Albrecht Dürer changed the print landscape forever
In series 2 episode 3, co-hosts Ann Shafer and Ludwig Tru begin a history of Western prints with Albrecht Dürer. While there are artists of note before him--say Martin Schongauer--Dürer changes everything. From his monogram claiming authorship to marketing his works, Dürer is the man. So much so that Ann and Tru only get through half of his story in episode 203. A second episode concludes Dürer's story.
Images discussed are below along with their credit/institution.
Episode image: Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). The Fall of Man or Adam and Eve, 1504. Engraving. 25.1 x 20 cm (9 7/8 x 7 7/8 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Martin Schongauer (German, c. 1435/50-1491). Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons, c. 1470-75. Engraving. Sheet: 30 x 21.8 cm (11 13/16 x 8 9/16 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). Self-Portrait at Thirteen, 1484. Silverpoint on prepared paper. 27.3 x 19.5 cm (10 3/4 x 7 5/8 in). Albertina, Vienna.
Jan Van Eyck (Flemish, active 1422-1441). Portrait of a Man (Self-Portrait), 1433. Oil on oak. 26 x 19 cm (10 ¼ x 7 ½ in). National Gallery, London.
Hugo van der Goes (Flemish, c. 1430/1440-1482). Portinari Altarpiece, 1475-76. Oil on wood. 253 x 304 cm (99 ½ x 119 5/8 in). Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
Antonio Pollaiuolo (Florentine, 1429 or 1433-1498). Battle of the Nudes or Battle of the Naked Men, c. 1470-90. Engraving. 39.3 x 57.9 cm. (15 ½ x 22 3/4 in.). Cincinnati Art Museum.
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528). Self-Portrait, 1498. Oil on panel. 52 x 41 cm (20 ½ x 16 1/8 in). Museo del Prado, Madrid.
[DETAIL] Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528). Self-Portrait, 1498. Oil on panel. 52 x 41 cm (20 ½ x 16 1/8 in). Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). Self-Portrait, 1500. Oil on panel. 67.1 cm × 48.9 cm (26.4 in × 19.3 in). Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen - Alte Pinakothek München.
[DETAIL] Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). Self-Portrait, 1500. Oil on panel. 67.1 cm × 48.9 cm (26.4 in × 19.3 in). Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen - Alte Pinakothek München.
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). The Virgin Appearing to Saint John, from the series The Apocalypse, 1498. Woodcut. Sheet: 44.1 x 30.3 cm (17 3/8 x 11 15/16 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). Saint John Devouring the Book, from the series The Apocalypse, 1498. Woodcut. Sheet: 44.1 x 30.6 cm (17 3/8 x 12 1/16 in); image: 39.4 x 28.3 cm (15 1/2 x 11 1/8 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). Saint Michael Fighting the Dragon, from the series The Apocalypse, 1511. Woodcut. Image: 39.2 x 28.3 cm (15 7/16 x 11 1/8 in); sheet: 44.1 x 30.5 cm (17 3/8 x 12 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). The Martyrdom of Saint John, from the series The Apocalypse, 1511. Woodcut. Sheet: 39.1 x 28.3 cm (15 3/8 x 11 1/8 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, from the series The Apocalypse, 1498. Woodcut. Sheet: 39.3 x 28.5 cm (15 1/2 x 11 1/4 in). Baltimore Museum of Art.
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). The Vision of the Seven Candlesticks, from the series The Apocalypse, 1498. Woodcut. 44.1 x 30.5 cm (17 3/8 x 12 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). Rhinoceros, 1515. Woodcut. 23.3 x 29.2 cm (9 3/16 x 11 1/2 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). Four Female Nudes or The Four Witches, 1497. Engraving. 19.2 x 13.6 cm (7 5/8 x 5 3/8 in). Albertina, Vienna.
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). Nemesis (The Great Fortune), c. 1501-02. Engraving. Plate: 33.5 x 23.3 cm (13 3/16 x 9 3/16 in); sheet: 36 x 25.9 cm (14 3/16 x 10 3/16 in). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). The Fall of Man or Adam and Eve, 1504. Engraving. 25.1 x 20 cm (9 7/8 x 7 7/8 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
[DETAIL] Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). The Fall of Man or Adam and Eve, 1504. Engraving. 25.1 x 20 cm (9 7/8 x 7 7/8 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
[DETAIL] Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). The Fall of Man or Adam and Eve, 1504. Engraving. 25.1 x 20 cm (9 7/8 x 7 7/8 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). The Fall of Man or Adam and Eve, 1504. Engraving (second state). 25.4 x 19.5 cm (10 x 7 5/8 in). Albertina, Vienna.
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). The Great Piece of Turf, 1503. Watercolor and gouache heightened with white, mounted on cardboard. 40.8 x 31.5 cm (16 x 12 3/8 in). Albertina, Vienna.
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528). Praying Hands, 1508. Brush and gray wash heightened with white on blue prepared paper. 29.1 x 19.7 cm (11 1/2 x 7 3/4 in). Albertina, Vienna.
Platemark is produced by Ann Shafer
Series one co-host: Ben Levy
Series two co-host: Tru Ludwig
Theme music: Michael Diamond
Ann Shafer: Welcome to Platemark series two, the History of Western Printmaking. My name is Ann Shafer and I'm your host and I'm here with the fabulous…
Tru Ludwig: Tru Ludwig.
AS: Tru Ludwig. Now, if you've been following along, you know that Tru Ludwig and I taught the History of Prints on behalf of the Maryland Institute College of Art using the collection at the museum I worked at, the Baltimore Museum of Art. And so over, I don't know, 15 times, I think 15…
TL: 17, 18, if you really think about it, but 15 legit full boar…
AS: But it was a lot. So, nobody teaches it better than Tru. My plan is to talk through the history of Western printmaking, but honestly, when I started making the list, following along on the syllabus, I mean, it would be an endless, endless, endless list of episodes. So the plan is to have us talk to you about certain figures in the history of Western printmaking and probably moments in time and movements and things, and then provide you with either links or the images themselves on the webpage with the show notes, which is… What is it? Oh, platemarkpodcast.com. And before we get rolling, we're just going to do our usual, traditional positionality things. I identify as a cis-het, white woman and I use the pronouns she/her. We are recording this at the Purple Crayon Press in Baltimore, Maryland, the land of the Piscataway Conoy people.
TL: Indeed. And I'm Tru Ludwig. I identify as a gay, white male. I'm from Iowa, but I live on the East Coast. I think my positionality as a Midwesterner has a lot to do with my making and my doing and my thinking and my work.
AS: Well, it pops up every time we do the positionality statements.
TL: I can't help it. Well, that's my position and I’m sticking to it.
AS: Tru is from Iowa, hear ye hear ye. Okay. So in order to keep this to a manageable, bite-sized sort of thingy-o-bob, where you are going skip stones across the history of Western prints. So when, if you've been following along, you should have listened already to some establishing episodes that talked about sort of the social milieu at the time. And the start of printing and also materials and techniques, right? And some other stuff that you should also listen to.
TL: Well, you could, if you chose to, but then again, you may just want to cut to the greatest hits, the best parts. When you get your first big star, like Albrecht Dürer, then yeah. Maybe you just want to go to the best parts.
AS: Okay. So one could inch back a bit earlier than where we're starting, but we're going to start with our boy, Albrecht Dürer. He's the man. He kinda changed everything.
