Dürer’s Engraved Passion on display
Some artwork is hard to miss. François-André Vincent's dramatic 1791 oil painting, Zeuxis Choosing His Models for the Image of Helen from Among the Girls of Croton, will be an obvious showstopper in the Cantor Center for Visual Art's current exhibition, which focuses on the museum's newest acquisitions. Dürer to Picasso opened last week and continues through Feb. 15, 2009.
Other works in the museum need to be sought out and savored, the visual equivalents of an austere and steely Riesling. Consider, on the opposite wall, the Engraved Passion, an inconspicuous lineup of 16 exquisite engravings, each barely larger than a playing card. Albrecht Dürer, the greatest master of the Renaissance in Northern Europe, knew how to put immensity in a very tiny space.
The museum's recent Dürer acquisitions are "stellar," according to Patience Young, curator for education. "This is major stuff," she said. "This is a real coup—Dürer was the greatest printmaker in Western history."
Her accolades embrace two larger woodcuts on the adjacent wall as well. One is among the most famous images in all of Western art: Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The woodcuts, the second of which shows the martyrdom of St. Catherine of Alexandria, are bolder than the delicate engravings and have a power of their own. As John Updike wrote in the New Yorker, "they combined the sturdy starkness of folk art with the elaboration and expressiveness of Renaissance painting." As a printmaker, Dürer is rivaled only by Rembrandt, four of whose etchings also are included in the show.
The exhibition provides a rare opportunity to view all the prints of the Engraved Passion together at the Cantor Arts Center: Because exposure to light can cause the ink to fade and the paper to deteriorate, the prints will be exhibited only a few at a time every three to five years, then returned to storage.
Dürer's power veers on the cinematic: "Sex, violence and pageantry: tragedy, comedy and cosmic vision: Dürer made all this and more visible with a grasp of pictorial space and composition that is as powerfully muscular as it is delicately intimate," wrote Ken Johnson in the New York Times. "And he did it all in a new, small-scale, mechanically reproducible medium."
"Reproducible" is the operative word. Gutenberg, the pioneering printer and inventor of moveable type, had died only a few decades before, in 1468.
The 15th and 16th centuries became the era when words—and eventually images—could move nations through printmaking.
They certainly had an impact on the popular imagination. For example, Dürer's Four Horsemen changed forever how we envision the biblical account, in which the horsemen arrive one by one, bringing strife, war, famine and death, over a period of time, rather than together, en force. According to Betsy Fryberger, the Burton and Deedee McMurtry Curator of Prints and Drawings, this print is "one that every museum curator covets."
The generic term "print" covers four different processes. The oldest are "relief" methods, such as woodcuts, in which the artist carves away the intended white space for a print, leaving the raised areas to be covered by ink. Woodcuts had been used in China since the early centuries, but, in Europe, using woodcuts on paper began around 1400. Although this technique spawned the first mass-produced images, there were hitches. Woodblocks deteriorate quickly—worms, in particular, find them tasty. Stencil methods of printmaking (for example, silkscreen) are also fragile.
"Intaglio" processes, including engravings, etchings, aquatints and mezzotints, use a reverse process for a much finer effect. After the artist scratches the design into a waxy layer on a metal plate, exposure to acid etches the design into the metal. For an engraving, however, the artist works directly on the copper plate itself. In both cases, the metal plate is covered with ink, then wiped, and finally damp paper is pressed into the grooves to deposit the ink. But plates wore down over time, and the technology continued to evolve. Stone lithography was introduced at the end of the 18th century. It doesn't break down or deteriorate; the thousandth print is identical to the first. Lithography is the basis for modern mass production, and it dominates the 19th-century French color prints in the exhibition—for example, the seven Odilon Redon lithographs in his series based on Flaubert's Temptation of St. Anthony.
Paper in Dürer's time was made from rags, particularly linen (wood pulp made its advent in the 19th century). It was very thin, and not much of it has survived from prior to the end of the 15th century. The paper was initially made in small sizes because of limitations in cost and equipment—hence, Dürer's tiny engravings. The papers for the two Dürer woodcuts on exhibit were unusually large for their time, Fryberger said. By the time of John James Audubon—six of his lithographs are also in the Cantor exhibition—the paper was specially made in "double elephant size," she said.
All this has a practical impact for the Cantor Center. "Multiples are affordable," Young said, even when they are hard to come by. Dürer's oil paintings have been snapped up by major museums around the world but would have been prohibitively costly for most university museums, anyway.
With the new technologies of paper-making and printing, Dürer made, altogether, six series of the Passion—a category that, for Dürer, loosely extended from the Last Supper to the Resurrection, but might also include the Fall of Man and the Last Judgment. "It is hard to imagine this narrative, the center of the Christian story and a topic of depiction from Romanesque capitals to Rouault canvases, ever being more earnestly, searchingly, and, as it were, introspectively illustrated," Updike wrote in the New Yorker.
The Engraved Passion now in the Stanford museum was made between 1507 and 1513. Dürer started it shortly after his return from Italy—the second of two trips that were so influential they made him a bridge between Italian and Northern European art.
"Engraving is very, very difficult," Fryberger said. "Your hand can't slip. The degree of his technical mastery is extraordinary."
Fryberger characterized the series as "full of movement." "That's what makes it interesting," she added. According to Updike, "a strange lightness possesses the figures: Christ and his two tormenters in this Flagellation appear to be doing a stately dance, and the lissome Christ in Resurrection is doing a graceful two-step on the lid of his tomb."
In the 1568 edition of the Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari called this series, in particular, "the ultimate in perfection and quality attainable in the medium as regards beauty, variety of vestments, and composition."
Dürer had already been at work on what is called the Large Passion, which was started about 1496 and continued for a few years. Then his work was interrupted to work on his other great series, The Apocalypse (including Four Horsemen), the Life of the Virgin and two other Passions—the Small Woodcut Passion, 37 woodcuts made between 1508 and 1510, and the Engraved Passion—before he resumed his Large Passion in 1510. Between these three Passions, he visualized and revisualized the last week of Jesus' life, rarely repeating something he had already tried. Comparing the three series uncovers his creative and mental agility and his preoccupation with the theme.
The format of the Engraved Passion differs from that of the Small Passion by what Dürer expert and biographer Erwin Panofsky calls "an aristocratic slenderness of proportion": The engraving is about 4.5 by 3 inches, against the woodcut Small Passion's 5 x 4 inches. It was unaccompanied by any text; engravings tended to be for the refined art lover rather than, as in the case of the woodcuts, a more popular audience. Comparing it to the Small Passion, Panofsky noted in 1955 that despite its comparative brevity, "it has something sumptuous about it. It stresses spiritual suffering rather than physical torture and never loses sight of the preterhuman dignity of Christ."
Dürer to Picasso features 100 works from the Renaissance to World War II, works representing the top tier of art acquired through gift, purchase and bequest since the museum's reopening in 1999, a decade after the Loma Prieta earthquake. The works include paintings and sculptures, as well as prints.
The Cantor Center for Visual Arts is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursday until 8 p.m. Admission is free. Docents lead free exhibition tours on Thursdays at 12:15 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. The center is located on the Stanford campus near the corner of Lomita Drive and Museum Way. Parking is free after 4 p.m. and all day on weekends. For information, call 723-4177 or go to http://museum.stanford.edu.