Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Albrecht Durer in California

Last week my wife and I went to California to visit two of our daughters and to witness the Baptism of our sixteenth grandchild. One daughter lives near the magnificent Huntington Library in San Marino just outside of Pasadena. Whenever we visit we like to go to the Huntington for its beautiful setting, lovely gardens, and incredible collection. 

The Huntington was largely the work  of Henry Huntington, a wealthy railroad  magnate, and his wife Arabella. Actually, Arabella was first the wife of Henry’s uncle but after he passed away, Henry pursued the wealthy widow until she finally agreed to marry again. All three were avid collectors. 

Arabella Huntington, 1924

On entering the main gallery one is struck by a portrait of a very formidable Arabella done in 1924 the year of her death. At the time she was perhaps the richest woman in the world and  she must have accepted the portrait as a way of showing the world that she had not been a silly or frivolous woman. Despite her formidable aspect in old age, the portrait made me wonder what she might have been like as a young girl of about the same age as “Pinkie”, the young girl in one of the Huntington’s most prized possessions.

We went to the Huntington this visit to see a small exhibition devoted to some of Albrecht Durer’s most famous prints. A guard at the Museum told us that the Huntington had well over 100000 prints in its collection but none can be as remarkable as the Durer’s on display this summer. The exhibition is called Albrecht Durer: Master of the Black line.

The development of movable type and the printing press by Gutenberg coincided with a equally important development in the world of illustration. Engraving on wood, copper, or silver began about the same time as the printing press, and the new technique allowed works of illustration to be copied and reproduced with relative ease. Durer was not the first but by the time the Renaissance was in full swing, he had brought the art of engraving to a height that has never been equaled.

Durer: Vision of St. Eustace
click image to enlarge

Altogether there arte 33 prints in the Huntington exhibition four of the larger ones will give an idea of Durer’s mastery of his craft. St. Eustace venerating a cross appearing between the antlers of a stag, is featured in the Huntington’s online introduction to the exhibit. Durer depicts the legendary apparition with incredible detail. If interested, click on this link from the Clark Museum to see how an art historian examines the details and the meaning of this masterwork.   

Like most Renaissance greats, Durer worked mainly on religious subjects but used his inventiveness to bring out many levels of meaning. Three of his most famous engravings are also part of the exhibition and they are placed side by side for maximum effect. First is the mounted knight accompanied by Death and Satan. Scholars have noed that the Knight symbolizes the active Christian soldier. Second is St. Jerome working in his study. Jerome, a hermit as well as the translator of the Bible into Latin, symbolizes the contemplative life. Finally, a work that Durer himself entitled “Melencholia” represents the artist himself, a brooding sensitive genius. 

The image of the Knight accompanied by Death and Satan reminded me of a classic film by famed Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. The film is "the Seventh Seal" and tells the story of a knight returning home after years on a Crusade only to find that Death wants him. He is only able to delay the inevitable by challenging Death to a game of Chess. Click on this link or see the brief video below. Like most Chess players Death cannot refuse a chance to play his favorite game.


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