Albrecht Dürer, “Melencolia I,” 1514
Albrecht Dürer, “Melencolia I,” 1514

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The life of Albrecht Dürer is snugly bookended by two of the great transformations of Western civilization. Dürer was born in 1471, four years before the first book was published in English (Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye). The first Gutenberg Bible was not yet 20 when Albrecht Dürer the Elder, a goldsmith, and Barbara Holper, the daughter of a goldsmith, had their third of 18 children. Dürer the younger died in 1528, 11 years after Martin Luther tacked Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the doors of his church in Saxony and seven years after Luther was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church more or less for doing so.

Dürer—the most influential artist of the Northern Renaissance, one of the greatest German artists of all time, and certainly the finest engraver to ever pick up a burin—benefited immensely from the printing press and invested richly in the Protestant Reformation. Viewers who see the ongoing Dürer exhibition at the National Gallery of Art will be treated to some of his greatest masterpieces, including three so-called master engravings. These are among the works people should make it a point to see during life. But it may not be entirely clear—at least not in the presentation at the National Gallery’s East Wing—what makes Dürer so critical to printmaking, to the Renaissance, to the Reformation, and to humanity.

“Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors, and Prints from the Albertina” comprises 118 works on loan from the Albertina in Vienna—which houses the largest and finest Dürer collection in the world—plus related pieces from the Albertina and several Dürers from the National Gallery. The Albertina collection owes largely to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, the Habsburg ruler who relocated the seat of dynasty from Vienna to Prague and moved heaven and Earth to acquire art by Dürer. Rudolph II, an occultist who strived all his life to find the Philosopher’s Stone, would not have been able to resist the dark allegories of Dürer’s “Melencolia I,” with its mysterious orb, curious rhombohedron, and brooding angel. The Emperor once mulled exchanging an entire domain of Bohemia for a cache of Dürer’s works.

That offer came 60 years after Dürer’s death. The artist had established his merit as early as 1484, at age 13, when he etched what is today considered to be one of history’s first self-portraits. The National Gallery’s presentation focuses on biography: Dürer rejected the respectable family goldsmithing trade, for example, to follow his godfather, a goldsmith who had taken up the new trade of printmaking. The show traces Dürer’s artistic evolution from that early, flawed-yet-confident silverpoint etching through his drawings after Quattrocento engravings and into maturity. Throughout, the almost architectural rendering of a cloak’s folds or the exquisite articulation of a hand’s knuckles represent Dürer signatures.

And yet the personal approach seems inappropriate for Dürer. Think of the blockbuster Dada exhibit mounted by the National Gallery in 2006. The museum explained that moment as an expression of anxiety over war, eschewing artist biographies and instead providing sociohistorical context, and lots of it. It is worth knowing Dürer’s personal history, but mostly as background for a fuller understanding of the Northern Renaissance and its ramifications. The National Gallery treats Dürer more like a modern artist—like a Roy Lichtenstein, someone more immediate, whose influence the viewer understands and whose brushstroke and backstory the viewer might like to know better. Dürer could be better understood as a force of art.

According to art historian A. Hyatt Mayor, former curator of prints for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dürer upturned the world of Florentine engraving in the late 15th century. It was Dürer’s “irresistible virtuosity,” Mayor writes, that seduced painter Pontormo, who made a 1522 fresco of the passion of Christ after Dürer’s woodcuts, admitting the Northern figure into the heroic Florentine drawing style. In that moment, the Renaissance came to embody multiple geographic nodes and artistic methods. Dürer, too, drew influence from Florentine master Mantegna, and the National Gallery shows the drawings Dürer made after Mantegna’s engravings—but casts them as evidence of Dürer’s artistic growth. The exhibit says more about Dürer’s friendship with Willibald Pirckheimer than about the furious contest of styles and ideologies taking shape between regions across Italy and Germany.

The European artists who copied Dürer even copied his stylized “AD” monogram, as the National Gallery tells viewers. But the primacy of printmaking in Dürer’s work can be measured in broader economic terms. Because Dürer had taken up engraving as his medium, his work obeyed the vagaries of the nascent publishing industry. For example: A financial crisis that hit the book-printing industry in the 1480s affected Dürer directly. Publishers had oversaturated the market with Latin grammars and trade texts for priests, lawyers, and humanists. They gambled that the next big thing would be Petrarch’s Triumphs, an illustrated book of poems meant for a general audience (a newly marketable demographic). Dürer took to the book’s almost improvisational woodcuts, incorporating elements from Triumphs into his design for the “Triumphal Chariot of Maximilian I” drawing. The National Gallery neglects this reference—an astonishing intersection of imperial art and popular fiction—in its presentation of the awesome, 15-by-90-foot “Triumphal Chariot” woodcut of 1522.

Had Dürer ever succeeded in engraving a portrait of Martin Luther—as he hoped to do—then art history might have registered a schism with Catholicism during the height of the Renaissance. Still, the National Gallery could do much more to highlight the Reformationist attitude in Dürer’s catalog. Only the viewer who stops to ask where all the saints have gone will notice, but Dürer made works based on scenes from the Bible rather than from the cult of saints. (One exception is Jerome, whose popularity endured the Reformation, and who is depicted in his study in one of Dürer’s three master engravings on view.)

The greatest draw for contemporary viewers will be Dürer’s remarkable master engravings:Knight, Death, and Devil” (1513); “Saint Jerome in His Study” (1514); and “Melencolia I”(1514). It is convenient that three of his works so masterfully survey his interests in theology, ecclesiology, natural and obscure mathematics, technique, and, of course, skulls and lions and demons. His lasting influence on horror, heavy-metal art, and drawing obsessives can be traced to this suite of hardcore engravings.

But it is a mistake to limit his influence to his subcultural followers today, or even to draftsmen and engravers across history. Consider his 1503 work—a painting—called “The Great Piece of Turf.” A patch of field painted from the perspective of a small woodland creature, it was something of a lark for Dürer. Yet it captured a core Renaissance belief about the primacy of nature and the obligation to render it faithfully. If we receive that belief, it is because every work by Dürer transmitted its importance. The National Gallery shows us how that belief manifested in Dürer’s studio, if not how it echoed out in the world.