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Intellect and invention

February 6, 2015
Rick DelVecchio

USF exhibit shows enduring power of Northern Renaissance master Durer

You may need a magnifying glass to fully experience the best of the Albrecht Durer work on display at a special exhibit at the University of San Francisco, but if you appreciate powerful religious art, consider the reward worth the effort.

A restless genius in the restless age before the Reformation, the German painter, engraver and printmaker (1471-1528) learned from the Italian Renaissance masters how to depict the human body with strength, motion, mathematical proportion and beauty.

He was as obsessed with measurement as he was determined to fill a compact space such as the page of a small book with figures so individualistic and energized, cross-hatching so minutely etched, narratives so emotional and perspectives so realistic that looking at his work can have the effect of being drawn into a good movie.

Consider his Life of the Virgin woodcut series, an example of one of his typical contributions to the burgeoning craft of printing in early-16th century Germany. All 20 images from the series are on display through Feb. 22 at USF’s Thacher Gallery in a student-curated exhibit called “Reformations: Dürer & the New Age of Print.”

The scenes start chronologically with the refusal of Joachim’s offer at the temple, followed by what Kate Lusheck, assistant professor of art history and museum studies at USF, calls “an incredibly inventive series of moments” in the life of Mary.

“It’s an incredible mixture of looking at New Testament traditions but then also inventing and looking at medieval traditions and then medieval legends related to the Virgin, drawing from a couple of different sources, and then using his incredible intellect and invention to make this look like scenes you’ve never seen before,” Lusheck told Catholic San Francisco.

Durer knew what he wanted his viewers to do, she said: “Stop and make you think about what you were looking at.”

Durer started out as a goldsmith and later became “an OK printmaker,” Lusheck said. On display is an early woodcut that was used for a volume of letters by St. Jerome, who translated the Vulgate, a Latin version of the Bible. It’s dated 1497 when Durer was 26 and is workmanlike but no work of art.

“Within a decade of that print, he kind of starts going off,” Lusheck said. “He goes from a craftsman, which was a tradition in the north … and he goes to Italy and starts learning about the idea that an artist can be a kind of maker that achieves almost God-like status.”

He began adding his famous AD monogram to his works – and was not pleased when others he deemed less worthy copied the idea. “He wanted to be a humanist artist of the highest caliber,” Lusheck said.

The breakthrough: Durer learned to use facial expression and hand motions from the Italian tradition and had a gift for modeling the body with hatching and cross-hatching, then somehow packed the energy into a compact space using his gift for line.

“That’s the magnificence of it,” Lusheck said.

Peer deeper with your magnifying glass and you may see something else, in the uneasy, hyper-focused expressions and twisted poses of many of the figures he took from life around Nuremberg: The psyche of a pious people tensed to break loose in the emotional outpouring of the Protestant Reformation.


About the exhibit

“Reformations: Dürer & the New Age of Print,” through Feb. 22, Thacher Gallery, University of San Francisco. Presented by USF’s Donohue Rare Book Room and Thacher Gallery in partnership with USF’s Masters in Museum Studies Program, the student-curated exhibit is an historically important grouping of early European books and prints from the university’s permanent collection. It focuses on the earliest moments of print and printed book culture in Europe, particularly concentrating on the impact of new print technologies and their uses in and around Nuremberg, Germany in the late-15th and early-16th centuries.

The Thacher Gallery is located in the Gleeson Library/Geschke Center on the USF campus.

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