Albrecht Dürer, The Head of Christ, 1506 brush and gray ink, gray wash, heightened with white on blue paper overall: 27.3 x 21 cm (10 3/4 x 8 1/4 in.) overall (framed): 50 63.8 4.1 cm (19 11/16 25 1/8 1 5/8 in.) Albertina, Vienna
The National Gallery of Art is hosting the largest show of Albrecht Dürer drawings, prints and watercolors ever seen in North America, combining its own collection with that of the Albertina in Vienna, Austria. Across the street in the museum’s west wing is the another exhibition of works on paper, Color, Line and Light: French Drawings Watercolors and Pastels from Delacroix to Signac. The French drawings are spectacular, but it’s hard to imagine the 19th century masters without the earlier genius out of Germany, Dürer, who approached drawing with scientist’s curiosity for understanding nature.
Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait at Thirteen, 1484 silverpoint on prepared paper, 27.3 19.5 cm (10 3/4 7 11/16 in.) (framed): 51.7 43.1 4.5 cm (20 3/8 16 15/16 1 3/4 in.) Albertina, Vienna
Dürer’s famous engravings are on view, including Adam and Eve, but with the added pleasure of seeing preparatory drawings and first trial proofs of the prints. Some of his most famous works such as the Great Piece of Turf and Praying Hands, are there also. In both exhibitions, as always, I’m drawn to the beauty and color of landscape art, especially prominent in the 19th century exhibition. However, both shows have phenomenal portraits to give us a glimpse into people of all ages with profound insights.
Dürer drew his own face while looking in the mirror at age 13, in 1484. He still had puffy cheeks and a baby face, but was certainly a prodigy. Like his father, he was trained in the goldsmith’s guild which gave him facility at describing the tiniest details with a very firm point. Seeing his picture next to the senior Dürer’s self-portrait, there’s no doubt his father was extremely gifted, too.
Albrecht Dürer, “Mein Agnes”, 1494 pen and black ink, 15.7 x 9.8 cm (6 1/8 x 3 7/8 in.) (framed): 44.3 x 37.9 x 4.2 cm (17 3/8 x 14 7/8 x 1 5/8 in.) Albertina, Vienna
In his native Nuremburg, the younger Dürer was recognized at an early age and his reputation spread, particularly as the world of printing was spreading throughout the German territories, France and Italy. We can trace his development as he went to Italy in 1494-96, and then again in 1500, meeting with North Italian artists Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini and exchanging artistic ideas. Dürer is credited with bridging the gap between the Northern and Italian Renaissance. I personally find all his drawings and prints more satisfying then his oil paintings, because at heart he was first and foremost a draftsman.
Though we normally think of Dürer as a controlled draftsman, there are some very fresh, loose drawings. An image he did of his wife, Agnes, in 1494, shows a wonderful freedom of expression, and affection. He married Agnes Fry in 1494 and did drawings of her which became studies for later works. She was the model for St. Ann in a late painting of 1516 and the preparatory drawing with its amazing chiaroscuro is in the exhibition.
Albrecht Dürer, Agnes Dürer as Saint Ann, 1519 brush and gray, black, and white ink on grayish prepared paper; black background applied at a later date (?) overall: 39.5 x 29.2 cm (15 1/2 x 11 1/2 in.) overall (framed): 64 x 53.4 x 4.4 cm (25 1/4 x 21 x 1 3/4 in.) Albertina, Vienna
Also on view are Durer’s investigations into human proportion, landscapes and drawings he did of diverse subjects from which he later used in his iconic engravings. We can trace how the drawings inspired his visual imagery. There are also several preparatory drawings of old men who were used as the models for apostles in a painted altarpiece.
