The Young Dürer gets ahead of his time with 15th century drawings at the Courtauld

By Mark Sheerin | 12 November 2013

Exhibition review:  The Young Dürer – Drawing the Figure, The Courtauld Gallery, London, until January 12 2014

Pen and ink self-portrait from the 15th century
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Self-portrait (verso) (circa 1491-92)© Graphische Sammlung der Universität, Erlangen, Inv. B155
In a two-room show at the Courtauld, visitors can now watch a genius of the Northern renaissance growing up in public. The results are plenty of disembodied sketches which show legs, drapery  and hands in a variety of gestures from  the serene to the obscene.

Double-sided panels have been used to showcase single sheets paper which Dürer has rendered invaluable by drawing studies on both sides. Since drawing is so immediate, this is a way of getting personal with a talent dating back more than 500 years.

The drawings in this show can all be dated between 1490 and 1496, the artist’s early 20s. These may not be first steps (there are said to be missing drawings of heads by a nine-year-old Dürer), but they still carry flaws, and are little match for the woodcuts and the engravings also on display here.

Pen and ink studies of three hands dating to the 15th century
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Three studies of the artist’s left hand (recto), c. 1493-94© Albertina, Vienna, Inv. no. 26327
Dürer always had a sure touch, a fact which works to his advantage when it came to making prints. Given a page to fill in either of these two mediums and the artist makes every square inch count.

In his woodcut of Christ’s flagellation, for example, the details are rich: a small boy blows a horn; one of the tormentors pulls Jesus’s hair while another ties up another sheaf of birch in great haste.

There is a sardonic sense of humour at work here. Another woodcut shows men at a spa in which the strategic placement of a spigot and tap makes for one of the earliest art historical innendoes. An engraving of the prodigal son shows him praying by a dung heap amidst a herd of pigs and frolicking piglets. And while the prints may not be the focus of this tightly delineated show, they surely steal it from the drawings.

But at least one of the drawings in the show is a highlight and this is a self portrait from '91-'92. We are reminded that Dürer was his own greatest source of inspiration, as can be seen from the studies of his own left hand, his own legs, his own feet.

The portrait shows a melancholy young chap, which given his licence to roam Europe and win fame as an artist is rich. For several years covered by this show, Dürer was on his Wanderjarhr, an arty German prototype of the Grand Tour.

Said the renaissance artist once: “For truly art is rooted in nature and he that can pull it out, has it.” Not far off, the gallery also shows recent abstract drawings by Richard Serra who says: “Drawing is a way of seeing into your own nature. Nothing more.” Which makes Dürer’s fascination with his own, undissected image quite legit, even half a millennia ahead of his time.

  • Open 10am-6pm (9pm December 12 and January 12, closed December 25-26). Admission £6/£5 (£3 on Monday, free for under-18s).

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Visit Mark Sheerin’s contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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