Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 8, 2010

The Strange World of Albrecht Durer

Yesterday Peter and I visited the Durer exhibit at the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute in Williamstown, MA, which shows from Nov 13 to March 13, months when admission is quite stunningly free. I mean there was less than an inch of snow in the Berkshires, and that was off all the roads. Still the galleries were uncrowded, so Peter was leaning in to the works until I tugged him back, afraid the guard would yell at us for standing with nose perhaps an inch away from the glass. No sooner had I pulled him back, when a guard stepped forward and asked, “Would you like to use a magnifying glass? Some are in the next room.”

We grabbed them, and the detail was even more breathtaking. I knew I’d be amazed by Durer (1471 – 1528), but I was thinking German Renaissance black and white woodcuts, prints, and etchings: this could be some work. What surprised me were the bits of affection throughout. I’m not saying Durer’s view of the apocalypse is a walk in the park, but those are cool dragons, and you’ve got to like birds and cherubs with eyes peering from their arms or wings. I smiled over a corner in which a kid tries out stilts, and in “The Holy Family with Grasshopper,” yes, there’s an insect with wild knees posing with the holy ones.

And in the famous engraving of Adam and Eve, near their feet a cat snoozes near an alert mouse, and in the upper left a bearded goat perches on a cliff. “Like something out of Dr. Seuss,” I said to Peter, who replied. “A lot reminds me of Seuss. The sometimes whimsical perspectives. And those creatures like the seven-headed beast.” Yes, with crowns on both horns, and one head with gawky grin and another looping back under the strain of a sprawling neck.

In the engraving of Saint Jerome in His Study there’s a skull on the window seat and no sense that the saint is writing something funny, but the expression on the lion’s face is simply sweet. And such tenderness in the depiction of his paws and rumpled pillows, and the scissors, beads, brushes, and aren’t those slippers kicked to the side? It made me happy.

If you can’t catch this exhibit but want to know more about Durer and the printmaking process, the Clark website, with url above, has lots of information including an interesting video. And what’s the take-away for me as a writer? I guess first, get to work. What Durer does in one piece, never mind a roomful, never mind a show-full, is amazing. But after that, there’s the reminder to put a chubby kid maybe with crooked wings and collapsing stilts in the corner, especially when I’m going for dark. And there’s nothing wrong with a smiling sleepy lion.



  1. What can I say but “jealous”? Wish I could teleport.

  2. This looks amazing. I love Eve’s face. She just does not look like the root of all trouble–more like a woman who’s pretty comfortable with herself.

  3. I wish you could teleport, too!

  4. Yes! And I’m intrigued that it’s the serpent, not Eve, who’s eating the fruit. Like maybe the pronouns got mixed up in translation?

  5. “Yes! And I’m intrigued that it’s the serpent, not Eve, who’s eating the fruit. Like maybe the pronouns got mixed up in translation?”
    I’m hardly an expert in interpreting Medieval symbolism or Durer’s intentions, but it seems to me that maybe the serpent isn’t eating the apple, but offering it to Eve (in the only way a snake could).
    But I could be wrong.
    In any event, this piece — like all of what we saw in that show — is fantastic. Given what we were able to see once we were peering through the magnifying glasses, I would love to have a collection of high-resolution scans of these original prints to zoom in on at my leisure. I’m sure there are details we missed in all of them. — PL

  6. It sounds fabulous! We lived very near Nurnberg in Germany and my one big regret is never visiting his house. We walked by it tons of times, but I always had squirming little people with me who weren’t in the mood to appreciate it. Next time!!

  7. Wonderful that they had magnifying glasses! Have you read Elise Broach’s Masterpiece? It made me happy to see Durer in a book for children. I always have the sense in his prints that he loved life in all its forms. Which is quite something to come away with given how dire his subject matter often is!

  8. How cool that you walked by Durer’s house! What an amazing place to visit as the squirming little people grow up.
    Happy holidays, Rose!

  9. Thank you for reminding me about Elise Broach’s Masterpiece. Peter just picked up a copy. And I agree, you have to love life, in all its wild variety, to want to look at it that close.

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