Monday, December 7, 2009

A museum show always operates on at least two levels: that of the art itself as well as its "curation" - roughly its thesis and organization, both physical and intellectual. A truly great exhibit feels like a kind of revelation, in which a style, career or even epoch is laid before us with illuminating lucidity; a lesser show, however, may dazzle us with beauty, but leaves us yearning for entrée into the secrets of the meaning of its art.

And alas, the new show of Albrecht Dürer prints at the MFA is the latter kind of show, although its mediocrity is thrown into particularly high relief by the power of its imagery - art so mysteriously magisterial, in fact, that it makes the show one of the must-see events of the year, despite its cursory presentation. The prints of the display are drawn almost entirely from the riches of the museum's own collection - indeed, the exhibit was inspired by the latest addition to that group, a fine version of the woodcut "The Martyrdom of St. Catherine," (above right). And it is, of course, wonderful to see so many masterpieces - well chosen by the curators, and presented in sparkling impressions - hanging cheek by jowl.

But the show does little to seduce the untrained eye, or convey much of Dürer's essence - indeed, somehow the very walls seem to radiate a kind of apology for the fact that there's no (or at least very little) color on them (would that be the MFA's attitude toward Ansel Adams?). What's worse, the hanging of the works and wall text - which proceed in rough timeline round a single room - do little to convey the momentous transformation in Northern European art for which Dürer was the avatar. At bottom, the show feels like a superficial tribute to the master's technique, which is a disservice, I'm afraid, to both this artist's da-Vinci-like achievement as well as his still-palpable graphic power. Indeed, it feels somehow sad that the MFA should have just blown a fortune (and rightly so!) on the grand Titian Tintoretto Veronese show last summer, yet now is giving such short shrift to that trio's great Northern contemporary (who even walked among them in Venice for a pivotal period!). Dürer deserves more, much more.

If one looks closely, of course, one can still make out the signs of the visual and cultural watershed that the artist represents. The opening woodcuts, such as "St. Catherine," or the famous "Four Horsemen" of the Apocalypse series (at left), are almost too dense to read at first glance, and yet they seethe with a graphic energy that, once attended, pulls the eye in to ponder their detail. Even on close inspection, however, Dürer's harbingers of doom are almost indistinguishable - they seem to lock together like puzzle pieces into one horrifying unit, and their individual anatomies are a bit mechanical and unconvincing. They're clearly designed to coalesce into a rolling wave of hooves and scythes - because, like much Gothic imagery, they are meant to represent an idea - here the idea of destruction - rather than living, breathing entities existing in a pictorial space. Likewise, in "St. Catherine," we immediately sense a kind of thunder-stroke is occurring (God is smashing the means of St. Catherine's torture, so she may be martyred more decorously, via beheading), but it takes us several seconds to tease out the smashed wheel, the lightning bolts, and the dying soldiers surrounding the central saint, who seems somehow of a piece with the soldier at her back. Everything is laced together into a single, chaotic statement. It's no wonder, then, that Dürer's line has a kind of calligraphic flow: these prints are a form of rhetoric, not an evocation of "reality."

What the woodcuts don't have, of course, is a sense of perspective (or a point of view); they don't conspire with us to conjure a scene, they simply press upon us an urgent meme. But this entire stance begins to wobble once Dürer integrates the lessons he learned in Italy, in such engravings as "The Fall of Man" (at left). We can perceive at once a newfound interest in anatomy - an interest so obsessive that it seems to go a bit awry in Eve's torso and shoulders. A sudden grasp of pictorial space is also evident - the picture has a genuine sense of depth, with its two protagonists emerging from a shadowy relief (Dürer both absorbed new methods and invented his own for conjuring modeling and perspective). What's fascinating about the engraving, however, is how it keeps one foot in the Middle Ages even as it tests the waters of the Renaissance - its background seems, as in Dürer's earlier woodcuts, to be laced together into a single pattern, and it's inhabited by beasts symbolizing the four temperaments.

By the time of the incomparably rich "St. Jerome in His Study" (at left), a more thorough transformation has taken place: the saint sits in a convincingly rendered nook, and a natural source of light - from the sun, not heaven - illumines the scene. What's more, a sense of atmosphere suffuses the picture, which operates as yes, a religious icon, but also as a warm portrayal of a humble gentleman in his study, his traveling hat hanging on a peg behind him. There's even a bemusement at play here that's rare in Dürer - Jerome's familiar, a full-grown lion, dozes like a tabby as the saint patiently wordsmiths the Vulgate.

There's still a cold note of mortality in the picture - a skull watches calmly from St. Jerome's window, to remind us that Dürer could never warm up to the flesh the way the Venetians did. Their sense of pagan, sensual bloom is nowhere to be found in his prints - instead, he bent the lessons of Venice to an intense critique of worldliness. Indeed, you can almost feel Dürer digging at the physical details of the earth in his prints and paintings, as if searching for some deeper principle beneath its seductive surface.

This gives many of his prints an air of weird, mystical asceticism; he's like the lonely knight on horseback (above left), accosted by Death and the Devil. He could spend hours precisely rendering every tuft of grass in a piece of turf, or every hair on a rabbbit's head, but when he depicts four naked women dancing, they must, perforce, be not graces but witches. This distrust of the flesh, which forever resisted transcendence, perhaps fueled the mad frustration that's obvious in the famous "Melencolia I" (detail at top); surrounded by sextants and "magic squares," the artist/angel that dominates the picture glares at the fruits of its labors, a strange geometrical solid (now known as "Dürer's solid") on which the faint tracing of a skull can just barely be seen. The message may be oblique, but it's hardly obscure: death lurks even in the creations of genius; there is no escape. That enduring chill perhaps leaves us secular moderns cold - still, that's the icy passion that drives Dürer, and the trouble is, at the MFA, you can only feel it if you look closely, very closely.

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