As Picasso was to the modern era, so was German artist Albrecht Durer to the 16th Century art of Northern Europe. A multitalented titan revered in his day, Durer played a central role in introducing the ideas of the Italian Renaissance to Northern Europe, and his innovative approach to drawing left a mark on the work of all of his contemporaries.
Durer and his legacy are the subjects of "Renaissance and Mannerist Drawings in Northern Europe," an exhibition on view at the Getty Museum through March 25. Drawn from the museum's permanent collection of drawings (which currently numbers 300), and intelligently curated by Lee Hendrix, this small show is a concise exploration of a time when the art of drawing underwent tremendous change.
At the opening of the 16th Century, artists were still pretty much under the thumb of the church and drawing was considered a lesser art at best. Tied to a medieval crafts tradition, drawing was largely confined to studies for signet rings, religious objects and stained glass windows. The dominant form of secular art at the time, stained glass was cheaper than painting (hard to believe but true, due to the elaborate painting methods of the period), and Swiss artists in particular excelled at the form. Drawing was considered little more than a tool necessary for the creation of glass works.
Around 1528, several forces conspired to elevate drawing to the status of fine art. Artists began to function independent of the church at this point, and this played a role in the shift of attitude toward drawing. However, it was Durer who did the lion's share of the work in legitimizing the medium.
An inspired draftsman devoted to meticulous detail, Durer was the first artist known to have drawn purely for the pleasure of it rather than as a means of preparing to execute larger works, and his drawings are alive with dramatic tension and pathos. Centering his work around the classically proportioned nude figure, Durer introduced Renaissance perspective and space to Northern Europe, and also generated an interest in natural science with his series of widely imitated nature studies. A great virtuoso of pen and ink, Durer's genius for the medium was so widely regarded that a genre of drawing known as Federkunststuck, intended as a form of homage to the art of the pen, blossomed around his distinctive style.
Several of the artists included here apprenticed with Durer, and his presence hovers like a beneficent ghost over most of the work on view. Indeed, a number of his contemporaries went so far as to forge the master's signature on their works, while German watercolorist Hans Hoffmann's "Flowers and Beetles," parroted Durer's nature study style as closely as possible.
Highlights of the show include Durer's landmark watercolor "Stag Beetle," one of his most famous nature studies, a 1513 drawing by Nikolaus Manuel-Deutsch that was one of the first drawings made to be sold as a work of art, a 1510 work by prominent book illustrator Hans Schaufelein, and a portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger that beautifully illustrates his ability to capture form with a simple line.
These drawings were all intended for the wealthy class of German society; the poor had to content themselves with broadsheets, mass produced images that were executed in woodcut then plastered up around town. Comparable to a single sheet of newspaper, these images usually combined an image with a few lines of text. Erhard Schon's image of rape and pillage titled "A Turkish Procession" is an example of this bastardized form of drawing. Studies for stained glass windows were on occasion similarly earthy and unpretentious. Swiss artist Hieronymus Lang's study for a stained glass piece celebrating a marriage is executed in a quaint, folksy style and shows the happy couple perched on beehives.
Toward the end of the 16th Century, the focus of Northern draftsmanship shifted from Germany to Holland and Flanders, and again, profound changes were seen in the form. Complex mythological stories and mysteries became the subject matter of choice and erotic imagery was enormously popular. Cornelis Cornelisz Van Haarlem's "Two Male Nudes," a classically rendered portrait of a nude man and child in the midst of a passionate kiss, is as provocative as anything Robert Mapplethorpe's come up with, while Hendrick Goltzius' "Venus and Mars" depicts a cheating couple caught in the act while the mocking gods look down with amusement from above the bedposts.
The show concludes with a work by Abraham Bloemaert, a transitional figure who bridged the Mannerism of the late 16th Century with the 17th Century. There's more air and space in Bloemaert's flagrantly sensual "Mars and Venus" than one finds in any other piece on view, and drawing was clearly in the process of growing more decorative. The puff pastry known as Baroque art was about ready to be popped into the oven.