Art in Paradise: Italian Echoes

It’s safe to say that Albrecht Dürer, the well-known German Renaissance artist, was influential in his own time. A visit to one of the current exhibitions at the Smith College Museum of Art illustrates just how influential he was, in addition to offering a chance to see some well-known works by the master. The exhibition, Albrecht Dürer: Genius and Fame, was organized by a Smith College class on early modern Italy with visiting professor Michael Bury and focuses on prints.

Seeing the works of Dürer up close is essential to understanding the artist’s nearly unparalleled technical skills (and magnifying glasses offer a yet closer view at the Smith museum). In his earlier works, Dürer’s incredible skill in rendering textures and the tiniest of details is evident, and quickly distinguishes his compositions from those of his contemporaries whose work appears alongside. In later efforts, some of them his best known works ( including “Melencolia I,” “St. Jerome in His Study,” “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”), it’s fascinating to observe the dramatic distances his compositions depict. In a print of Adam and Eve, a distant mountain is topped by a small goat, and beneath the goat, no bigger than a letter on a page, a bird flies by.

Of course, detail is not in and of itself a virtue, and Dürer’s mastery encompasses far more. The exhibition’s primary focus is on the German artist’s influence on Italian artists, and comparing such works side-by-side is eye-opening. Some things are expected: Dürer’s very un-Italian focus on surfaces, for instance, clashes with the more volume-oriented renderings of his Italian cousins, a phenomenon that’s often apparent in works from the era. Avoid looking at the labels of the artworks in Dürer: Genius and Fame, and, in most cases, it’s easy to see the shortcomings of his competitors. Dürer’s works are engrossing, pulling the eye into foreground dramas but rewarding close observation of what’s less immediately obvious. He managed to pack dramatic amounts of information into his compositions while rarely making them seem busy. Several works by an Italian contemporary, on the other hand, offer dramatic events in an extraordinarily shallow foreground, the far distances filled with buildings or mountains, but the middle distance weirdly blank.

Some artists of the day chose, rather than trying to compete with their own works, to directly imitate Dürer or even pass off their work as his. In most cases, they failed in fairly simple ways. In others, artists very nearly matched the master (one of the best imitators in the exhibition, Hieronymus Wierix, copied Dürer’s “Jerome” when he was only 13).

One piece in particular at the Smith museum reveals that Dürer wasn’t always up for orthodox depictions. His “Nativity” of 1504 (he did several) portrays the holy family, but only just. Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus appear only at the very bottom of the print, their forms dominated by the building that arches high over them and even the sky. Jesus’ face can’t be seen—the (hard to spot) top of his head points toward the viewer, his foreshortened body angled away.

That print, with its over-arching forms and its holy subjects relegated to secondary compositional status, brought to mind a canvas by the Italian artist Caravaggio called “Conversion on the Way to Damascus,” painted a century later. That composition similarly shoves its holy subject (Saint Paul) to the very bottom, strongly echoing the positioning and attitude of Dürer’s infant Jesus. Just as Dürer’s “Nativity” makes prominent a building arching over the family, Caravaggio’s canvas emphasizes the haunches and over-arching form of the saint’s horse.

Visit Smith’s Dürer exhibition, and your eyes quickly get trained in spying out such echoes and imitations of a true Renaissance master. It’s a good way to learn more about looking at art, and it’s an unusual chance to see important works at really close range. You can check out Dürer: Genius and Fame through Feb. 12.

Author: James Heflin

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