lIn Albrecht Dürer’s print The Sea Monster, a woman, quite content with her lot, lies on the back of a bizarre beast as he swims away with her. He has a scaly body, a bearded human face and antlers. Wearing little more than a necklace, she puts her hand on her curvaceous hip as she watches the people screaming from the shore, in front of a fairytale castle on a steep hill.
It’s weird and it’s great. It also captures exactly what the National Gallery’s quest for Dürer’s wanderlust is all about — or would be if it worked. When Dürer engraved this about 1498, he eagerly incorporated what he had seen on his first visit to Italy a few years earlier. Born in 1471 in Nuremberg to the son of a goldsmith, Albrecht had just started his career when he crossed the Alps to Venice.
There he found a sexualized culture in which courtesans played a prominent role, recognized by pagan mythology. But Dürer doesn’t just bring the Renaissance to Germany. He transforms the wild. The sea monster takes Ovid’s tale of Europa and the bull and turns the (literally) horny male creature into a beast straight out of northern forest folklore.
In a nearby woodcut he portrays the Whore of Babylon as a real Venetian sex worker. Not that Dürer was heteronormative. On his next, more well-documented trip to Venice, he admired the physique and style of soldiers. His German friends teased him for picking up the manners they attributed to Italian artists (“Florenzer”, Florentine, was a German word for homosexual) and joked that he grew his beard to impress his student.
Unfortunately, not much of this comes through in Dürer’s Journeys. It sounds like a great idea – a micro-history of the Renaissance through the eyes of an artist who loved to travel, first to Italy, later to the bustling Atlantic harbor of Antwerp where he met people and works of art from outside Europe. But it doesn’t tell that story well and doesn’t let us feel the power of those piercing eyes.
It’s not so much a magical mystery tour as a staid slog. It will impress traditionalists as a no-nonsense dive into art history, free of annoying wall texts exposing the past – this show only references the grotesque anti-Semitic caricatures in Dürer’s Christ and the Doctors by explaining that the evil scholars “often became caricatures of Jewish people during this period.” Clearly there is no modern resonance against this Jew-hatred of an artist who came from Nuremberg.
For all its apparent seriousness, this exhibition fails to take you to the heart of Dürer. It even made me doubt my admiration for his art. The old-fashioned fustiness—some rooms painted brown and brick like they make you feel like you’re in a dusty library—can’t hide a lack of obvious arguments.
The problems start even before Dürer sets off. However far he traveled, he always came back to his starting point, Nuremberg. Yet we don’t get much of a sense of what life was like there: the walled community with its prayers and festivals; the local market where Dürer wasn’t too proud to let his mother whip his woodcuts.
That lack of any sense of place pervades a large room on his second trip to Venice. You have to pinch yourself to realize that Giorgione painted his provocative portrait of a bare-breasted young woman (Laura) in Venice when Dürer was there in 1506, and Titian made his bones as Giorgione’s young rival. You can’t tell from the assortment of dull paintings why Dürer went there or what there was to see.
For all its ostentatious scholarly appearance, this exhibition completely misses the point of Dürer’s travels to Venice. It was this: not only excited by the freedom and sensuality of Venice, Dürer in Italy struck a new idea of the artist. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael reached the heights as did Giorgione. With all these geniuses around, someone had to define genius itself—to consciously portray the artist, no longer as a servile craftsman like Dürer’s father, but as a divine spirit with mysterious creative powers.
It was Dürer, who saw the Italian Renaissance from the outside, who worked this out. He is the first artist who was aware of life in a Renaissance – and who explicitly puts forward the idea of the modern artist, the genius. That’s almost lost here. But you can see it in his print Melencolia I, borrowed from the Fitzwilliam, Cambridge. In this unforgettable image, Dürer personifies the genius as a woman with her face in the shadows, her head resting on her hand as she sits paralyzed between mathematical and sculptural tools. It’s a very insightful interpretation of his Italian contemporaries Leonardo and Michelangelo who took pride in not finishing the art because it proved they were free spirits, not craft hacks. Dürer celebrates the creative melancholy of the genius waiting for inspiration.
Then we go to Antwerp and Brussels. But the freshness and directness of Dürer’s own diary of his journey to the North Sea is completely drowned out by a pedantic series of drawings. And really, hadn’t the National Gallery failed to bring this long-ago time to life? I’m not advocating a theme park boat trip on the Rhine, but couldn’t they have at least brought along some artifacts to get a sense of the wonder of it all? For it was in the lowlands that Dürer saw the gold, turquoise and feathered treasures of Moctezuma, sent by Cortés as booty to the new Emperor Charles V. He was amazed and humiliated and wrote of his admiration for “the craftsmen of distant lands”. It is the most startling tribute ever paid to extra-European art by a European Renaissance artist. Some Aztec art from the British Museum is said to have set this show on fire.
It is currently fashionable to attack exhibits that uncomfortably pull the past into the present, reminding us that 18th-century Britain had a slave trade. But the past can also be killed by conservatism disguised as austerity.
Sometimes I lost track of Dürer here. Traveling along the North Sea coast, he writes in his diary, he got stuck with other passengers on a boat that was suddenly pulled into the sea by a storm. With everyone paralyzed, he took charge and commanded the ship until they reached safely shore. With each exhibit burying the excitement of the Renaissance like this one, this dazzling era gets further away, as if Dürer hadn’t saved that ship and we watched its strong features disappear into the mist, not receding with a cancellation but a respectful wail.
Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist is on display at the National Gallery, London, from November 20 to February 27.