Considered by many to be the greatest German artist of all time, Albrecht Dürer was celebrated during his lifetime as a painter, printmaker, and writer. His innovative techniques revolutionized printmaking, and his theoretical writings transformed the study of human proportion. Deeply embedded in a tumultuous era of religious reformation and scientific inquiry, Dürer used his art to reflect the spiritual and social preoccupations of his time. The Strange World of Albrecht Dürer, on view at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
in Williamstown, Massachusetts, from November 14, 2010, through March 13, 2011, explores how and why Dürers visionary imagery remains arresting despite centuries of cultural change.
Visitors will find monsters, knights, and angels in The Strange World of Albrecht Dürer exhibition, which focuses on Dürers fantastic imagination and timeless imagery, said Michael Conforti, director of the Clark. The Clarks collection of works by this Renaissance master is extraordinary, and we are pleased to be presenting seventy-five powerful prints, all from our collection, in the first comprehensive display of these works in more than thirty-five years.
The Strange World of Albrecht Dürer takes a unique approach to Dürers work by organizing his prints in themes that draw parallels to contemporary society: The Apocalypse, Symbolic Space, Battle and Anguish, Gender Anxiety, and Enigma.
Dürers Apocalypse series chronicles the end of the world as foretold in the New Testaments book of Revelation. The fifteen prints that comprise the Apocalypse series are teeming with monsters, devils, angels, and saints from the artists fertile imagination. Originally published as a book in 1498, this series of woodcuts echoed the anxieties of a generation during which prophesies of impending doom circulated widely and were encouraged by the sixteenth-century European Christian Church. An original bound copy of the series on loan from the Chapin Library at Williams College is included in the exhibition. Today, these prints maintain their dramatic impact, tapping into our fascination with religious tension and our fear of the beasts that dwell between the realm of the real and unreal.
Dürer strove to create the illusion of three-dimensional space by framing the narrative action within architectural and landscape settings that heighten its subdued drama, particularly in his 1511 series Life of Virgin. The interplay between outside and inside, inclusion and exclusion, earth and heaven, are key to understanding the events that unfold in this series, which records the life of Mary from the courtship of her parents to her assumption into heaven. Unlike the highly emotive, chaotic quality of the Apocalypse woodcuts, these images are calm, contemplative, and earthbound.
Dürer explored the themes of anguish, suffering, and violence throughout history from classical, biblical, and contemporary times, often melding time periods in a single image. Around 1500, Dürer captured the horrors of the religious wars brought on by the Protestant Reformation, Christs suffering, and the effects of his crucifixion in images of the Passion. These images were suffused with a sense of anguish that remains as potent today as in Dürers time. Similar to the way in which the violent imagery in twenty-first century media mirrors current events, the anguish in Dürers images reflected societys fascination with human suffering.
Dürers frequent focus on gender relationships ranged from Adam and Eve, depicting the biblical first couple, to suggestive dream states, to violent and erotic mythological creatures. The anxiety expressed in these prints centers on the perceived power struggle between women and men and the threat of unleashed passions. The shifting meanings of these works are exemplified in their frequently changing titles; the luminous nude Nemesis was titled The Great Fortune in the seventeenth century, and Four Naked Women was referred to as The Four Witches in 1675. The impact of these prints is no less powerful today when gender equality remains a heated issue in every sphere of life.
The enigmatic nature of Dürers prints, including Knight, Death and the Devil, Melencolia I, The Desperate Man, and his series of knots has encouraged a wide range of interpretive speculation. Scholarly investigations have incorporated philosophy, popular culture, literature, religious doctrine, and feminist interpretations in attempts to fasten meaning onto these curious images. Symbolism has been the overarching tool used to unlock elements in Dürers compositions, but this approach has its limitations. Dürers vast imagination allows us to interpret these works anew for each successive generation.
The Clarks collection of more than 300 Dürer prints is among the finest in North America. The bulk of the collection was acquired in 1968 from the collection of Tomás Joseph Harris, a scholar, artist, and art dealer who served in the British Intelligence during the Second World War. The seventy-five prints included in the exhibition represent the best of the Clarks Dürers holdings: Hercules (1496), the Apocalypse series (14961498), Nemesis (c. 1502), Knight, Death and the Devil (1513), Melencolia I (1514), and others.