TL: Kinda did. And it's interesting. I said Ann had to spell out for me, what is it that we're supposed to be covering in this? Because if we were going to talk about it as a history of prints class, we really would have to set it up. You know, we talked basically about how paper had become a commodity, a newish commodity in the Western part of Europe about 1400. And then we had mentioned our good old friend
Johannes Gutenberg. He didn't invent moveable type, but he certainly was the one that made it, put it on a map by printing the Bible about 1455 or so, for the very first time. It was only a mere three massive volumes, huge thick volumes, maybe 24 inches by 15 inches wide. And you know, having the idea and the use of a printing press to get scripture out there was a big deal. But also it made a need for images that could go with the text as well. And there were stand-alone prints. We talked about how certain people could, people with a few pennies to rub together, could go to pilgrimage sites and pick up a print of their favorite patron saint. Let's say it was St. Christopher, the guy that would be your patron saint of travelers, or Saint Sebastian, who would protect you from the plague. You would have this sort of as a pocket talisman. The early images in the history of prints tend to be fairly simple, maybe one person on them. But by the middle of the 15th century, there's a bit of an expansion of what images can be.
And artists… Actually at that time they weren't even really artists yet, because if you think about the history of prints, we don't start thinking of artists making prints until we get to people like Martin Schongauer, and Albrecht Dürer, and you start realizing these by the end of the 15th century, it's where the artists that were painters and had other aspects of a trade, an artistic trade, could look to prints and use them as an ancillary part of what they did or try their hand at them. But it was really Albrecht Dürer who just flat out… Yes, he was a brilliant painter, but he realized he could make a whole lot more money with his prints. He was smart enough, savvy enough, to figure out a way to reach a broader market than anybody had ever managed to before. I mean, he was a shrewd businessman and really quite visionary in putting together the zeitgeist and his skills and what he had in his command and the forces that he could muster. The fact that he, well, it doesn't hurt that you'd come from a ton of talent.
AS: Well, also he's got publishing houses left and right around him. Nuremberg was a center for that, but also members of his family were…
TL: All right, so let's just dial back to little Albrecht being one of 17 children—shout out to Mom. Maybe not all of them made it to maturity, but he certainly was the biggest hit. Others in the family had also learned the goldsmithing trade from their father. And that was common to be an apprentice to your father or a family member, an uncle or so. In class I love to show them a picture of various items that a goldsmith would make. And Albrecht having done this at silverpoint of himself at age of like 12 or 13. And it's just ridiculous. A self-taught person whose incisive vision… You know picking up a piece of silver and making marks on a piece of prepared paper, a little self-portrait. It's so winning. It's just full of his own vision of self. You can see him running his eyes over every aspect of his own physique, of his nose and the slant of his eyes and the pudginess of his young flesh in his face. And this finger pointing out at the world as though he's going to take it all on. And this is just essentially a pre-teen figuring out, “Hey, this is cool. I can do that.” And by the time he's 15, his Dad says off you go, I've taught you everything I know. And so he's done apprenticing to his father and then we get to Ann's point.
AS: My question is how good were the mirrors at this point to give you an accurate image to draw from?
TL: You know, that's an excellent question because if we were to look at some of the great, what we would, air quotes, fine art painters, such as Jan van Eyck. Essentially the Northern Renaissance artists have a mode of looking. I like to have my students learn the term omnivoyant. Meaning, they see everything, they see the surfaces of everything, they see from the tiniest dew drop on a leaf and every vein in the leaf, all the way to the macrocosmic, you know, the billows of a cloud. And they're able to put that onto a painting, painting it onto a wooden panel where every single jot and tittle before your eyes is visible. If you're Jan van Eyck and it's a self-portrait, which—I don't know if you've seen that, Ann. Have you seen the self-portrait of Jan van Eyck? It's in the British Museum, no, it's at the National Gallery in London and it is a whopping, oh, maybe six by eight inches.
AS: Remember when we were there, it was really crowded, and we could hardly see the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait?
TL: Oh for crying out loud. It's the self-portrait of Jan van Eyck in a red turban. It's eerie because you see the stubble on a man's face. You see the feathery kind of wrinkles around his eyes. You see his gaze straight at you. And it… The mirrors have to have been pretty good because he could record that, you know, and if you were to say, gosh, how could they see such things? Well, you know, you actually do see little moments of people holding magnifying glasses and whatnot when they're trying to read. If you look at any kind of medieval manuscript, all the marginalia, all those beautiful little drawings of whatnot, it’s this idea of looking at things with incredible precision and making the tiniest marks. That was something that the Northern artists had always been really exquisite at doing. And so, in a way, I think that Albrecht Dürer was an inheritor of that. That sense of being able to capture and replicate with your drawing, hand, everything in your sight, but nothing was unworthy of being scrutinized and then put to paper. That's why, when we look at this youngster, this self-portrait, it gives you a huge salvo of what this young man will do when he gets out into the world and can do something other than just drawing himself. He's an inheritor of a very rich tradition in the North in terms of wonderfully rendered drapery and beautiful hair.
There's an oil painting tradition in Northern Renaissance art, which is just absolutely exquisite and actually outstrips anything Italy was doing at the time. And yet, we don't always know the structure of the body underneath the drapery. We don't always know just exactly how the body will move in space, but it was Albrecht Dürer who managed to take all of the mastery of vision of the North and the way it was applied to the surfaces of things and traveled to Italy and realized, oh, this is how my Italian counterparts are doing it. They're used to a different culture of understanding the body nude. Being able to depict a nude body because they see the sculptures of antiquity around them or this completely different mode of rendering things in physical reality, understanding the proportions of the human body in perspective.
AS: My theory has always been that it was too cold to pose nude in the North.
TL: I always tell my students that—they're always swaddled in drapery. It's a great way to get around. Like I say, like when you were in grade school and you need to draw a picture of yourself, you didn't want to draw hands because you knew you'd suck. You just put them in your pockets, right. Or you have your hands behind your back. Our Northern Renaissance artists really convince us that they look fabulous under all that drapery. But it was also because in the North, the textile trade was so huge. I mean, there were all of the beautiful woolens because of the wool that could be imported from England.
And yeah, it's pretty damn cold up there. It was Dürer’s ability to think… He was the first artist to become an international celebrity. Nobody in his time, nobody in Italy would have known an artist in the North at all, really, until he crossed the Alps. That’s the first thing I always tell my students, the big volley was when some Medici bankers that had been up in Bruges purchased the Portinari altarpiece and brought in south. This big, gorgeous altarpiece was painted with beautiful colors and wonderful figures in a landscape that was gorgeous. They put it into their chapel, the Portinari family chapel, and the Italians would have gone, oh God, that oil paint is so gorgeous. The scrumptious those colors are. What are these tempera paints that we've been using for kind of, you know, dim and real pretty, but they're not sensuous and succulent. And frescoes looked great. But look at that oil paint, it's sexy, but what's wrong with these Northerners man, those bodies all look pudgy. And here's another joke: if it's Northern art, Northern Renaissance art, do you know how you can tell? Everybody in it looks like Putin. They do actually, they do. Even the Christ child does. And that's real drag if you don't like Putin.
AS: But I love the differences in… That people forget that the differences in styles between the North and the South are more driven by materials and culture and what's at hand rather than some, you know, decision about aesthetics.
TL: Oh, absolutely. It really is. And it was Albert Dürer who permeated the Alps. But I want you to think about somebody that… Dürer was born in 1471. He's with his dad and his dad says, off you go, you've done a beautiful job, but now you've got to go learn something. And he shoves him off to Michael Wolgemut, who happens to be a printmaker who's working conveniently in Albrecht Dürer’s godfather's printing press. Anton Koberger had one of the biggest, most successful presses in Nuremberg. Well, Nuremberg. That's not that far from Wittenberg and Mainz where Gutenberg was printing.
Dürer was at a perfect moment to be able to absorb these things. And, you know he was a total sponge. Sort of like an artistic cocklebur. He could stick to a thing until he got it. He really understood it. It's interesting to see his Northern traditions in his drawings and his woodcuts and he's doing a serviceable job. He has apprenticed and then they cut him loose when he's 19. And he does his wanderjahre. He's a journeyman, he's no longer an apprentice. He's a journeyman. And that's the second part. If you're going to work your way up in a guild, you start as an apprentice, you go to a journeyman, and then you become a master. And how do you become a master? You do your masterpiece. The way you gain entrance into the local guild is that you have to present your best work to date, and you present it to the members of the guild.