Albrecht Dürer, An Elderly Man of Ninety-Three Years, 1521 brush and black and gray ink, heightened with white, on gray-violet prepared paper overall: 41.5 28.2 cm (16 5/16 11 1/8 in.) overall (framed): 63.6 49.7 4.6 cm (25 1/16 19 9/16 1 13/16 in.) Albertina, Vienna
My favorite drawing of old age, however, is a study of an old man at age 93 who was alert and in good health (amazing as the life expectancy in 1500 was not what is today.) He appears very thoughtful, pensive and wise. The softness of his beard is incredible. The drawing is in silverpoint on blue gray paper which makes the figure appear very three-dimensional. To add force to the light and shadows, Durer added white to highlight, making the man so lifelike and realistic.
Léon Augustin Lhermitte, An Elderly Peasant Woman, c. 1878 charcoal, overall: 47.5 x 39.6 cm (18 11/16 x 15 9/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James T. Dyke, 1996
In the other exhibition, there’s a comparable drawing by Leon Lhermitte of an old woman in Color, Line and Light. Lhermitte was French painter of the Realist school. He is not widely recognized today, but there were so many extraordinary artists in the mid-19th century. What I find especially moving about the painters of this time is more than their understanding of light and color. I like their approach to treating humble people, often the peasants, with extraordinary dignity. Lhermitte’s woman of age has lived a hard and rugged life and he crinkled skin signifies her amazing endurance. We see the beauty of her humanity and the artist’s reverence for every crevice in her weather-beaten skin.
Jean-François Millet Nude Reclining in a Landscape, 1844/1845 pen and brown ink, 16.5 x 25.6 cm (6 1/2 x 10 1/16 in.) Dyke Collection
There are many portraits of youth in the French exhibition, too, including fresh pen and inks such as Edouard Manet’s Boy with a Dog and Francois Millet’s Nude Reclining in Landscape, who really does not look nude.
Camille Pissarro’s The Pumpkin Seller is a charcoal without a lot of detail. She has broad features, plain clothes and a bandana around the head. She’s a simpleton, drawn and characterized with a minimum of lines but Pissarro sees her a substantial girl of character. The drawing reminds me of Pissarro himself. He may not be as well-known and appreciated as Monet, Renoir, Degas, yet he was the diehard artist. He was the one who never gave up, who encouraged all his colleagues and was quite willing to endure poverty and deprivation for the goals of his art. Berthe Morisot‘s watercolor of Julie Manet in a Canopied Cradle has a minimum of detail but is a quick expression of her daughter’s infancy.
Camille Pissarro, The Pumpkin Seller, c.1888 charcoal, overall: 64.5 x 47.8 cm (25 3/8 x 18 13/16 in.) Dyke Collection
Taking in all the portraits of both exhibitions, I’m left with thoughts of awe for beauty of both nature and humanity. The friends I was with actually preferred the French exhibition to the Dürer. There were surprising revelations of skill by little known artists like Paul Huet, Francois-Auguste Ravier and Charles Angrand. The landscapes by artists of the Barbizon School and the Neo-Impressionists, are important and beautiful, but perhaps not recognized as much as they should be. In both exhibitions, we must admire how works on paper form the blueprint for larger ideas explored in oil paintings.
Berthe Morisot, Julie Manet in a Canopied Cradle, 1879 watercolor and gouache, 18 x 18 cm (7 1/16 x 7 1/16 in.) Dyke Collection
It was a curator a the Albertina who wisely connected a mysterious Martin Schongauer drawing of the 1470s owned by the Getty to a Durer Altarpiece. The Albertina is a museum in Vienna known for works on paper, much its collection descended from the Holy Roman Emperors, one of whom Dürer worked for late in his career. The French drawings come from a collection of Helen Porter and James T Dyke and some of it have been gifted to the National Gallery. They’re on view until May 26, 2013 and Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Prints and Watercolors from the Albertina will stay on view until June 9, 2013.
The Hyperbolic Coral Reef project has spread around the globe
Nature is mysterious and some of the magical colors and patterns of the coral reef are a wonder of nature’s artistry. Surprisingly, vegetables such as kale, frissée and other lettuces mimic the free-flowing, wild patterns found in the coral reef. These products of nature form hyperbolic planes, not explained by Euclidean Geometry.
