Dream landscapes

July 19, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’m in Nuremberg this week for a huge art history conference. The other major event taking place in Nuremberg is the biggest Albrecht Dürer exhibition Germany has seen in forty years.

The conference sessions on Tuesday didn’t look all that interesting. So – sit through a lot of potentially boring papers, or play hooky and spend the afternoon gorging on all things Dürer?

Well, that was an easy choice.

Nearly four hours later (200 objects + huge crowd + very long and extremely informative labels = don’t even think of rushing this) I came out in a state of happy delirium – and having discovered a side of Dürer’s work I knew nothing about before: his landscapes. And I don’t mean the dizzyingly elaborate backgrounds in his prints and paintings, or the little patches of nature he captured in his plant and animal studies.

I mean these small watercolours:

Albrecht Dürer, View of the Arco Valley (1495)

Albrecht Dürer, View of Trento (1494)

Albrecht Dürer, The Wire Drawing Mill (c. 1489)

Albrecht Dürer, The Quarry (1506)

Most of the landscapes in the backgrounds of paintings in Dürer’s time weren’t based on the study of nature, but on models in pattern books, and artists seldom – if ever – drew or painted landscapes for their own sake. But Dürer made these based on his own travels in northern Italy and on scenes he would have encountered in the environs of Nuremberg. Unlike the landscapes in his paintings or his prints, they aren’t the setting for some grand earthly or celestial drama. They’re surprisingly unpeopled, even though there’s usually a reminder of human activity or presence – a castle, a mill. They’re also eerily ephemeral – blink once and you feel as if they might melt into nothingness.

I’m by no means an expert on Dürer, but I think these drawings let us see him at his most private – in his own head, wrestling with how to represent a real landscape, allowing his mind to wander at will. To look at them is to watch him dream.

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