Was Dürer a Modernist?

“Melencolia I,” a Master Engraving from 1514 at Cincinnati Art Museum, makes Old Master Albrecht Dürer seem a precursor to Contemporary art

click to enlarge “Melencolia I” is on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum show. - PHOTO: Courtesy of the Cincinnati Art Museum
PHOTO: Courtesy of the Cincinnati Art Museum
“Melencolia I” is on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum show.

On the face of it, Albrecht Dürer — the German Old Master who was one of art history’s greatest printmakers, deeply accomplished at engravings and woodcuts — wouldn’t have much in common with modernist sensibilities. He lived from 1471-1528, the “age of Reformation and Renaissance,” as the current Cincinnati Art Museum exhibit devoted to him is called. It’s on view through Feb. 11.

And, since this superb show offers quite a bit of work devoted to religious subject matter — prints from his woodcut sets Life of the Virgin and Large Passion, for instance — he might seem to belong to a time when art treated religious depictions as gospel truth. Today, artists tend to look inward rather than upward for signs of faith.

But there is one engraving in the show that argues for a different interpretation. “Melencolia I,” from 1514, makes Dürer seem a precursor to Contemporary art. It’s also probably his most famous work — certainly his most “mysterious” (in the words of the show’s curator, Kristin Spangenberg) and most heavily analyzed. If you believe that melancholy is as elemental a human condition as happiness, but that we are reluctant to admit it because it implies we are failures, Dürer was admitting it 500 years ago. 

The exhibit, largely drawn from the museum’s own print collection with some key loans, gives “Melencolia I” a pride of place. It’s one of three “Master Engravings,” so called because of their maturity and accomplishment, that are together in the show. And the art museum’s prints of these, a 1943 bequest from Herbert Greer French, are quite good, with a crisp tonality and a phenomenal subtlety to their lines, shadowing and details. 

“Melencolia I” on first glance might seem to be a slice of mythology — akin to, say, Dürer’s 1498-99 engraving of “Hercules,” which is in the show. A winged figure, perhaps a goddess, sits amid a foreground of all sorts of unused tools and objects, along with an animal and cherub looking forlorn from lack of attention. 

Much of what’s present in this image has a specific symbolism. The hourglass is running out of time. The scales are empty. The magic square’s numbers add up to 1514 — the year of this engraving as well as the year Dürer’s mother died. All this can be objectively deciphered (and the show’s wall text helps).

But this has something more ambiguous, too. The winged figure’s left arm is bent at the elbow on a knee; her hand is pressed against her cheek. She looks in a funk, eyes betraying a glow of frustration (some might say sadness). On the far horizon, against a radiating sky and above water, a winged creature holds a banner that announces “Melencolia I” as if it’s the name of a country — a continent — on an antique map. This isn’t purely symbolic; there’s something more personal here.

Thanks to all the research into this landmark piece, we can understand much of what Dürer was broadly representing. What we can’t be sure of is why. This is inspired by the archaic notion, going back at least to Hippocrates, that melancholy was caused by an excess of “black bile” in a person’s system — black bile being one of the “four humours” thought to determine health. (The others are blood, phlegm and yellow bile.) Melencolia I, in Dürer’s day, refers to the type that struck artists and caused a creative block. 

Dürer, of course, was an artist — one of history’s greatest. Was he struggling with melancholy himself? Was he saying it was part of his condition? Part of the human condition? Was it something he feared — was he confronting himself? Or was he empathizing with those who experienced it?

We feel that Dürer the artist is inside this artwork — not just that he’s emotionally connected to it, but that he could be its subject. That gives it a possible psychological dimension that is indeed modern.

But is that a correct interpretation? Art historians will be studying that for a long time. But what is clear is that Dürer’s “Melencolia I” has become a signpost to where art has since gone — toward the intimate. The art museum show is a valuable chance to study his work.

Albrecht DЯrer: The Age of Reformation and Renaissance is on view through Feb. 11 at the Cincinnati Art Museum. More info: cincinnatiartmuseum.org.

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