The print-work of Albrecht Durer, represented by some 300 engravings and woodcuts acquired by the Felton Bequest for the National Gallery of Victoria from Sir Thomas O. Barlow, of Manchester, is a collection of outstanding importance.
This collection, fanned by Sir Thomas over a period of fifty years, is one of the great Durer collections of the world. It is notable for the extremely high quality of impressions, many of which have, besides, pedigrees going back to the eighteenth century and earlier. Sir Thomas also contributed to Durer scholarship in his publications: Woodcuts and Engravings by Albert Durer, Cambridge University Press, 1926, and The Medieval World Picture and Albert Durer’s Melancholia, Cambridge, Roxburghe Club, 1950.
Durer’s print-work is an essential part of his life’s oeuvre; it is of immeasurably greater significance than his few paintings, and of a more official and final nature than the other part of his remaining work, his drawings.
Durer’s print-work presents us in Melbourne with the unique opportunity of studying one aspect of a great artist’s output in its totality: we see here prints from practically every year of Durer’s life, from his early beginnings as a young man of seventeen until close to his fifty-seventh year when he died. The Barlow prints thus give us an insight into an artist’s development such as no other nucleus of works does in our Gallery: for the most part we have to be content with isolated examples by famous masters and even where we have a sequence, as in the Blake watercolours, these only show us the master at work during two or three years of his life.
It is however not only for these reasons that Durer’s print-work is of importance. It holds in fact an epoch-making position in the history of print-making. This history can be divided into the period before and the period after Albrecht Durer. Before Durer print-making has the status of a primitive art – if we use ‘primitive’ in the sense in which it is applied to the Netherland Primitives of the fifteenth century or the Italian Primitives of the early Renaissance. Durer raised print-making to a new rank; through him woodcut and line engraving acquire international standing as serious forms of artistic expression. He is the classic master of the woodcut and the line engraving. Durer was able to make such a momentous contribution to the history of print-making because of his genius for draughtsmanship; one of the very great draughtsmen of all times, Durer lived in a century which was pre-eminently a draughtsman’s century: Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo were his contemporaries, and together with them Durer belongs to the great immortals of drawing.
Seen rightly, woodcut and copperplate engraving are but extended forms of drawing, and it is Durer the great draughtsman whom we see at first hand in the works which have come to us in the Barlow collection.
The history of the woodcut is not a very old one by the time Durer appears. It is an invention of the late fourteenth century only. It is, in itself, based on the older discovery that a pen drawing made on a woodblock can be raised to relief level if the surrounding wood is cut away with a knife; the relief line work can then be inked and used to print off, and thus repeat, many hundred times, exactly and faithfully, the drawing which the artist had made on the wood.
The principles of woodcut printing are much the same as those of letterpress printing which was developed in the middle of the fifteenth century, also in Germany. It is no wonder then that woodcut illustration was used for the early book publications, and that woodcut and book production develop together.
Nuremberg in Northern Bavaria, where Albrecht Durer was born in 1471 and where he served his apprenticeship in the fourteen-eighties, was, in those years, already an important publishing centre. Books illustrated with prints from woodblocks were issued in Nuremberg by the publisher Anton Koberger, assisted by the painter Michael Wolgemuth; Anton Koberger was the god-father and Michael Wolgemuth the master of Albrecht Durer, under whom he served his apprenticeship. Soon after finishing with Wolgemuth, Durer went on the customary journeyman’s travels in 1490. He went down the Rhine to the Netherlands, back up the Rhine to Colmar and then to Basle in Switzerland. In Basle, which was the most important publishing centre north of the Alps, Durer made some of his earliest woodcuts for book illustration, such as the frontispiece to the Epistles of St. Jerome of 1492 and the illustrations to the Ritter von Turn; both these volumes are in the Barlow collection. When in 1494 Durer returned to Nuremberg he was not merely the product of the provincial, comfortably confined, local tradition of his home town, but had absorbed the whole South German tradition of his time and from the start occupied a front rank in the artistic achievements of his country. His immense ability to absorb trends and methods did not stop at German examples. He had seen, perhaps in Nuremberg, drawings and engravings made in Italy. And a year after his return from his journeyman trip to the Rhine and Basle he made the Grand Tour across the Alps, to Venice. After Wolgemuth he saw Mantegna; instead of devotional subject matter, figures from a Roman myth; after the draped, disembodied gothic figures of the north he was confronted with the nude, which the Italian master had derived from the sculpture of classical antiquity. Deeply impressed with the pagan themes and the knowledge of the human figure revealed in these works, Durer made several drawings in close imitation of engravings by Mantegna. He derived several important lessons from his study of Italian art. He learned the need for mastery of the draughtsmanship of the human figure. He learned that violent actions and heightened emotions can be represented in certain harmonious, clearly constructed and telling postures. He absorbed a new sense of the dignity of man. He was also introduced to the mathematical construction of perspective recession and acquired an insight into the Renaissance theory of human beauty based on a system of proportion. These ideas and influences were gradually to transform the gothic style of his beginnings.
