Thursday, 25 April 2013

Research Point: Mastery of Detailed Drawing: Renaissance

Albrecht Durer 1471-1528

I chose this 15th to 16th century artist because his name keeps cropping up when I am searching the Internet for help with techniques. When I was struggling with hatching, his melancholia engraving (fig 1.) was an example I looked at. When I was struggling with drawing drapery for assignment one, and searched for artists' renditions of folded cloth, drawings attributed to Durer appeared.
Fig 1. Melencholia I: 1514
Copperplate Engraving

Albrecht Durer worked in many different media including chalk and charcoal. pen and ink, line and wash, silverpoint. He also worked in watercolour, woodcut printing, copperplate engraving as well as painting in oils and tempera.

Durer was German, from Nuremberg but his family may have originated in Hungary. He seems to have had a very academic approach to his art, looking for rules from mathematics to govern the construction of his work. He really pushed forward the boundaries of art during his time and is responsible for several innovations. Below is a schematic summary of his influences and production which I will expand upon in the text:

Durer's Father (another Albrecht Durer) was a Goldsmith and Albrecht Junior was expected to follow in his footsteps. He showed promise in drawing at an early age and at the age of thirteen produced a self portrait in silverpoint which is the earliest known self-portrait by a European master. Given that mirrors in those days were convex and therefore caused significant distortion this was more difficult than it would superficially appear. (Fig 2)

Fig. 2:Self Portrait Aged 13, 1484
Silverpoint on Prepared Paper
Artists were not traditionally trained in art schools at the time of Durer's adolescence. Practical skill ('Brauch') was highly prised but the concept of 'art for art's sake' wasn't really developed then. Artists were employed to produce works of art for specific purposes such as altarpieces or portraits. They were employed for their practical skill rather than for originality. Although famous artists were sought by rich patrons for their artistic ability, aesthetics were a secondary consideration to the other functions such as religious, political or social (demonstrating social standing and wealth). Albrecht Durer therefore was apprenticed to the Nuremberg Artist Michael Wolgemut at the age of 15. Here he gained experience in many of the techniques he used throughout his life. In particular he learnt woodcut printing for book illustrations. Wolgemut's workshop produced images which were new for the time in that they used hatching to represent textures and tonal variations. Previous woodcuts had been mainly bare outlines and were intended to be coloured by hand.

One of the most important events during the renaissance was the invention of the printing press and movable type. The invention is credited to Johannes Gutenberg around 1450. This innovation allowed the production of books and pamphlets in large numbers and at a fraction of the cost of hand copied books, meaning that books were no longer the preserve of the super-rich. The advent of the printing press is closely associated with the rise of humanist education in Europe as well as the reformation. The boom in printing initially was confined to Northern Europe so in Nuremberg, the young Durer would have been well placed to see this. The boom in books meant greater demand for book illustrations, which in turn meant that Durer's work would be seen by a much greater number of people than artists of the past.

After his apprenticeship, Durer travelled via Colmar to Basle and Strasbourg - all of which were centres of publishing. Several illustutaions at this time are thought to be by Durer but few can be verified. In 1493 he produced his first self-portrait after his apprenticeship. (Fig. 3)

Fig 3: Self Portrait, 1493
 Mixed Media on Vellum
The thistle- like flower he is holding is called 'husband's fidelity' and it is thought that it was a reference to his impending marriage.

Shortly after his nuptials Durer departed for Italy. He travelled to Italy twice during his lifetime and in particular studied the venetian painters of the time. On his first trip to Italy, his preoccupation with the human figure began and he was the first German artist to  paint a nude life drawing of a female figure. He also made many studies of draped figures. Another of his innovations at this time was the use of watercolours as a medium in its own right rather than as a preparation for oil painting. He painted numerous watercolours during this trip. (Fig 4)
Fig. 4: The Willow Mill
Pen and black ink, watercolour and gouache
Back in Nuremberg Durer continued to learn. He continued to draw  and paint in watercolours. In particular painstakingly detailed studies of natural forms and animals. (Fig 5,6,7)

Fig. 6: Large Piece of Turf, 1503
Watercolour and gouache heightened
with opaque white, mounted on cardboard

Fig. 5 :Wing of a Roller c 1500
Watercolour and gouache on parchment

Fig. 7: Hare, 1502
Watercolour and gouache
heightened with opaque white

Durer was also the first artist in Nuremberg to start using engraving to produce prints, but his first internationally acclaimed works of art were a series of woodcuts. He produced a book of woodcuts called 'Apocalypse'. One of the woodcuts is illustrated in figure 8.These dramatic woodcuts captured the imagination of the public because of rumours of the end of the world and the coming of the Antichrist associated with plagues and other phenomena such as eclipses and comets. He produced two further series of woodcuts based on the passion of Christ and on the life of the virgin. The apocalypse series was the most popular.

Fig 8:The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1498
This illustrates how advanced Durer's woodcut work was compared to the earlier craftsmen. This is a large, dramatic and very detailed image. The construction of form and tone is all done with variations in hatching marks. This would require extraordinary technical ability.
Around this time Durer also continued to paint portraits and further self portraits.

Durer had a continuing preoccupation with the theory of art. In particular, as well as his interest in the accurate portrayal of the human figure he also studied mathematics and geometry in order to acquire the necessary knowledge to apply when constructing perspective. He studied Euclid to improve his understanding of this. An example of a painting which shows that he was developing this interest is the 'Adoration of the Magi' in which spatial recession can be seen including all the elements of the painting from the architecture to the figures and landscape. (Fig. 9)

Fig 9: The Adoration of the Magi
Oil on Panel
Around 1500, Durer, influenced by the Venetian painter Jacopo De Barbari started his study of the proportions of the human figure in earnest. He read 'On architecture' by Vitruvius in his quest to be able to construct a perfect male and female figure using a compass and rulers. He used Vitrivius' work which said that the head takes up one eighth and the face one tenth of the total height and that the face is divided into three equal parts. However, Durer went much further. This culminated in the 1504 engraving of Adam and Eve Fig. 10 (Adam was made slightly taller than Eve by lengthening of the shins - so he didn't entirely stick to the convention). He also wrote a textbook on human proportion which was published posthumously but allowed his knowledge to be passed on. 

Fig.10 Adam and Eve
Engraving 1504

On Durer's second trip to Italy (which he may have undertaken to escape the Plague in Nuremberg), he particularly admired the work of Giovanni Bellini. He was also impressed by the elevated status which artists enjoyed in Italy.

Albrecht  Durer was engaged by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1512 this would have confirmed his place as The most important Nuremberg artist. It would also have enhanced the Emperor's reputation as a cultured and highly educated 'universal man' or 'renaissance man' as it would have shown him to be a discerning patron of the arts.  Durer produced marginal drawings for the emperor's prayerbook. He also participated in the designing of Triumphal Arch which is the largest woodcut of all time made from 192 separate blocks and measuring more than 10 square metres. (fig. 11)

Fig.11: Triumphal Arch for Emperor Maximilian I
Woodcut Impression 1515 3.41 x 2.92m

Around this time Durer produced what came to be called his 'master engravings'. The three engravings are : 'Saint Jerome in his Cell' (Fig. 12), 'Melencholia' (Fig. 1) and 'Knight, Death and the Devil' (Fig. 13). 

Fig.12: Saint Jerome in his Cell
Copperplate Engraving 1514
Particularly impressive in the image of Saint Jerome is the way Durer had depicted the light shining in through the window. Saint Jerome was a scholar and translator of the Bible. He was therefore though to represent the humanist ideal of the highly educated man. 

There is much more controversy over the interpretation of 'Knight, Death and the Devil' . Various groups have tried to appropriate it in particular the Nazis. to Quote Wilhelm Waetzold in 1936 ' Heroic souls love this engraving - just as Nietzsche did and just as Adolf Hitler does today. They love it because it is a picture of victory' . 

The more popular interpretation is that the knight represents a christian who turns his back on the devil and faces death with composure and self restraint (gripping the reins of his horse) as a result of being armed with his faith.

As well as being interested in the proportions of the human figure Durer also worked on the construction of the equine figure and may have been influenced in this by earlier work by Leonardo da Vinci.  This work clearly paid dividends in this engraving.

Fig. 13: Knight, Death and the Devil 1513
Copperplate Engraving
There is still more controversy over the interpretation of 'Melencholia' (Fig. 1). In particular what is the significance of the magic square and the geometric figures. The figure is also surrounded by tools perhaps representing creativity and mathematics. She may also represent the brooding nature of the artist who works alone. Theories and literature abound about this particular engraving. There is no doubt that it exhibits astounding technical mastery of copperplate engraving.

In Durer's time religion was a large part of everyday life and society in general. One thing that would have helped artists at the time to make a living was the belief that favour with god could be achieved by spending money on devotional images and altarpieces. Hence Durer produced many devotional images and several altarpieces during his career.  During the reformation this could have backfired as iconoclasts literally interpreted the Bible's prohibition of the creation of 'graven images'. However in 1525 Nuremberg embraced Lutheran values thereby adopting Luther's stance. This was that although he was suspicious of images of saints he said that he did not agree with the destruction of works of art as long as they were not worshipped in place of God. In fact he encouraged certain  images in particular saint Jerome for his scholarship- Durer had produced several images of Saint Jerome so his religious work was not out of step with the political/religious climate.

One of the more surprising drawings I found in my research was this pen drawing of a rhinoceros. It is even more surprising when it is revealed that Durer never actually saw a rhino. During a trip to the Netherlands he saw numerous curiosities brought back by travellers to the newly discovered Americas and the Indian Ocean. A rhino had been on a ship which docked in Lisbon and a German merchant there had sketched and described it. Durer was interested in the unusual and he made a drawing based on the sketch and description. (Fig. 14)

Fig.14 Rhinoceros

Another quite surprising image is this Nude self portrait (Fig. 15) which looks very modern in its execution and has caused art historians to make comparisons with the expressionist work of Egon Schiele. (Fig. 16)

Fig. 15: Nude Self Portrait 1500-1505
Pen and brush heightened with opaque white
on green prepared paper.
Fig. 16: Self Portrait Egon Schiele 1912

I have learnt a great deal about the renaissance during this research point. The work of Durer would not have previously been something I would have sought out in galleries as I tend to be drawn to texture, colour and therefore more contemporary works. Also as an atheist I have tended to be automatically dismissive of religious works of art. Now having researched a bit more of the history of this period I find it much more interesting and have greater respect for the ground-breaking artists of the day.

(1)Wolf, N : 'Albrecht Durer 1471-1528 The Genius of the German Renaissance' Taschen 2007
(2) Strieder, P: Albrecht Durer - Biography. Grove Art Online via Oxford Art Online
(3) Belkin, K,L: Durer, Albrecht . The Oxford Companion to Western Art via Oxford art Online.
(4) Brotton, J : The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press 2006 : Kindle Edition
(5) Johnson, G, A: Renaissance Art: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: Kindle Edition.

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