If they decide that it's good enough, they vote you in. And that work you showed them is your masterpiece. And so if we think how that's a certain form of validation. That's pretty huge. Well, so Dürer’s done his apprenticeship. He's going to go be a journeyman now. And he's 19, and he has to go start selling books for his godfather. And then he decides I want to go visit one of these other printmakers I just heard about. He's so cool. His name's Martin Schongauer. And he's done these prints. I've seen this print, it's a Temptation of Saint Anthony and it's amazing. Nobody's ever seen anything like that. You imagine the best creatures out of Dr. Seuss yanking and pulling on this wizened old man, as he's being raised up in the air by all these hideous little creatures that are snapping and snarling. They have hunker-hootie noses, and one of them knees and has his little unclad bum hanging out and plenty of drapery and their yanking on his beard. It's just this amazing image of St. Anthony being tormented. St. Anthony's face is as calm as it could be. And I think what happened was the Dürer saw that image and thought “it's a print.” Because Schongauer was actually a painter, but he had started doing prints. And so Albrecht wants to go visit the man that made this cool print and then some other gorgeous prints, which we won't even allude to. And he gets to Strasbourg to meet him, and what's the problem, Ann?
AS: Schongauer’s dead.
TL: Dammit. So he's made this trip from Nuremberg and he's wandered all the way over there to Strasbourg. He ended up working in Basel for a while, trying to sell some books for Uncle Anton. And eventually he decides, you know, I think that the art up here just looks kind of stodgy. And I think I should go find out more about what's going on in Italy. And so he goes over the Alps. Imagine walking over the Alps. You're a whopping what? 23 years old. And you're like, I've heard there's a bunch of Germans down in Venice because… There's a whole bunch of mercenaries down there, and you could hire them. It's really fascinating. In fact, if you look at some of those Bellini paintings, like The Tempest, that's a German mercenary soldier that's standing there looking at the—well, we would call a Roma now—but the gypsy woman nursing her child. So he goes down there to see what's going on down there. And he wants to learn about this guy named Bellini and some other painters. Just think about walking. You take your junior year of travel, and you walk across the Alps, and you walk over to Venice and start looking at what the artists are doing and start looking at the difference in the countryside. And you start looking at how nature looks different. And you know, I just can see the eyeballs on this young man just jiggling with delight and his records of these journeys are really something.
Ann was reminding me earlier that Dürer is one of the best documented artists we have with all of the copious notes that he took and the travel records that he kept and the sketches that he does. And then in the artwork that he subsequently produces you can say, he totally saw that in Venice. But he does a great cover of it in his own work, adding the Italian sense of structure and knowledge to the Northern sense of wanting to put all of the most beautiful cladding all over something. He really marries the North and the South in a way that never been done before. And it makes him just magnetic in terms of what's possible?
AS: Yeah. He's okay. So we've gotten to Italy when he's 20 or something. 19.
TL: We’ve got to give props to his godfather in the publishing business. That means that he's understanding what is a publishing business, what sells. You don't just print a whole bunch of something and just let it sit around because you had to make the paper, you had to cast the type, you had to set the type, you had to print every bloody page. You had to sew that stuff together. You had to make all of that happen. So you're not just going to make stuff because “I'm an artist and I think it's important.” You gotta know your, as Ann would say, read your room. And so, that's something that Dürer figures out and if you start…
AS: And that's a first, really.
AS: That needs to be emphasized.
TL: That we're aware of. It's the first of its kind. And what's really fun to do when I'm showing things in class is I'll show an early work of Dürer, and then he saw this by Schongauer and how it influences what he makes next. And to just really see where he's been. Another thing that had totally dazzled him was just this Italian sense of the body underneath. But he had seen prints by Mantegna, I believe. He knew he wanted to meet Mantegna who was a great Italian artist, painter, a fresco artist extraordinaire, who had made very few prints, but extraordinary engravings. Well, he wanted to meet Mantegna. He wanted to understand how Pollaiuolo had made this Battle of the Ten Nude Men, where you have 10 male figures in maximal pumped-up motion as they're fighting each other, nude, in front of a backdrop of corn or sorghum. It's a lesson in how many different kinds of weapons can guys brandish at each other. And how many positions can the human body be seen in any one space. It’s brilliantly composed. That was something else that Dürer absolutely adored about Italian art was that the structure of the paintings, the compositions made so much more sense than the way images were laid out in the North. That Italian sense of the stability of arranging things in a pyramidal structure. Perspective, how to render objects convincingly that look as though they are in three-dimensional space, even though you're looking at a two-dimensional surface. Dürer is the one who really put those lessons together. In fact, late in his life he would publish several treatises, one on human proportion and another one on perspective, another one on battles and fortifications, that's not fair. And then you start thinking, huh? This guy knows a whole lot about a whole lot of things. That would be why we might call him a Leonardo of the North. Because he, in some respects, really aspired to be as Leonardo and have all of those various kinds of knowledge. It's rumored that they met in 1505 when Dürer went over the Alps the second time. Putting together all the best, best, best ideas that you can find in a far-away place—going to Mars and finding all the best stuff and bringing it home and making it work—would influence his ability to create and render and teach and make.
AS: I don't think I really, I mean, I know those illustrations that must have come out of those treatises, but I don't think I realized that he was writing the text.
TL: Yeah. Some of them were published posthumously, but the other thing that's very interesting is when you look at… There's one drawing that he does of the figure scene from above. And they're topographical maps and he is seeing as we would a computer, they look like computer generated drawings because he can understand the top of the head. That's the circumference of the head. Then we go down, we get to this width of the shoulders and how the shoulders are positioned over the midrift. And then the feet underneath. He can see, like Leonard, in three dimensions and be able to understand that and really understanding the concept of human proportion, which is another thing that made Italian painters so dazzling to him because the bodies made sense in space. They could stand on their own two feet. He learned things like the marvelous concept of a contrapposto pose. This S curve. When you stand in line at the grocery store do you stand on both feet stock still, or do you put more weight onto one foot and relax. One of your legs is tense and the other is relaxed. And the other part of your body responds to that. And one arm will be tense and one will be relaxed. There’s a beautiful S curve and understanding how the body can hold itself in space is something that Dürer really figured out. Ann and I are looking right now--I wish you could see them—at two self-portraits. One that he had done early in his career. And then one that was very evidently done after his Italian trip. What do you see in that first portrait? The one on the left?
AS: Well, it's certainly well done, but the proportions are kind of weird. The shoulders are bizarre. The faces, the necks are too long. I don't know. It's weird.
TL: What's wonderful about it. Look at how the hands were folded. The hands are brilliant, where they're folded in those gloves. Here's something that the Northern artists did before the Italians was that three-quarter view and the view through the window, having that landscape that we see through a window. But the three-quarter view was not something Italian painters were doing until much later in the century. Italian portraits were almost invariably dead-on or in extreme profile as though they were medallions, like on a coin or on a triumphal arch. The Italian painters went, “ooh, these Northern artists are doing three-quarter poses and I get more of a sense of you.” And then if you look at the portrait that Dürer does, his self-portrait from 1501. It's at the Alte Pinakothek.
AS: The one that's at the Alte Pinakothek is full frontal. And he, honest to God, looks like pictures that you see of an imagined Jesus Christ. And he's got his hand on the fur lapel of his coat. But in my brain, it's always the blessing hand. Hilarious.
TL: It's well, it's hilarious, but it's also such a wonderful literal conceit, right? What's one thing you can see in both portraits is that “man, I have some gorgeous hair,” right? His beautiful ringlets with gold filaments.
AS: He looks like Chris Cornell from Soundgarden.
