Sketches of Pain
Maughan, Philip, New Statesman (1996)
The Young Durer
Courtauld Institute, London WC2
After four years as a goldsmith's apprentice, Albrecht Durer asked for his father's permission to retrain as an artist. Luckily his father was a wealthy artisan in the "unofficial capital" of the Holy Roman empire, Nuremberg, and had been impressed by his son's aptitude for drawing. He agreed to pay for a second apprenticeship with the master printmaker Michael Wolgemut, after which Durer set off on his Wanderjahre, or "journeyman years," from 1490 onwards.
Wanderjahre were a kind of prolonged medieval gap year undertaken by artists in training, the purpose of which was to make contacts, undertake commissions and seek technical expertise from regional masters. By modern standards, Darer didn't go far. He learned to draw the creases, rolls and folds of drapery in Strasbourg and absorbed the intense, textured draughtsmanship associated with the Upper Rhine region in Basel. He made an important pilgrimage to the Alsatian city of Colmar to meet the painter and engraver Martin Schongauer, whose ideals of beauty and composition defined Durer's native Franconian drawing style.
Schongauer died before Durer arrived in Colmar but his influence on the younger man's early work is made clear at the Courtauld Gallery's exhibition "The Young Durer: Drawing the Figure". On entering, we see Schongauer's Madonna and Child on a Grassy Bench, a serene engraving in which Mary and the Christ Child are framed by a thatch fence, the intimacy with the viewer fostered by separating the figures from the landscape. Durer's imitation, The Virgin with the Dragonfly, is the next sheet along. He adds a dwarfish Saint Joseph, a rich, naturalistic landscape, wildlife and a luminous God the Father with the Holy Spirit above, destroying the intimacy of the original but demonstrating the scale of the capable young artist's ambition. The star of the show isn't Mary, or Christ, it's Durer.
The centrepiece of the show is a double-sided study of a Wise Virgin and Durer's left leg which the Courtauld owns. This is the nail on which the whole exhibition hangs. The Virgin is used to situate Durer in his creative milieu (there are many lamp-bearing virgins by other artists along one side of the room), while the curvature of the leg is a studied fixture that recurs throughout his later work. Far more striking, however, are two simple ink sketches on paper that seem to reveal something of the artist's personality--his seriousness, devotion and self-regard.
One is Durer's spectral Self-Portrait, drawn around 1491-92, when he was 19 or 20. …