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Sunday, June 3, 2012

WHY DURER ENDURES



Why Dürer endures
As a major exhibition opens in Nuremberg, is Germany’s greatest artist a nationalist symbol as well as a national treasure?

By Bernhard Schulz. Features, Issue 235, May 2012
Published online: 22 May 2012

In 1500, Albrecht Dürer painted his Self-portrait Wearing Fur-trimmed Coat, now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Unlike his earlier paintings, Self-portrait with Flower, 1493, in the Louvre and Self-portrait at 26, 1498, in the Prado, this work continues to baffle observers. Despite the fact that Christian iconography is now more or less forgotten, most experts believe that the pose shows associations with representations of Christ. Now, half a millennium after the work was completed, the self-portrait seems to equate Dürer with the Saviour of the World. One doesn’t have to know much, or indeed anything at all, about Dürer to get the feeling that the painting came into being at a turning point in history, and Dürer’s importance in the German national consciousness has as much to do with the era in which he worked as with his phenomenal talent.

Dürer’s entry in the handbook of Munich’s Alte Pinakothek states that he “was, until the last century, considered to be the greatest German artist”—as if to say that he no longer merits such a description. Be that as it may, Dürer has come to be seen as a compelling personification of German history, in an era in which nationalism is no longer socially acceptable.

Too precious to lend

The last time the self-portrait went on loan was in 1971—to Nuremberg for the 500th anniversary of Dürer’s birthday in 1471. There, for the first and probably the last time in history, it was shown together with his other two self-portraits. “Die Zeit” proclaimed it the “highlight of the exhibition, the most important event of the Dürer year”. But the trip was not a good one for the wood panel painting. After its return, it displayed an enlargement of a crack that first appeared in 1928, when it was previously on loan to Nuremberg. Back in 1971, little fuss was made of this—but this year, the controversy was huge. 

Martin Schawe, who is responsible for old German and early Netherlandish painting at the Alte Pinakothek, is still amazed by the dynamic that has developed around the exhibition, “The Early Dürer” at the German National Museum in Nuremberg (24 May-2 September). From the very first conversations between the Munich and Nuremberg museums, the representatives of the Alte Pinakothek pointed to the 114-strong list of “unmoveable” works in the collection, including the self-portrait. Three other early works by Dürer were requested, of which two were approved, and one rejected for conservation reasons. Klaus Schrenk, the director general of the Bavarian State Painting Collections, which include the three Munich pinakotheks and 13 art galleries throughout Bavaria, even says that there was “never an official loan request” for the self-portrait. Only when politicians from the Franconian parts of the region began to publicly support the Nuremberg loan, did the museum’s internal process become a political issue with enormous public resonance. 


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