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Art Review

Deciphering Durer

Exhibit puts artist’s genius — and enigmatic nature — on display

Albrecht Dürer’s 'Adam and Eve' shows his Gothic and Italian Renaissance influences. Albrecht Dürer’s "Adam and Eve" shows his Gothic and Italian Renaissance influences. (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / January 7, 2011

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It’s always been hard to know what to make of Albrecht Dürer. There’s just something deliciously dense and knotty about the guy.

Before his most famous images, scholars keep changing their minds about whether he was depicting witches or goddesses, symbols of luck or retribution, and what on earth it might all mean. Art history’s codifiers, meanwhile, can’t decide if he was late Gothic or Renaissance or, if both, which aspect predominates.

The problem starts, perhaps, with the fact that Dürer didn’t always know what to make of himself. In his lifetime, to his ongoing dismay, he was treated as both minion and celebrity. He was Catholic and then Protestant. He was one of those head-down, hands-on, see-it-and-draw-it kinds of visual artists who also happened to have an unstoppable theoretical bent.

Teutonic by temperament, he was influenced, more than any of his northern peers, by the art of Italy (he went there twice). His ensuing attempts to integrate Gothic and Italian Renaissance tendencies produced some of art history’s most unforgettable and technically accomplished images — and some of its most feverish.

You can feel the driving pressure of Dürer’s world-altering oddity in “The Strange World of Albrecht Dürer,’’ a fine and handsomely presented survey of his prints at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, which has one of the finest collections of Dürer prints in North America. The show is — as the title suggests — an attempt to acknowledge Dürer’s resistant oddity.

At the same time, it’s a stab — an unnecessary one, frankly — at making Dürer seem relevant to our own times. Its 75 prints — mostly woodcuts but also engravings and a smattering of etchings, all drawn from the museum’s permanent collection — have been grouped according to theme. Those themes have been chosen to reflect contemporary concerns, so that we have, for instance, “Gender Anxiety,’’ “War and Suffering,’’ and “Apocalypse.’’

“Just as the media in the 21st century reflects the pervasiveness of violence in our culture, Dürer’s images mirrored his own society’s fascination with human torment,’’ we are told in the “War and Suffering’’ section of the exhibition room brochure (there is no catalog). And in the section on “Gender Anxiety’’: “The impact of these prints is no less powerful today, when issues of gender equality remain fraught with tension in every sphere of life.’’

This sort of curatorial beckoning and hand-holding strikes me as a tad gratuitous. Dürer’s concerns are indeed “timeless,’’ as the connoisseurs would have it. But calling art “timeless’’ is in the end a way of domesticating it, drying its sap, rendering it pure and hallowed.

The greater the artist, the more vulnerable he or she is to such treatment (Dürer, I note in passing, is commemorated on the calendar of both the Episcopal and the Lutheran churches, and has even had a crater on the moon named after him). This makes it all the more important that we locate Dürer in a specific time and place, and register what we can of his personality, even as we acknowledge all the inevitable imponderables. Only this way can we pull him back from the moon and discover all that is truly inimitable about him.

The presentation of Dürer’s prints here is otherwise exemplary; the show is fuller and ultimately more satisfying than last year’s one-room “Albrecht Dürer: Virtuoso Printmaker’’ at the Museum of Fine Arts.

The section on “War and Suffering’’ has little in the way of actual warfare. But it does contain several episodes from the Passion, including the 1512 engraving “Christ Carrying the Cross.’’ The image shows Christ pausing on his forced march in order to acknowledge Mary, his mother, and to allow Veronica to wipe his brow with her famous veil, which will receive the imprint of his face (a key moment in theological discussions of the appropriateness of artistic representations of the divine).

One aspect of Dürer’s genius was an ability to combine pictorial congestion with maximum clarity. Here, his thirst for detail goes beyond delight to express something almost fervent — which is of course wholly appropriate to the scene’s jeering chaos and bitter pathos. You notice, for instance, that Christ’s second toe is noticeably longer than his big toe, and that the whole of his bare foot is just inches away from the crudely clodded foot of the soldier, who bends his back and knees, the better to yank Christ on toward Calvary. Every thorn on the crown is described, every detail of the soldiers’ armor and weaponry is carefully delineated.

Line here is not a function of classical decorum as it was for Dürer’s Italian contemporary Raphael, but rather of particularity and intensity.

Most of Dürer’s greatest hits, both engravings and woodcuts, are here: “Melencolia I,’’ “Knight, Death, and the Devil,’’ “Coat of Arms With Skull,’’ “St. Jerome in his Study,’’ and “Adam and Eve.’’

They remain as incredible as ever — and in some cases, persistently enigmatic. “The Four Witches,’’ for instance — four women whose ungainly proportions call to mind Michelangelo’s brawny dames, Cezanne’s short-legged bathers, and John Currin’s mannerist fantasias — is also commonly called “The Four Naked Women’’ and might even be a depiction of the Judgment of Paris.

Similarly, years of stimulation can be had pondering the significance of “Nemesis,’’ known also as “The Great Fortune.’’ A naked woman with bulbous thighs, muscular buttocks, a swollen belly, and splendid wings floats over a mountainous northern landscape replete with town, river, and bridge.

A strange hybrid of Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck, and Nemesis, the Greek goddess of retribution, she holds up a goblet with one hand and carries a heavy bridle in the other. The former may symbolize the rewards of good fortune, the latter the threat of a divinely ordained comeuppance.

Her large feet are precariously balanced on a sphere that seems too small for her — signifying, perhaps, the slippery nature of luck.

Having registered the unassimilable oddity of this formidable figure, our eyes are ineluctably drawn to the landscape below, an astonishingly meticulous feat of observation. The village is no invention — scholars have established that it was the Italian town of Chiusa in the Tyrol, which Dürer passed through and recorded on his way to Venice in 1494.

Your eye moves from the bridge to the town’s buildings, the single cross marking a burial site, the orderly piles of timber, and then up the mountain passes past a church and into the treacherous cliffs above in a kind of steady trance, mesmerized by the fidelity of the rendering.

Dürer’s engravings tend to be more compelling than his woodcuts — the medium allows for more subtlety, more detail, more naturalistic space. But the woodcuts remain superb — especially the renderings of many-headed monsters, celestial power, and terrestrial upheaval in his series “The Apocalypse.’’

Prints like those on show here tend to spend many years in storage, to keep them from deterioration. Given the chance to see them, one should take it.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

THE STRANGE WORLD OF ALBRECHT DURER

At: The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown. Through March 13.

413-458-2303,

www.clarkart.edu