He considered these questions closely and asked “What beauty is, I know not, though it adheres to many things…” Regarded as the force behind the German Renaissance, Dürer revolutionized drawing in Northern Europe and altered ideas of beauty. At the time empirical observation was becoming increasingly valued, and Durer was able to find beauty in the natural world around him. Using his unrivaled talents as a draftsman, he placed drawing front and center by showing its value as an intimate connection between the artist’s hand and immediate world.
Credit then goes to The Morgan Library for their summer exhibition “Defining Beauty: Albrecht Dürer at the Morgan” which not only provides an opportunity to observe this methodical process, but also gives us a rare glimpse into Dürer’s draughtsmanship- an oft overlooked portion of an oeuvre most well known for its iconic prints.
Organized by Moore Curatorial Fellow, Elizabeth Nogrady, the exhibition is a case of less-is-more, situated in an unadorned, intimate space of the Morgan’s Thaw Gallery, which allows one to focus in on twelve selections from Dürer’s catalogue. As Morgan director William M. Griswold, proudly stated, this “almost chapel-like setting” gives one an unhindered opportunity to “come face to face with pure genius.” The illustrious works on view contain a diverse array of subject-matter, ranging from heraldic designs to figural studies. Yet the unifying impression is Dürer’s untiring exploration of beauty.
Looking at the sinewy lines in “Adam and Eve,” one is immediately struck by their perpendicular curvature. From a distance the perfect orchestration of their forms appears serendipitous, but upon closer inspection, we can see the great deal of thought that went into attaining such harmony. In one instance, we see that Dürer inserted an additional strip of vertical paper between the two figures to accentuate the distance between the bodies while allowing them to remain a visual pair. The inky brown wash that he used also serves to unify the composition, transforming this figural study into a powerful image of enduring wonder.
The complexity of Dürer’s calculations becomes all the more evident in the imposing “Constructed Head of a Man in Profile,” a profile amassed through incisive measurement and geometric ratio. First Dürer sketched a grid onto the verso, and then, he lightly traced the faint lines onto the front. Using this visual aid, he then exacted a human profile into long curving lines and semi circles—the figure displaying a perfectly round head, a prominent jaw, deep set eyes and an exaggerated nose.
Supplementing Dürer’s harmonic drawings are his actual artistic treatise on measurement and the human body, “Four Books on Human Proportions.” Here, a studious folio shows a human head that has been superimposed by a diagram using a single measurement. By constructing a grid, Dürer outlines the ideal human head.
Deconstructing the notion of beauty is a paradox in one sense. Beauty is ineffable-it is all around us, and cannot be restricted or confined to a particular definition. Yet Dürer’s work helps us consider some of the fine-tuning that can go into conjuring it. What is interesting about this exhibition is that we can almost see his attitude towards beauty through each incisive exercise of measurement. A manifold of beauty from both the natural world and spiritual realm has been programmed into a series of ratios and geometric grids leaving us not with absolute beauty, but with the human experience of creating a beautiful image.
For a more in depth look, OMNP discussed the exhibition with Elizabeth Nogrady.
OMNP: Why is this exhibition called Defining Beauty? Did Dürer have a definition for beauty?
EN: My aim was to display the Morgan’s incredible collection of works by Albrecht Dürer, while also presenting an overarching theme that would invite viewers to think about the objects as a group and Dürer as an artist. I decided to focus the exhibition on his complex and evolving attitude towards beauty after coming across Dürer’s quote, “What beauty is, I know not, though it adheres to many things…We must gather it together from far and wide.” Overall, my goal is to show that Dürer had no single definition for beauty, but rather used a variety of approaches to integrate it into his art.
Early in his career, Dürer sought to capture beauty through the use of measurement to create the ideal human form, as can be seen in his drawing and print of Adam and Eve in the Morgan’s collection. As time went on, however, he greatly expanded his notion of the concept. Other works in the exhibition, such as his black chalk portrait of his brother and a watercolor design for the Nuremberg Town Hall, demonstrate that he also used diverse sources such as German folk imagery, religious subjects, empirical observation, and the metalworking tradition in his hometown of Nuremberg to bring beauty into his work.
OMNP: Why did you choose to display the exhibition thematically?
EN: I personally always enjoy exhibitions that are organized thematically. Even in a show as small as this one, installed in the Morgan’s intimate Thaw Gallery, a thematic presentation is a way to convey a larger concept. I think this approach invites viewers to spend time in the gallery and really get to know the artists and his works.
OMNP: What role did Humanism play in Dürer’s art?
EN: Dürer was a humanist in the most literal sense. The human figure was central to his imagery, and for him, it was the most important subject in art. In the Renaissance, Humanism was also the name given to an intellectual movement that advocated education based on classical sources. Certainly Dürer would have encountered such ideas in Nuremberg, a thriving cultural center during his lifetime. For example, one of his best friends was Humanist scholar Willibald Pirckheimer. Dürer’s interest in antique sources also led to a profound curiosity in art from Italy, where he visited twice.
OMNP: Dürer is well-known for the complex iconography of his works. Can you give some examples in the exhibition?
EN: The exhibition includes two of Dürer’s prints most famous for complex iconography, Adam and Eve and Melencolia I. For instance, Erwin Panofsky’s theory, which is not universally accepted, is that the animals in “ Adam and Eve” represent the four humors. In Dürer’s time, a balance of bodily fluids, called “humors,” was believed to dictate personality traits. In this line of thinking, each animal was associated with a certain temperament: elk (melancholy), the rabbit (sensuality), cat (cruelty), and ox (sluggishness). In contrast, Adam and Eve were believed to have possessed a perfect balance of humors, thus Dürer depicted them with idealized physiques.
He most likely incorporated such references to give his art an intellectual foundation and for the benefit of his learned audience, which included scholars like Pirckheimer, who would have enjoyed deciphering this complex iconography. However, one does not need to be familiar with the details of these associations to enjoy these objects.
Part of what made Dürer such an incredible artist was his ability to weave references seamlessly into his imagery. I would encourage viewers to avoid trying to “read” his drawings and prints, but rather to appreciate them as exquisite works of art.
“Defining Beauty: Albrecht Dürer at the Morgan,” is now on view at the Morgan Library and Museum, NYC through September 12, 2010
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