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Art review: The Age of Dürer at the Museum of Fine Art, Budapest

09 October 2020

Alexander Faludy visits the Budapest exhibition

© Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Adam and Eve (1504), engraving

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Adam and Eve (1504), engraving

THE Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest (MFAB), has assembled an impressive array of works from its own holdings for the “Age of Dürer” exhibition. This is the museum’s first dedicated display of material from its German drawings collection for just over 50 years. It comprises 54 works, including drawings, woodcuts, and engravings.

Albrecht Dürer’s famous woodcut Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1498) is perhaps the show’s most readily recognisable item. It is, arguably, a fitting image for contemplation in 2020 as the world struggles in the grip of Revelation’s fourth rider, (Pestilence), manifested as Covid-19.

Dürer (1471-1528) might be thought strangely prescient in arming Pestilence with a crossbow long before medical science understood the part played by airborne particulates in spreading disease. Fortunately, not all the images exhibited here carry such dramatically menacing connotations.

The first picture to catch the visitor’s eye on entry is an attractively reassuring sketch, The Virgin and Child with St Paul (c.1440-50) by an unknown Bavarian artist. The combination of figures is unusual, but used to good effect. Paul’s dourly earnest visage offsets Mary’s indulgent smile as she contemplates the infant Jesus playing with her necklace. The apostle’s stiffness of gesture contrasts pointedly with his Saviour’s light-hearted toying with Mary’s jewellery.

© Museum of Fine Arts, BudapestBavarian artist, The Virgin and Child with St. Paul (c.1440-1450), pen and black ink with grey wash

At a glance, Jesus’s action can be “read” as the manipulation of rosary beads. This is probably deliberate, given that the sketch was drawn at just the point (in the mid-15th century) when rosary use was gaining widespread popularity across Europe as a lay devotion.

“The Age of Dürer” celebrates the completion of a refreshed catalogue of MFAB’s drawing and print collection. The display is consequently enhanced by an excellent commentary showcasing insights from the best international scholarship on early modern draughtsmanship.

Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1504) has been ubiquitously merchandised, and playfully adapted, across media ranging from tea towels to the opening credits of American TV’s Desperate Housewives. Its familiarity can obscure how much is happening symbolically within the picture.

The commentary aptly reminds us that the four creatures on the ground around the ill-destined couple are not there by chance. The elk, hare, cat, and ox represent respectively the “four humours” identified by ancient medicine (melancholic, sanguine, choleric, and phlegmatic) and associated with the human body’s various (supposed) internal fluids.

The humours’ relative balance, or derangement, in the body was understood to determine both physical health and the shape of human personality. By including the humours’ animal cyphers here, Dürer nods towards the contention of Abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) that the humours’ frequent tendency towards disorder was a direct consequence of the Fall, before which they had been in perfect balance.

The exhibition’s contents divide into two principal strands. The first is the work of Dürer and his immediate circle in Nuremberg; the second is that of the so-called Rudolphine artists: artists active around the court of Rudolph II (Holy Roman Emperor 1576-1612). The division is, however, not sharply exclusive.

© Museum of Fine Arts, BudapestHans Hoffman (c.1545-92), Studies of Hands [after Albrecht Dürer] (c.1580). Pen and black ink heightened with white on blue prepared paper

Among the best Rudolphine pieces is the reworking (c.1580) by Hans Hoffmann (c.1530-92) of Dürer’s famous “Praying Hands” study for the lost Heller altarpiece destroyed in 1729. Hoffmann’s sketch is more assertive in its use of white highlighting on the Heller hands. It also juxtaposes them memorably with another pair, which are puffed and gnarled. The latter are culled from the Pope figure in Dürer’s Feast of the Rose Garlands (originally painted for a Venetian church, but now in Prague).

Other Rudolphine pieces are more obviously distinctive. That is especially true of those from the upper end of the exhibition date range, such as Joseph Heintz ’s Two Nymphs (c.1595-1600) and Matthias Gundelach’s Mercury and Herse (1613). In both, classical models and soft modelling supersede the elaborate, angular International Gothic form-patterns deployed by Dürer and his Nuremburg confrères.

Even so, there are noteworthy continuities between the earliest and latest pieces exhibited. The subject-matter of Georg Pecham’s composite image The Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary (c.1600) dovetails with the devotional exercise hinted at by the (c.1450) bead-telling Jesus in The Virgin Mary with Jesus and St Paul.

© Museum of Fine Arts, BudapestAlbrecht Dürer (1471-1528), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (c.1497-8), woodcut from the Apocalypse Cycle

This exhibition is ostensibly about German drawings, but several facets of the display challenge overly neat characterisations of national artistic tradition. For one thing, about half the works shown were produced in Prague, capital of the Czech lands, after Rudolph II moved the imperial court there from Vienna in 1580. For another, Dürer’s stylistic development was shaped profoundly by his extensive tours of Italy and the Netherlands.

Likewise, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s St George (1506) reminds us how far England’s patron saint was the common currency of European piety at the turn of the 16th century. Two Holy Roman Emperors, Frederick III and Maximilian I, between them founded three devotional guilds in his honour. In an age when borders can be restricted unpredictably, that internationalism is worth savouring.


“The Age of Dürer: German Drawings and Prints from the Museum of Fine Art” is at the Museum of Fine Art, Dózsa György út 41, Budapest, until 18 October. Phone 00 36 1 469 7100.


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