– Albrecht Durer
a brand. Establish a reputation. Create a trademark and promote the heck out
of it. Give the market what it wants and
never miss an opportunity to sell, sell, and sell. That’s how you get ahead in business, and it’s
also how Albrecht Durer got ahead in art.
Durer networked and negotiated himself to the top of the Renaissance
heap, achieving frame in Northern Europe rivaling that of Michelangelo in
Italy. His status rested in large part
on his masterful engravings and woodcuts, mediums perfectly suited to mass
for all his business savvy, Durer saw himself not as a man of trade but as a
man of the arts. He brought the concept
of the artistic genius to Germany—although, when you come down to it, his
glorification of the artist worked as not-so-subtle self-promotion. He knew the value of image, and he spent time
and energy crafting his own.
For The Masses
Durer was one of eighteen children—only three of whom survived childhood—born to
Albrecht Durer the Elder, a goldsmith, and his wife, Barbara. After finishing his training, marrying the
daughter of a prominent brass worker, and studying Italian art in Venice, the
ambitious young Albrecht set up his own workshop in 1495, at age twenty-four,
and soon become an established member of the Nuremberg thinking set. Durer’s new friends, many of them well-known
humanist scholars, inspired him to treat his work as one of the liberal arts
rather than as mere craft.
in his workshop Durer explored the potential of printing. Prints made from woodcuts or engravings were
portable and reasonably priced, making them an ideal product for a burgeoning
middle class looking to decorate their homes and businesses. But Durer had the vision to make printmaking
an international enterprise. Instead of
waiting for a patron or a publisher to come to him with a commission, he
designed and produced prints on popular topics.
He then hired salesmen to promote his work around Europe. Soon Durer prints were hanging on walls from
Rotterdam to Rome.
also explored engraving, notably in his three “maser prints” including Knight,
Death, and the Devil (1513), which shows a resolute knight on horseback
journeying through a menacing landscape.
The skeletal figure of Death stands ghostly pale against the darkness of
a shadowy crag, while the Devil, a multi-horned goat like creature, and skulls
among straggly tree roots.
In High Places
Durer completed this religious work, he was well aware of conflict brewing in
the Catholic Church. Rocked by scandal
and plagued by corruption, the Church made an easy target, and criticism
reached new levels in the 1510s. Durer
was acquainted with some prominent critics, including the famous humanist
Erasmus of Rotterdam. (Erasmus’s book
handbook of the Christian Soldier might have been an inspiration for Knight,
Death, and the Devil.) So it’s not
surprising that Durer expressed interest when, in 1517 in Wittenberg, a monk
named Martin Luther started challenging Church teachings on the nature of
penance and the pope’s authority. Durer
read Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses soon after it was translated into German and
would later be drawn deeper into the debates that ultimately led to the
1520 Durer traveled to the Netherlands to attend the coronation of the new Holy
Roman Emperor, Charles 5, on the way picking up an illness (probably malaria)
that plagued him the rest of his life.
Back in Nuremberg, he completed several treatises on art, texts he
believed were essential in raising the status of his profession. He died on April 6, 1528, not quite
fifty-seven years old, after weeks of torment due to recurring fevers. Outpourings of grief came from across
northern Europe, with Luther writing, “It is natural and right to weep for so
excellent a man.”
death, Durer took on saint like status.
Three days after the funeral, his body was exhumed and a death mask was
made; fans got the idea from Italy, where at least masks were made before
burial. In the nineteenth century, Durer
festivals became the rage, and in 1840 a monumental bronze statue of the artist
was erected in Nuremberg; it bears the inscription, “Father Durer, give us thy
blessing, that like thee we may truly cherish German art; be our guiding star
until the grave!”
the 1920s, Nazis embraced Durer as the “most German of German artists” (even
though his father had been born in Hungary) and featured one of his
self-portraits in their magazine Volk Und Rasse (People and Race). The mayor of Nuremberg presented Hitler with
an original print of Knight, Death, and the Devil, and Nazi artist Hubert
Lanzinger evoked Durer’s engraving in a painting of Hitler as an armored
knight, a work that would be silly if it weren’t so creepy. Durer’s reputation managed to survive intact,
with both East and West Germany battling to claim his legacy in the Cold War