Cleveland’s exhibition, housed in two small rooms off the atrium, is small put potent. Durer is one of the towering figures in Western art. His drawing prowess is unrivaled–some few have matched him but none have surpassed him. As the forty or so odd prints in this exhibition make clear, his mastery of the printmaking arts is absolute (with the possible exception of etching).
These small prints are bursting with ceaseless intellectual activity. The artist delights in complicated passages, which, under his pen, are rendered masterfully. His pen devours impossible assemblages of clothing: folds, creases, robes, skirts–all are given loving attention. Durer elevates the accidents of nature into a timeless joy for the eye and spirit.
Ennobling as his treatment of the desiderata of nature is, Durer is no idealist. He has none of the idealism of his southern neighbors, such as Raphael. Actually, Durer has no interest in what is considered ‘the beautiful.’ In this, as in much else, he resembles Michelangelo. His subjects, although taken from the bible for the most part, are peopled with the common, the average men and women of his milieu. For him, Christ and and other worthies are not movie stars or personifications of idealized beauty, but Joe and Mary from the corner coffee shop.
The exhibition has many examples of the artist’s more well known prints, such as Adam and Eve, and Melancholia, which is shown here. I’ve always believed that figure lost in thought is a proxy for the artist himself–or all artists.
I was reminded of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 when standing before this print:
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste…
In this typical engraving, Peasants Dancing, Durer’s love of the common is apparent. He never romanticizes or idealizes his subjects and, although the subject is humorous, the artist never mocks or satirizes. His wit is mild and full of fellow feeling.