October 26, 2005

The Master Printer

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The Johnson museum is currently showcasing a remarkable triumph. After a search that spanned over 50 years, Cornell now possesses the complete set of Albrecht Durer’s “Master Prints.” While the suggestion that the works were created as a set has never been officially verified, critics and art historians alike believe that their comparable size and shared imagery indicate their deliberate grouping. Included in the set are “Knight, Death and the Devil” (1513), “St. Jerome in His Study” (1514) and “Melencolia I” (1514).

The engravings, said to exemplify Durer’s artistic peak, are renown for their rich symbolism and refined attention to detail. However, it is not merely their individual intensities that prove so stimulating, or even their intensity as a threesome; it is in fact their place among the ten other prints displayed in the exhibit that makes them so effective.

The effect is the creation of a world. It is an alternative world in which the skies are darker, the streets more menacing, and the air more ominous. Aside from the horse in “Knight,” the animals are indefinable, enchanted beings that do not do not sit or walk, but lurk. The works are filled with hideous creatures from a subterranean underworld. The world has been corrupted. Violence dominates many of the pieces, from “Abduction of a Persephone on a Unicorn” and “Abduction of a Proserpine” to “Flagellation.” In the brutality of these scenes lies a great despair. Durer has shown us a shady, eerie world in which a doomed fate is inescapable.

Filled with images of skulls, the pieces brim with death. Moreover, “Death of a Virgin” mourns the death of the pure, innocent, and virtuous. With the death of good comes the rise of evil. “Descent into Limbo (Harrowing of Hell),” overflows with horrifying creatures in varying depths of wickedness. More foreboding though, is the mayhem of the heavens in “Angels with the Seven Trumpets,” for this depiction is no less hellish than the former.

The piece is characterized by a monstrous cacophony in the space where heaven and earth meet. Set amid clouds, mountains and sea, the clash of heaven with humanity breeds strife. In the scene, the sun and moon have faces and they wear expressions of misery. A godlike figure is focused in the middle of the piece, and from him, everything else rains down. Is this meant to signify god’s fury with humanity and its corruption? Or have even the heavens become riotous?

Despite the emotional darkness of the paintings, Durer effortlessly infuses them with light. In “Melencolia I,” the sky radiates beams of light, in “St. Jerome ” the figure sits with a glow behind his head and the brightness from the windows. Most poignant is Durer’s ability to embrace the light without letting it dilute the substance of the works.

The gloominess of the substance prevails. In the main “Master Prints,” the ubiquitous hour glasses imply the loss of time, a nearing of the end. They indicate the inevitable self-destruction of a corrupt and frightening world. In the chaos and devastation, the notion of a dream turned nightmare masterfully permeates the group of 13 pieces. The beauty of the work is that we can walk away and wake up.

Archived article by Ilana Papir
Sun Staff Writer