Saturday, May 7, 2011


By Norbert Wolf, 96 pages large size, Taschen.

In this excellent art book, Wolf discusses the life and work of perhaps the greatest German artist, Albrecht Dürer, a multi-talented artist whose woodcarvings, paintings, and even sculptures reached as far as Italy. There, he has been considered a master of the Renaissance, as Wolf shows.

The author gives readers a solid introduction to the artistic world of late medieval Europe in which Dürer lived. This background played an important role in the German's development as an artist, as through his travels to Italy, France, and Germany he came into contact with the great artists and artistic movements of the day.

Dürer, like other artists, was deeply influenced both by the Church and by the Renaissance. His work follows the familiar motifs of the time, including innumerable paintings of the Virgin with Child, and images from the Bible such as Christ Among the Doctors, which portrays a young Jesus with long hair arguing with aggressive, old men surrounded by innumerable books. His young, innocent face contrasts with their demeanor.

Many of the artist's paintings were portraits of members of the local leading German families. Wolf introduces Dürer's city, Nuremberg, to the reader, as the leading German city of the time, especially culturally. Dürer's father had moved there from Hungary to work as a goldsmith, later briefly apprenticing his son, the future artist.

These portraits are among his most famous works. Portrait of a Young Man depicts a young, wealthy mover-and-shaker of Nuremberg dressed in a fashionable hat, fur-lined jacket, and expensive white shirt. The man's piercing eyes seem alive, enhanced by the realistic features of the man's face, including eyebrows, whispy moustache, and uneven facial skin. Unafraid to portray the aging, diseased, or dying, the reverse of the painting portrays "a repulsive hag," according to the author.

Dürer moved among the leading patricians of the city, and worked on projects for the municipality itself. He painted the emperor Maximillian, as well as a woodcut for the emperor from 1515, the largest woodcut ever, according to Wolf, depicting Maximillian's family tree. The woodcut, reflecting the artistic precision the painter learned as a goldsmith apprentice, was actually carried out by a team of artists under the master's direction.

Wolf explains well the meaning behind many artworks, such as perhaps Dürer's most famous, Rider, which, depicting a medieval knight on his horse, has inspired countless people:

"The protagonist of the picture, his visor raised, is looking down the path ahead. His profile is sharply drawn, his face darkly energetic. He seems heedless either of the skeletal figure of Death right beside him, holding out an hourglass containing the trickling sands of time, or of the Devil approaching from the rear. The fantastical scene is set in a ravine between rocky cliffs."

Nuremberg adopted the Lutheran reforms but never lost sense of its artistic heritage. Luther himself never opposed religious art as strenuously as the Calvinist reformers, so Dürer was allowed to continue his work, as he also supported the reformation.

Durer, in fact, was a true Christian humanist: "In the spirit of the Renaissance, he believed that the beauty of the gods of classical antiquity should set the supreme standard in art, even where the subjects portrayed were Christian."

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