Here is Albrecht Durer aged 21 in what is now known as the ‘Erlangen Self-Portrait’ (above, c.1491-2). Psychologically intimate and starkly direct, he holds a gaze of intense concentration as he sketches his own features. The Courtauld Gallery should perhaps have begun with this image, facing the entrance, for a show entitled ‘The Young Durer’. Then we might have travelled with the image of this earnest youth in mind on his ‘Wanderjahre’, the period of travel and technical experimentation between 1491 and 1495 that the exhibition explores in this concise but exquisite collection of prints and drawings.
All through this period Durer was making studies from nature, and therefore in his striving to perfect human anatomy and the realistic gesture he turned to his own body as a model. ‘Three Studies of the Artist’s Left Hand’ (right, c.1493-4) shows the minute observation that the artist trained on this feature, every tendon, vein and joint picked out in delicate, precise strokes of ink. Alastair Smart in the Telegraph has described these three studies as gestures of heavenly benediction, obscene curse and invitation to courtship, and judges the image a turning point between the iconographic pictorial conventions of the Middle Ages and the ‘arrival of careful, Renaissance self-scrutiny.’
In contrast, Durer relegates minute detail in favour of spontaneity in this charming sketch of his new wife, ‘Mein Agnes’ (c.1494). It is the most immediate, natural and unstudied drawing on view, and as such brings alive the artist and his world in a way few other works can.
The Prodigal Son (c.1495-6) is a more complete composition, a sketch for an etching shown alongside. The image illustrates Durer’s successful merging of biblical narrative with naturalistic detail, as the story is transplanted to an idiosyncratic Northern European farmyard with exaggeratedly steep gabled roofs and pigs which resemble fairly savage-looking wild boar.
The exhibition is organised into a number of themes – the story of The Wise and Foolish Virgins, the traditional depiction of Pairs of Lovers, and the influence of Italian Tarocchi prints – while the overall aim is to show Durer’s early development alongside the work of those who influenced him. As if to make clear this objective from the outset, the exhibition chooses to begin with works by Anton Puerer, Martin Schongauer and the Master of the Drapery – a bold choice as these names, all but unknown except to scholars of Durer, might put off the casual spectator. However, this decision proved rewarding; besides being delightful pictures in themselves, these examples set the context in which Durer learnt his craft, and provided a key to the existing Northern European artistic tradition that served as Durer’s formative influence.
Above left, ‘A Pair of Lovers’ (1492-3) reveals a close interest in, and meticulous observation of, the fashions of the day. The accompanying texts are helpful here in pointing out the symbolism of clothing and gesture within these ensembles – what would have been immediately recognised by a contemporary of Durer has today lost all meaning, therefore depriving the uninformed viewer of the central narrative of the piece. For instance, a certain headdress signifies a married woman – altering the tone from one of innocent love to deceit and duplicity – while the attribute of an owl carried by a woman represents a deliberate indication of desire.
‘Virgin & Child with Dragonfly’ (right, c.1495) is one of several compositions in which Durer uses the same central, pyramidal group of Mary and the baby Jesus that one sees develop from sketches, experimenting with different scenery and the figure of Joseph. In the drawing of ‘The Holy Family’ (above centre, c.1491-2) the background is minimal and Joseph plays a more active role, leaning on his stick as he twists round from behind the bench to gaze on the infant. Here, however, Joseph becomes merely an element of the landscape; asleep, his prostrate form merges with the hills beyond and the wavy lines of his beard echo the fronds on grass he reclines upon. In neither case does Mary notice his presence, so absorbed is she in her child, whom she holds up to her face, her gaze tender, intimate and full of wonder.
Durer’s first visit to Italy introduced him to, among other things, the Tarocchi images attributed to Mantegna. These, based on tarot cards, represent allegories of the arts and sciences, the virtues and vices, the sun, planets and spheres. Versions of the figure of ‘Philosophy’ from Ferrara are here juxtaposed with Durer’s close interpretation of the same subject – though compared to the uniformity, the iconographic status, of the Tarocchi, Durer’s lines appear lighter and full of movement, rendering the figure instead a living individual, who simply carries the attributes of Philosophy.
Beyond, there is another room, separate from the body of the exhibition, which extends this theme of Italian influence on Durer by focusing on Aby Warburg’s 1905 lecture on ‘Durer and Italian Antiquity’. As in the lecture, Durer’s ‘The Death of Orpheus’ (above left, 1494) is used to illustrate Warburg’s assertions of the continued influence of classical antiquity into the Renaissance, and his term ‘pathos formula’ which denoted (the Courtauld informs us) a ‘formalised, transferable artistic expression of extreme passion’. Versions of Durer’s violent classical scene are accompanied by the prints of Mantegna, who is proposed as the conduit through which Durer connected with this tradition. Yet, again, Durer subverts the anonymous monumentality of this Classical heritage, giving the helpless Orpheus and the fleeing Cupid very human and fallible expressions of terror, and situating them within a very Northern little copse of twisted oak.