TL: Okay. I'll take it. But it's interesting to see that in the second portrait, he wants to recreate himself as an artist and have the kind of respect that Italian painters had. And that was not a tradition in the North. People didn't regard painters as great stars in the North at all. They were more of a craftsman set.
AS: Were there self-portraits in the Italian schools by then?
TL: Yeah, yes, but it's not like that Jan van Eyck portrait from 1434. That's one of the very first and it's minuscule. And it says, even though it looks bizarrely photographic, it says Als Ich kann. I've painted to the best of my abilities. Well, it’ll make you weep. It's so unbelievably convincing and true to site. And one of the things that Dürer picked up from that was the painter’s looking right at you and he's taking everything in, and you get the glint of the window frame in the eye. And by golly, it's also in the eye of Dürer in this Alte Pinakothek one. You are forced, it totally demands that you walk up to it, and you go, ooooh. The down of the fur, his beard is a softer kind of a whisker. And then you notice that there is this window. Literally it forms the highlight of his eye. And you understand that fur, this marvelous kind of mink is there. And look at what he did to the back where he left all the background out, he painted it away. You don't even need that. All you need to do is look at me. I am the creator. And that was that Northern sense of the artist as creator. I see everything in God's sight, and I will help you understand what all God has made. And there's a spirituality to that when you think about the time and care and intensity and meditation lavished on an image such as this. Yeah, sure. We can chuckle about it, hey, it’s Dürer’s selfie. Or you could go, oh my God, look at what he's figured out here. Look at how hard he's looking down inside himself. It's a manifesto. This is who I am now. And that's in the space of three years.
AS: When you will see these, guys, it's that three-year bit. I had forgotten that. That is amazing. Well, and also the idea of artistic genius. Prior, they had all been part of guilds and it was a job job, not like you're sitting in your studio doing whatever.
TL: You don't just dream it up. Like I'm going to go to my garret till I shall make this. You’re part of a guild. In the guild, you have contracts. This is what your client wants. They want an altarpiece. They want these two patron saints, because those are the guys who represent my family. I want this many cherubs. I want it this size. It's going to go in my chapel, and I needed by X date. And this is how much I'm going to give you. And if you want a lot of blue, it's going to cost you more. It was a business business. But this is a young man. Think about going to Italy. You've walked across the Alps, and you want to go meet great artists and you see what they're doing. And you look at how the community respects the maker in Italy. And you look at how much better they're treated. Dürer says, “I'm going to bring that to the North.” And he does.
AS: The Italian painters were rockstars?
TL: Oh, certainly by the end of the century. Sure. So, who were the ninja turtles?
AS: Oh, right. Rafael, Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo.
TL: Donatello we think of more as a sculptor. But…
AS: A kickass one.
TL: He could do it in wood, he could do it in bronze, and he could do it in marble. You know, he can cross train and it's not fair. It's interesting also because he was so early. But even if you look at Donatello's work, you start realizing that he's an inheritor of the understanding of the human body unclad. He lives to be 80.
AS: Is that right?
TL: Yeah. That's another weird little thing I do is I like trying to figure out how long people are around and how long they had to create. And when was the greatest idea? There's a great book out there called Old Masters and Young Geniuses. In some respects, Dürer was a young genius. Then you think about somebody like Titian, who was still painting in his seventies. And you look at how his work changed over time. He should have been a ninja turtle too, by the way. He got whooped. Right. But I think they didn't want kids to be saying Tit-ian. So, you know, you go with Raphael and Leonardo and Michelangelo. You look at a painter like Michelangelo and who lives to be 89 years old. That's two lifespans. And Dürer, my buddy Dürer only makes it to 57. And I start thinking, having passed that age myself now, where are you as a maker? And in a way you're responsible for what you make at this point. You know, the reason these people are so astonishing is because they found the doors, they invented the doors to open and go through. They invented an entire new way of thinking, seeing, doing, and that's something that this young man figures… Cocksure. But then he does it and he transforms so many things. He gets back home. He's now back in Nuremberg. It’s 1498. He's trying to sell his paintings and they're okay. You know, if you looked at his paintings, they’ve got the brilliant, wonderful oil paint of the North, and he's regarded as a master. He's like, this is stupid. I don't make nearly as much for my paintings as I do for my prints, because you can make more.
And so here comes the part that just totally stokes me. Here's why Dürer is such a bad ass. He's been working for Anton Koberger, his godfather is in charge of a printing business. What do they print usually? Oh, Bibles and other things. There are histories and plays and sonnets and stuff that are going on out there, but largely it's going to be religious texts. Dürer decides to publish something. The Apocalypse based on the book of Revelations, the last book of the New Testament. It's going to have an image on the page. Might be a quarter of the page, maybe. Because it's about the scripture and it's going to be one small image on the page and then maybe, you know, a column and a half of text. And Dürer, let's see, it's 1498. All right. So he's 27. And he thinks “I’m gonna make an Apocalypse, I'm going to do a book about the end of time.” The Apocalypse being the great revelation, the unveiling of… And in some respects, it is a day of woe. But it’s also a time when you come to see more clearly. And he thinks, “So I make this Revelations and it's going to be big. I'm gonna make a woodcut Revelations.” And the pages are all, I don't know, like 11 by 15 inches. That's a good size page. That's a big piece of paper, frankly. And he makes this kickass title page. Oh, by the way, the Baltimore Museum has all the pages of The Apocalypse. It has a nice title page. And then 15 other images that are the entire page. The entire page is filled with an image of St. John looking at God and heaven and the seven candlesticks, the seven tribes of Israel, or St. John consuming the text that's being handed to him by God, the father, or the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. And they fill the entire page. Dürer sold them two different ways. You can buy them with text or without the text, but the text was on the back. You could buy them as fine prints unto themselves, or you could get the texts, but it was on the back because his image owned the page. So in that sense, he created the first artist book. You can buy it single sheet, you can buy the whole suite, you could buy them with the text on the back. But that is brilliant. Not only that, he published them, not just in Latin, which was the language of the Church, but what else?
AS: In German.
TL: Auf Deutsch! Why?
AS: The language of the people.
TL: So you mean so the people could actually have access to the end of time and understand what this great moment would be when all is judged. That makes sense. And here it is 1498 and it's the end of time. Hmm. Wonder why he's so smart that way. Well, gosh, that's two years before 1500. Now, if you were a person living in the north of Europe at the time, and it's the late Middle Ages and maybe starting the Renaissance when you're in there, you're still living in a world that's really based on scripture and that's a super hard demarcation. And that was going to be the year of the second coming and all would perish. It would be the end of time. It was time for the second coming. We had talked about the Nuremberg Chronicle in an earlier talk, that was published by Hartmann Schedel at (Dürer’s) godfather’s press. It was published in 1493, and the last seven pages of the book were left blank so that you can buy your book and you could write about your family and then you'd all be gone. So not only is it smart, it's also timely. It's the end of time. So that worked out and he designed all the images and he carved them and they're fricking brilliant.
AS: There's some debate about whether or not he carved them. But before we get to that, I want to ask you if you were to own one of these 16…
TL: Hell, that’s not fair.
AS: What do you mean? I mean, the obvious one of course is the Four Horsemen.
TL: Well, everyone would own that one.
AS: That's the one I’d own.
TL: Well, I mean, sure. The Four Horsemen. Okay, Ann. Why would you want to own The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse?
AS: Well, I think because it's… The seven candlesticks and the language of the book coming out of the mouth are good, but the Four Horsemen is very clear in that that sort of symbolism of the four horses has come down through popular culture. So it's more understandable for people who aren't mired in the scripture. And there's all sorts of fun, cool gewgaws and animals, and all kinds of weird stuff. There's ghouls and demons and the maw hell eating the Bishop.
TL: It's just delightful.
AS: It's amazing.
