D"urer: Master of the Art of Imagination and Observation

`WHAT is painting?'' asks the German artist Albrecht D"urer in his outline of a treatise on painting written in the second decade of the 16th century. The answer he offers to his own question is simple and direct enough: ``To paint is to be able to portray upon a flat surface any one - whichever he chooses of all visible things, howsoever they may be.''

D"urer was what today we call a ``realist,'' an objective artist. The ability to make the people, animals, and objects in the world around him into painted or drawn images that appear to be exact reproductions of them was quite clearly a primary aim of his art.

Think of his renowned pictures of a hare, or of praying hands, or of grasses. Here is meticulous observation meticulously recorded: The realism is extraordinary, and the ability of the artist, both his eye and his hand, are not something to be modestly disguised; they are to be celebrated.

This ability is no longer only a matter of superbly trained craftsmanship, as it had been in the artisan's world of D"urer's father (a Hungarian goldsmith who had settled in Nuremberg). It is not just educated skill in practice (though D"urer emphasized how essential education from an early age was for ``a really great Painter''). It is the outcome of something God-given. ``He that would be a painter must have a natural turn thereto,'' he wrote.

He knew what he was talking about. He was not only precocious, as a self-portrait at the age of 13 shows; he possessed, as a string of later self-portraits witnessed, a fascination with himself, both body and psyche. He had a self-awareness that bequeathed itself forcefully to later artists, to the whole notion of what it means to be that individualist visionary, an artist.

D"urer, however, was more than versatile, his art was virtually polymorphous. In this he is comparable, as a Renaissance figure of Northern Europe, with his older contemporary in Italy, born 19 years before him, Leonardo da Vinci. The variety of style, medium, and subject matter encountered in D"urer's art in fact means that whatever you might say of a general nature about it is immediately contradicted.

Heinrich W"olfflin in his book on D"urer points out that the artist's ``excessive dependence on the model'' - his meticulous realism - has been used by critics to explain what they see as his lack of a ``comprehensive vision.'' And though W"olfflin concedes that ``the relation between the model and his power of invention sometimes seems unbalanced,'' he argues that ``much as [D"urer] clung to nature, he could get on perfectly well without her.'' And he adds: ``I do not think that any similar case is known in the history of art.''

The woodcuts and engravings, describing Bible narratives and apocalyptic events, which are such a substantial and original part of D"urer's oeuvre, are witness to a faculty to visualize and design, without reference to any model, as W"olfflin says, ``the most complicated scenes.'' D"urer had a remarkable imagination.

The drawing of a rhinoceros shown on this page is an intriguing instance. D"urer never in his life saw a rhinoceros. The inscription on this drawing shows that he made his drawing from a description and a sketch, sent to him by a correspondent who had seen this rare and astonishing animal in Lisbon. D"urer brought to bear on this curiosity of nature his astonishing imaginative faculty. What he didn't know, he guessed. The resulting beast-in-armor (which he also drew on a wood block to be made into a woodcut that was printed and widely circulated) is, zoologists say, in many ways unlike any known kind of rhino.

And yet the power of D"urer's art - his imaginative capacity and convincing use of line to describe form - was such that his rhinoceros image was passed down from artist to artist at least until the 18th century, convincing each in turn that D"urer had drawn the creature accurately from life, and that therefore rhinoceroses must have only one horn, and clamber around, like jousting medieval knights, in scaly, segmented suits of armor.

Yet no sooner is one convinced of D"urer's powers of imagination than - as in the portrait of a young girl, and the watercolor landscape of a pond among pine trees at sunset - there he is again working in direct, realistic response to a person or scene in front of him. And - to complicate the issue further - neither of these works can be described as ``meticulous'' in the way the famous hare or the grasses are.

In the immediate yet totally finished charcoal drawing of the girl there are a freedom and spontaneity in the handling and a fullness in the conception of three-dimensional form that are evidence of the way that, in his maturity, he could unite his detailed German incisiveness and finger-touch sensitivity to the feel of skin, bone structure, hair, dress, with the comprehensive wholeness and idealism of the Italian art he admired.

The result is completely his own, and the strong character of the girl seems entirely expressed by her physiognomy - the set of the lips, the shadow describing cheek and jaw, the raising of the brows, and the abstracted, contemplative expression of the eyes.

The landscape shows yet another aspect of D"urer's exploration of the possibilities of art. It was highly novel for his time. It is unfinished, and all the more fascinating for that. When it was exhibited earlier last year at the British Museum in a show of German drawings in the collection, the catalog note by John Rowlands observed that a study of sky on the back of the same sheet of paper is also unfinished: ``The most obvious explanation for [D"urer's] abandonment of this study ... is that the light-level became too low to continue working.''

Perhaps the same is true of the more finished, but still incomplete, ``Study of water, sky and pine trees'' itself. If so, here is D"urer unwilling to conclude with his imagination something he had started out to observe with his eyes.

Its rather awkward directness makes the viewer feel it was painted only yesterday. It's as if - actually almost 500 years after the event - we are witnessing D"urer - that complicated, almost naive, original, exacting artist, the willing slave of detail, the perfectionist, the dreamer of fulfillment - not quite managing, in all his haste of observation, to capture everything he wanted to in the dying light: and yet magnificently capturing it all the same - in strong, true tones and resonant, intense colors.

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