By Ed Lessard, student in the Clark/Williams
Graduate Program in the History of Art
When I went to get my first tattoo, I dug up my Dover edition of The Complete Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer, prematurely boxed in advance of my move to Williamstown and entry into the Clark/Williams Graduate Program in the History of Art.
There are a lot of books that art students simply have to own. These are the cheap ones and the basic manuals that make up vital, visual resources of style and potential in any media. My copy of The Complete Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer, complete with sun-faded border on the front cover in the shape of the lesser book that must have once shaded its long nap on a neglectful owner’s shelf, is still a touchstone for me.
Even on Dover’s cheap newsprint pages, which do nothing for the immense control of contrast that Dürer consistently demonstrates in his woodcuts, his work is intensely attractive in its detail, dynamism, and intricacy. As a printmaker with an affinity for the humble and meditative process of carving wood-blocks, I consider Dürer nothing short of a god.
So at the age of 26 when it came time to commemorate something of my life as I moved from artist to historian—from unhappy and confused to a hopefully more settled, if intensely busy, graduate student—I looked to Dürer as an emblem of my personal history.
Despite my personal connection to the artist, his work, though created in the extremely limited, black-and-white syntax of woodcut, ardently resists translation into ink on skin. You would think that a trained artist using a marking implement literally the size of a needle could at least mimic the detail of this great master, but unless you want to go as big as the illustrations that cover the walls of The Strange World of Albrecht Dürer exhibition (which I wasn’t ready to do on my body), it cannot quite be done.
There are a few good reasons why isolating individual elements of Dürer’s works and turning them into isolated emblems is a difficult task. These reasons testify to the many greatnesses of the artist. Dürer did not work in the Japanese tradition, which is so bound in my western eyes with the modernist reinventions of that medium. Nor was he, in the early part of his graphic career, wholly committed to techniques of space coming from Italianate perspective. Instead, in his linear works, he created beautifully layered compositions with only black and white, positive and negative, on his side. If you squint at his images so as to blur out their figuration, you can still get a pulsating and lively sense of depth.
As the densities of luscious black line blur with white paper into a gray scale, dividing receding and advancing plains into overall shades, one comes to realize just how important a grasp of the entire surface of the print was to Dürer. He may have been the first and last true master of this approach to the medium and perfected an artistic language that, while it may have precedents, has no equal. His example can only be differed from, but never surpassed.
It is unfortunate that the power that makes Dürer’s art so appealing to me and ties it so fundamentally to a formative stage in my life when I was trying to find a language of my own, also makes his work unrealizable as a tattoo. I can only offer continued testimony to the draw of his work.
You might think that I want all great art—or all art that I think is great—implanted under my skin forever. That I am that kind of guy. Well, I am but I don’t. Dürer’s art is already there, always and forever under my skin, in my subconscious, and I simply wanted to show it.
Honestly, I think Dürer is under everyone’s skin, in everyone’s mind. Just to see a few of his prints—which we have all seen, even if we don’t know it—is to be impressed (pun intended). If a tattoo like mine was to be about visualizing and declaring elements of who I had come to be, Dürer had already played major role in that formation.
As a high school student, I made my first woodcut after flipping through yet another copy of that same Dover book. It was horrible. My image of an oilcan looked utterly expressionistic and prominently featured the text “lio,” testifying to my naïve grasp of the process itself. So I tried again, and again, and again, and again.
While eventually I did leave behind woodcut as a daily ritual, Dürer has still exerted a magnetic draw upon me. I have to thank him, I guess, for leading me here. For tempting me down this fantastic path where every day I am lucky enough to sit and stare at those same Dover pages. Now I have the chance to explore the real pages onto which he printed his images.
So, while I guess I will never really have a tattoo that symbolizes my journey or Dürer’s part in it, I do have the privilege of continuing to enjoy and attempting to understand the work of this uniquely intelligent and immensely skilled artist. He just has that kind of draw. Whether you want him to or not, Dürer will change your life.
I highly recommend seeing his work in person—just think long and hard about tattooing it all over your body.
[To try a Dürer tattoo at no risk, visit the Clark’s Museum Shop and pick up a temporary tattoo!]