Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist review – all over the place

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) was the most intrepid traveller in the history of art. From his home city of Nuremberg he crossed the Alps more than once in treacherous conditions, staying in icy mountain shelters. The ship on which he sailed for six days to see a beached whale in Zeeland was almost lost in a winter storm. He lived in Venice in times of cholera, and possibly picked up malaria on a trip to the Low Countries where he was astounded by Aztec gold in Brussels and the Van Eyck altarpiece in Ghent. And all of these journeys were undertaken during outbreaks of the plague.

His travel journals are full of astonishing sights – soaring comets, conjoined twins, the bones of a giant (which in fact belonged to a whale). He sees, and draws, girls in Dutch costume, Turkish merchants, African women. Boats lie at low tide in the port of Antwerp, fantastical castles rise on pinnacles above the river Rhine. There is a sheet of magnificent sketches of dozing lionesses, a blue baboon and even an alarmingly sharp-eared lynx in the new zoos of the Low Countries.

Alas, only the last appears in this long-anticipated exhibition devoted to Dürer’s travels. To say that the experience in the Sainsbury Wing is baffling would be an understatement. Veering between wondrous, meandering and occasionally inexplicable, this is a show without a map.

It opens – incredibly – with two works that are not by Dürer. And there are so many more to come: other painters’ portraits of Christian II of Denmark or the Holy Roman Emperor; other people’s saints and lions and river landscapes. Good as it is to see Bellini’s Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr – Dürer visited the ageing Bellini in Venice – it is always on view in the galleries upstairs. As is Jan Gossaert’s The Adoration of the Kings, and Dürer, who took a trip all the way to Middelburg, in the present-day Netherlands, to see one of his altarpieces, was less impressed by Gossaert.

There is no clear chronology and barely any discernible narrative. The show feels on the one hand congested – too many passengers on board – and on the other, lacking in the forcefield presence of the German master. A humdrum portrait medal of Dürer, instead of a single one of his many self-portraits in ink, chalk, silverpoint or paint – so spectacular, so pioneering, so original – can only mean inevitable bathos.

Saint Jerome Penitent in the Wilderness, c1496.
Saint Jerome Penitent in the Wilderness, c1496. Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy

Still, there are marvels by Dürer along the way. He is up there in the Alps getting an image of the shelter down on paper: noticing the fragility of the ruined roof and the weirdly human profile of the foreground rocks. His print of Saint Jerome praying to a modest cross in a precipitous mountain landscape is so characteristically precise in its botanical fervour that you can tell the spruce from the pine and number all the different kinds of grasses.

But Jerome’s frowning lion, in other visions, has a human face, luxuriant golden locks and elegant fingers for claws. In one image he even seems to have the elongated nose of the artist himself. Dürer had not yet seen a lion in reality (when he did, the image would be supremely accurate). His beast contains at least something of himself.

And those fingers might be Dürer’s emblem, as much as the celebrated monogram signature. For his art is all about pointing things out. The way a hand holds a book open, human fingers fanning like the wing feathers of a bird. The curious proportions of an infant, its head outlandishly large compared with its torso. The way a single eyelash, curling lustrously upwards, can make a powerful man look disarmingly childlike.

The mysteries of his art are even more apparent when compared with the works of surrounding artists. The excessive detail of Dürer’s prints, for example, those dense anthologies of data and detail, swarming with figures and distant landscapes, yet irreducibly strange; the conjunction of topographical exactitude and free-flowing fantasy. Take the figure of Nemesis, standing on a fully allegorical globe, balanced upon a deckle-edged cloud that might be made of linen, so tight are the folds. But beneath her is the South Tirol in marvellous detail, as drawn on a trip to Venice.

Above all, there is the evergreen question of androgyny. From real sitters to imaginary saints, it is hard to know whether Dürer’s heads are male or female, or some combination of both – and if so, why? Everything may look so clear in the great print Melencolia I: the morose angel, the dejected cherub, the hourglass and the numerological chart, the whole clutter of allegorical symbols in definitive black and white. Yet who can solve the riddle of this scenario? Who knows what paralyses the angel and whether this thunder-faced being is male or female? The distant sea glimmers beneath a falling star. Perhaps Dürer saw it on his travels.

Dürer’s portrait of Lucas van Leyden, 1526.
Dürer’s portrait of Lucas van Leyden, 1526. Photograph: Art Heritage/Alamy

This print, along with Saint Jerome and the celebrated A Knight, Death and the Devil – the knight a man of steel in a German helmet, riding ever-onwards in a trance – form the so-called “master engravings”. And prints make the majority of his works in this show – justifiably, given that Dürer took them across Europe, and they were everywhere prized. They also paid his way, on occasion, and helped secure a pension from the Holy Roman Emperor.

The travel journals include meticulous accounts, showing that Dürer sometimes swapped prints for goods, including lengths of velvet and white cloth. He also sold portraits that were drawn on the spot, often in fugitive charcoal. These are dazzling: nearly lifesize images of Low Country patrons, quick with scintillating life. But best of all are the silverpoint drawings of his fellow artists – Lucas van Leyden, all youthful acuity, and the beady-eyed Belgian painter Jan Provoost, who looks too urgent with thought to hold still for the length of the sitting.

Saint Eustace, c1501.
Saint Eustace, c1501. Photograph: Artokoloro/Alamy

After this gallery of portraits, which also includes dynamic masterpieces by Quinten Massys, the show becomes diffuse, concentrating on religion more than travel and forced back on digital presentations. It lacks a climax. Nothing in the last room feels conclusive or aptly dramatic. This being so, and the price of entry being so high, it seems worth suggesting that anyone contemplating Dürer’s Journeys might stare hard at the colossal magnification of his engraving of Saint Eustace outside the door, to accustom the eye to this fiercely incisive artist. The horse and five hounds all waiting while Eustace prays – portraits of quivering vitality, kept in patient abeyance beyond anything human – are staggering sights to behold. Which is, after all, what the art of Dürer is all about.

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