by Brooks Riley
“They are shape, form, waiting to emerge. They present the plastic possibilities of life,” Albrecht Dürer said this of the pillows in various states of rumpled use that he drew on the back of a piece of paper he had been using to draw hands, wasting no surface to explore the ‘plastic possibilities‘ of everything. I see him wake up in the morning and look down at the pillow where his head had been, punching it a few times, contemplating the mutability of its form, and arriving at that morning epiphany about art itself.
The impression of a tousled head still lurking in the pillow’s shadowed indentation conjures a ghost whose presence can be felt if not seen, with an imagined long single golden strand of hair left behind within its folds. A hint of Dürer’s personality emerges from this fantasy, of a man who found wonder in all things—a pillow, a weeded piece of turf, a hare, a deformed pig, a rhinoceros, an iris, a beached whale. He would spend a lifetime exploring the elusive secrets of beauty and mathematics in nature, and nature and beauty in mathematics.
Personality is like ether, it hovers in the atmosphere long after death. Decades, even centuries later, long after the end of memories, traces of it move through the air like a fleet aroma caught at just the right odd moment. Where did that come from? It is elusive, and cannot be captured or bottled or even explained. Such is the personality of Dürer. It rises like a mist from a certain landscape seen from the train. It lurks in the amusing portraits of friends like Stefan Paumgartner as St. George, or Willibald Pirckheimer imbibing at the baths, or the selfie pointing to the pain in his spleen. It rages in two haunting, nude sketches of himself. Or radiates in that iconic self-portrait from 1500, which hung in his atelier, never for sale but as constant reminder of the perfection he would strive for with his self-proclaimed ‘diligence‘, that most German of virtues—a quasi-blasphemous Christ-like pose that sanctified his art through his person. Thomas Hoving once called it ‘the single most arrogant, annoying and gorgeous portrait ever created,‘ missing the point—or perhaps not. It was so life-like, Dürer’s dog ran over to it and started licking it before the paint was quite dry. Of the plethora of explanations for this work, I like to think he painted it in case the Apocalypse predicted for 1500 really happened. I will survive, it says. And he did.
In 1500, Dürer was exactly midway through his life, which straddled the centuries with poetic symmetry—28 years on each side of the century divide. Belonging to no school, and without wealthy patrons, he forged his own career and became a self-made man by selling woodcuts and engravings in marketplaces as far away as Frankfurt. At a crossroad of Christianity, he was a passionate fan of Martin Luther without ceasing to be Catholic. It made sense. Long before the Reformation, Dürer had published his book of woodcuts depicting the Apocalypse with both Latin and German texts (it sold like hotcakes just before the dreaded turn of the century), and was on his way to becoming a reformer on his own.
Dürer wasn’t in love with himself, not in the ways we think of narcissists today. He was in awe of his talent, ‘a curse as well as a blessing’, which drove him to obliterate the limitations of acceptable subject matter to explore every possibility of expression that gift might serve. Along the way he became a trailblazer in self-portraiture, landscape painting, still life, perspective, publishing, printing, marketing, mathematics, fortification, fencing, trademarks, fonts and intellectual property issues.
Dürer didn’t want to fit in, he wanted to stand out, with a vanity hinting at social insecurity. When other men were clean-shaven, he wore a beard and grew his goldilocks long. His sartorial choices, documented in the self-portraits and many Hitchcockian cameos in other paintings, show him to be a master of fashion, color and image. After his first trip to Italy, where painters were revered as artists, he returned to Nuremberg to refute his misnomer as mere ‘craftsman’ by portraying himself as a Venetian gentleman. And then there’s that logo, a precursor of modern product identity, to be remembered long after the Coca Cola trademark has faded into oblivion.
Dürer was lucky. He was born in the right place at the right time to the right family, with the right stuff to become the greatest artist of the Renaissance. Moreover he survived, while no fewer than 15 of his 17 siblings died of the plague or typhus. Nuremberg was the New York of its day, a bustling city of commerce and industry that was nonetheless home to a hotbed of humanists and intellectuals, all friends of Dürer—poets, scholars, astronomers, philosophers, book publishers, all providing fodder for his hungry mind.
