One of the best things about working at UCL is the range of colleagues with whom we are able to collaborate, and I was really delighted to be contacted by the Art Museum and asked to curate a Pop-Up using materials from their German Old Masters.
We had to work quite quickly, and so built on the Pop-Up I curated in 2011 which had highlighted some of the Dürer materials on display for the Museum’s Word and Image exhibition alongside other woodcuts and engravings in the UCL Art Collections. It also extended some of the teaching that Curator Andrea Fredericksen and I had undertaken with the INSTG012 Historical Bibliography class in 2011-12 on Dürer’s Apocalypse.
The result was a Pop-Up for which I selected Dürer prints and Art Museum Curatorial Assistant George Richards selected a range of other German Old Masters, and I gave a 30 minute talk on the significance of Durer from my perspective as a bibliographer.
We started with Dürer’s background as the son of a goldsmith and the godson of goldsmith-turned-printer Anton Koberger. Koberger is most famous today for the Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in 1493, when Dürer himself was still serving his apprenticeship in the workshop of Michael Wolgemut, the printmaker responsible not only for the woodcuts in the Chronicle, but also the layout and page design of the book. We weren’t able to have UCL’s copy on display, because of a move that was taking place in Special Collections and the speed at which we curated the display, but there are images of some of the pages available online here and here and here and here and here.
Within five years of the publication of the Chronicle, Dürer had produced the Apocalypse, declaring himself in the colophon “Gedrücket zu Nürnberg durch Albrecht duerer maler” (Printed in Nuremberg by Albrecht Dürer, painter), and established himself as one of the great masters of printmaking. His description of himself as “painter” is significant: in this period, printmaking was seen as a minor art form within the major discipline of Painting. Often it was used to produce multiple copies of paintings and drawings, as opposed to creating new work in its own right. Dürer explored the potential of both woodcuts and engraving to create artwork, and wrote theoretical works on Art, which discussed the application of geometry not only to Architecture and the human form but also to Typography.
Dürer chose to include his monogram on his woodcuts as well as his engravings, highlighting his view of them. Previous artists had chosen not to do so: whereas engraving involves cutting into copper (or other soft metal) and the direct contact of the artist with the material, the production of a woodcut was more usually undertaken by a hand not the artist’s own. We don’t know whether Dürer cut into the wood for his prints himself or not, but certainly he laid claim to them in the same way as his paintings and engravings, through the application of his distinctive “AD” monogram.
Printmaking became big business for Dürer. He sold his work himself and through a network of trusted contacts, including his wife, who was charged with taking prints to various fairs for him. He wrote of how much more financial profit there was in printmaking compared to painting, but of the impact of his paintings and drawings in establishing his reputation as an artist. In fact, we can see that he was a great businessman, who, right at the birth of the printing press, maximised its use. One of the prints George chose from the German Old Masters was Cranach’s The Rest on the Flight to Egypt (1509), which gave an opportunity to think about how this contrasted with Dürer’s religious prints. In terms of subject matter, Dürer was Humanist in approach, while Cranach was Lutheran. (Tipped off by Fred Bearman, I’ve spoken before about Cranach’s (in)famous Papal Belvedere).
From a bibliographer’s perspective, Dürer and Cranach were both crucial in the growth of print culture, because of the high demand for their work. Their prints, and those of their contemporaries, made images affordable to the middle classes, and inspired derivative works that circulated even further. Dürer’s own images are known to feature in three broadsides (including my favourite, Death and the Lansquenet). The analogy I make when teaching is that if Dürer were a catwalk designer, Cranach would be the ‘Designer at Debenhams’ and then below that were a range of derivative prints and illustrations akin to high street copies of varying quality. (Cranach himself would make a great subject for a Pop-Up another time: the Art Museum has a great selection of his prints, and the humour in his satirical work (however un-PC we see it to be now) is credited with fuelling the demand for prints in the Renaissance).
The other topic we covered was copies of Dürer and their use in the training of other artists. The most bizarre of these, from the bibliographer’s standpoint, is Raimondi’s engraved copies of Durer’s Life of the Virgin series. We displayed the Art Museum’s original woodcut Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate and referred participant’s to the Hunterian’s online digital image of Raimondi’s engraving. After all, there’s no way that an engraving can look like a woodcut: the production methods are too different. However, in Dürer’s time, people seeing Raimondi’s work would not necessarily have seen Dürer’s originals, and, as mentioned previously, engraving was a common way to copy and distribute images based on paintings, so perhaps engraving Dürer’s masterful woodcuts is further evidence of the elevation of their status as works of art.
The Art museum has some lovely examples of Dürer’s work being used by artists learning their trade. I particularly like the work of the Weirix brothers, which UCL holds but which are not online. We also talked about the way that the sculptural quality of Dürer’s images drew inspiration from the Architecture he saw around him, and went on to influence sculptures. It’s hard to look at prints like Adam and Eve without thinking of some of the 1930s sculptures we see in London (and elsewhere) today.
It was brilliant to end the session by showing UCL’s copy of one of Dürer’s rare etchings. We don’t know why he didn’t take to this form of printmaking, but the standard he achieved in Landscape with Cannon would be the envy of many who practised etching as their main medium. The Art Museum’s copy is not online, but the Clarke Institute has a great short video.
I’ll post a little more about Dürer’s printmaking in November, when Helen O’Neill is taking the Historical Bibliography class to the Art Museum to teach a session I’ve put together for them on recognising common forms of printed images and illustrations. The rest of the prints we discussed at the Pop-Up will figure in that session, alongside some later styles (lithographs and mezzotints).
The Art Museum has some great events coming up this Autumn. We’re recommending that those taking INSTG012 Historical Bibliography try to attend the Publicly-curated Pop-Up on 2 October. It’s great that, following its refurbishment, the Art Museum is back to offering the exciting range of public exhibitions, films and pop-ups I’ve enjoyed so much in my time at UCL.