Crochet, a fiber art that traditionally has utilitarian purpose, holds the power to make this mystery visible to our eyes. With this in mind, various hyperbolic coral reef projects have sprung up around the globe, bringing together crochet artists to call attention to the fact that this natural wonder — something akin to the oceans’ natural forest — is vastly disappearing as a result of pollution, human waste and climate change.
Photo of satellite reef, Föhr, Germany, courtesy Uta Lenk
The Hyperbolic Coral Reef Project is the brainstorm of Margaret and Christine Wertheim, who founded the Institute for Figuring in Los Angeles to highlight this phenomenon. They based their idea on the discovery of a mathematician at Cornell University, Daina Taimina. Taimina used crochet to unlock a mathematical means to explain the parallel nature of crochet lines in 1997, while the Wertheims further developed a repetoire of reef-life forms: loopy “kelps”, fringed “anemones”, crenelated “sea slugs”, and curlicued “corals.” A simple pattern or algorithm, which has a pure shape can be changed slightly to produce variations and permutations of color and form. The Crochet Reef project began in 2005 and the experiment has involved communities of Reefers, which, like the reef itself, have become worldwide. The Wertheim sisters come from Australia, where the Great Barrier Reef is located, while Taimina is originally from Latvia.
Photo of Actual Coral Reef, from www.thenowpass.com
These handmade, collaborative works of fiber art have brought together art, science and math to a worldwide community — for the purpose of the sharing a wonder of nature that could be lost. The replica of a coral reef for the Smithsonian Community Reef was a satellite of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project installed at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in 2010-2011. This project has moved and is on view in the Putnam Museum of History and Natural Science in Davenport, Iowa, where it will remain for 5 years. A former student, Jennifer Lindsay supervised the installation and the public outreach at the Smithsonian and the Putman and is currently coordinating the Artisphere Yarn Bomb in Arlington, Va.
Postcard from the coral reef project in Föhr, Germany
This past summer, there was an installation at the Museum Kunst der Westkuste on island of Föhr, in Germany. Over 700 artists from the island, and the mainland of Germany and Denmark came together and contributed to the largest of over 20 worldwide projects around the world. At this moment, there is a satellite of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project at Roanoke College in Salem, Va. It will remain there at the Olin Gallery until March 1, 2013, reminding students at this Liberal Arts College of the fragility of the coral reef.
Artist Elise Richman — who lives on the Puget Sound and teaches at the University of the Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wa — also reminds us that changes are afloat at sea. Richman has different processes of painting, each of which reflect environmental systems and states of flux. In the water-based paintings, she applies inks, acrylics and a liquified powder pigment that has been mixed with powder gum arabic. She pours pools of these paints onto thick sheets of watercolor paper, allowing them to expand, evaporate, be absorbed or intermingle, while using minimum control.
Elise Richman, Each Form Overflows its Present, mixed media on canvas, 2013, photo by Richard Nicol
The poured paint dries into forms that evoke the contours of islands, water bodies, and/or fluid dynamics. Richman then takes these contours as boundaries that she can transgress in subsequent layers. “I assert my will by deepening the color, adjusting the quality of particular edges and unifying the compositions while maintaining the dynamic sense of flux that the materials activate,” she explains.
More recently, she has used this technique on large-scale canvases. Her newest water-based paintings, such as Each Form Overflows its Present, I, represent an active state of flux as well as topographical formations. They comment, through implication, on the threat of accelerated changes humans have induced on the environment.
Elise Richman, Isle I, oil, 12 x 12, 2008 photo by Richard Nicol
Richman also has a body of three-dimensional oil paintings made of organic dots which seem to grown from the canvases. As one moves around the small, intricately-detailed paintings, the topographies and colors change in visually dynamic ways, maintaining their aesthetic beauty. These forms represent non-hierarchical environments. “They evoke tide-pools of miniature islands; intimate marine scapes act as
Elise Richman, detail of Pool I, 2010, photo by Richard Nicol
meditations on the processes of painting, an embodiment of time’s passage, and models of the material world’s interconnectedness,” Richman explained. Each mark, point or dot has its own integrity, yet each is subsumed into a larger whole that has an ethical as well as aesthetic dimension. In short, imbalances of power create exploitations of the natural world and groups of people. Yet this largeness of nature can be maintained in works of art that are personal and meditative. Richman’s website includes works in the encaustic and acrylic paint media. The encaustics have multiple layers, from which she scrapes to represent geological formations.
