Albrecht Duerer was the first German artist to become an international star in his lifetime. An exhibition in his home town of Nuremberg shows that to make it big, he needed more than talent and hard work.
Add to the mix some ruthless self-promotion and self- branding, a formidable local network, gifted teachers and role models, access to the latest printing technology, useful skills passed on by his goldsmith father, and a tabloid photographer’s eye for sensational topics to grab attention.
“Early Duerer,” the exhibition at Nuremberg’s Germanisches Nationalmuseum, contrives to be both scholarly and spectacular. It unites 120 Duerer works through loans from about 50 museums, including the Louvre in Paris and the Albertina in Vienna.
The show also adds fascinating context about the hothouse of talent that was Duerer’s 15th-century Nuremberg neighborhood. Using insights gleaned in a three-year research project led by the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, it seeks to debunk the romantic German image of the great national painter as a genius pursuing his artistic vision in isolation.
There is plenty of opportunity to admire Duerer’s brilliance, too. An exquisite silverpoint self-portrait from 1484 shows the artist as a 13-year-old boy. Looking at the youthful features, it seems incredible that the child’s hand, pointing mysteriously and disproportionately small, created this delicate work of art.
Duerer was then still apprenticed to his father, whose own self-portrait in silverpoint from the same year is also on display and may have been the young Duerer’s inspiration. Pages from the artist’s “Book of Thoughts” document his regrets at not being present in the hour of his father’s death in 1502.
The artist may have used his later, painted self-portraits as a form of advertisement for his business, to convince potential customers of the quality of his work.
He also inserted his own hidden image into as many as nine paintings, casting himself in saintly or heroic roles. He was also among the first artists to sign his works.
His wonderful portraits of his parents, painted as a pair in 1490, are reunited in Nuremberg for the first time in centuries. Both are shown with rosaries in their hands, simply dressed and exuding respectability and a sense of duty.
Woodblock and copper engraving printing helped Duerer reach a wider audience.
He chose his topics. Any journalist knows that animals and freaks grab attention, so a mutant animal is destined to be a media sensation.
Duerer cashed in on the Landser Sow, born with one head, two bodies and eight legs, including one on each back.
While local people saw the creature as a terrible omen, Duerer’s image is detailed, suggesting it provoked in him a scientific fascination rather than horror.
He also put together a book of woodcut prints about the Apocalypse including a seven-headed dragon and his dramatic image of the four horsemen.
His Nuremberg network included his neighbor and teacher, Michael Wolgemut, who married the widow of the most important German artist of the time, Hans Pleydenwurff (c1420-1472), and inherited his workshop. Pleydenwurff’s 1456 portrait of Georg von Loewenstein, the canon of Bamberg cathedral, has integrity and empathy in the fine web of wrinkles and thinning hair.
There was much there for Duerer to build on. That he did, as is shown here in his extraordinary painting of Wolgemut as an old man in 1516.
“Der fruehe Duerer” (Early Duerer) runs through Sept. 2 at the Germanisches National Museum in Nuremberg. For more information, go to http://www.gnm.de/
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include Lewis Lapham on history and Jeremy Gerard on New York theater.
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