VISUAL ART: Is It the Real Thing? or Just Fantasy? ; Durer and the Virgin in the Garden National Gallery LONDON
Darwent, Charles, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
If the National Gallery's new showlet, Durer and the Virgin in the Garden, were a detective story, it would be less a whodunnit than a whydunnit. The show's subject - the National's Virgin with the Iris, painted by Albrecht Durer in the first decade of the 16th century - is a fascinating picture, not least because it wasn't painted by Albrecht Durer. Which leaves us with the twin questions of who did paint it, and, more importantly, why it has been given its own show at the National Gallery.
Bought in 1945 as an autograph work, the painting's subsequent reputation has gone up and down like a yo-yo. Dismissed in the 1950s as a late pastiche (and a poor one at that), it has been mildly redeemed in the past 20 years as having been painted in Durer's lifetime. Some scholars have gone further and held that the picture emanated from Durer's workshop, giving The Virgin a handy historical leg-up.
Even if the picture wasn't by Durer's own hand, it would at least have come under his magisterial eye; and it would almost certainly have been part-painted by Hans Baldung Grien, master of the Freiburg Cathedral altarpiece, who ran Durer's Nuremberg studio during his trips to Italy in the early 1500s. Following in this happy trend, an X-ray investigation of the picture's under-drawing has recently taken The Virgin's rehabilitation a step further by suggesting that its composition and superhuman natural detail - meticulous grasses, peonies, vine leaves and titular irises - may have been drawn in by the man himself; which makes The Virgin with the Iris, if not exactly echt Durer, then at least Durer-lite.
Now, in all of this you may hear the gentle creak of history being not so much rewritten as rearranged. Every major collection has its duds, and the National's not-quite-Durer has, until now, been among its biggest.
Quite how the picture's doll-like mother and child ever struck Kenneth Clark as being by the same hand as those in the Prague Feast of the Rose Garlands remains one of life's little mysteries. So the National's reappraisal of its one-time pup also suggests that its connoisseurship may not have been the haphazard thing it seems. Without actually saying so, this little show hints that whoever was responsible for acquiring The Virgin with the Iris was gifted with second sight, cleverly spotting the real Durer struggling to get out from under all that un-Durer-ish overpainting. …