Since 1993, Martin Schongauer’s 10″ x 13″ drawing of Peonies has been in the Getty Museum, Los Angeles..
A painting of peonies came up for auction in 1990 under the vague label of Northern Italian. However, a museum curator at the Albertina in Vienna recognized it as an important drawing from about 1472-73 by Martin Schongauer, an artist who lived in Alsace on the French-German border. The drawing, now in the Getty Museum, is a study for the flowers in Madonna of the Rosary, 1473, painted by Schongauer for a church in Colmar (now in France). Albrecht Durer traveled to Colmar to visit Schongauer in 1491, but the great Alsatian master had died by the time 21-year old Durer arrived. Martin’s brothers met with him and gave him some of the master’s drawings. This drawing may have been one of the drawings owned by Durer; the same Viennese curator recognized a flower similar to one of the peonies in a Durer painting of 1501.
In 2007, a pastel drawing came up on the auction market and it was labeled as 19th century German. An astute Canadian collector who bought it had other ideas and sought expert opinion. Most experts now attribute this drawing to Leonardo da Vinci, and it is called La Bella Principessa. The sitter may be the 13-year old daughter of the Duke of Milan, Bianca Sforza. Interestingly, a fingerprint on the paper matches a fingerprint in Leonardo’s unfinished painting of St. Jerome. The technique is ink with black, white and red chalk on yellow vellum to give the flesh tones. Leonardo is said to have learned the pastel technique from a French artist.
A badly damaged painting supposedly by a student of Leonardo sold for 45 British pounds in 1958. Only in the past year has it been cleaned and recognized as an authentic Leonardo da Vinci. Called the Salvator Mundi, it was recently part of an exhibition at the National Gallery in London. In the frontal image, Jesus holds a glass globe and stares directly at the viewer while using the blessed gesture. His calm face is full of compassion and kindness. The penetrating sense of life in this image is clearly palpable, as revealed after its cleaning. It has Leonardo’s recognizable sfumato, the smoky quality which gives a dark softness to the shadows. It has the iconic and mysterious qualities reminiscent of as the Mona Lisa. Cleaning revealed this Salvator Mundi to be an authentic
Leonardo da Vinci dating to c. 1500
Martin Kemp, Leonardo expert in England, has identified the rock crystal orb to show the crystalline cosmos in Jesus’s hand as something only Leonardo could have painted with accuracy. Leonardo was quite the geologist and Kemp compared the painted example to crystal orbs in the geology collection of the Ashmolean Museum. Therefore, the painting could not have been done by a follower. The last time a painting was discovered to be by Leonardo was 100 years ago.
Only the master Leonardo, who intimately studied nature,
could have portrayed this rock crystal so accurately
Even more remarkable is the fact that a lost painting by Leonardo’s young rival, Michelangelo appeared in 2009. This Temptation of St. Anthony is now in the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth. Michelangelo painted this oil and tempera when he was only about 13 years old. The first writer of art history in 1570, Giorgio Vasari described a painting that copied an engraving by Martin Schongauer.
The fact that the two greatest artistic prodigies born in Europe during the 1470s, Albrecht Durer and the divine Michelangelo, admired Martin Schongauer, speaks to that master’s incredible reputation as an artist in the 15th century. He died young, but his contribution to later art cannot be overlooked. Although Schongauer’s travels probably took him only to the center of Europe: Alsace, Burgundy, Flanders and the Rhineland, his prints gave him a reputation throughout Italy, France, Spain and even England. Italians called him Bel Martino. Perhaps he was born around 1448, a few years before another great observer of nature, Leonardo da Vinci. His drawings inspired the great drawings of nature by Durer, namely The Rabbit and Large Piece of Turf.