Saturday, March 30, 2013

Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors, and Prints from the Albertina

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through June 9, 2013

In case you haven't heard, the National Gallery's East Building is closing at the end of the year for renovations.  Repair work needs to be done on the building, and a major expansion of the exhibit space will occur at the same time.  It sounds like great things will be happening, but the catch is that the building will be closed for three years.  Oh well, at least the building is going out with a bang.  In addition to the Durer exhibit discussed in this post, a show on the Ballets Russes will be opening in May.  That promises to be spectacular.  But enough about future events, let's talk about a current exhibit - the big Albrecht Durer show that just opened this week.

Durer was the German equivalent of da Vinci for the Northern Renaissance, and his drawing and printmaking increased the importance of those forms as independent types of artistic expression.  He "reconciled faith and curiosity, art and science in his work."  Most of the pieces on display are from the Albertina in Vienna, which has the finest Durer collection in the world.  Unlike so many artists, Durer was popular and successful  during his lifetime, which must have been very satisfying.  No need for pity here; he was no starving artist.

This is another big exhibit, so rather than give a lot of detail about each room, I'll just mention a few items that particular struck me.  "Innsbruck Castle Court" made me look twice.  The drawing is so precise, you might mistake it for a photograph, until you look closely.  Much of his work shows this incredible attention to detail and a sense of total control.  You might think of him as the polar opposite of the Pre-Raphaelites, who were all emotion.  As you might imagine, I liked the Durer show better!

Durer was a student of human proportions, in fact, he wrote a book on the subject.  There are numerous studies he did of the human form, showing each body part's share of the whole picture.  It takes the romance out of the nude, I must admit, but no one would find a wildly inaccurate nude very attractive.  I suppose it makes the non-artist like myself realize that art isn't just inspiration; there's a vast deal of hard work that goes into each piece.

Two of Durer's best-known works are here: "The Great Piece of Turf," pictured above and described as "a scene balanced between scientific observation and artistic poetry," and "Praying Hands," possibly the most famous drawing in the world.

Durer's career was helped along greatly by Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, who sought to increase his image and fame and preserve his memory through prints and illustrated books - would that today's rulers would do the same.  Durer painted the only known picture of Maximilian taken during his lifetime; it forms the basis of all other paintings of the Emperor.

One thing to note is that, when I was there, this exhibit was incredibly crowded.  That could be because it just opened, or because it's the week before Easter or because lots of local school districts are having spring break.

Verdict: Well worth seeing.  Note that this is a big show, and you'll have to move quickly to see it in a lunch hour.

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