TL: It’s amazing when you think about it because it's a motion picture, too. These four horsemen, these four entities galloping from left to right, which instantly helps us carry our eye in motion, and you've got these four terrifying forms that are being carried across the picture plane by these beasts. These horses have beautiful legs. They're knobby. They have hair, you can almost sense the steam coming out of its nose. To the right, the first one on the right has got a bow, a bow and arrow. The second guy is wielding a sword. The third guy has got dangling behind him is a set of scales. And then in the lower left-hand corner is this scrawny little horse carrying the figure of death on it. So the guy with the bow and arrow is pestilence. That's the symbol of the plague because you got the plague by being shot with arrows. War would be the one with the sword. Who is the guy with the scales? What would he be? Well, if you got pestilence and you got famine. That's famine. Weighing of grain plus it's also weighing of souls at the same time. These terrifying figures are… They're just absolutely fierce in their mission. And in the top left corner, you see the voice of God coming down with these almost lightning bolts. God’s saying, “take care of this business and get it over with.” And these four horsemen are trampling over the people in front of them. And yes, it is the Pope being eaten by the maw of hell in the lower left-hand corner. Convenient little political thing there. And the Archangel Michael above is going “Go guys, go!” with these marvelous almost what I would call pie crust clouds. It's beautifully stylized. And yet it is such a phenomenal leap from any kind of image making that had come before because in cutting the wood, he's created something that looks like gray, as opposed to here's a place that's black and here's a place that's white. It's that he's managed to give a three-dimensional vitality to each and every object, animal, figure, motion in this. The tails are whipping in the breeze and the hooves are clearly going to land right on these poor twisted-up people that are already suffering. In the background, he uses horizontal lines that do nothing but carry our eye from left to right. It's packed full of activity. There's no eye-resting space. But of course, when it's the apocalypse, it's the end of time. I don't think you've got, “I need a resting place for my eye.” It's just not part of the way you need to sell an image.
AS: Well, true. But the size of it, the scale, and the amount of dynamic carving that's going on in there. You're absolutely right. It's heads and shoulders above anything that had come before it. And it's, I think it must have shocked people.
TL: Oh my God. I mean, that was going to IMAX when all you used to get to see with something, flickering on something the size of your phone, but without the graphics of your phone. Oftentimes in class I'll show the students a similar scene, a Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which was carved about 1450. And it's like, okay, this is what you're drawing of a person or the sun looked like in first grade, and this is after you went to art school. That's not to denigrate the guys that were carving in mid-century, these fellows had figured some stuff out. And I'm saying fellows, because I'm presuming they were guys. These folks have figured this out. But notice here that they are also carving the image and the text in the same block. And Dürer’s like, “no, I don’t want a text in there except for two little letters you should be really aware of.” What's he do right there center bottom big as life?
AS: He puts his monogram, A. D.
TL: It's so smart because the capital A D, the A is bigger than the D, Dürer the family name. It's Albrecht. It's impossible to miss, but it still works compositionally. It's almost like the fulcrum. Almost like the energy is all stemming from him. If you really look at the thing, looking almost like a metronome or a fan with everything rotating around it. It's all about me, but it is dammit, you know, and he figures this out and of course it's a dandy image for that. Now the other thing I do like to point out is that with woodcut, he had managed by looking at these copper engravings that Schongauer was doing, he managed to take that same fiercesomeness in all of the incredible fur and scales and fins and feathers and managed to recreate that in wood. And it's completely different things. I want you to try and imagine carving a really delicate image into a carrot with a kitchen knife. And that's essentially what Dürer was doing. It's miraculous.
AS: Oh, it was a single-edged knife, wasn’t it?
AS: No V-gouges.
TL: Nope. You have to cut around every one of those lines and so that's where you start wondering about how the hell did he manage to make those little tiny areas? So, yeah, of course it's the one that's got all the best juice. But (choosing one) that's impossible. So, the St. Michael, that's a great one, but I, because I'm such a biblio-whore, I'm a total book slut. We’re sitting in my new house. And I can't tell you how many volumes of books there are here. And they're all very important. But it's the one where we're St. John is being handed the text by… He's literally devouring the book. And you know, that to me really says, that's an understanding, it's a statement of faith. It's not as iconologically easy to read, but like the one we're seeing with St. Michael, he is vanquishing all of these hideous creatures. There's this gorgeous little Tyrolean landscape underneath it. That just says this is happening right around you, right over your head, be aware of that. But every one of those is… Yeah, it's hard to say. If you go online and you look for all 15 and you'd have to pick out your own favorite and you could, because he would have sold you a single sheet or he would have sold you all of them.
AS: I want one.
TL: I do too. I think they're probably out of a price range, but I still go for the dancing skeletons from the Nuremberg Chronicle.
AS: I haven't looked at the prices lately. I was interviewing another artist recently and we were discussing Dürer’s Rhinoceros and the prices on that. He believed that they were above $500,000, and I was like, that can't be, that just can't be. And I looked one up, of course. And it was from a 2013 sale at Christie's. It was $866,000 or something. But the estimate was $100K to $150K, and as Ben rightly pointed out, two people wanted that.
TL: That was one of the smarter things I've ever had Ben say. Ben has a marvelous little pithy way about him. Yes, somebody wanted that. But that (the Rhinoceros) comes later, that's 1515. We may end up having to do two days on Dürer.
AS: We may well.
TL: Because to understand, oh my God... Just think in your own mind’s eye, think about some voyage that you personally have taken that absolutely transformed you, that totally rocked your world. That changed the way you thought and saw and functioned. You personally, I'm talking to you, the listener. Ann is going to go, what, what do we mean?
AS: No, I'm trying to think of one.
TL: Seriously. And, that's the thing. You might think, gosh, I was what, 13 or 14? I could say it was something in the past year that totally transformed the way I thought. But the enormity of what goes on in our lives at any given time makes us receptive to something. Or how hungry are you for new information? How badly do you want it? And this is a young man who was not dumb. He knew he was already consorting with brilliant people of his own time. He was aware of the brilliant artists of the day. And he went out, he literally walked over mountains to meet them. Even if he wanted to go meet Mantegna, because that's why he went to Italy. And well, he was dead. I'll figure it out another way. So we're all the way up to 1498 and Dürer doesn't die until 1528. So he does a few other things after that. But the other thing I'll bring up just about The Apocalypse is that the first edition was published in 1498, both in German and Latin. And yet there was a second printing in 1511, only in Latin. I bet it was more expensive because it was well-known, and only the folks that can read Latin would want it or could afford it by then, because by then he's very, very famous. And he's wealthy enough to have a really fine four-story home in downtown Nuremberg with his very own indoor bathroom, unlike anybody else in the city.
AS: Was his press in the house?
TL: Yeah. Oh yeah. It's there. You can go visit it and you should. I'm telling you. It's really lovely, Nuremberg. Well, you know, they have really good beer there, too. They have a beautiful cathedral. It is that city that's right in the center of the Nuremberg Chronicle. So you can visit it, you know, as it was in 1493.
AS: Wasn't Nuremberg firebombed during World War II?
TL: The fact that so many of these things still exist. You would maintain Dürer’s house. Because he put all of this part of Europe on the map as a place to contend with. So here's this 27 year old fellow. The point also is of course the world didn't end in 1500 and now he's got this thing and what else is he going to do? Hmm. Another annoying thing about our buddy Dürer is that he could do not just the woodcutting (and I believe he cut those first blocks). I do. They're too hard. It's 1498. He's on the cutting edge. He's on the leading edge of what can “I make this knife and this piece of wood do?” And, so the formschneiders, the woodcutters, of the time had to learn to keep up with these folks like Dürer. It's entirely possible he didn't cut all the later ones. He would have been the reiser. He would have dreamt up the idea. And by the time he such a big hot shot, he maybe could have handed it off to a form carver, but let's talk about it when he's designing a copper engraving. Copper engraving, where you're plowing, you're literally taking that insanely sharp beveled edge of a burin and driving it into a copper plate. There is no way anybody else is going to carve that. What I'm showing Ann right here right now is an image from 1497. It's The Four Witches.
