Variations on a theme

We do not know precisely the circumstances under which Albrecht Durer produced this page of ink drawings. To modern eyes it suggests a sleepless night spent sketching: the time and the restlessness recorded in the sequence of rumpled pillows could correspond to a bout of insomnia. But only until we remember that, in 1493, only daylight could have provided the bright illumination these sketches describe. From the six variations on the same subject (still another appears on the reverse side of the page), we infer that the artist made one sketch, then punched the pillow into a different shape and made the next. Only the shadow cast by the topmost figure onto its neighbor may cause us to wonder whether Durer was drawing more than one pillow. That shadow appears to locate the top two pillows in the same space and thus in the same moment of time. The four other images are unconnected except by their placement on the same page. Just by leaving the drawing ambiguous, Durer makes us wonder whether we are seeing distinct representations of similar objects or similar representations of distinct objects. Probably without even intending to do so, he produced a page that enables us to ponder the concepts of sameness and difference, of representation and resemblance.

From Durer's point of view, this page of sketches was probably nothing more than an opportunity to practice ''drapery studies.'' Any artist who wants to represent clothed human figures has to master the delineation of folds and irregularities in fabric. And although he was aware of his extraordinary gift for drawing, he never neglected to practice. That is another fact which the page of pillow sketches records.

Our historical overview of Durer's life and work bears on an individual piece like this in ways he could not have foreseen. You look a little differently at the pillows when you konw that he, like other artists of prodigious gifts (such as Leonardo and Picasso), enjoyed drawing exotic animals and grotesque facial anomalies because of the challenge they offered his skill. With this fact in mind, we feel it may be appropriate and relevant to see within the folds of the six pillows a grimacing mouth or a knotted brow. Making these sketches must have required him to hold his own imagination in check somewhat, so that his hand would not impose hidden caricatures that didn't really belong in the figures he was drawing.

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