Great As It Gets

Albrecht Durer Drawing at the National Gallery is the Daily Pic by Blake Gopnik

The Daily Pic: The German master made artifice seem inevitable.

A drawing of a seated “priest”, made in 1517 by Albrecht Dürer and now in the great Dürer exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington, which the Daily Pic won’t be done with until the show closes.

What specially interests me in this image is how the old man’s face seems so carefully observed from life, with a clear sense that we are below him looking up into his eyes, and yet the drapery of his robe is so clearly based on late-medieval stylizations. I think this is about much more than a “holdover” of archaisms in Dürer’s newly naturalistic art; I think it gives a crucial clue to his art’s fundamentals.

Bear with me – and click below – while I try to explain.

My overwhelming reaction to the Dürer show was one of immediate, simple pleasure and amazement at his art’s excellence, even beauty. And yet it so happens that I don’t believe in the inherent excellence or beauty of any work of art – I’m not even sure they are coherent concepts – just as I don’t believe in a work’s ability to directly and simply and inevitably tickle some aesthetic sense that we have. Art is so complex and bizarre in its rules and games, it seems the clearest of all candidates for being socially constructed. (I’m a believer in what philosophers call “institutional” and “anti-essentialist” theories of art.) So here’s my reading of my own reaction to Dürer: I think what he does, more than almost any artist, is “naturalize” (sorry for the jargon) the excellence of his own art. Through details such as this priest’s credibly real face, captured live by Dürer’s pen (or claiming to be so), the artist convinces us that all he is doing is reporting on the way the world is. And then that naturalism has a kind of contagious effect on the rest of the image, so that the evident artifice of its stylizations also end up reading as natural, and inevitable – and so as excellent, even perfect. It’s not that his scene is built to look like a simple view into some new and improved reality, as Raphael managed in his “Alba Madonna”, a few years earlier than this Dürer drawing. In the Dürer, even things that are obviously artful and unreal – the entire making of this image, in fact, including its stylizations – feel necessary and natural.

So when I come across this Dürer drawing, and many others like it by him, all I can feel is that it captures how art naturally is and ought to be in the world. Where Raphael constructed ideal women and made them seem normal and necessary, Dürer constructs ideal works of art and artifice. (Albertina collection, Vienna)

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