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Dürer in DC: Some Observations on the Great Observer

Albrecht Dürer, "Head of an Apostle Looking Up" (1508). Brush and gray and black ink, gray wash; heightened with white on blue prepared paper; fracture line from top to bottom approximately 2 cm from right edge of drawing. Overall:11 1/2 x 9 1/4 inches; overall (framed): 20 3/4 x 18 3/8 x 1 3/4 inches. Albertina, Vienna. Click to enlarge.
Albrecht Dürer, “Head of an Apostle Looking Up” (1508). Brush and gray and black ink, gray wash, heightened with white on blue prepared paper; fracture line from top to bottom approximately 2 cm from right edge of drawing. Overall: 11 1/2 x 9 1/4 inches. Albertina, Vienna (click to enlarge) (all images courtesy the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)

WASHINGTON, DC — If you need one good reason to see the must-see Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors, and Prints from the Albertina at the National Gallery of Art, that reason would be the shockingly holographic “Head of an Apostle Looking Up” from 1508.

Done on blue paper in gray and black ink, gray ink wash and opaque white, the bearded, balding head in “Head of an Apostle Looking Up” doesn’t stay put on the paper’s surface but hovers several inches behind it — a perfectly solid object suspended in a tenebrous nether space.

A brushed-on line of gray wash, more atmosphere than contour, defines the apostle’s forehead. The line is so close in value to the deep blue of the paper that it becomes one with the negative space, detaching itself from the picture plane and tugging the form rearward like the blurred edge of a daguerreotype.

As the line sinks, the darts of light glinting off flesh, eyes, hair and beard rise to the surface like phosphorescent jellyfish.

No reproduction, no matter how precise, can capture the spell this drawing casts. The flattening of the visual field in the photographic process unbalances the tenuous contrast of color and value, and the otherworldliness of their relationship vanishes.

Dürer’s stroke of gray wash is inimitable, dependent upon a precise shade of color interacting with the material quality of the blue paper, which is not pigmented on the surface like the supports used in most of his other studies on toned grounds.

This particular sheet (one of several in the show) is made from blue rags, a specialty item the artist picked up in Venice. Consequently, the ink does not lie on top of the surface, as it would on prepared paper, but soaks into it.

In his essay “The Drawings of Albrecht Dürer” from the in the exhibition’s superbly produced catalogue, Andrew Robison writes:

The blue paper creates a middle tone between white and dark. Specifically, the slightly mottled texture of manufactured blue paper offers a softer, more varied and more luminous texture than the solid color of prepared paper. Dürer consciously adjusted to this distinctive feature by using gray instead of black ink. […] His linear hatching for modeling, which curves to follow and create the roundness of forms, correlates marvelously with his use of highlights in opaque white. They stand out from the soft blue paper and further enhance the projection and three-dimensionality of the forms.

The artist’s notorious “Praying Hands” (1508) was drawn on the same kind of paper; in fact, the exhibition catalogue makes it clear that it was done on the same sheet of paper, with the apostle’s head on the left and the hands on the right.

Reunited, at least photographically on pages 178 and 179 of the catalogue, the two studies play off each other as a Leonardesque exploration of the effects of light, erasing the accrued layers of sentimentality that have obscured the startling, raspy beauty of the praying hands.

The rippling white highlights simultaneously evoke the texture of dry, aging skin and the eddying currents of a shallow stream, while black hatchings traverse the white marks as a contrasting undertow — a tour de force of extreme skill and acuity of vision.

Albrecht Dürer, "Left Wing of a Blue Roller" (c.1500 or 1512). Watercolor and gouache on vellum, heightened with white. Overall: 7 11/16 × 7 7/8 inches; overall (framed):19 3/16 × 19 7/16 × 2 5/8 inches. Albertina, Vienna.
Albrecht Dürer, “Left Wing of a Blue Roller” (c.1500 or 1512). Watercolor and gouache on vellum, heightened with white. Overall: 7 11/16 × 7 7/8 inches. Albertina, Vienna

Another drawing that conjures impressions of water from an unlikely subject is “Left Wing of a Blue Roller” (c. 1500 or 1512), a masterful study of a bird wing in bands of gray, blue, white and green. Done in watercolor, gouache and opaque white on vellum, the upper rank of feathers is a veritable seascape of shimmering blues and greens and touches of violet, with semicircular lines roiling like whitecaps across the topmost plane.

The semicircular markings, which read as incisions rather than painted lines, are details that would most likely go unnoticed in a reproduction, not to mention the way their metallic presence bejewels an already dazzling effusion of color.

Beside “Left Wing of a Blue Roller” there is another study — same wing, same bird — identified as being by Hans Hoffmann, a painter from Dürer’s hometown of Nuremberg who was born a few years after Dürer’s death on April 6, 1528.

Hoffmann devoted his career to imitating the older artist’s style, often indulging in the unfortunate habit of adding Dürer’s unique AD monogram to his own drawings. Seeing the two studies side by side is an object lesson in what happens when one artist stays within limits and another discards them altogether.

Hoffmann’s study, also in watercolor and gouache on vellum, is competent and pretty, but there is no snap, nothing to entice you to look longer and harder. The colors are carefully placed but the forms, while realistically articulated, are indistinct.

