Jay A. Clarke, a curator at The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and a lecturer in the graduate art history program at the College, gave a talk at the Clark Sunday afternoon titled “Albrecht Dürer and the Art of Invention.” The public lecture paralleled the opening weekend of “The Strange World of Albrecht Dürer,” an exhibit that showcases Dürer’s 16th-century art. The exhibit will be open through March 13.
Clarke, a historian of German art, began by qualifying her talk, saying that “being a historian in German art means dealing in stereotypes. When it comes to Germany, sometimes the stereotypes are a bit less jovial.”
Clarke explained that although scholars tend not to write about it, Dürer – who was also a theoretician, geometer and writer on human proportion – was equipped with an “unparalleled sense of imagination” that proliferated throughout his paintings and prints. Clarke encouraged the audience and visitors to the exhibit to ponder “how this creative drive and this sense of imagination was passed down to future generations” of the art world.
One of the first of Dürer pieces that Clarke touched upon was a self-portrait of the artist in “a Christ-like pose.
“He is really fashioning himself as the ultimate creator,” Clarke said, and she also noted another painting in which Dürer inserts himself triumphantly into a biblical Madonna scene.
Clarke quickly elucidated one theme that unites most of Dürer’s work: Christianity. Dürer, she explained, was quite involved in the Nuremberg Chronicle, painted in 1493, which she described as a “massive, illustrated human history of the Christian Bible.
“The prints that really put Dürer on the map were his ‘Apocalypse’ series,” Clarke said. According to the curator, the artist was inspired by the circa-1500 idea that the world was coming to an end and the ensuing popularity of the Book of Revelation. Dürer illustrates one biblical passage that describes a beast rising out of the sea by using the text as a basis and going “off on the flight of his own imaginings,” Clarke said. Instead of fire reigning down on the beast, Dürer substitutes it with blood.
“Even in this religious iconography, Dürer is trying strange things,” Clarke said. In his engraving of “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” a biblical story which tells of a wasteful man who comes to envy pigs for having more food than himself, the artist in fact goes the extra mile and paints the Prodigal Son among swine, eating from a trough.
According to Clarke, Dürer enjoyed printmaking more than painting because it afforded him more artistic freedom; with painting, he was usually commissioned by emperors or religious leaders who demanded certain qualities in his work.
Dürer expressed his individuality not only through imaginative subject matter but also through how he went about his work. He was one of the first artists to sign his work with a monogram, and also one of the first to enforce copyright on his art.