Durer Walked in Two Worlds He Joined German and Italian Renaissance Sensibilities to Take Art to a Higher Ground

Article excerpt

GIVEN the St. Louis Art Museum's current absorption with Italian things, you might consider it peculiar to hear that one of the most compelling exhibitions on view there now is devoted to an examination of art created in Germany.

This show is "Men, Women and God." It is an assembly of German Renaissance prints drawn from the museum's print cabinet and other collections in St. Louis and hangs in the Cohen Gallery on the upper floor of the museum's east wing.

Although a number of artists are represented, the great genius of the day - Albrecht Durer - dominates this show of late 15th- and early 16th-century art, and the examples of his work chosen for exhibition could easily form an exceptional show on their own. Because of Durer's artistic ownership of "Men, Women and God," it is interesting to contrast this show to the bath of warm Italian light that fills the special exhibition galleries downstairs, the show called "In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open Air Painting." The pictures of "In the Light of Italy" were created about three centuries after the prints of "Men, Women and God," yet they have in common the fact that, in varying degrees, Italy had some influence on their creation. All the painters in the open-air show were inspired by what they saw in the hills and towns of Italy. Durer's take from his journeys south is more cerebral. The prints show is, by its nature, chillier, monochromatic. The vocabularies are harsh and disturbing; symbol piles upon symbol like participants in a rugby match. Although dazzling in their clarity of expression and the actual condition of the works, most of the subjects serve to admonish and threaten and frighten, while simultaneously provoking the visceral, emotional and intellectual satisfactions served up by genuinely great art. The culture out of which this art evolved would become entangled, in the early 16th century, in the great tug-of-war that was the Reformation. Although we tend to think of the Reformation in "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" rhymes and manifestos nailed to the doors of churches, the Reformation was a cultural volcano, a political and social hydra, a great riving of the social fabric of a huge chunk of Europe. Brothers turned against one another; uncertainty and anxiety produced by the sudden challenging of deeply held beliefs and loyalties galloped through the countries like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a subject Albrecht Durer presented with ferocity. Not all of this upheaval was esoteric or religious: The German princes who became Protestants did so as much to secure temporal power as to find the true path to salvation. Henry VIII's interest in the intricacies of theology sat in a pew way back from his front-pew interest in diminishing the astonishing earthly powers of the papacy and increasing the size of his treasury. Martin Luther, whom Lutheran-brand Protestantism has canonized and apotheosized with fervor equal to any saint-making in Rome, was actually very much like the art of this time. Luther and the art presented a dour Teutonic face and a tangle of recognizable images underlying the rather impassive and inscrutable visages, and hidden in the thickets of razor's-edge realism raged pitched battles between good and evil. Such warfare is evident in one of the most compelling images in this show. It is the "Tribulations of Saint Anthony," an engraving from 1470 by Martin Schongauer (c.1450-1491), who was an early influence on Durer. The engraving reveals not only the vivid perversities of the Northern re ligious imagination and the stoical, hit-me-harder face put on religions' saints and martyrs in the north but also, and extremely importantly, the extraordinary power of the line to communicate such spiritual longings and psychological pathologies. From this brilliant, tormented and technically masterful tradition emerged Albrecht Durer, and from it he ascended to far greater artistic glory. …


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