By Monica Bretherton, guest blogger
When I was a kid, my criteria for any artist was how well they represented horses, from the sculptors of the Parthenon to Degas at the racetrack. My standard was not anatomical accuracy, but whether the horse was treated like a static object or allowed the same presence as the human figures.
During my trip to the Clark, I was reunited with someone who rated pretty highly on that list of artists: Albrecht Dürer. The Strange World of Albrecht Dürer exhibition ties the language of contemporary angst to the pictorial traditions of five centuries previous.
Because the Clark has a new policy that allows non-flash photography, I was able to use my iPhone to pick out the details of my own narrative thread.
After extended travel in Venice and Florence as a young man, Dürer applied his prodigious talents to the study of anatomy and proportion (as well as architectural perspective and military machines and maneuvers) and made these Renaissance obsessions accessible to the rising middle class of Germany through affordable prints. They apparently took the same pleasure in a nice apple butt as a quarter-horse-lover might today.
Dürer elevated the woodcut to virtuosic levels, refining techniques and then training his own master craftsmen so that he could draw the image and have the block prepared in the workshop tradition of the era. Woodcuts require you to remove the material that will be the white area, and are therefore time-consuming to execute. The engravings were done by the master himself directly on the plate.
Some of Dürer’s most popular subjects were religious, like Saint Eustace seeing a vision of Jesus between the horns of a stag while out on the hunt. The horse and dogs that represent his passion for his lifestyle are front and center, occupying most of the picture’s real estate.
In all the prints, religious or not, Dürer seems fascinated with the worldly trappings he portrays in an almost grotesque level of detail. I couldn’t help obsessing over the horse furnishings depicted with the care of a costumer. Nemesis carries a bridle in her hand with what appears to be a snaffle bit with shanks.
Donkeys, parrots and pigs are also rendered with great care and without sentimentality. The landscapes in the background are often drawn from real locations, and include farms and wood mills as well as towns and castles. Dürer was no minimalist; every space required an occupant to bring it to life.
Dürer was a humanist, a friend of Martin Luther and other thinkers of the German Renaissance, but there were traces of the Gothic love of the grotesque in his world, and of the fashion for moralizing on human failings.
The production of the prints kept his household going, even while Dürer himself fought health issues in middle age. In a letter to a friend, he expressed a wish to do more painting, but his colleagues pressured him to put his theories into a series of scholarly works on geometry, perspective, typography, and human proportion. So maybe he was no stranger to modern angst after all.
Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from The Apocalypse, c. 1497. © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA
Albrecht Dürer, The Large Horse, 1505. © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA
Albrecht Dürer, Saint Eustace, c. 1501. © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528), Nemesis (The Great Fortune), c. 1502. © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA
Albrecht Dürer, The Prodigal Son Amid the Swine, c. 1496. © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA
Albrecht Dürer, The Ill-Assorted Couple, c. 1495. © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA