What is an artist?

Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait with a Fur Collar, 1500 (66.3 x 49cm), Alte Pinakothek, Munich

I don’t intend to answer that question…perhaps there is not in any case a complete answer. I recently saw an advert for a job making sandwiches at Subway – the advert was for a ‘sandwich artist’. I laughed at the pretentiousness – but there is indeed an art to making a good sandwich. Eric Gill defined art as skill – but much is talked today about whether skill, in the sense of craftsmanship, is essential to being an artist.

I specialise in an era when craftsmanship was very much part of being an ‘artist’ – I put the word in inverted commas because it is a modern term, anachronistic to the Renaissance, the period I have researched. Even Vasari’s famous book is often mistranslated as The Lives of the Artists – when its actual title is The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. The mistranslation is interesting; partly because it misses out the sense of ‘most excellent’, which was crucial to Vasari’s (and his culture’s) understanding of what art was. This brilliant and seminal work in art history continues to be misunderstood by some, but has lost none of its relevance to discussions about art. However, I am not going to discuss Vasari here! Others have done it much better.

I am going to discuss someone closer to my heart, the German painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer, and specifically his great self-portrait of 1500, now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. If I could own any painting in the world, it would be this; every time I see it I cry, every time I see it I feel closer to the man himself, every time I see it I am astonished all over again at its immediacy and its depths. It is a smallish painting, simply the face and upper body of a specific individual, dark – lots of brown and black, and darker than most of its reproductions convey – yet it contains the universe, and radiates meaning.

It is, for Dürer, the culmination of his project of self-portraiture in the 1490s. He first painted himself in 1493, as a young man on the threshold of marriage and adult life, a compelling mixture of tentativeness and glamour; this painting now hangs in the Louvre, tucked away in a dismal little room with the Holbeins and other German art, tolerated but not much more by this great gallery. The second painted portrait dates from 1498, by which time, we believe, Dürer had been to Italy; 1498 is also the year in which he published his series of woodcuts of the Apocalypse, the first ‘artist’ to publish his own work in this way, fully exploiting both the commercial aspects of printmaking and the fears of the general population, who thought the world might end in 1500. It made his reputation at an international level, and the glorious portrait, now in the Prado, represents a new confidence, elegance, cosmopolitan aspirations. He is dressed in Italianate clothes (though I note from his hat that he is a fellow Newcastle Utd supporter), with the fine gloves of a gentleman (in none of the portraits does he refer to his profession – no paintbrushes or other accoutrements of his trade – though he does conceal the painting hand in the 1500 portrait, if you realise that he is painting in a mirror, and his left hand, hidden, is in fact his right), and through the window are the Alps, over which he has travelled in both directions, and which show his interest in the world beyond Nuremberg. For all his love of art, his greatest love (as witnessed by his journals) seems to be the natural world.

Dürer, Self-portrait, 1493, Louvre
Dürer, Self-portrait, 1498, Prado

Then two years later, all of this confidence reaches a new height – the 1500 self-portrait is like no other artist’s portrait we have seen to this point. In the north, portraits were generally painted in three-quarter profile, as his first two self-portraits had been; the only person who was usually painted full face in this way was Christ. This, as scholars have pointed out over the centuries, is deliberate; Dürer has, in fact, taken the fifteenth-century tradition of paintings of Christ, from Van Eyck through Rogier van der Weyden, Memling and Schongauer, the subject of my previous blog, and used them as the model for his own portrait, the features of which he has idealised. Arrogance? Blasphemy, even? No, I don’t think it’s either. I think it’s the ultimate expression of Christian devotion in the light of his acceptance of his great talents as a painter – the painter is divine, because creativity is divine – God is a creative being, indeed the Creator, and as man is made in the image of God, the painter is endowed with this creative part of the divine.

The painter is also an intellectual – Dürer wears the kind of clothes a humanist scholar of the day would wear. He does not, as I have mentioned, give any blatant reference to his profession – and yet the whole painting is as blatant a reference as he could make. The exquisiteness of the way his own likeness is captured, including the soft fur that he plays with, the curls of his long hair, of which he was so proud, the different texture of his beard, the light in his eyes (there is also a window painted in one eye, a convention of course denoting the eye as the window of the soul), all advertises his exceptional talent.

The gesture of the fingers stroking the fur collar combines the two. In images of Christ blessing such as the Braque Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden, Christ holds up his right hand, the first two fingers raised, the thumb bent; Dürer has simply turned this gesture round so that he is pointing to himself – acknowledging his God-given gift, the blessing he has received, but also asserting his own individuality, his own personal skill and calling, its sacredness and its intellectual importance. At a time when painters were at the mercy of patrons and contracts, paid according to the price of materials and often anonymously working in workshops, Dürer is calling for the status of the painter to be much higher. A few years later he will write from Venice to his great humanist friend, Willibald Pirckheimer, that ‘here I am a gentleman, at home a parasite’. He believes in fine craftsmanship – the entire painting bears witness to this – but he also believes in the intellectual status of the painter, something we might take for granted today, but which was radical in his own time.

