those who want a clear message, but for a collection of beautiful images, it is certainly worth a visit.