If the gap between PR claim and reality is notoriously vast, this is one promo that tells it like it is: the National Gallery of Victoria really does have a stunning collection of Dürer’s work. A smirking maiden is embraced from behind by a wild man, the fate of their unnatural coupling emblematised by a grotesquely swollen skull. A disconsolate angel sits and stares, a hand under its head, while behind it, by an angling shaft of light, the legend “Melencolia I” is inscribed on the lining of a bat’s wings.
These prints are not the glamorous renaissance of the Catholic Mediterranean, but the hammer blow of an abstemious reforming north. They don’t trumpet with the grandeur of marble or bronze. They are not unique masterpieces under lock and key in a noble’s palace, but multiples, designed to travel and be copied and to mutate. Dürer deployed a new technology – woodcut printing – and his dedication to self-improvement throbs between the lines of his animals, demons, maidens and Jesuses. All this from a guy who looked like a minor Los Angeles death-metal guitarist, complete with glistening spiral perm.
Dürer’s magnificent Apocalypse – allegedly the first book in Western history to be fully designed and published by an artist – rocketed out of Nuremberg in 1498. They were heady days. Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492, the same year Ferdinand and Isabella destroyed the Moors in Spain, and converted or expelled the Jews. An apocalypse was literally on the cards – but not for the fat burghers who ate up Dürer’s book like honey. In 1499 the good humanists forced the Jews out of Nuremberg too, and occupied their houses. Winners seem to enjoy imagining their own destruction.
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