Dürer the Prodigy – at the Courtauld Gallery
It’s always a thrill to turn back the clock on an artist, putting asides the famous masterpieces of their renown, and heading back to their early years. Those formative first works are always so illuminating, not just as an art historical evaluation of the influences which were to be instructive in helping to characterise the artist’s own creations, but also as a demonstration of just how talented an artist truly was. Take Picasso for example : while we are so used to his heavily abstracted, childlike works (some even doubting that he had any talent at all), one look at the exceptional figurative quality of his teenage works demonstrate how truly exceptional he really was, so much so that he famously asserted that he learnt to paint like a master as a child, and then spent the rest of his adult life learning to paint like a child.
London’s exclusive little Courtauld Gallery, whose exceptional collection contains some of the world’s most recognised impressionist and post-impressionst masterpieces including Sr Picasso himself, is the perfect sized gallery to draw such a focus on the formative years of an artist’s life in one of its small but perfectly formed temporary exhibitions. And with its new show, opening to the public yesterday, the Courtauld does just that. With The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure, the Courtauld examines the very first creative years of this master of the Northern European Renaissance, heading back to the 1490s when, in his late teens and early twenties, Albrecht Dürer set out on his wanderjahre – literally a wandering journey, taking him across Germany and over the Alps into Italy, where the young prodigy was widely influenced and honed his already exceptional drafting skills.
Dürer the great master…
The show, which includes some wonderful works never before seen in the United Kingdom, provides an engaging insight into the early talent of a young Dürer, and for an audience who, like me, loves to study the meticulous details of black and white ink drawings and print works, is a thrilling event. While the few works included in this post from Dürer’s later career demonstrate just how exceptional a draughtsman he was to become, the early works on exhibition at the Courtauld demonstrate how Dürer worked tirelessly to hone those skills which were later to make him one of the most revered draughtsmen of his time.
The show includes, for example, a good many studies in pen and ink – of the perilously difficult folds of drapery, the complex fall of the material captured proficiently no matter the many poses adopted by the sitter; of hands and feet, and the foreshortening of limbs. Such studies are then utilised to brilliant effect, as Dürer moves into creating his first largescale drawings and printworks. In The Prodigal Son for example, Dürer brilliantly captures the detailed fuzzy coats of a group of pigs, while in the fantastically detailed woodcut depicting The Flagellation of Christ, Dürer shows himself to be adept, not just in his portrayal of a complex group of figures, but in his use of foreshortening, and his depiction of drapery and costume.
Dürer the early prodigy
But perhaps one of the most insightful works of them all is the simple self-portrait drawing he made of himself in 1491. Eyes staring, full of melancholy, straight into those of the viewer, the portrait is one with a psychological intensity which invites the modern day audience to travel straight back into the 15th century mind of this young artist, whose skills, as demonstrated here, need no introduction – just look how his brilliantly drawn hand pushes against the slightly sagging skin of his face, distorting his features perfectly. And all this drawn fluidly and confidently in what appears to have been a single attempt.
It’s a brilliant protrait and a brilliant collection which make artists like me quake in fear that one day a similar such exhibition of our early works may demonstrate just how little talent we had when compared with prodigies such as this. But hey, there will always be those with more talent, and the new Courtauld show allows us to revel in the early skills of one of the greatest.
The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure is on at the Courtauld until 12th January 2014. Admission to the exhibition is generally £6 unless a concession applies – and that includes the gallery’s stunning permanent collection to boot. Bargain.