Unlike Leonardo, who was easily distracted, Dürer couldn’t stop making art. Still, he strove to be a polymath, writing books on math and measurement (the first to be written and published in German), a book on the optimal architecture of fortifications (presaging Montalembert by several centuries), composing music, and even trying his hand at poetry, for which he was roundly mocked by his pal Willibald Pirckheimer and another patrician friend Lazarus Spengler, for whom Dürer wrote an amusing retort in verse. His polymathic ambitions are on full display in these selected lines from the poem:
But I have undertaken this
(And will not stop for him or his),
To learn whatever thing I can,
For which will blame me no wise man.
No monster lurked behind Dürer’s genius, unlike that other German genius Richard Wagner. By all accounts, he was a lovely, generous soul, devoted to his parents, true to his friends, obedient to his talent, and conscious of his obligation to pass on what he had learned to future generations of artists in their own language. As his fellow humanist Joachim Camerarius said of him, ‘Nature gave our Albrecht a form remarkable for proportion and height, and well suited to the beautiful spirit which it held within; so that in his case she was not unmindful of the harmony which Hippocrates loves to dwell upon. . .. He had a graceful hand, brilliant eyes, a nose well formed. . . the neck a little long, chest full, stomach flat, hips well-knit, and legs straight. As to his fingers, you would have said that you never saw anything more graceful. Such, moreover, was the sweetness and charm of his language that listeners were always sorry when he had finished speaking.’
I have a history of conversing with dead men, most likely because aspects of their personalities reach out to me over the vast expanse of time between us. During one long period of extreme solitude, I used to converse with Napoleon—me on a bench, him sitting on the ground under an apple tree. The dialogue included my many questions: ‘Why did you do that?’ Or ‘Why didn’t you do that?’
With Dürer, one of the few other great figures (Walter Benjamin is one, Richard Wagner is not) who has affected me this way, I can feel the curiosity, the drive, the humor, the emotion, as though they were my own. I can see him digging up that great piece of turf to bring home to his workshop, trying to figure out how to keep it fresh until he had captured its glorious intricacy. I see the double windows of his workshop reflected in his eyes or the eyes of the hare. I laugh with him as he applies his trademark AD with the D reversed, on an engraving of a witch riding backwards on a goat.
Coming from far away in time, I marvel at his modernity, his independence, his idiosyncrasies, his energy, his thirst to know and his playfulness. I find myself wondering what he might have been in my time—a Picasso, a Fellini, a Gehry, an Einstein, a Chaplin, an Alexander McQueen? Or all rolled up in one? Whatever he might have become, he can be regarded as one of the greatest metteurs-en-scene that ever lived. The key to his genius lies in a prolific imagination. It’s one thing to be able to draw or paint. But it’s quite another to bring such febrile ingenuity to depictions of high drama or quotidian life, an exquisite originality that seemed to flow from him with every subject matter he addressed. He knew this:
‘. . . a painter is inwardly full of figures, and if it were possible for him to live eternally, he would always have something from the inner images, about which Plato writes, to pour out in his works.’
There may be many who possess the inner images, but few who can release them into the world like Dürer did. He was a master of kinetics, and like any great action director knew exactly what camera angle, what framing, what moment to capture to delight or terrify his audience. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse bearing down on us obliquely, crushing popes and paupers alike in their path, seem to be moving swiftly within the static frame, as does the peasant couple dancing in another woodcut, their feet captured mid-air before the implied step down to a Teutonic do-si-do.
