Dürer’s Journeys at the National Gallery – what the critics are saying

To call this major new show ‘baffling’ would be an understatement

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer
Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer, 1504
(Image credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) had a “high opinion of himself”, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. This was, after all, an artist who at the age of 28 depicted himself as Christ in a marvellous self-portrait that reeks of “preening, perfumed self-regard”.

Yet his “arrogance” was well-justified. Dürer was a genuine “Renaissance man”: one of history’s most virtuosic painters as well as an exquisite draughtsman, and a pioneering printmaker whose efforts in the medium did much to transform the way art was disseminated.

He was a polymath and, unusually for the era, also an inveterate traveller who made a number of “significant” journeys across Germany, Italy and Flanders, sketching the people, animals and sights he encountered, while recording his observations in his journals.

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His adventures are the subject of this “excellent” new show, the first major Dürer exhibition to be held in Britain for nearly 20 years. It brings together a selection of Dürer’s paintings, prints, drawings and writings, as well as a number of thrilling works by his artistic contemporaries, revealing how his exposure to foreign culture allowed him to create a remarkable synthesis of styles from northern and southern Europe, while also making his own presence felt far from his native Nuremberg. It’s a “clever, engaging” approach to an artist whose images “retain their power to astonish”.

Madonna and Child by Albrecht Dürer

Madonna and Child by Albrecht Dürer, about 1496–9
(Image credit: Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.)

Dürer was nothing if not “intrepid”, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. He twice made the journey across the Alps “in treacherous conditions, staying in icy mountain shelters”; he lived in Venice during a cholera outbreak, and narrowly survived a storm at sea when he travelled to see a beached whale in Zeeland.

Along the way, he recorded some truly “astonishing sights”: “soaring comets”, “fantastical castles”, a hoard of Aztec gold brought back to Brussels by conquistadors. Yet inexplicably, little of this features in the exhibition. To call it “baffling” would be an understatement. The show begins with two works that are not even by Dürer, and only gets more confusing.

For every marvel we do see – his print of Saint Jerome and an anatomically incorrect lion; the astonishing Melencolia I, in which a “morose angel” cradles her head amidst a “clutter of allegorical symbols” – there is a lesser work by another artist. The show offers “no clear chronology”, “barely any discernible narrative”, and no climax.

Indeed, the whole thing feels disappointingly dry. In some ways, the exhibition’s unsensational tone is commendable, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. The absence of patronising wall texts is a mercy, and “traditionalists” will applaud its “no-nonsense dive into art history”.

You notice countless details Dürer gleaned from his travels: he depicts the Whore of Babylon as “an actual Venetian sex worker” in a 1498 woodcut, while The Sea Monster imbues Ovid’s telling of Europa and the Bull as a scene from “northern forest folklore”, reflecting his ingenious melding of Germanic and Italian traditions.

Ultimately, though, this “sedate plod” fails “to take you to the heart of Dürer”. You get no sense of what life was like in his time; the “freshness and immediacy” of the artist’s own diaries are nowhere to be found. This “sedate plod” of a show “even made me doubt my adoration of his art”.

National Gallery, London WC2 (nationalgallery.org.uk). Until 27 February

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