Dürer’s Passions September 9-December 3, 2000 by
Daumier and Redon have their lithographs, and Picasso his etchings, but no major artistic reputation owes more to prints than Dürer’s. His woodcuts, propagated by the relatively new power of the printing press, circulated through Europe and made his fame; they combined the sturdy starkness of folk art with the elaboration and expressiveness of Renaissance painting. To this day, for all the brilliance of his oil paintings, including the first European series of self-portraits, and the tender, photographic precision of his watercolors and drawings, and his importance as the German who, with both writ-ten theory and exemplary practice, brought the lessons of the Italian Renaissance north, his name likely conjures up a black-and-white image—one of the set of surreal, majestic woodcut illustrations to the Apocalypse (circa 1497-1498), say, or his copperplate engravings Adam and Eve (1504) or Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513).
Since Dürer prints are in the collection of most museums, exhibitions are relatively easy to assemble; in 1971, the five-hundredth anniversary of the artist’s birth in Nuremberg, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts drew exclusively upon its own collection to mount the extensive Albrecht Dürer: Master Printmaker. Now, Harvard’s Fogg, having assimilated the old Busch-Reisinger Museum that once stood on the other side of Memorial Hall, has supplemented its own considerable holdings with some loaned prints to give us, in ninety-three works, the full array of Dürer’s six versions of Christ’s Passion—the successive events, from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion, of Christ’s week of redemptive suffering.
The works are handsomely displayed in one large, irregular room painted a deep maroon on the lower half of the walls and a dark green on the upper. The earliest passion, called the Albertina Passion (1494-1500), and the latest, the Oblong Passion (1520-1524), are both fragmentary, containing respectively four and ten images. The Green Passion (1504) consists of eleven drawings in pen and brush on green paper, heightened with white gouache; the originals are in the collection of the Graphische Sammlung Albertina in Vienna and are represented at the Fogg by reproductions two thirds the size of the originals. Finely limned, their dark ground spotted with chalky white, they are probably hard to look at even in the original; yet, moving from Christ’s arrest in the Garden to his entombment, the cycle seems planned and is minutely executed, possibly toward some painted version to adorn a noble’s chapel. The Nailing to the Cross and the Descent from the Cross are notably lucid, dramatic, and moving.
But it is the Engraved Passion of 1508-1512 and the two woodcut series, the Large Passion (1497-1510) and the Small Passion (1508-1510), that make the show worth a museum’s space and a museumgoer’s time. They date, roughly, from the same period of Dürer’s life, and were moved forward more or less simultaneously, in one wave of interest. It is hard to imagine this narrative, the center of the Christian story and a …