Consider his several versions of the Last Supper. Leonardo da Vinci, a man of the theater, placed his entire cast of apostles on the far side of a long table on stage against a backdrop of simple perspective, aiming his painting at the fourth wall, i.e. us, the viewers. It’s a simplistic, somewhat ridiculous mise-en-scene: Whoever heard of a one-sided dinner party? Dürer is more concerned with the probable seating arrangement of that fateful meal and conveying the crowded intensity of the troubling event, letting us witness the supper more as a fly on the wall than a member of an audience. Leonardo’s version achieves theatrical impact through its monumental size and breadth, as a tableau that might get applause when the curtain rises at La Scala. Dürer struggled with his mise-en-scene, producing no fewer than four versions, each of them highlighting the true drama of that night while maintaining the intimacy of the implosive narrative. Leonardo gives us the supper straight on, while the proto-cinematic Dürer ends up raising the ‘camera’ so that the surface of the table is revealed, giving us a more accessible three-dimensional view of the scene. He tinkered with seating plans and table shapes, including an Arthurian round table.
Dürer was fond of allegory, which fired those ‘inner images’ he speaks of. Some of his work even borders on magic realism, like those tiny burghers of Nuremberg in the foreground of the Paumgartner Altar’s central panel—Downsizing à la Renaissance.
Before I knew much about Melencolia I, his most enigmatic work, I held it in my hand for an hour at the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich, trying to make sense of it, entranced with its wry humor which suggested the opposite of melancholy. Now I know that it was inspired by the three levels of melancholy put forth by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa in his Three Books of Occult Philosophy, a manuscript that had been circulating among scholar decades before it was published. Melancholia imaginativa, or ‘I’ was the lowest form of introspection, the brooding associated with melancholy that paradoxically fires the artistic imagination (the other two forms were intellectual and divine). Dürer must have had a Eureka moment when he read this, and set about to create the ultimate homage to the creative process in a tongue-in-cheek picture puzzle of such complexity that it would baffle scholars for centuries to come.
Mensch Dürer is what drives my chats with him—a man to pepper with questions about his art, to explore nature with, to discuss philosophy with, to joke with and to cry with (over Mantegna, or all those brothers and sisters that didn’t make it). He once said that what distinguishes man from animal is his desire to know. If knowing is sometimes intuitive, then I can claim to know him just a little: He’s left enough breadcrumbs along the way into the forest for me to find him.
* * *
And here is a poem which was a retort to Dürer’s friend Lazarus Spengler, who mocked his attempts at poetry and told him he should stick to painting:
In Nuremberg it is known full well
A man of letters now doth dwell,
My Lord, and worthy among men,
He is so clever with his pen,
And others knows so well to hit,
And make ridiculous with wit;
And he has made a jest of me
Because I made some poetry,
And of True Wisdom something wrote.
But as he likes my verses not,
He makes a laughing-stock of me,
And says I’m like the cobbler, he
Who criticised Apelles’ art.
With this he tries to make me smart,
Because he thinks it is for me
To paint, and not write poetry;
But I have undertaken this
(And will not stop for him or his),
To learn whatever thing I can,
For which will blame me no wise man.
For he who only learns one thing,
And to nought else his mind doth bring,
To him, as to the notary,
It haps, who lived here as do we,
In this our town. To him was known
To write one form and one alone.
Two men came to him with a need
That he should draw them up a deed;
And he proceeded very well,
Until their names he came to spell:
Gotz was the first name that perplexed,
And Rosenstammen was the next.
The Notary was much astonished,
And thus his clients he admonished,
‘Dear friends,’he said, ‘you must be wrong,
These names don’t to my form belong;
Franz and Fritz I know full well,
But of no others have heard tell;’
And so he drove away his clients,
And people mocked his little science.
To me that it may hap not so,
Something of all things I will know.
Not only writing will I do,
But learn to practise physic too;
Till men surprised will say, ‘Beshrew me,
What good this painter’s medicines do me!’
Therefore hear, and I will tell
Some wise receipts to keep you well.
A little drop of Alkali,
Is good to put into the eye;
He who finds it hard to hear,
Should mandel-oil put in his ear;
And he who would from gout be free,
Not wine but water drink should he;
He who would live to be a hundred.
Will see my counsel has not blundered.
Therefore I will still make rhymes,
Though my friend may laugh at times:
So the Painter with hairy beard
Says to the Writer who mocked and jeered.
Albrecht Dürer, ca. 1510
Translated by Mrs. Charles Heaton, 1870