sat 25/05/2024

The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure, Courtauld Gallery | reviews, news & interviews

The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure, Courtauld Gallery

The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure, Courtauld Gallery

An exhibition that reveals the pragmatic genius of a profoundly inventive mind

Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait (verso), c. 1491-92 Graphische Sammlung der Universität, Erlangen

It surely takes courage to conceive an exhibition around a single, slightly obscure work by an artist whose oeuvre boasts an array of crowd-pleasers. Rather than gathering together the greatest hits, the Courtauld Gallery’s new exhibition takes as its starting point a single sheet of paper; on one side is a finely wrought figure from the parable of the Wise and the Foolish Virgins, while on the verso are studies of Dürer’s left leg.

That these very different drawings occupy the same sheet of paper is at the heart of this exhibition, and that the sheet is from the Courtauld’s own collection points to the show’s unashamedly scholarly agenda. The double-sided drawing serves as a neat metaphor for the exhibition itself, which highlights two sides to the young Dürer’s practice: the close study of nature, and the depiction of the human figure. By studying himself, Dürer advanced his understanding of the world around him and how better to represent it in two dimensions.

The recurrence of his self-portrait has often been invested with meaning that the curators here reject

The exhibition focuses on Dürer’s works on paper and in the early stages of his career he seems to have made little else. In 1490, Dürer embarked on his journeyman years, when he travelled from Nuremberg through Germany and the Upper Rhine, working, meeting people and absorbing influences, before making a second trip to Italy. Much of the exhibition’s first room contains work made during these travels and it is remarkable to see how much has survived, some of it in very good condition. The strength of the show is that its narrow focus raises apparently trivial questions about Dürer’s practice that in fact afford great insights. If, for Dürer, drawings were simply preparatory, why are they so highly finished and how did they survive four years of travel? If these were mere drafts, surely they would be crumpled and torn, if not discarded altogether?

In fact, not only are many of these works well-preserved, they are often signed and dated in a self-conscious act of authorship that reveals Dürer’s ambitions for himself and for the medium of drawing. Indeed, a number of these drawings were owned by collectors early on, while others were kept by Dürer as part of his own collection of stock images, or, like the sketch of his wife, Mein Agnes, c.1494, as personal mementoes. Clearly, Dürer did use his drawings as preparatory studies for prints; however, where scholarship has often encouraged a linear view of artistic practice whereby a series of focused studies resolve into a final work, the prints and drawings on display here show instead the labyrinthine wanderings of a profoundly inventive mind.

Albrecht Dürer, Three studies of the artist’s left hand (recto), c. 1493-94, Albertina, ViennaDürer seems often to have made drawings with no particular print in mind: instead a background here, a posture there, can be discerned in his prints, familiar from the drawings but transformed by context and reworking. Indeed, the exhibition reveals how pragmatic a "genius" Dürer was: the recurrence of his self-portrait has often been invested with meaning that the curators here reject, arguing that it is more likely evidence of Dürer’s working practice than an attempt to plumb his own soul. In his pen and ink Self-portrait, c.1491-92 (main picture) Dürer’s hand presses incongruously against his cheek, while he looks squarely at the viewer, apparently challenging us to discern meaning. But what we learn from this exhibition is that the drawing is entirely literal: the artist is gazing intently at his own flesh, watching as it puckers and yields to the pressure of his own hand. Like the Courtauld’s double-sided drawing, the self portrait shows Dürer using his own body as a way of extending his visual lexicon. (Pictured above right: Three studies of the artist’s left hand (recto), c. 1493-94, Albertina, Vienna.)

Dürer’s pragmatism is something of a theme here; a first edition of the popular satire The Ship of Fools of 1494 is thought to contain no less than 73 woodcuts by Dürer, indicating that he was designing large volumes of prints for publication and had identified this as a growing market for his work. Indeed, it seems likely that Dürer’s decision to abandon his apprenticeship as a goldsmith in favour of a career as a lowly artist was motivated less by intellectual or artistic reasons, than by a realisation that an exciting and profitable future lay in Nuremberg’s burgeoning publishing industry.

An exhibition exploring such a focused area of artistic output is increasingly rare, and by basing the companion exhibition, Antiquity Unleashed, on the somewhat arcane topic of a lecture given by Aby Warburg over a century ago, the Courtauld only underscores its rejection of populism and its determination to place scholarly enquiry at the heart of its agenda. By doing so, without compromise, it has laid on a fresh, new exhibition that gives compelling insight into Dürer’s working practice, and perhaps even a glimpse of the man himself.

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