After his return to Nuremberg in 1495 he began his first great works and these very characteristically are to be found in the Barlow collection among the printed books. In the hook of the Apocalypse, Durer set a new standard for the art of woodcut-illustration. The plates, very large and much more northern and gothic in style than one might have expected, have a forcefulness and richness not attained by Durer until after his Italian journey. This work, which appeared in 1498 in both a German and a Latin edition, has become one of the classics of European art. No later artist has been able to approach this theme without coming to terms with Durer’s achievement. Only four or five years at the most divide the early St. Jerome and Ritter von Turn woodcuts done by Durer in Basle, from the illustrations to the Apocalypse and those of the Great Passion Series made in the same year. In this short span of time, Durer’s drawing has developed greatly. He now controls space and characteristic detail; a new intensity of black and white contrasts is achieved by a complicated system of strokes. Above all, however, Durer put the invention which Italian artists reserved for their murals and panel paintings into the woodcut, and thereby raised it from a minor art of illustration to a major art of original invention.
In the same years in which Durer began the two great woodcut cycles mentioned before, he also began to work in copperplate engraving. This technique differs from the woodcut in that the design is not cut out of a block, but graved into a copperplate. The lines are hollowed out of the copper by a graver, then filled with ink; the carefully cleaned plate which holds ink only in the hollow lines, is then covered with paper and passed through a printing press under great pressure. The nature of the copperplate line differs conspicuously from that of the woodcut. The woodcut line always retains the mark of the knife and has a characteristic edginess. The copperplate line is smooth, evenly rounded, begins bluntly and ends in a tip. The nature of the technique forces the artist into the use of a regular system of parallel lines, which are much finer than the woodcut lines. It does not lend itself to book illustration, and while many of Durer’s woodcut works are cycles of illustration, his copperplate work consists mostly of single sheets. While the woodcut counts on a popular audience the copperplate engraving aims at the connoisseur and the collector. Durer’s woodcut work is religious and devotional in subject; the copperplate engravings reveal much more of his interest in learning and artistic theory. The after-effect of Durer’s Italian experiences comes more strongly to the fore in the engravings; especially his growing interest in the problem of human beauty which becomes more apparent in the years after 1500. He had acquainted himself with the books on architecture by the Roman classical writer Vitruvius who had set down a system of proportions of the perfect norm of the human figure. Durer applied this norm to a model study in his engraving of the Great Fortune of 1502, but he was to find the ideal nude in the classical sense only when he applied these measurements to drawings from classical statues.
One of these statues which became of special importance to Durer was the Apollo Belvedere which had been excavated in Rome around the year 1479. Durer never went to Rome and never saw the statue in the original, but he must have become acquainted with drawings of it while he was in Venice. The influence of the Apollo can be seen in several of his drawings and it culminated in the engraving of Adam and Eve in 1504. The pose of the Adam as well as his proportions, with the small head and the broad shoulders, are clearly inspired by the Apollo. The conception of the Fall as represented here by Durer, is rather unusual. Adam and Eve, instead of inhabiting a park-like, agreeable, open Garden of Paradise with lawns and single trees, are placed against an impenetrable primeval forest, inhabited by wild animals and mysterious in its darkness. One wonders whether Durer intended this background to convey ‘the wood of error’ of Dante’s ‘Convito,’ replacing the perfection of Paradise with an image of the world, transformed by the Fall of Man. The print, with its great brilliance of black and white contrasts and its immensely fine execution, marks the height of Durer’s early manner, brought to an end by the second Italian journey of 1505.
The second stay in Venice deepened Durer’s admiration for the work of Giovanni Bellini. Italy lays the foundations for the great paintings of his late period. His work takes on a new grandeur of form, a new simplicity of execution and tonal contrast, which was also to change his approach to engraving in the years after his return to Nuremberg.
He now entered his classical period of print-making. He finished the Great Passion Series begun in the nineties and the Life of the Virgin begun in 1502. In 1511 both these series appeared, as well as the Small Woodcut Passion, all in book form and to be found in this form in the Barlow collection. To these years also belongs the only copperplate work in series form, the Small Copperplate Passion, issued in single sheets in 1512.