In contrast, Dürer’s work is both ethereal and tactile, its pigments audaciously trespassing across lines and shapes, with light and shadow bobbing and weaving over the cushiony feathers like misty sunlight breaking through rolling clouds.

Albrecht Dürer, "The Great Piece of Turf" (1503). Watercolor and gouache heightened with white, mounted on cardboard. Overall: 16 x 12 3/8 inches; overall (framed): 26 3/8 × 22 11/16 × 2 9/16 inches. Albertina, Vienna.
Albrecht Dürer, “The Great Piece of Turf” (1503). Watercolor and gouache heightened with white, mounted on cardboard. Overall: 16 x 12 3/8 inches. Albertina, Vienna (click to enlarge)

Dürer’s boldness with his materials is evidenced in what is probably the most emblematic image to come from the Great Observer, namely “The Great Piece of Turf” (1503). Get up close to the earth tones in the lower section of the piece, which is again in watercolor and gouache, and you’ll see faint tendrils streaming downward from the reeds that seem to have been made by the artist dipping his brush in water and dissolving the paint he had previously laid down.

The work is minimal in its color choices — tonal gradations of raw umber and mint green, with dabs of aquamarine and amber — and if you continue to look closely at it, raising your eyes inch by inch up through the weeds, it can seem like a dull profusion of busy green verticals.

Take one step back, however, and the whole thing pulls together, not unlike a Jackson Pollock or a Joan Mitchell, with the blank backdrop suggesting a field of hazy, ambient light while simultaneously behaving as an undisguised paper support. The great piece of turf looks virtually collaged to that support, its dry densities of paint creating a hyper-real alternative reality to the paper’s all-too-real, blank tactility.

The emptiness behind the weeds creates its own context. The picture reads neither as a detail of a landscape nor as a clump of plants dug out of a garden and dropped on a table for closer observation. It appears instead, at least to 21st-century eyes, as a tug-of-war between the simulated and the actual — a locus of extraordinary tension that a rule-follower like Hans Hoffmann wouldn’t have a clue about.

Pigment used on its own terms is brought to the fore in two drawings, “Emperor Maximilian I” (1518) and “Calvary” (1511). In the former, the emperor’s portrait is conventionally executed in black and white chalk, but embellished in ocher and red chalk that is smeared across the face, above the hairline into the hat, and below the neck across the collar.

Albrecht Dürer, "Emperor Maximilian I" (1518). Black, ocher, red and white chalk, heightened in white chalk. Overall: 15 3/8 × 12 9/16 inches; overall (framed):  25 1/16 × 22 3/16 × 2 1/4 inches. Albertina, Vienna.
Albrecht Dürer, “Emperor Maximilian I” (1518). Black, ocher, red and white chalk, heightened in white chalk. Overall: 15 3/8 × 12 9/16 inches. Albertina, Vienna

The drawing was done from life, in what the catalogue entry describes as a “personal encounter with the world’s most powerful monarch,” which was “a special honor and mark of favor” for Dürer.

It is a study for two paintings that the artist did of the emperor, and in his essay Robison notes that the drawing session, due to the demands on the emperor’s time, “must have been short.” This is probably the reason why the color was rubbed on so freely, but its liberation from line and form mirrors the more controlled bursts of energy we see in “Left Wing of a Blue Roller.”

“Calvary” is done in pen, its upper half in brown ink and the lower half in gray. The catalogue relates various explanations for the use of two colors, including:

[..] a deliberate emphasis on spatial depth, the execution of the composition’s two halves at different times, or the discoloration of the inks because of a difference in chemical composition. However, none of these applies. […] By using two different colors he addressed two levels of content in this episode.

Albrecht Dürer, "Calvary" (1511). Pen and brown and black ink. Overall: 11 x 8 5/8 inches; overall (framed): 19 3/4 x 17 1/8 x 1 3/4 inches. Albertina, Vienna.
Albrecht Dürer, “Calvary” (1511). Pen and brown and black ink. Overall: 11 x 8 5/8 inches. Albertina, Vienna (click to enlarge)

The upper portion is “the dramatic, serious event,” while the bottom depicts “the carefree everyday activities of the local population.” To bifurcate a narrative between the sacred and profane is not uncommon, especially in Northern Renaissance painting, but Dürer’s use of two colors to graphically divide them (and his foregrounding of two dogs sniffing each other) would seem to accentuate the remoteness of the gospel story from daily life.

But a second look reveals that the difference between the two spheres is not so cut and dried. While the upper level is populated entirely by soldiers and the three crucified prisoners (with one individual, possibly Mary or a disciple, clutching the base of Jesus’ cross), the bottom left quadrant is filled with more soldiers and a group of distraught mourners.

Only the lower right corner features casual observers, who are outnumbered by other participants in the drama, such as the soldiers gambling for Jesus’ cloak or transporting a ladder. Perhaps the color change marks a temporal shift — the New Covenant between God and mankind consummated in Jesus’ death. But maybe not. The drawing, divided by color but not by content, remains a stark, and starkly modern, enigma.

Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors, and Prints from the Albertina continues at the National Gallery of Art (National Mall between Third and Ninth Streets, along Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC) through June 9.

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