Paper is Light: Durer and Rembrandt at Christopher-Clark
o what extent do available materials affect the development of an artist? The question arose more than once when I visited “The Line of Inspiration: Master Prints from Albrecht Dürer & Rembrandt van Rijn” at Christopher-Clark Fine Art (377 Geary St., San Francisco). Dürer is most remembered for his engravings, and the reasons become clear when one gazes up close at the kind of detail he loads into his images. This exquisite attention to the smallest moments becomes shocking as a physical feat, as well, when one considers that Dürer—or likely an assistant—was carving each detail into a block of wood. Buildings, bodies, flora and fauna—entire worlds emerge via Dürer’s hatching and cross-hatching. [Note: Images in this article are via Wikipedia. Though they are the same images on view at Christopher-Clark, they are not the same prints.]
As I leaned closer and closer to the prints, Mark Miles, the gallery’s director, offered a magnifying glass through which I might better appreciate Dürer’s skill. We tend to associate the mastery of lighting effects, and resultant three-dimensionality, with oils, and Dürer of course worked in oil, too. The problem with oil, though, is that it became a dominant medium in part because it makes technique disappear: in front of a portrait in oil, the eye sees a person, and the mind is then tempted to wonder about that person’s life or history, “read” the painting’s objects for symbolism, etc. In engravings and etchings, though, technique is laid bare—we look at the scaffolding oil hides. Dürer’s scaffolding is fantastic.
Detail from Knight, Death, and the Devil. Albrecht Dürer, 1513.
The gallery has smartly arranged the two artists across the room from each other—Dürer lines one side of the gallery, Rembrandt, the other. Savvy arrangement of the entryway induces one to begin with Dürer, follow his images to the back, and then return up the opposite wall with Rembrandt. It’s immediately apparent that Rembrandt, though he uses many of Dürer’s techniques, begins with a looser line. This, Miles explained, was possible because Rembrandt was etching in wax, while Durer’s images are the result of carving in wood. Rembrandt’s looser feel extends even to the completeness of some of his pieces. An image like The Triumph of Mordecai appears abandoned at the moment the artist lost interest—the left side of the image has been given a full treatment of hatching and cross-hatching, the right left as a sketch.
Attributing Rembrandt’s style to his medium may of course be a false conclusion—Rembrandt may have been looser about a lot of things, regardless of medium, and perhaps Dürer arranged sticks into grids even as a boy. Miles pointed out a woman turned away in a Dürer image, though, and a woman depicted from the same angle, in the same posture, in a Rembrandt. The younger artist was studying the older. Dürer had to be fantastically careful, precise, and structural in his marks because his process involved a blade in wood; for Rembrandt, working in soft wax left the use of so much hatching optional. His detailed lines and lighting effects via Düreresque hatching wasn’t a necessity to create an image—it was the technical study of someone who wanted to improve.
The Triumph of Mordecai. 1641. Etching. Rembrandt van Rijn.
n oil, everything is oil. In these prints, though, the ink is the world and the paper is the light. A paper that yellows over time results in light that becomes warmer, while a paper that retains its whiteness preserves a brightness and contrast that contributes to the mood of the image. Pieces crafted from such basic materials—wood and metal, ink and paper—retain a stirring feel of primacy. One is impressed not only by technique, but also by the materials, because the materials are the image—it’s not only Dürer’s skill that amazes, but also the quality of the 500-year-old piece of paper on which the image is printed.
The Internet is virtual, verbose, and our culture’s current medium of choice. Art history suggests that use of a material that is good at depicting the virtual and verbose will spur in its users—and I suppose I’m shifting here to discussing writing rather than art—a resulting development of skills centered on ephemerality and chattiness. The ready availability of “social media”—the fact that we type in the soft wax of Word and print on fake HTML paper—does little to help us develop the techniques of the personal and the quiet. This screen is, in many ways, not the material for that kind of work.
I mention this only because the news last week included the item that an oil painting of a naked Bea Arthur sold for two million dollars. The reporters forced to read this item tried to do so in a tone of amusement, though I didn’t laugh. I wasn’t outraged, nor did I think it signaled the end of the world—I just didn’t care. The super-rich have always sought ways to unload their millions in spare change, and whether they decide to buy a home security system with patrolling robots, a whimsically-shaped swimming pool, or a naked Bea Arthur painting makes little difference to me.
This doesn’t mean I’m not interested in dollar values, though. The Dürer and Rembrandt prints on display at Christopher-Clark were priced between $7,000 and $50,000, and though I don’t have that kind of cash on hand, I do have a credit card, and will admit to having been tempted—because the culture that produced and is depicted in the images of Dürer and Rembrandt is recognizable to me in a way that two-million-dollar-ironic-painting culture is not. With a swipe of my card, I might have owned a German or Dutch Master. The Dürer and Rembrandt prints have the additional advantage of being beautiful, of course. As reproduced on a computer? Well, less so. But that’s the fault of this medium.
Melencolia I. 1514. Engraving. Albrecht Dürer.
Dan DeWeese is the author of Disorder, a story collection, and You Don't Love This Man, a novel.