Rogier van der Weyden, Braque Tripych, 1452 (41 x 136cm), Louvre

[As a conduit from Rogier to Dürer, since Dürer knew his work intimately, I offer Schongauer’s drawing of Christ blessing, no doubt copied from Rogier:]

Dürer’s self-portrait continues to speak across the centuries of the power of art, both in terms of skill and concept, object and ideas. It connects us with a single individual, but makes a claim for all artists. We can look into the eyes (though he does not directly look back at us – perhaps his oce concession to being Christlike but not Christ) of one of the greatest of all western artists and see his greatness, while at the same time being reminded of all that art can and continues to do, even in a very different society. Art is not peripheral, not trivial, not a hobby or a luxury – it is an extraordinary and essential part of who we are as human beings, and how we communicate with each other. One small portrait, oil paint on wood, painted over 500 years ago, conveys all of this and so much more (I could go on, but I won’t!) with a visual economy that is inspiring, deeply satisfying, breathtaking.

A Foolish Virgin…we’ve all been there

Martin Schongauer, Foolish Virgin (engraving, 1480s)

For my first entry, I feel I should start with the image I have chosen as the header image for this blog – a copperplate engraving by the German painter-engraver Martin Schongauer, dating probably from the 1480s. We have no dates for any of Schongauer’s work except for one painting, the Virgin and Child in a Rosebower in the church of St Martin in Colmar, dated 1473. We know that he died in 1491, and his active years are usually given as 1470-1491; we don’t know when he was born. He was the son of a goldsmith, and would have learned in his father’s workshop to use the burin, the tool used by metalworkers for incising patterns into the objects they made. Schongauer was not the earliest printmaker to exploit this technique for pictorial ends, but he was the one who developed it into a sophisticated pictorial medium, thus exploiting the commercial as well as artistic value of the new medium of printmaking. He was a profound influence on Albrecht Dürer, the greatest printmaker of the next (or perhaps any!) generation. But more of him another time.

This print, measuring 143 x 108 millimetres, is unfinished; this is relatively obvious in the lower right hand portion, the girl’s left arm. Yet it loses none of its beauty, charm or sophistication through this, for me at least. It is not one of Schongauer’s most famous prints (he made around 110 all together – at least that is the number that has survived to us today), but it is one of my favourites. It stops me in my tracks every time I see it.

The girl is one of the Foolish Virgins from the biblical parable; her oil lamp is empty (she has turned it upside down to show this), and therefore she has missed her chance of salvation through not being prepared. She looks out at us sadly – but even in this single figure, with no setting, Schongauer manages to tell a story. The upturned oil lamp tells us that this refers to the biblical story (and assumes that the viewer already knows this story – read Matthew’s gospel, ch.25 if you don’t!); the sadness of her expression shows us her own feelings, but it also conveys more. She is not lost in her own inner thoughts, she connects directly – challengingly – with the viewer. She not only tells her own story, she involves us – are we ready? She is sad but knowing. This is the point of the parable – Jesus is telling his listeners that they too need to be ready. So with this linear engraving, Schongauer has conveyed a message that at the time was profoundly meaningful – this was an age when Christian faith was central to people’s understanding of the world and of their own lives. Works of religious art were primarily devotional objects, and this print was meant to make people think.

But for me, moving though all of that is, it is the way Schongauer conveys his story that always makes my heart skip a beat and forces me to stop and look. His mastery of line is endlessly fascinating. The story is told simply through the use of black lines on white paper. The dishevelled appearance of this girl contrasts with the engraver’s absolute control and compositional powers; he weights the image at the bottom left corner, takes us up the line of the girl’s arm to her face, and balances this by the weight of the headdress and hanging locks of hair at the top right. We don’t notice this at first; we are drawn in (and in my case transfixed) by the gaze of the girl, those beautiful, mournful, but slightly defiant eyes (defiant in the sense of asking us whether we are in a position to judge her), the pout of the lips, the depth of the expression.

Follow the lines of Schongauer’s shading. Start with those sharp folds of her sleeve at the bottom left, which point outwards but also upwards, through the horizontals of her upper sleeve to the shoulder, where the burin lines fan round to lead our eye up to her neck and then her face; then up to the swirled knot of her headdress, which creates a pivot – a central point that again fixes the composition, yet keeps our eye in movement at the same time, a figure of 8 that leads us to the right side of the image, and down through the locks of hair to the unfinished arm. This silhouette is held together and fleshed out by the horizontal curved lines of her bodice, the closer shading of her breast which conveys a sense of skin rather than fabric, and a body that is not quite natural in its proportions yet is detailed in terms of collarbone, folds of skin at the neck, shading around the eyes – those liquid eyes! Schongauer, like all German artists of this period, was steeped in the traditions of Netherlandish painting, where the development of oil to mix pigments had led to an extraordinary ability to convey textures and surfaces. Schongauer manages this in black and white lines, with his deft strokes and perfection of balance between minimalism and richness.

All the emotion of the piece is, for me, in those lines; and while the eyes are what draw me in and won’t let me go, it is that hanging loop of hair that breaks my heart. I know this girl; I know myself in her. There is both vulnerability and self-possession here, somehow conveyed through this alchemy of design.

When making an engraving, the image is drawn on the copper plate in reverse, of course, as when printed it comes out the other way round. Schongauer has put his initials at the bottom of the print, but has forgotten to reverse the S – this moment of imperfection adds to the emotional impact, inadvertently I am sure (I don’t for one minute think he would have seen it this way!) – it makes him vulnerable too.

I take liberties because for me, this is indeed an image to break the heart, to create a sense of longing, of melancholia, of taking responsibility when things go wrong. It is about loss and defiance – judge me if you will, but make sure you are beyond reproach if you choose to do that. I get lost in its lines, absorbed in and by them, and this small sheet of paper with some markings in black ink has the power to reach deep inside me and transform my thinking.