Dürer and Renoir

Willibald Sauerländer, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer

Der frühe Dürer [The Early Dürer]

an exhibition at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, May 24–September 2, 2012
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Daniel Hess and Thomas Eser
Nuremberg: Verlag des Germanischen Nationalmuseums/Thames and Hudson, 604 pp., e46.00 (English edition to be published in September, $65.00)
sauerlander_1-081612.jpg
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Albrecht Dürer: The Adoration of the Magi, 1504

The year was 1928. On the four hundredth anniversary of Albrecht Dürer’s death, the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg organized an impressive Dürer exhibition accompanied by a slim, softcover catalog of 124 pages. The information on the exhibited works was brief to the point of being laconic. The public response was tremendous. Three hundred and fifty thousand visitors made the pilgrimage to view the works of the artist celebrated as the embodiment of German classicism. The aged art historian Heinrich Wölfflin, reigning monarch of Dürer scholarship, arrived in Nuremberg and declared himself not completely satisfied. Thomas Mann put in a word of praise. Only one expert remained silent: Erwin Panofsky, professor at the University of Hamburg and a rising authority on Dürer. He contributed not a single word to the anniversary jubilation. It was not until 1943, during his exile in Princeton, that he demonstrated his reverence for Dürer in a warmly appreciative book, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, that reads like a declaration of faith in a lost, better Germany.

1971 was another anniversary: Dürer’s five hundredth birthday. Nuremberg had lived through terrible events in the meantime: the Nazi Party rallies, the Nuremberg Laws, the Allied bombings, and the war crimes trials. The Germanisches Nationalmuseum again opened a splendid Dürer exhibition. This time the catalog was considerably more weighty at 471 lavishly illustrated pages. The show concentrated exclusively on the work of the master, celebrating him as a solitary genius. The introductory text ends with a grandiloquent flourish: “Dürer stands before us as a man of destiny, autonomous, with a mission to lead mankind to self-reflection through art.” This sentence embodies the spirit of the secular Dürer cult, now exaggerated by the moralizing pathos typical of postwar West Germany. It’s clear that a lot was expected of Dürer.

2012: once again, the Germanisches Museum has staged an ambitious Dürer exhibition, this time for a different kind of audience. On April 23, weeks before the opening, the newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported on—and, it must be said, vulgarized—the show, seeing it as a sensational event. But this time, there is no anniversary and no intention to celebrate the artist as a solitary genius. Dürer is now regarded in the light of historical scholarship that will not permit the great artist to be frozen into a monolithic monument, but instead investigates the circumstances and the people who facilitated his career.*

The catalog announces its aim: the basis and occasion of the exhibition and its new scholarly approach was a project subtitled “Historiographic Models for Broader Understanding of Dürer’s Early Work.” Thus the show is a reflection of innovations in research. This investigative impulse has given rise to an entire spectrum of enlightening observations and illuminating theories. Dürer no longer stands alone and self-contained, a lonely genius living in a narrow, provincial town. Instead, he appears as the eager partner of an elite gaining …

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  1. *

    Currently, the Metropolitan Museum in New York is presenting an exhibition, “Dürer and Beyond: Central European Drawings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1400–1700,” which ends on September 3.