Studies of a Flutist and Two Women by Jean-Antoine Watteau
Hercules at the Crossroads, c. 1498
This work is from collection of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College. (Courtesy of Vassar)

Albrecht Dürer
and Contemporaries at Vassar College

ART TIMES online Dec 2009

THERE WAS A time — before the advent of non-representational art was heralded by modernism — when the old adage “One Picture is Worth a Thousand Words” held some validity and one might find no better example than that of the age of printmaking in Northern Europe during the Renaissance. Some 41 prints, 19 by Albrecht Dürer (all but one from the Center’s permanent collection) as well as several from such German contemporaries as Heinrich Aldegrever, Albrecht Altdorfer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Georg Pencz , and the Italian Marcantonio Raimondi, fill out the exhibition — the whole celebrating the art of fine draftsmanship. Of course, this was back in the days when artists felt that they had to have something to “say” — and made sure that they were as well-read as they were skilled in their professions as image-makers in order to create art that evinced not only fine craftsmanship, but substance as well. As the exhibition curator Patricia Phagan points out, these were times when familiarity with classical antiquity, mythology, biblical scholarship, and the like, was almost de rigueur for anyone claiming to be cultured — as indeed these artists did. In fact, Phagan facilitates our appreciating the scope of these artists and their subject matter by thematically arranging the exhibit into the following categories: Classical Mythology; Classical Theories; Theology and Religion; and, Classical History. To further enhance the broad source-material of the prints, Phagan has included books, relief fragments and other related artifacts that contain images and subjects with which these printmakers were more than likely conversant. Although almost any one of the works in the exhibit will serve to illustrate just how cleverly these printmakers could “say a thousand words” in one image, I especially urge quiet contemplation of Dürer’s engravings of Hercules at the Crossroads and The Sea Monster — to single out but two — to see just how much “information” he could cram into an incredibly small area. As “full” as may be his foregrounds, there is such a wealth of images — castles replete with moats, battlements, crenellations and towers, landscapes, animals, roads, trees, rivers — even whole villages — in backgrounds that one needs to spend considerable time viewing to adequately take in all that is included. Interiors — such as Dürer’s engraving St. Jerome in his Study — are as intricately subject-filled as those featuring town- and/or landscapes. Even the tiniest prints — for example, Hans Sebald Beham’s engraving of Misfortune or Georg Pencz’s engraving of Musica, both having a total surface area of a mere couple of inchesboggle the imagination while engaging the mind. I once quipped that it took me longer to view one Daumier print than it did to take in three floors of the Whitney — how much more can be found in these old Northern Renaissance prints, I invite our readers to come see and make their own judgments. Having missed the opportunity to view one of the most impressive collections of Dürer’s drawings at Vienna’s Albertina a few years ago (we were informed after we arrived that prior notice of our visit was required), I appreciated this opportunity to view “close-up and personal” such a large collection of his woodcuts and engravings. This is one exhibition that the connoisseur of fine prints ought not miss.
*“Albrecht Dürer: Impressions of the Renaissance” (thru Dec 24): The Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, 124 Raymond Ave., Poughkeepsie, NY (845) 437-5632.

Share your thoughts about this review.