AS: Was it called The Four Witches or do we just assume now that it is The Four Witches?
TL: Admittedly, it's all part of the strangeness of its time. Let's see what Linda Hults, the one who knows it all… Four Witches, or Four Naked Women. There's your other title.
AS: Oh, Four Naked Women.
TL: What did I just say? Naked women? Naked? I don't think they're naked. I think they're nude. I don't think they look the slightest bit embarrassed.
AS: Is that the difference?
TL: Yes, you don't go to a nakedist colony, do you? You go to a nudist colony, right? He has this image of four women, essentially standing in a circle. It's also called the Four Witches for several reasons. Tell me what you're seeing? Go ahead.
AS: It's interesting. Because when we were showing this in class, I was always looking at it upside down. Today we're looking at a PowerPoint that Tru has on his computer. And for the first time, I'd never noticed that skull at the foot of the center woman. And I've also never noticed the oddness of this back on the figure on the left and what's going on over here?
TL: That’s a little bit of Hell. Okay. So there are four women. You're being very kind. But the oddness of that back, well, it's an opportunity for him to show nudity. And only one of them was facing towards us. They definitely seem like women that might've existed in the world around him, as opposed to Greek goddesses that were rendered by an Italian artist. I think this is a piece that he dreamt up to teach himself some things. I got to admit that the leg on the left on a woman with very strange back in the weirdly strange small buttocks that look very odd, that lower leg looks exactly like my late sister, Jeanette. She had these teeny little ankles and that's the formation of her leg. I mean, there are parts of that are absolutely convincingly human. The back on the one doesn't quite read, but I don't think he'd learned enough yet. The back on the woman in the center…
AS: The center is much better.
TL: Much better. Well, the right bun cheek as we're looking at her back. It's sort of drifting off a little. But is this a goldsmith’s son? Look at that hair. How beautiful is every curl? A goldsmith’s son would be able to do the kind of engraving you would expect to see on liturgical chalices. The beautiful decorations in her hair. And then the woman on the right. Actually, she's doing pretty well.
AS: The boobs are a little Michelangesque.
TL: A little Michelangesque. Yes. You mean like softballs glued onto… That was Michelangelo's gig. I told you that whole “Michelangelo, here?” story.
AS: I don't think so.
TL: Should I do a sidebar?
AS: We can do a sidebar.
TL: Alright, because remember big Mike is working at the same time, too, right? Because all three of the ninja turtles were alive at the exact same time that Dürer is working. In fact, our notes are telling us that Dürer and Raphael had a correspondence. But Michelangelo really did look to the Greek models for figures. But there's a scene actually on a very funny 1964 film, The Agony and the Ecstasy and book by Irving Stone. There's a scene where the soldiers of Julius II are trying to find Michelangelo because he's so pissed because he doesn't want to paint the ceiling and he he's run away from the Pope. So the soldiers are hunting all over Italy to try and find him and they go into a house of ill repute and they storm into this room and there's a prostitute who looks up and there's a man who pulls the blankets up under his chin and they say, “Have you seen Michelangelo?” And she says “Michelangelo, here?” Because they knew he was homosexual. Well, it's not like he spent a lot of time looking at women at all. And that's why those always look…
AS: They always look weird because he didn't have any experience with boobs.
TL: Well, why bother? He's not interested. Okay. But look at the beautiful turn on the neck of that one. Now the thought for this is that three of these witches are initiating the youngest one into their coven. There's a peculiar orb that's hanging above their head with O G H on it and then the year 1497, which could translate as, Oh God forbid. Why is he doing this image of witches? Hmm, this is cool. Well, women, you know, are problematic. And there had been a book called the Malleus Maleficarum that had been published in 1487 (translation: The Witch’s Hammer). It was an entire book about how to ferret out witches and punish them. It was essentially the Renaissance version in the Salem witch trials. And it was so conveniently published the year before at Uncle Anton's press. Well, it's hot. People are buying The Witch's Hammer. It had been translated in many languages. So he's made a print that tackles an issue of the day. Are they beautiful or are they icky? And the answer is yes. Yes and no. But it's engraved in copper. And another thing to remember about any carving, whether it's engraved in copper or a woodcut, is that there's a huge difference between what it looks like when you're carving it and when it's printed. The whole image has been reversed and on the human figure, boy, it can be wildly unkind. If we were to walk that over and shine it in the mirror, they might read a little bit more. But it is also an opportunity to see how insanely much he has learned between this print in 1497 and when he puts out the Adam and Eve in 1504.
AS: True enough. But my question is… It's not very big, right? It's eight inches, maybe by something. But who is going to want this in their home? Witch hunters?
TL: That's an interesting point because he's also developing the taste of the collector because you know, what was a print going to be? The concept of collecting prints was changing. And if people were buying engravings, that was the idea of having a collection of images now. It's not like you're going, “Ooh, I'm going to go home and worship my Four Witches.” You're going to pull a “Hey, come, let's take a look at these and ponder these small things.” Now here's a perfect example of patent evil. And look what they're doing and women are evil. It's a perfect way of blaming it all on the wife. It's a way of putting together a collection of things that dazzle and interest you. And I see him ferreting out a part of a market and training it in a certain way. It's odd. But I think we can't skip over it because I think it's an important learning piece. And it's an opportunity to see him not just doing churchy stuff. You see him doing a lot of churchy stuff. Well, obviously he wouldn't have… You don't make something and say, “oh, it was a dud,” and throw it out. There was something going there. So that's a big deal. And yet if we compare it to his engraving of Nemesis, which is something that would always get my students and make them limp in the knees. And this was only three or four years later. You can tell that this woman is definitely Northern European, definitely fed. She has that Northern European belly, which should make us all feel really great, you know. You don't always have to suck it in. Be a woman and enjoy the fact that your body does these things. But Nemesis is this almost jowly figure, would you say?
AS: Her boobs need to be about four inches lower.
TL: Maybe they're just perky.
AS: Super perky.
TL: Well, the thing is that the figurative proportions are based on Vitruvius. He'd been looking at Vitruvius, who was the classical Roman architect who had published his books of architecture and human proportion in the first century before the common era. Vitruvius is the same dude that was writing that book that made Leonardo decide he had to do the drawing of the Vitruvian man. You know, the guy that's standing there looking like a star in the circle in a square. There's these certain kinds of geometric truths that exist in the human body that Vitruvius and others would believe was an extension of that and that the true proportions of our body had spiritual meaning.
AS: I've always read this as really right on. Because I focus on her belly, her thighs, and her butt. But the boobs are now... I can't look away.
TL: You can't unsee them.
AS: No, they're weird.
TL: Well, do you know why they seem small? It's because the wings are coming out of the scapula. I would venture to say that if you were to think about the curve in the back, they wouldn't seem quite so small, but if you look at how he's managed to make it seem… You guys, there's a woman standing nude on an orb, which could be the world. And this globe is divided from this astonishing engraving of a Tyrolean town, beautiful town seen from a bird's-eye view with little Alpine, Bavarian houses and a river and trees and all this lovely normal world beauty. And here is Nemesis (she's also called The Great Fortune) standing on this orb and above the cloud line is this negative space. It's all white. All we see is this magnificent profile figure of a woman with a bridle in one hand. Look how important that piece of drapery fluttering behind her is because it echoes the wings that she's sporting. And in her left hand, she's got a bridle, in the right hand she's got this beautiful chalice. Her hair is all done beautifully. And she's standing there with both of these objects. Of course, we're going to ask why. But it's interesting. Nemesis, this is where you start asking why is he making this? It is not Joe blow who goes to church on Sundays who’s collecting this. It's people who read Latin and Greek. Nemesis is the figure that, if I recall correctly, carries the knowledge from Greece to Rome. It’s all part of the Humanists of the day. And it really shows you actually, how insanely well-read Dürer was. He was gobbling up all of the smarty McMarty kinds of reading of the time. And Nemesis is there. And why is she holding a bridle and this goblet, this big, gorgeous goblet, which a Goldsmith has clearly made? One is a reward and the other is a punishment, and it has to do with choices that you make. And it's very cryptic and we don't know entirely what it means. That's the beauty of things like this too, is that we don't know all of those meanings, but that's why you sit here and you study this and why is she separated from the earth below? And why are we given this translation from one state to another? And, but I'm sorry. It always goes back to the wings.
