The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure (The Courtauld Gallery)

Research Rhythms contributor Niccola Shearman giving her free lecture at a late opening

Research Rhythms contributor Niccola Shearman giving a free lecture at a Dürer late

The Courtauld’s latest exhibition offers a glimpse into the formative years of an irrefutable giant of the German Renaissance. Centring on Dürer’s so-called Wanderjahre, something akin to an extended gap year, it tracks Dürer’s four-yearlong travels in the Upper Rhineland and possibly also to Italy. But this isn’t a one-man show. Instead, through a collection of rarely-exhibited works on paper, the focus is on Dürer as a product of the artistic influences he encountered as a young man.

Martin Schongauer, A Foolish Virgin, 1478 © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Martin Schongauer, A Foolish Virgin, 1478
© Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Throughout, works by the young artist hang alongside a range of works by elder masters who Dürer came across on his travels, either in person or through their work. Particular (and well-merited) prominence is given to Martin Schongauer, who Dürer never met but greatly admired. His ten engravings showing Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins are enchanting.

At the crux of the exhibition is the Courtauld’s double-sided drawing A Wise Virgin and Dürer’s left leg from two angles. This work – one side beautifully finished, the other hastily sketched – is presented as a symbol of the two strands of the young Dürer’s artistic practice: a new emotional intensity in figure drawing and the sustained scrutiny of his own body. This lively union of experimentation and expressiveness also appears in a sketch of the Virgin and Child, where the artist’s own hands hover above the figures’ heads. In a self-portrait, Dürer seems to probe the limits of his ability with a daring frontal angle and his cheek resting in his palm, while a swiftly executed image of his young wife inscribed with the words “Mein Agnes” offers a rare and intimate snapshot into his domestic life.

Albrecht Dürer Self-portrait (verso) c. 1491-92 © Graphische Sammlung der Universität, Erlangen

Albrecht Dürer
Self-portrait (verso) c. 1491-92
© Graphische Sammlung der Universität, Erlangen

Other drawings, like the Three studies of Dürer’s left hand, are highly finished and elegantly arranged. Such works seem anticipate an audience. This awareness of his viewer, as well as his excellent draughtsmanship, would help Dürer to become the master printmaker for which he achieved lasting fame. The important relationship between drawing and engraving is neatly illustrated by the Prodigal Son print hanging alongside its rare preparatory sketch.

The display in the second room suggests the curators’ conviction that Dürer did cross the Alps into Italy, a matter of on-going debate. Evidence of Dürer using Italian sources appears in an engraving of Philosophy displayed alongside Dürer’s drawn copy. The remarkable Men’s Bath is an example of Dürer’s stunning technical ability in woodcut even at this young age. In comparison, the woodcut from his master’s workshop hanging nearby seems almost course and stiff.

Albrecht Dürer Three studies of the artist’s left hand (recto), c. 1493-94 © Albertina, Vienna

Albrecht Dürer
Three studies of the artist’s left hand (recto), c. 1493-94
© Albertina, Vienna

Though not officially part of the exhibition, a small accompanying display warrants mention. This room recreates a famous lecture delivered by the influential cultural theorist, Aby Warburg, entitled “Dürer and Italian Antiquity” (1905). Tackling the challenge of staging the lecture in exhibition format is commendable, though it has only partial success. Without prior knowledge of the lecture, the cohesion of this room remains somewhat obscure. On display, however, are some of the finest engravings by Italian masters of the early Renaissances alongside some of Dürer’s most exquisite drawings and prints including the Death of Orpheus, Melancholia I and Nemesis. So all scholarly history aside, visually speaking this room is a joy and must not be missed.

The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure is at the Courtauld Gallery until 12th January 2014

Laura Llewellyn is a PhD student at the Courtauld

The Books that Shaped Art History (Book Launch, 31st October 2013)

Last night the Research Forum was celebrating  the release of Thames and Hudson’s The Books that Shaped Art History, a collection of sixteen essays by eminent art historians on seminal publications from within our still anxiously young discipline. Chaired by former director of the Courtauld, the infinitely amiable Eric Fernie, the session invited three of the authors to reflect on their pieces in a packed Kenneth Clark lecture theatre.

John-Paul StonhardJohn-Paul Stonhard both authored the essay on Clark’s The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art and was co-editor of the whole publication with Richard Shone. Shone had composed a list of seminal books in 2007, which subsequently disappeared. This “lost list”, generated much fascination in the audience but as much that was revealed was that it had one book in common with the final (Fry’s Cézanne), but mostly the authors were the same. A helpful paraphrase of Gombrich: “There is no art history, only art historians” recognised how much personality dominated this evening. Clark was embodied by his own concept of the Nude; “balanced and prosperous”, and there was little escaping the ghosts of these figures this All Hallows Eve.

Susie NashLooming over Susie Nash was the spirit of Erwin Panofsky, grasping his Early Netherlandish Painting.  His book is an enormous achievement, a synthesis of material and ideas into a seemingly  impregnable fortress of apparatus, and perhaps this almost Biblical authority it seemed to exude led to antagonism towards it when Susie herself was a student. Yet  it was also Panofsky’s relationship with the object that seems remarkable within current methods of art historical interrogation. For Panofsky, the back of a painting rarely meant evidence for its provenance and manufacture, because most often it was the matte reverse of a glossy photograph. His book was written almost entirely surrounded by reproductions, often black and white, and this is evident in his text where occasionally he clearly has no idea what colour a painting was.


Paul HillsPaul Hills had a much more portable tome to review, with no footnotes at all. Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in Pictorial Style is often seen as the Rough Guide to Social Art History, yet Paul did remind us of its oft-forgotten subtitle showing that the inherent Form of paintings was still central to the investigation. Paul was the closest of all to his author, which allowed for a personal insight into its original context. Baxandall perhaps meant it as a challenge to the Courtauld, but in fact it was its sister institution the Warburg which was greater perturbed by his concept of “Period Eye”, seeing it as a redressing of the hoary old zeitgeist.


Inevitably, the thoughts at the end of this evening was if the presenters would be reviewed in “More Books that Shaped Art History”, who in the audience who would be considered for “Even More Books that Shaped Art History”, and the undergraduates in the Halloween Party downstairs who might make it into “Oh no! Not more books that Shaped Art History”.