Arts: Seeing Is Believing ; Albrecht Durer's Images Have a Rare Authority: They Inspire Their Viewers with Confidence in Their Reality. at the British Museum's New Exhibition, TOM LUBBOCK Admires the Work of One of the Renaissance's Most Powerful Imaginations

By Lubbock, Tom | The Independent (London, England), December 1, 2002 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Arts: Seeing Is Believing ; Albrecht Durer's Images Have a Rare Authority: They Inspire Their Viewers with Confidence in Their Reality. at the British Museum's New Exhibition, TOM LUBBOCK Admires the Work of One of the Renaissance's Most Powerful Imaginations


Lubbock, Tom, The Independent (London, England)


Albrecht Durer never saw a rhinoceros. He never saw the Devil. He never saw the end of the world. But not having seen something never daunted his confidence that he could imagine what it looked like. His image of a rhino, made in 1515 and based on not much more than hearsay, shows the creature covered in articulated armour plating. But it is achieved with such anatomical confidence - the detail of the ridging along the back of the neck is the sort of thing you'd call closely observed, if you didn't know it was entirely fictitious - that disbelief can still easily be suspended.

And, in fact, Durer's print retained an authority, a zoological authority, for a long time after the true shape of the rhinoceros was known. Likewise, the seven-headed beast of The Apocalypse. Many people have pictured that monster, in rather similar ways. But it is Durer's version that has clearly been taken from the life.

The British Museum's show, "Albrecht Durer and his Legacy", has a good practical demonstration of these realising powers at work. Durer, like his contemporaries, was interested in marvels, whether natural or supernatural - rhinos, comets, beasties, etc. And there is a page here from a German broadsheet of 1512 announcing, and crudely illustrating, a strange birth, female conjoined twins, with one body, two heads and not quite two arms each. This is Durer's source, and his response is an ink drawing, whose subtext might be: but actually, what it would have looked like is this.

Durer lived from 1471-1528. Like Michelangelo, he was a famous master in his twenties. Like Michelangelo, his reputation has never subsequently flagged. The show is mostly prints, with a good few drawings, too. It emphasises the artist as career-manager, coining his distinctive AD monogram; going to law when somebody else used it; promoting himself through self- portraiture; concentrating on prints because that's where the money was. And Durer's posthumous career, his varied artistic influence; his standing as the German national artist; his appeal to the German Romantics, and then, later, to the Nazis.

And we all still like Durer today, I guess, because he is sharp and weird and a little bit surreal. He makes odd things feel actual, and actual things feel odd. He has a slightly excessive sense of detail. His compositions are tough but not harmonious, he puts things together rather awkwardly, incongruously. He is chilly. His passionate attention to the natural world can't quite be called a deep love of the natural world. Everything is a little estranged, a little alien - and having written that word, what fantastic things Durer would have done with extraterrestrials, piecing together witness statements and clumsy sketches into extraordinarily plausible visualisations - almost his ideal subject.

Of course, there is also a more soundly spiritual taste for Durer. People sometimes have the famous drawing of the disembodied praying hands hanging on their wall, an emblem of simple faith. The drawing is in this show, and it is a wonderful drawing. Modelling in both black and white ink strokes on a mid-toned blue paper, it makes you believe that the hands are somehow there prior to the drawing, and the lines are only drawn on to their already existing forms - a miraculous materialisation that chimes with the act of prayer portrayed, the hands praying themselves into being.

There is a scientific Durer, too, who studied human proportion, and made very objective images of his own naked body, and those other miraculous drawings of a hare and a clump of grass (not in the show). He invented machines for making perspective drawings, for transferring the world to paper with strings and meshes and measured co-ordinates - completely useless machines, very difficult if not impossible to operate, but that seems to be their point.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Arts: Seeing Is Believing ; Albrecht Durer's Images Have a Rare Authority: They Inspire Their Viewers with Confidence in Their Reality. at the British Museum's New Exhibition, TOM LUBBOCK Admires the Work of One of the Renaissance's Most Powerful Imaginations
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?