Dürer was here
A Journey becomes Legend
7th October 2020 – 10th January 2021
The exhibition “Dürer was here. A journey becomes legend” opens on 7th October 2020 in the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum – 500 years to the day since the Renaissance star arrived in Aachen. His particular reason for coming here? A coronation, of course. His general reason for the whole year he spent travelling from Nuremberg to the coast of the Netherlands? Money. Or so the story goes. So, the artist who rose to widespread fame on an unprecedented scale through prints of his stunningly adroit copperplate engravings – the “trademarked” master with his world-famous “AD” monogram – actually hit the road with his eyes firmly fixed on filthy lucre?
This exhibition, organised in collaboration with the National Gallery in London, offers a precise – and fresh – look at the so-called “Journey to the Netherlands” (1520/21). An enigmatic journey to whose legendary character the painting and drawing genius himself contributed his own share – in writing a diary, a kind of accounts book with travel notes.
100 masterpieces (about 65 drawings and paintings along with 35 prints) bear testimony to Dürer’s exceptional artistry – even while on the move, without his own studio. A complement of about 40 drawings, paintings and sculptures by contemporary artists Dürer met underway – artists who were inspired by him and who inspired him – round the exhibition off into an artistic-, cultural- and social-historical “full picture” of the journey, never before seen in this form.
The “Dürer” phenomenon
The last exhibition to feature Dürer’s journey to the Burgundian Low Countries under Habsburg rule (for the most part present-day Belgium) took place in 1977 as part of the Europalia Festival in Brussels. With in the meantime four more decades of further research to draw on, the 2020/21 exhibitions in Aachen und London will place the emphasis on the artist himself. For it is particularly this journey – undertaken around the time he was turning 50 – that shows Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) in all his facets, in image and in word. Dürer on the road is particularly revealing in terms of the “Dürer” phenomenon – revealing about how a masterful artisan went about climbing the social ladder, and about what it was like to be an artist in a world that had not yet developed a term for what we today refer to as artistry.
Accompanying Dürer on his journey, we encounter renowned artists literally by the dozen: Quentin Massys, Bernard van Orley, Conrad Meit, Jan Provoost, Dirk Vellert and Lucas van Leyden, to name but a few. Dürer is a guest in the studio and at the wedding of Joachim Patinir, whom he refers to as a good “landscape painter”, incidentally coining a new genre term.
Dürer spends a lot of time with commercial agents, for example proxies of the Fuggers, and with high office holders from his home region and his one-year adopted country, the Netherlands, as well as with patricians and courtly society. This is where money comes into play: an imperial fee – overdue since 1518 – to the tune of 200 guilders and, presumably far more important to him, an imperial pension granted to him in 1515 of 100 guilders per annum, about twice the average annual salary of a master craftsman (50 guilders) in those days. Since the death of Maximilian I in early 1519, the City of Nuremberg has refused to pay out the overdue fee and the imperial pension. In the Netherlands, under Habsburg rule, Dürer seeks and finds advocates for a continuation of the payments.
Dürer in Aachen
The letters of recommendation for the continuation of the imperial pension which Dürer collects on these excursions are addressed to Maximilian’s successor. And he is to be crowned King of Germany on 23rd October 1520 – in Aachen.
Dürer already arrives in Aachen on the 7th October. He enjoys himself bathing in the thermal baths and gambling with his companions. He marvels at the Holy Relics, admires and draws the Cathedral and the Katschhof, as well as the Town Hall. He draws portraits of his companions and of a dog at rest. He uses Burg Frankenberg as the backdrop for a drawn portrait to which he free-spiritedly adds a Rhine landscape. Dürer makes excursions to – among other places – Jülich and Düren as well as Cologne.
