by Brooks Riley
Personal experiences of art should not be foisted on others except in small doses, given that words can only provide semantic guideposts to such an experience. That’s why I never wanted to write a companion piece to my earlier one‚ Holding Albrecht. But recently I found myself longing to see Albrecht Dürer’s Paumgartner Altar again, which was nearly destroyed by an acid attack in 1988, removing it from view for over twenty years. After my earlier epiphany at the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich, holding and beholding the Dürer engravings up close in an empty room, with all the time in the world to delight in their intricate wit and daunting craftsmanship, I felt uneasy as I slouched over to the grandiose Alte Pinakothek, shouldering a dread of crowds, dread of the official museum-going experience, dread that my memory of Dürer’s paintings might have let me down.
It was one of those cold spells in May, some of which have names. Not the Eisheiligen of mid-May (five saint days of chill), and too soon for the Schafskälte of early June, this was just a no-name dreary day. I would be visiting old friends, not just the paintings themselves, but also the faces in those paintings. If you live in Germany, you see Dürer’s faces everywhere, the genetic variances of a Volk, still in circulation 500 years later. Just look at Oswolt Krel, a young businessman from Lindau. His eyes have darted to the left, his face a mask of worry over some transaction gone wrong. Is it 1499 or 2008?
The Alte Pinakothek is not my favorite museum. It exudes all the charm of a mausoleum, with its hundreds of cubic meters of useless space. In spite of being closed for renovation for four years in the Nineties, the museum failed to replace the tacky plastic strips glued to the bottom of every picture frame, identifying the painting only for those limber enough to bend over the rope barrier to read them. Such cheap labeling is unworthy of a museum which is otherwise world-class. But okay, I’m not here for the labels, I’m here to see the paintings. That too seems to be a problem on a cloudy day. The room featuring the two paintings I most want to see is lit by a skylight far too high to provide enough natural light to see them properly. Sadder but wiser, the museum has also placed ropes in front of every painting, not that a determined demented destroyer would ever be deterred by a textile barrier.
Now for the good news. The Paumgartner Altar has been beautifully restored, well worth the 20-year wait to see it again. My fear that it might be too colorful (a problem with many restorations) was laid to rest. As with so much of Dürer, this triptych is full of oddities, especially the center panel. Dürer seems to be working with his own brand of magic realism, deliberately defying the laws of perspective he knows so well, pumping the religious myth by dwarfing the mortals: not the ones who are naturally diminished by distance, but the ones in the foreground who are on a level with the Madonna and child—a depiction that suggests ‘toys-R-us’. (They so offended an Elector of Bavaria that he had them deleted in the 17th century)
At the back of the courtyard, a wooden cross haphazardly balanced on the ruin of an arch eerily foretells the holy infant’s eventual fate. Under the arch, two men converse, ignoring the nativity in the foreground. Behind them, the homey hillsides in the distance, framed by the arch, remind me of Jakob Wassermann’s biography of another famous Nuremberger, Kaspar Hauser. Dürer would have loved Kaspar’s reaching out to ‘touch’ the landscape outside his window in the tower where he was first housed, driven by his fundamental ignorance of distance and perspective, the side-effects of formative years of incarceration in the dark.
This nativity scene seems almost post-modern: Deconstructed elements of the story are present but do not add up to one—it’s more Neo Rauch than Northern Renaissance. No one is looking at the baby except its mother (with what looks like horror). The wee pious group below (all Paumgartners) seem to be looking in its direction, but it’s doubtful they can see anything with all the cherubs flocking around the baby. Whatever Dürer was after, the center panel cares more about geometry and solids, location and dislocation, distraction and indifference, distance and proximity, incident and discourse than it does about its holy subject: It’s an intriguing mess that raises more questions than it answers.
As odd as it is, nothing about this triptych’s center panel can compete with the two Paumgartner brothers left and right of it, about whom I wrote in my earlier piece. In spite of their sartorial splendor and a dead dragonette, they look like who they are, wealthy burghers of Nuremberg with other things on their minds. They are the cinema verité for whom Dürer cares the most. They are bigger than life but not idealized. No fantasy landscapes inflate their origins (although said Elector had them added in the 17th century). Without a context, the two come across as recognizable human beings, with clear fraternal differences that could tell tales across the centuries.
It’s this absence of context that makes Dürer’s self-portrait from 1500 so powerful. It seems to be saying: ‘Do not look at where I am, look at who I am.’ He painted it at the age of 28, the year he officially achieved manhood (a late Bar Mitzvah by today’s standards). His maturity is evident, especially compared to the self-portrait two years earlier, in which a foppish young narcissist dresses up as a wannabe Casanova complete with Italian landscape outside the window.
When I was young, I thought the Dürer of 1500 was looking at me. Now I know he’s asking me to look at him (You talkin’ to me?). ‘I am a man now. See me as I really am.’ Dürer was already famous and successful. Until 1500 that fame had probably gone to his head. But now he’s moved on, he’s no longer the rock star. The Dürer of 1500 is the one who will write 4 books on geometry, another 4 books on the human figure, the one who will correspond with Erasmus, Rafael and probably Piero della Francesca, the one who will lean in to Luther, the one who will write a thesis on aesthetics glorifying the genius of the moment over the painstaking failure of effort.
The man who invented the logo will make fun of his own invention. The man who loves geometry and math (his books were the first books on mathematics to be written in German instead of Latin) will lampoon his obsessions in the bewildered gaze of a young Melencolia. The man who looks like a wise young hippie of my generation will document his travels in breathtaking watercolors no patron would deign to commission. The man with the acid pen will draw a rhinoceros from someone’s else’s description of it.
It is dark in the Alte Pinakothek on this dreary day, dimming the radiance I know is there. A painting can convey so much more than its visual vocabulary might suggest. As I strain to hold the gaze directed at me from Dürer’s self-portrait, I know what he’s thinking. I nod back.