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Enduring Durer 

The idea of a Durer show sharing space with an exhibition of Russian Ikons seemed inexplicable at first, yet they opened simultaneously and even share a contiguous maze of gallery space, so you segue from one to the other as effortlessly as salt water meandering up the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. It may sound farfetched, but many of Albrecht Durer's prints, in keeping with Renaissance tradition, focus on religious stories, so there are at least some thematic connections. Somehow it all works, and the museum's presentation probably has a lot to do with it.

No classic white cube here, the walls of the galleries are painted in saturated hues more akin to patchouli and vetivert scented Victorian parlors. While it's wonderful to see those Durer prints in person -- he may still be the greatest printmaker ever -- seeing so many of them only serves to remind us of how medieval 15th century Germany still was. While the landscapes and portraits of the Italian Renaissance are as reassuringly familiar as, say, the Mona Lisa, northern Europe gave us such strange and bizarre figures as Hieronymous Bosch and Mattias Grunewald, and some of these Durer prints aren't far behind in overall weirdness. If works such as his spectacular Adam and Eve and his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are standard freshman art history fare, it may come as a surprise that so much of this stuff is so elaborately strange and bizarre. And while much of this work is religious in nature, it soon becomes clear that religious imagery has changed dramatically over the centuries.

Then as now, the apocalypse was popular among the pious, and Durer's woodcut series, The Revelations of St. John, is a bravura interpretation. His Opening the Fifth and Sixth Seals depicts a heavenly chariot with angels hurling stars and meteorites at the masses of medieval Germans below, and while it's superbly done, it's also, literally, spooky as hell, a fitting complement to his Four Horsemen, a far more familiar image. His St. John's Vision of Christ and the Seven Candlesticks is magnificent but utterly occult in tone, more like a lost card from the Aleister Crowley tarot deck than anything we ordinarily associate with religion. If this is just too much, maybe we should turn our attention to his Life of the Virgin Mary.

In fact, scenes such as the Nativity of Christ and the Adoration of the Magi are more conventional. In these works, Durer seems to busy himself with elaborate architectural cutaways reminiscent of Escher or Piranesi, but even here there are some surprises such as The Circumcision of Christ, an elaborate view of the baby Jesus getting snipped on the eighth day after birth, in accordance with Jewish law. As in the Italian Renaissance, the Northern Renaissance alternated between biblical and mythological scenes, and this latter is also seen here, in his Hercules, a depiction of a motley crew of riffraff including a naked, shriveled hag beating a knight in armor to death with a variety of animal bones. Amymone is an engraving, a depiction of a Germanic sort of Venus riding on the back of a sea monster with a grizzled human head and the lower body of an enormous fish. While most such myths hark back to the ancient mythic figures of pre-Christian Greece and Rome -- in this case, Neptune, the Greek sea god -- Durer always reworks such subjects into turf that would be more familiar for his intended audience, so here we see elaborate castles on the Rhine rising in the background, a setting more like the Bavarian Alps than Mount Olympus. Was it just ignorance on his part? Not likely. Durer was the son of a master Nuremberg goldsmith, and like many well off lads of his time, he'd traveled to Rome and Venice and knew the ways of the world. But he saw the potential of the newest new thing, the printing press, to make art more affordable, so his translation of ancient stories into Renaissance German settings may have been part of his marketing savvy. He was a shrewd businessman as well as a great artist, and this NOMA show leaves no doubt that -- in Durer's case, at least -- the two are not mutually exclusive.

click to enlarge Albrecht Durer's St. John's Vision of Christ and the Seven - Candlesticks suggests that biblical imagery was different in - 15th century Germany.
  • Albrecht Durer's St. John's Vision of Christ and the Seven Candlesticks suggests that biblical imagery was different in 15th century Germany.
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