Genius of sorts

different strokes

Genius of sorts

Albrecht Dürer’s exceptional talent, burning ambition and sharp intellect were acknowledged by prominent figures across Europe.

Born on May 21, 1471 in a small village outside of Nürnberg, Germany — the second of 18 children of his parents — Albrecht Dürer grew up to become a man of many talents. Besides being a painter, draughtsman, graphic artist, goldsmith, musician and a writer, he was a passionate collector of oddities which ranged from buffalo horns, bamboo bits, spears, monkeys and parrots to ivory whistles and pieces of porcelain.

Throughout his life, he took keen interest to study anatomy, mathematics, proportions, and perspective. He wrote a manual of geometry; designed the first flying machine; and was among the first to produce water colours completely based on the landscape.

Dürer was an extraordinary draughtsman, and his powers of hand and eye were matchless. As a devoted student of natural history, he turned again and again to nature, making exquisite studies of natural objects. According to Kenneth Clarke, creator of the famous well-known television series, Civilisation, “No man has ever described natural objects, flowers and grasses and animals more minutely as him.”

Dürer was immersed in the intellectual life of his time and became very important in his own age. In his work, he could marvel at the world’s tender details (like the fur on a dog, the tiles on a roof), even while infusing a scene with horror, piety or drama, through his mastery of human form.

Clarke explains that Dürer shared certain qualities with those of Leonardo da Vinci. “Dürer shared Leonardo’s curiosity, although not Leonardo’s determination to find out how things worked.”

Clarke goes on to clarify that Dürer was a very strange character, and was not at all the pious German craftsman figure he was once supposed to be. “For one thing, he was intensely self-conscious and inordinately vain. He collected all kinds of rarities and oddities, the kind of curiosities which, a 100 years later, were to lead to the first museums. He would go anywhere to see them, and actually died (in 1528) as a result of an expedition to see a stranded whale in Zeeland.”

Evidently, Dürer exerted a great influence on German art as well as on the development of European art. His exceptional talent, burning ambition and sharp intellect were acknowledged not only by prominent figures in German society, but across Europe.

Dürer was indeed professionally a painter, but showed remarkable skills as a printmaker. He is said to have made 200 woodcuts and 100 engravings, which bore his famous AD monogram. He mastered all the techniques of his day; and in particular immersed himself in the science of form and perspective.

He preferred prints to painting which he considered somewhat elitist and restricted. His engravings were in great demand and established his reputation all over Europe. It also made good business sense for him to prefer printmaking to painting. “I shall stick to my engraving,” he wrote to a customer in 1509, “and if I had done so before, I should today be a richer man by 1,000 florins.” Though the process was laborious, he had bought his own printing press from which he could print hundreds of copies and put them on sale.

Inspired draftsmanship

Artists across Europe admired and copied his prints, which dealt with religious and mythological scenes as well as produced maps and exotic animals. Some of them had an eerie commentary on the human condition.

A copper plate engraving, The Knight, Death and the Devil (1513), by Dürer, shows a Knight in an armour, riding on a horse; accompanying him are two mysterious characters: a grinning devil and a figure of death. This picture has not only inspired generations of artists, but also writers, poets and performers.
Jorge Luis Borges, the famous Argentinian poet, wrote not one but two poems based on the image.

Dürer’s The Knight, Death and the Devil, along with his two other engravings St Jerome in his Study (1514) and Melencholia (1514), are hailed as his Meisterstiche, or master prints. Besides technical mastery, these prints draw the viewer’s attention by their intellectual content, spiritual subtext, inherent symbolism, contemplative mood, and evocative perspectives of life. The images have been subject of intense and varied interpretations by historians and commentators over the centuries.

Clarke says that Dürer’s woodcuts and engravings of sacred subjects carried absolute conviction; and diffused a new way of looking at art, not as something magical or symbolic, but as something accurate and factual.

“The finesse of Dürer and his contemporaries in woodcuts and engravings seems technically almost beyond belief,” writes William Wilson, art critic of The Times. “An inspired draftsman devoted to meticulous detail, Dürer was the first artist known to have drawn purely for the pleasure of it rather than as a means of preparing to execute larger works, and his drawings are alive with dramatic tension and pathos. A great virtuoso of pen and ink, Dürer’s genius for the medium was so widely regarded that a genre of drawing intended as a form of homage to the art of the pen, blossomed around his distinctive style.” Wilson feels that Durer’s historical stature equalled that of Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo; and that the genius almost single-handedly brought the art of the Italian Renaissance to Germany.

Dürer painted self-portraits throughout his career. Some historians even claim that it was he who held the distinction of being the first artist to be fascinated by his own image. He is said to have made his first self-portrait, a drawing, when he was barely 13. One of his celebrated works was painted in 1500 where he presented himself like Jesus Christ. Towards the end of his life, he made a drawing of Christ as the Man of Sorrows, giving Jesus his own facial features and depicting his own worn body.

Throughout his life, Dürer held a fascination to study the human body, its proportions and perspective. “If you wish to make a beautiful human figure,” he wrote, “it is necessary that you probe the nature and proportions of many people: a head from one; a breast, arm, leg from another...”

He produced dozens of scholarly manuscripts and treatises including Treatise on Measurement (1525) and Four Books of Human Proportion. The Four Books was the first published attempt to apply the science of human anatomical proportions to aesthetics; it contained an extraordinary series of over 100 anthropometrical woodcuts.

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