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Artist – Albrecht Durer

Build 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 distribution.

 

But 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.

 

Art For The Masses

Albrecht 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.

 

Meanwhile, 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.

 

He 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.


Friends In High Places

As 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 Protestant Reformation.

 

In 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.”

 

Durer Fuhrer

In 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!”

 

In 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 years.

 

 2009 Elizabeth Lunday - "Secret lives of great artists". All rights reserved.


Copyright © 2010 Barry. All rights reserved.