Divine Beasts: Ned Denny on How Albrecht Durer's Prints Turned Even the Rhino into a Thing of Beauty. (Art)
Denny, Ned, New Statesman (1996)
For an unofficial but illuminating prologue to the British Museum's Durer show, you need to go past the ticket desk, through the tapering Mycenaean columns and on into one of the strangest and most magical galleries in the building. In this long room devoted to pre-Hellenic Greece, among the rows of pots painted with electrified sea life and planet-eyed birds, is an image of a bull that forms a striking counterpart to Durer 's famous woodcut of a rhinoceros. Like The Rhinoceros (1515), the body of this majestic animal is divided into large, patterned sections that give the impression of chain mail or armour. It, too, has its horned head lowered, though less in a gesture of brute strength than of graceful submission to the bird pulling a tick from its neck. And whereas Durer's beast seems hypnotised by its own weight, by the inexorable pull of gravity, this 3,500-year-old bull seems to dance with a supernatural lightness. For all this, it's the rhino that is closest in spirit to the post-Renaissance mind, to a universe governed by the certainties of physical laws. While the creatures on the Mycenaean pots mingle with signs representing celestial bodies, the rhino gazes glumly towards a pebble. Star has become stone.
But as "Albrecht Durer and His Legacy" makes clear, this is by no means Durer's sole claim to modernity. More generally, he was the first artist fully to exploit the technique of engraving and the opportunities it gave for limitless reproduction. Where once an artist had to labour over an image that might be seen by only a handful of people, he could now lay down a template that would allow a multitude of perfect likenesses to take flight. The creator and the Creator were drawing closer. Using the markets opened up by the recent invention of the printing press, Durer made sure that his engravings were being pored over the length and breadth of Europe. Every image was authenticated by his AD monogram, which has some claim to be one of the first logos in the modern sense of the word. But whereas the logo as denounced by Naomi Klein sublimates something of little or no intrinsic value, Durer's productions are themselves sublime. People wanted them for their precise beauty, for their hallucinatory detailing, for the brilliance they gave to the old stories and myths. Above all, artisans wanted to copy them, to incorporate them into their own designs. Each official likeness sparked scores of lesser ones. …