This recent article by Kelly Grovier considers select pieces from a new exhibition currently at the Albertina Museum in Vienna devoted to the paintings of Albrecht Dürer. Dürer, who lived from 1471 to 1528, was born in Nuremberg, studied in other German towns as well as Venice, and returned to Nuremberg in 1495 to open a studio. He is, of course, best known as a master printmaker, such that he is surely the early modern Prince of Prints. But his paintings are often works of genius as well. He produced a few striking self-portraits, including a nude selfie which interestingly only shows his head, neck, and torso. Underwhelmed critics thought that this painting was torso-so and relatively armless.
The Albertina exhibition highlights some of Dürer’s fascinating studies of nature. For example, his 1503 painting The Great Piece of Turf depicts an unremarkable patch of wild grass and flowers in a remarkable way. Grovier notes that despite the extremely realistic rendering of cocks-foot, germander speedwell leaves, and creeping bent, the watercolour fascinatingly reveals the soil-line, as if all the grasses were levitating toward heaven. Researchers at Early Modern Times’s Department of Artistic Strife have chronicled how this work led to heated controversy over its combination of hyper-realism and surrealism, such that spectators came to blows in a turf war.
Also featured at the Albertina is the stunning Wing of a Blue Roller, c. 1500 (not to be confused with the forgettable illustration by Dürer’s ne’er-do-well roadie brother of carnival grub flung out of an early modern amusement park ride, Wing off a Blue Roller-Coaster). The disembodied wing’s colourful plumage and feathers are depicted in extreme detail. The subject-matter suggests that Dürer, astonishingly, may have improvised this watercolour, i.e., he winged it.
Perhaps the supreme highlight of the exhibition–or at least the harelight–is Dürer’s 1502 watercolour painting Young Hare (detail pictured above). This is only the ninth time this artwork has been publicly displayed, indicating that it’s a rare hare. It is an intriguing and mysterious work for at least two reasons. First, how was Dürer able to render such a lifelike image of the hare, as if it were sitting for the painter? Taxidermy in this period would not have been of much help, so it’s a puzzle as to how the animal appears as if it’s hare to stay, given that a live subject would surely be hare now, gone in a second. The curator of the exhibition posits that Dürer made multiple studies of the hare sitting, springing, from the side, and from the front, and so constructed this image thereby. But perhaps this is just splitting hares: the answer might be that Dürer was just so relaxed that the animal-subject was sitting quietly. In other words, maybe Dürer decided to let his hare down, even if he had a bad hare day. Second, and even more enigmatic, is the gleam in the hare’s right eye. Does it, as some suggest, reflect the windows of Dürer’s studio? This remains a hare-raising mystery.
’til next week,
Director, Early Modern Hareitage Studies Program