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.
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.
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.
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