AS: Oh, they're quite astonishingly beautiful. And the print is big. It’s a really big one.
TL: It is good size. That's a big piece of copper, which means a big piece of paper. It's, if I recall correctly, it's more like 10 by 15 and it's a good size. It’s bigger than the Meisterstücke, than the big three, which we probably won't get to today. But here is a guy that's finetuning two completely different skills at the same time. That's not fair.
AS: Wood and copper.
TL: Yeah. I mean, it’s as if you were fluent in Vietnamese, right? And also be fluent in Urdu. They have completely different temperaments and sources and demands. They have different tools and a different kind of weight and speed and placement of the touch of the artist. And you have to understand what each of these substances will permit you to do and how far you can push them. Wood may just laugh at you. It'll break anytime at once. And metal, copper's going to say, sure, go ahead and put some marks in me, but don't sneeze. Don't be nervous. Don't be jittery because every mark you put in that has to be there the right place at the right time. It's like being in tune and you can't fix it. And there's no place in there that you could fix. The only way you can do it is scrape it out of the plate and that would show. The beautiful thing also is, if you covered up my Bavarian Nemesis woman, it is sort of the body, a nemesis of any woman who doesn't want to look like that. It's like, if you want to know what you're going to look like when you get older, look at your mom. Well, she's very mom-ly. And it's fine. She's beautiful and she's being represented. Let's think about that. You know?
AS: Well, her age is… She's not some young sprite or something.
TL: Who would be smart enough to deliver knowledge from one civilization to another?
AS: I love that he's paying attention to those kinds of details.
TL: Absolutely. And the details again, like all the bits of nature, just the things that he could see around him. Like those clouds. They're absurd. I mean, they turned from fabric into vapor. So that's 1501. Another thing I show my students is like, how acute is Dürer’s awareness of the world around them? How much time are you going to give yourself to really study something? And I remember going on about giving things time. There was this glorious exhibition of Dürer’s work down at the National Gallery. That's been 10 years now. They had this amazing… Watercolor was not something artists were doing at the time and Ann should be kvelling par excellence. It's a watercolor and it's big. It's closing in on 18 by 24. And it's weeds or it's yarrow. These are botanically correct specimens of vegetation that spring out of a moist kind of Earth. And he's given you that, and he shows you the way one blade of grass crosses over another and he pays attention to the spaces between these objects.
AS: The ground reversal is amazing.
TL: That’s absurd. And to spend that kind of… Dandelions, it's a weed, but they're not, you know. They weren't weeds back then. These were parts of the Earth that God made and he made every one of those things. Each one of those leaves has a certain shape and they have a function for why they're there. And oftentimes I will compare this to the way that Leonardo uses the vegetation next to the Virgin of the Rocks. That kind of understanding of have having actual nature visible in this highly spiritual space brings it to us. And it’s not, “oh, it's up there in Xanadu or someplace in the clouds.” It's literally called The Great Piece of Turf. I'm sure he didn't call it The Great Piece of Turf, but that's what it is. He’s noticing these things and the little… How long do you suppose to took him to paint that? Hours. How long do you think?
AS: Oh, God. Well, it depends on how facile he is, but it would take me days.
TL: It would take days. Even he would have spent at least a day on that because you'd have to wait for things to dry, go back in and pull them out, you've got to reserve your whites. And that's a watercolor. That's not even fair because that's a totally different skill than oil painting. And yet that kind of study and that kind of devotion. I really believe that when you make an image like this, anything that you took a great deal of time to render, it's a meditation. You shut everything else off. You can only make that if you are fully present at looking at that piece of soil and noticing every aspect of it and making it visible to someone else. And that's why Dürer is showing himself to be God-like. He is creating, he's recreating so a viewer would be able to have an entrance into an image. That doesn't even make sense, you know. That's a Northern Renaissance concept of how to make the world visible to everyone. Yeah. It's fairly exquisite.
If you think about an image of Dürer’s that you've seen, it would be the bunny, the rabbit. It's a lovely, lovely drawing with some watercolor highlights of a rabbit. It's just sitting there being a rabbit. And with enormous ears. It was done on 1502, it shows you what he's studying. If you think of the praying hands—you've seen remade in so many things—just looking at a pair of hands. They could be anybody's hands, but these two hands happened to be pushed together and they happened to be viewed from a certain angle so that they're praying. They've been put on postage stamps and wedding presents and necklaces and placemats and coffee cups and neckties. But you'll realize, “oh, I have seen his work” because his vision and taking that in is so important and it is happening at a time… We know these things in ways that we don't know about Leonardo, who had that same inquisitive eye, but Leonardo’s stuff was never published (like Dürer’s was). How do you guys put it in your world? Is it public facing? Dürer was always public facing. Leonardo was always in his head. And that's why I think these things were made. Artists have to notice those subtle nuances of nature.
Maybe we'll just stop after this one, because this is a pretty high point right here. 1504. This was essentially his website. This is a print that you should know. It’s called The Fall of Man. It's also known, well, you will know it as Adam and Eve. He engraved it in 1504. And I would say that it is maybe seven by eight inches max. Pretend you've never seen this. Describe to our listeners what you see.
AS: You have two figures, Adam and Eve. Adam is on the left as we look at him and Eve's on the right and they're both nude (not naked). Funnily though, they have conveniently placed leaves in front of their private parts. Right between them is a pretty straight tree around a branch of which is the serpent with the apple. Adam in his right hand is holding a branch upon which hangs a plaque that announces the artist's name.
TL: It's pretty funny. It actually says Albertus Dürer of Nuremberg made this in 1504. It's a big old plaque that's hanging on the branch and on the branch also is a parrot, which seems to be parroting: “Hey, Albrecht Dürer made this.”
AS: Oh, right. And then there are also animals. This is the moment—correct me if I'm wrong—this is the moment before everything goes to hell in a handbasket. Right? So, the cat and the mouse at the feet of the two figures are happily coexisting.
TL: The kitty. I love this print. Not just because it's exquisite, but also because the cat in the front is… You can tell it's a big old ginger Tabby, but it's quiet, almost asleep. And you know, maybe a foot away from it is a little mouse just hanging out. Adam is standing in this very nice, glorious pose. What's behind Adam?
AS: Well, there's a forest, and then there's an elk, a hare, a rabbit, and an ox.
TL: All of these are behind our hero and heroine who are immediately in the foreground. Dividing this plate almost exactly in half is a tree as Ann mentioned, with its snake twizzled around it. And, the snake is literally handing this fruit to Eve who is like, “oh, that looks interesting.” And Adam appears to have one also in his hand, but they haven't eaten yet. Remember God had said “do not eat from that tree.” That's the tree of knowledge. And if you do bad, things will happen. I always love the fact that it looks sort of like a birch tree and it looks like a very Bavarian forest. And I didn't know that we were in Bavaria, but this is a thick, deep, marvelous, like almost a black forest, if you will. The forest is deep and dark, so much so that the figures are coming towards us. They're so sculptural. He's managed to give us the magnificence of the male figure based on Roman copies of mythology. He's obviously been looking at Roman art.
AS: Isn't that the Apollo Belvedere?