The most famous of all Durer’s prints, the three ‘Master Engravings,’ Knight, Death and the Devil (1513), St. Jerome in his Cell (1514), and the Melancholia (1514) demonstrate the second post-Venetian style. They are of exceptional size, about seven inches by ten inches. The most striking difference between these and the earlier Adam and Eve is the new silvery tonality; Durer abandons the brilliant contrasts of light and dark of his early phase in favour of a subtler and more even tone. Knight, Death and the Devil shows the Italian influence in the strict profile view of the ideally proportioned horse, inspired by Leonardo drawings with which Durer was familiar. Unlike Leonardo however, Durer also endows his horse with minute naturalistic richness of detail; the, strokes which model the form of the animal, also characterize the quality of its skin and the sheen of its coat, contrasting it with the metallic hardness of the armour of the knight.
The print has allegorical significance: undaunted by death and the devil, the knight pursues his path through the clark valley of this earth. His aim, the castle of virtue, appears in the far distance.
In contrast to the active life of the Christian knight, the St. Jerome shows the contemplative life of the Christian scholar. Here the new silvery tone has allowed subtle effects of indoor light unparallelled in the history of engraving. The light, filtering through the round glass panes, falling on the table and floor and lighting up the grain of the beams in the ceiling, is outshone in clarity by the celestial light of the halo of the Saint. This subtly graded light plays over a severely ordered structure; structure and light combine into an effect of restful seclusion, an ‘enchanted beatitude,’ which expresses the serene mood of the saint.
The third master engraving, the Melancholia, shows the life of the secular scholar, set in deliberate contrast to that of the divine scholar. Melancholia crouches by an unfinished building on a lonely spot not far from the bleak sea shore. Instead of warm sunlight the cold light of the moon and a meteor lighten the scene. She sits in gloomy inaction. While exquisite order reigned in the study of St. Jerome, Melancholia is surrounded by a disorderly array of tools of architecture, carpentry and geometry. Her face is overcast with shadow reminding us of Milton’s Melancholy:
Whose saintly visage is too bright
To hit the sense of human sight
And therefore to our weaker view
O’erlaid with black staid wisdom’s hue.
The identification of secular genius with the temperament of Melancholy, which goes back to classical antiquity and the philosophy of Aristotle, had been given prominence in the Renaissance by the Florentine humanist Marsilio Ficino, who expressed his elaborate theory in his letters and in his Treatise of the Threefold Life. The letters had been published by Durer’s godfather Koberger, and the treatise had been translated into German; both were thus known to Durer. Ficino held that ‘All truly outstanding men, whether distinguished in philosophy, in statecraft, in poetry or the arts, are melancholies,’ and it is this idea which is reflected in Durer’s engraving. A full explanation of the print may be found in E. Panofsky, Albrecht Durer, Princeton, 1948, pp. 156-171.
In the Melancholia, the silvery tonality of the second post-Venetian period appears in great brilliance; noticeable is also the new massiveness of form in the human figure, often referred to as typically German but of course inspired by the amplitude of the Venetian ‘ideal woman.’
I suggested in the beginning that in Durer’s case print-making is but another form of drawing and that his achievement is basically a draughtsman’s achievement. Durer adapts his drawing style to the varying requirements of his media; to the broad, bold line demanded by the woodcut and the immensely fine precision of the copperplate, just as he adapts his hand to the broadness of the chalk and the minuteness of the pen and ink medium. He uses line to render the rounded, three-dimensional form and to set form into deep space; line also serves to characterize surfaces and to suggest the play of light and shade. Line dominates his expression — he fulfils himself in a linear form of representation. One must not look in his work for hazy, atmospheric effects, or for darkness which swallows form. Nothing is merely suggested, everything is stated clearly, unequivocally; his work has to be read, detail by detail, and yet, despite the minuteness of detail, Durer’s minute realism is always subordinate to his control of the pattern-effect of the whole. Above and beyond all these achievements in line he impresses on his work the individual characteristics of his own style; this to us is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the woodcuts and engravings as well as the drawings by Durer. And it was Durer too, who for the first time expressed the idea of a characteristic ‘hand’; when late in his life he received some drawings from his great Italian contemporary, Raphael, Durer wrote that Raphael had sent them in order to show him ‘his hand.’
While the skill of the hand is the indispensable vehicle for all art, it came second in Durer’s estimation, to the importance of original invention. Nothing could illuminate better the character of his art than this well known utterance on the true disposition of the born painter, which he wrote for his book on Proportions: ‘A good painter is inwardly full of figures, and were it possible for him to live forever, he would always have from his inward ideas whereof Plato writes, something new to pour forth by the work of his hand.’