The coronation in Aachen
Dürer spends three weeks altogether in Aachen around the actual coronation celebrations for King Charles V (who had also been elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1519 and will be crowned as such in Bologna in 1530). The Nuremberg Aldermen Hans Ebner, Leonhard Groland and Niklas Haller are also in Aachen as the city’s delegation to the coronation. They have brought the Imperial Regalia to Aachen. These “Lords of Nuremberg” accompany Dürer on many stages of his journey, paying a substantial portion of his expenses for board and lodging. The City of Nuremberg seems to be backing Dürer’s mission and supporting his endeavours to get his imperial pension renewed. Nevertheless, after the journey, Dürer – today hailed as “great son” of the city – will not be able to resist a snipe at Nuremberg about the fact that he had been offered more in Antwerp and in Italy to persuade him to stay there: more money, a dream home, tax exemption. Does he make any mention of such an offer earlier in his Netherlands travel notes? No, on the contrary.
By the way, Dürer gets his privilege back in the end.
The stuff of legends
Albrecht Dürer is fascinated by all things new and strange. When news makes the rounds of a stranded whale in Zeeland, he sets off to see it with his own eyes. The journey there turns into an adventure story which includes a shipwreck and him as the man who saves the day. By the time he is back safe and sound on land, the whale has been carried back out to sea by the tide. All that remains is a short-lived disappointment and a long-lasting illness with bouts of fever and exhaustion. Medically, the symptoms he describes have led some researchers to suspect syphilis, while others favour the hypothesis that he contracted malaria while in Zeeland.
What Dürer brings back from Zeeland in terms of art is a further fabulous story of a sea monster. After he returns to Antwerp from Zeeland, he creates a fantastic drawing of a walrus. Was this creature with its incredible size (twelve Brabant ells is a length of 8.3 metres) really caught in the Netherlands sea, and did Dürer really see it there, as he claims in the inscription on the drawing? Probably not. Researchers even suspect that a draft made by his workshop employee Hans Baldung was the true source of inspiration. But isn’t Dürer’s Zeeland Saga so much more exciting?
This period marks the absolute peak of Dürer’s productivity. According to the latest research, about 120 preserved leaves with drawings can be assigned to the journey to the Netherlands.
Dürer’s more acclaimed Rhinoceros was most probably also produced without any study in natura. It is only in the case of his best-known animal portrait, Wild Hare, that a study from life is unequivocal – as unequivocal as Dürer’s exceptional graphic talent itself. The artistic skills hinted at in his phenomenal self portrait at the tender age of 13 come to full bloom when he is around 50 and on his journey to the Netherlands. Dürer mentions almost 140 drawings in his travel notes, almost all of them portraits. Dürer gives some of these away as expressions of a personal bond, some in the hope of receiving gifts in return, and others he sells. That portraits produced on location would soon establish themselves as works of art in their own right and would no longer be seen as mere sketches and preliminary studies is something that we owe in good measure to Dürer and his journey to the Netherlands.
This period marks the absolute peak of Dürer’s productivity. According to the latest research, about 120 preserved leaves with drawings can be assigned to the journey to the Netherlands. Dürer even produced paintings – which require far more effort in their production than drawings – while on his journey. For the year that he spent travelling, he mentions an incredible total of 22 paintings.
The exhibition is a magnificent “School of Seeing” with incredibly amazing works of art and the story of a journey that became a legend. For the show, the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum and the National Gallery will be bringing together loans from Europe and the USA in Aachen and London.
The exhibition in the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum documents Dürer’s journey to Aachen (and Antwerp) through a unique historical-cultural collage that – thanks to Dürer’s own detailed travel journal and his works of art – allows the stages of his journey to be retraced and visualised in detail.
The exhibition features about 120 top-quality works which Dürer completed during his journey in 1520/21. The majority of the works are drawings, but there are also paintings which date from this period, for example the impressive portrait of Saint Jerome in his Study, on loan from Lisbon. These are complemented with sculptures and paintings by contemporaries as reference works.
The loans come from eminent institutions like the Albertina in Vienna, the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum and the National Gallery in London, Windsor Castle, the Uffizi in Florence, the Prado in Madrid or the Berlin “Kupferstichkabinett”.