TL: Yes, of course. “I traveled to Italy and they have these aces sculptures, but I'm just going to use that pose and I'm going to make it this guy with nice close-cropped hair.” And he's standing there looking so righteous. He's got a six pack—he got the right number of packs, too, you know, later in the century people lose their way. And he's perfectly proportioned. Then he’s got the perfect contrapposto. He's stable but moving fluidly. On the right-hand side is Eve. She's looking at the snake, who's handing her this thing and she's also standing in contrapposto. And while the figure of Adam is based on classical sculpture, Eve is sort of a Venus, but she also looks a tad more Bavarian. She's got those great high, small breasts.
AS: She's like a German version of a Botticelli.
TL: Well said. Especially because of the wonderful hair. I am the son of a Goldsmith. I have to show you this. They haven't bitten of the fruit yet because once they bite from the tree of knowledge, that's when they realize, oh my God, we're naked. And that's when they covered themselves up. At this moment, they're nude. They're beautiful. They're pure. They're the most exquisitely proportioned humans that God had ever made. And he gave them dominion over this entire garden and these animals, which are all signifiers of the four humors of humankind. It’s a medieval alchemical concept about the four kinds of humors in the human body that are in perfect balance. The world is in perfect array before they bite from the tree of knowledge. But once they do, it all falls to hell. Women will suffer in childbirth and men will hate to work and we will have original sin and it will last forever. This is such a marvelous, arrogant little moment. In the top right corner, way back in the top right corner, there's this little craggy mountain top. And on that mountain top, there's this little ram, it’s a mountain goat. And literally the minute they bite from that fruit, that goat falls off that cliff. The animals will spring up and the cat will start to eat the mouse. And the whole world will fall to hell. And it's balanced and it's calm and it's not.
AS: It's got potential energy all over the place.
TL: Oh my goodness. All of these, you know, like the the snake is not just the snake's body curled all around the tree, but also the hair though, even the bending of these two branches, which conveniently place little figgy leafys over their nether regions. Then even the parrot is sitting quietly for the moment. But the four humors that are in there are also highly symbolic. So, let's see if I remember this: the phlegmatic elk, the melancholy ox, the sanguine rabbit, and then the choleric cat is yellow bile. People who are mad and angry and crabby, they're full of yellow bile. Like when an old cat will be crabby And rabbits. Well, we know if you've got too much of that red blood flowing through you, you get to do what rabbits do a whole, whole, whole lot. So you become sanguine. The melancholy elk. If you have too much black bile, you're saturnine and depressive. Then the ox. Phlegmatic ox. You're listless and tired and you don't do anything. So if you're out of balance… You know people that are cranky. You know people that are always depressive. Or you know people that are randy little dandies. All of those things are what make us up. And when they're all in balance, we're lovely and perfect. And it's a namaste moment. But it shows you the fall of man. The thing that's so thrilling about this print is they found these images as far away as India. In Dürer’s lifetime. This was his best-selling print. And he gave this one away a whole, whole, whole lot. It was literally his website. He took this with him everywhere. And that makes all the sense when you look at how it: oh, look, this is the guy that made it in this year. And you need to know who I am.
AS: His full name instead of just his initials.
TL: Oh, absolutely. And the parrot is going “this is him, this is him.” The parrot of falsehood. It literally is doing all of that. And it's brilliant, beautiful fine art. I mean, this is a painter's drawing. It is a painting that just doesn't have color applied to it. It's everything that goes under a painting, like an Italian painting, because these figures make perfect sense, physically. They stand in space in their own two feet. You can sense that there's air going in and out of their lungs. This is a vibrant and alive, but calm world for this moment. And all it takes is a bite of that apple. And, but remember there were two sets of teeth marks in that apple. Don't blame it all on the ladies, even though they could turn into witches, you know. That's the thing, you know, it's the Renaissance after all.
AS: Well, but it's all translations and interpretations of words that have placed the blame on Eve all these years.
TL: And it's wonderful when you can print it a hundred bazillion times and have it go across the world. That's how you perpetuate an image. But look at all the new that's happening here. He's managed to weave so many of the tricks he learned in Italy with that steadfast Northern sense of, I will show you every leaf, every apple, even the splits... And I love this. It's a Birch tree in the middle of Eden. I didn't even know Eden was there. It's just, it's craggy, it's brilliant. And that will be something you need to spend a lot of time looking at. And, you know, since you live in the digital age, zooming in on one of these suckers is ridiculous because every tone that you see is made of a multiplicity of tiny lines or stippling in the plate with a tool. A man has pushed a sharp thing into a piece of copper.
AS: Yeah, it's all line. There's no tone in there.
TL: It's all built on touch and that nothing had existed like this before. Imagine this was 10 years before the big three that we'll get to next time. But you can see why this would be somebody's website. So what is it, 1504? So he's a whopping 33 now. And then the next year he'll go to Italy again. He's now an art star. He's made it big time and he's respected. People can get their hands on his work. And that means that there's a whole bunch of artists that are going to want to be as him, as well. And it's far and wide, man. Think about it. That's the best website you could ever make in 1504.
AS: He changes the role of the artist completely.
TL: We‘ve just seen him with just three images that we blathered about, you know. It could be churchy. It could be the end of time. It could be witchy. It's just fascinating. It's so exquisitely done and it's unbelievably original. It never existed before.
AS: They're stunning.
TL: Yep. And that's why we think he's cool. And that's why he gets to have two episodes. This was the Italian trip one episode. And so that's all we're going to do about it today. Thank you for listening and happy looking.
AS: I'll do my very best to get good images up or at least links to places where you can zoom in closely to see the line work on these.
TL: To do this is to use Ann's wonderful phrase: it rewards scrutiny. It truly, truly does. And you know, if you zoom in with your camera or your phone, or what have you, you'll realize that in any spot you go, whether you can recognize what's in it or not, you're looking at the most beautiful abstract that ever existed because of the ways that the directions that each mark goes emulate whatever object it is describing. If it's a soft muscle, it travels across the muscle to describe it so that it looks volumetric, three dimensional. If it's hair, it understands and wraps in and around the hair. It is about burrowing under every nook and cranny of what it is you're going to look at and figure out where the light will be. And then show that to the viewer. Every moment is worth... I mean, you could spend an entire day with this thing, and you would not be able to drink it all in.
AS: I know. I see new things every time I look at it.
TL: Absolutely. So, enjoy.
AS: Yeah. When I said let's talk about Dürer because he's the bomb. Like I knew he was the bomb, but you know, he’s the bomb. All right, folks, we're going to take a pause there and conclude the first half of Dürer. We'll get to him in the next episode and finish him up and then we'll skip along to someone else.
TL: We’ll figure out who else kicks the can of greatness down the road.
AS: There are many debatable figures along the way, but Dürer is…
TL: Pretty much cornerstone. He’s foundational. He takes a whole bunch of good raw material that exists on both sides of the Alps and then welds it all into a new way of seeing, presenting, marketing. He creates himself to be the artist that he wants to be. You know, he sets out to become an international star, and he does it. And then he doesn't stop, you know, because he's only 33, he's got another 24 years to go.
AS: Okay, thank you.
TL: Thank you for listening. Happy looking. I mean it.
AS: Thanks for joining us for Platemark series two, the history of Western printmaking, with me Ann Shafer and my cohost Tru Ludwig, who is our subject matter expert, as you can tell. The visuals for each of these episodes is going to reside on the show notes page for the podcast, platemarkpodcast.com. And in addition, I'm planning to include some links within the text that will lead you to places where you can zoom in pretty closely on some of these prints. So take a look and let us know what you think. You all could do us a favor by telling your friends about us to spread the word. We know there are a lot of print-interested people out there, so we're relying on you to help us get the word out.
Platemark podcast series two was produced by me Ann Shafer and our theme music is by Michael Diamond, who I thank for its use. See you next time.
Platemark series two History of Prints
Producer and host: Ann Shafer
Co-host: Tru Ludwig
Theme music: Michael Diamond
Show notes and website: platemarkpodcast.com
©2021 Ann Shafer