ART REVIEW : Woodcuts Reveal Durer's Artistic Genius


Albrecht Durer was the genius who almost single-handedly brought the art of the Italian Renaissance to Germany. His historical stature equals that of Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo, but the appreciation of his work has never quite matched theirs. An exhibition at Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum throws light on the reasons for that.

"Albrecht Durer and the Renaissance Woodcut in Transition" was organized at Cornell University. It comes with an informative brochure by Long Beach art history graduate student Bruce D. Sutherland. Its straightforward scholarly purpose is to demonstrate Durer's impact on the art of woodblock prints in 25 examples.

The first image is a postage-stamp-size print by an anonymous artist depicting St. Catherine of Alexandria. Dating from around 1475, almost a half-century after the Italian Renaissance was rooted, it is awkwardly Medieval.

In Germany such works were sold as pilgrimage souvenirs or talismans to ward off the plague. Aesthetics were not even an issue in that practical, hard-headed geography. If there is a lag in Durer's art, it's because he spent his life fighting the Philistinism of his country.

German artists found printing presses far more available than Sistine ceilings. Gutenberg invented movable type around 1450, creating the possibility of mass production of books. Engraved pictures that had previously illustrated texts became economically obsolete. Woodcut prints were cheaper to make and the plates more durable.

Thus the young Durer found obvious employment opportunities in learning woodcut technique. His father, a goldsmith, taught his son engraving. His uncle was Nuremberg's leading publisher, so the whole thing was a natural. As a result, Durer made some of the world's greatest images in the relatively humble form of prints. That shouldn't make a difference, but it does. People are impressed with big. Prints are small.

Durer apprenticed to the studio of Michael Wolgemut, a very sound artist working in a style hovering between the conceptualism of the Middle Ages and Renaissance realism.

The former dominates in a hand-colored print, "Allegory of the Heart of Jesus." It depicts five women representing the virtues and five male antagonists. One of the men reaches up one of the women's dresses. Set in this naive style, the gesture is almost shocking in its naturalism. Durer picked up some of that too.

Travels to Italy made a grand master of him. On his return, he built heroic scale into his work; combining this with native naturalism he produced such images as "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." It's a terrifying fantasy made chillingly convincing. Such works were curiously popular. The turn of the century approached and, as usual, many believed the end was at hand.

Modern artists like Edvard Munch and the German Expressionists played woodcutting for its broad, poster-like emotive possibilities. By comparison, the finesse of Durer and his contemporaries seems technically almost beyond belief.

Images look almost like engravings with their myriad fine lines. Were these, then, just imitation engravings? Not quite. Two versions of Durer's "The Death of the Virgin" are shown side by side. They are identical except one is a woodcut, the other an engraving. The latter is softer and more atmospheric, the woodcut has more visual snap.

Durer civilized German art, forming its uniqueness, its probing detail, moral fervor and haunted conscience. He also applied that intensity to painting and the study of human proportions. Yet it is his advances in woodcutting that were a legacy to other artists.

Hans Baldung Grien played up its proto-Surrealist strangeness in his modern cult favorite "The Bewitched Groom." Durer's circle of technical influence was completed when an Italian artist called Giuseppe Nicola Rossigliani managed to add soft shadow to hard edges in "Hercules and the Nemean Lion."

* Cal State Long Beach University Art Museum, 250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach , through Nov. 19, closed Mondays, (310) 985-5761.

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