A lady sits contentedly on the back of a strange beast as he swims away with her in Albrecht Dürer’s print The Sea Monster. He has a scaly body and antlers, as well as a bearded human face. She watches the people yelling from shore, in front of a storybook castle on a rugged hill, wearing nothing but a necklace and resting her hand on her voluptuous hip.
It’s both strange and amazing. It also perfectly encapsulates the National Gallery’s venture into Dürer’s travels – or would if it worked. Dürer was enthusiastically absorbing what he’d seen on his first journey to Italy a few years earlier when he etched this in approximately 1498. Albrecht, the son of a goldsmith, was born in Nuremberg in 1471 and had only just began his profession when he headed off over the Alps for Venice.
There, he discovered a sexualized society with famous courtesans, which was sanctioned by pagan mythology. Dürer, on the other hand, does more than just introduce the Renaissance to Germany. He completely changes it. The Sea Monster transforms Ovid’s fable of Europa and the Bull into a beast right out of northern woodland mythology.
He depicts the Whore of Babylon as a real Venetian sex prostitute in an adjacent woodcut. Not that Dürer was heteronormative in the first place. He loved the body and manner of soldiers on his second, more well-documented journey to Venice.
His German acquaintances mocked him for imitating the styles of Italian painters (“Florenzer,” a German slang for a homosexual), and joked that he grew his beard to please his apprentice.
Unfortunately, Dürer’s Journeys do not convey much of this. It seems like a fantastic idea: a Renaissance microhistory told through the eyes of an artist who liked to travel, first to Italy and then to the busy Atlantic port of Antwerp, where he met people and saw artwork from all over the world. But it doesn’t do a good job of telling the tale or making us experience the power of those piercing eyes.
It’s more of a slow trudge than a fantastic mystery tour. It will appeal to traditionalists as a straightforward exploration of art history, free of obnoxious wall texts denouncing the past – the exhibition only alludes to the grotesque antisemitic caricatures in Dürer’s Christ and the Doctors by stating that the evil scholars “were often represented as caricatures of Jewish people in this period.” Clearly, this anti-Semitism in a Nuremberg-born artist has no current relevance.
Despite its seeming seriousness, this exhibition fails to transport you to Dürer’s heart. It even made me question my love for his work. The old-fashioned fustiness – some of the rooms are painted brown and brick to give the impression of being in a dusty library – can’t mask a lack of clarity in the argument.
Dürer’s problems begin even before he leaves the house. He always returned to Nuremberg, regardless of how far he traveled. However, we don’t get a good sense of what life was like there: the walled village with its prayers and festivals; the local market, where Dürer didn’t mind his mother selling his woodcuts.
A large room concerning his second journey to Venice is filled with his loss of feeling of place. You have to pinch yourself to believe Giorgione painted his daring bare-breasted Portrait of a Youthful Woman (Laura) in Venice in 1506, when Dürer was still there and Titian was just starting out as Giorgione’s young competitor. You can’t determine why Dürer traveled there or what he saw based on the collection of dismal paintings.
Despite its pretentious intellectual air, this show entirely misses the meaning of Dürer’s trips to Venice. It was this: Dürer was struck with a new notion of the artist in Italy, in addition to being enthralled by the freedom and sensuality of Venice.
Like Giorgione, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael were reaching new heights. With so many geniuses around, someone had to explain brilliance itself – to purposefully represent the artist as a godlike soul with mysterious creative abilities, rather than a submissive craftsman like Dürer’s father.
Dürer, who saw the Italian Renaissance from the outside, was the one who figured it out. He is the first artist to recognize that he is living in a Renaissance era, and he is the first to expressly develop the concept of the contemporary artist, the genius. This is practically lost in translation.
However, it may be seen in his print Melencolia I, which was borrowed from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Dürer personifies brilliance as a lady with her face in darkness, resting her head on her palm as she sits paralyzed amid mathematical and sculptural instruments in this iconic painting.
It’s a brilliant analysis of his Italian colleagues Leonardo and Michelangelo, who took delight in not completing works of art since it demonstrated that they were free thinkers, not craftsmanlike hacks. Dürer honors the genius’s creative sorrow while he waits for inspiration.
We’ll next go to Antwerp and Brussels. However, a pedantic array of illustrations completely drowns out the freshness and immediacy of Dürer’s own account of his excursion to the North Sea. Isn’t it true that the National Gallery might have let its hair down to bring this long-ago era to life? I’m not advocating for a theme park boat ride up the Rhine, but couldn’t they have at least brought in some things to convey the magnitude of the event?
Dürer beheld the golden, turquoise, and feathered jewels of Moctezuma in the lowlands, which Cortés had given as prize to the new Emperor Charles V. He was astounded and humbled, writing of his love for “far-flung craftsmen.” It is the most lavish homage to non-European art ever given by a European Renaissance artist. This display would have been ignited by some Aztec art from the British Museum.
It’s trendy right now to criticize exhibits that jarringly bring the past into the present, such as those that remind us that 18th-century Britain had a slave trade. Conservatism dressed as rigour, on the other hand, may murder the past.
I lost track of Dürer here at moments. He became caught with other passengers aboard a boat that was abruptly dragged out to sea by a hurricane while traveling along the North Sea coast, he writes in his notebook.
While the rest of the crew was paralyzed, he took command of the ship and guided it to safety. As if Dürer had not saved that ship and we saw his strong features fade in the mist, receding not with a cancellation but with a respectful whimper, with each exhibition that burys the excitement of the Renaissance as this one does, this dazzling age recedes further, as if Dürer had not saved that ship and we saw his strong features fade in the mist, receding not with a cancellation but with a respectful whimper.