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INTERVIEW: Met Curators Discuss Importance of New Exhibition

The Met’s expanded drawings collection expands our understanding of Northern Renaissance draftsmanship.

By Jonathan Lopez

This article originally appeared in the Summer issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Know Your Lines.”

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Over the last 20 years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has dramatically expanded its holdings of German, Swiss, Austrian and Bohemian Old Master drawings—categories previously neglected in favor of the Italian and French schools. Of the approximately 100 works currently on display in “Dürer and Beyond: Central European Drawings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art 1400–1700,” fully three quarters were acquired after 1992. Although the museum has long possessed a few examples by the most familiar artists in the field, it can now offer a far deeper narrative of historical and stylistic development. In conversation with Art & Antiques, curators Stijn Alsteens and Freyda Spira discuss the character, quality and importance of this exhibition’s diverse array of fine draftsmanship.

A&A: A pen-and-ink study by Martin Schongauer, Bust of a Man in a Hat Gazing Upward (circa 1480–90), appears near the beginning of the exhibition. It looks very Germanic, but I’m not sure I could articulate why.

ALSTEENS: Well, I don’t think it could ever be mistaken for an Italian or French drawing.

A&A: But what qualities of style or technique account for this?

SPIRA: There’s a graphic sensibility—all you see is short lines and cross-hatching without the diffuse marks or washes that you find in many Italian drawings from the period. There’s a close attention to light and shadow in areas where there’s volume or texture.

A&A: Did Schongauer draw the face from life?

SPIRA: It’s copied from a Netherlandish painting by the Master of Flémalle—a figure from The Bad Thief, now in Frankfurt. A standard part of an artist’s training was to copy or imitate the style of other artists in order to understand form and expression.

ALSTEENS: The Schongauer could also be related to the creation of pattern books—a repertoire of faces and poses necessary to the operation of a studio. The early Bohemian drawings in the exhibition were probably used this way. The anonymous Head of a Bearded Man (circa 1360–65) could easily have been adapted to the depiction of a prophet—but if you gave the figure a crown, it might become King David, and with other attributes, it could be a saint.

A&A: The self-portrait drawing by Albrecht Dürer from 1493 has many qualities in common with the Schongauer—graphic directness, webs of cross-hatching—but the overall spirit seems worlds apart.

SPIRA: The Dürer drawing belongs to a more modern realm than the pattern sheet or the model book. It’s more personal. The portrait likeness gives an intimate view of Dürer as a working artist, studying himself in a mirror, and the sheet as a whole investigates various aspects of art making. He’s playing with scale—the difference in scale between his head, his hand and the pillows.

A&A: Why did he include a pillow on the front of the drawing and then six more pillow studies on the back?

ALSTEENS: One of the main parts of an artist’s training at the time was the study of drapery, and I think these pillows fit into that tradition. But Dürer really made something much more personal out of it. Instead of studying the drapery from imagination or maybe by copying another painting, he used a pillow that happened to be in his room.

SPIRA: Which is very whimsical—they don’t reappear anywhere in his painted output.

ALSTEENS: I’m always fascinated by the little stylized curl near the edge of the center-left pillow on the verso. The rest is very directly observed, like a drawing that even a modern artist might make, but this little curly thing must have come out of Dürer’s early training. Probably he was taught to end a fold with a little curl.

A&A: At one time the self-portrait drawing belonged to Albert von Sachsen-Teschen, the Habsburg prince whose collections became the core of the Albertina in Vienna, where the world’s finest group of Dürer drawings can still be found today. Why did he let go of the self portrait, and how did it come to the Met?

ALSTEENS: Sometime in the early 19th century, Albert’s curator of drawings stole about a hundred works and sold them through a friend of his, a Viennese art dealer. Approximately 24 of these ended up in the possession of a Polish prince whose collection was on loan to a public institution at the outbreak of World War II. The Nazis ultimately confiscated the drawings, saying more or less, “They belong to us because they were stolen from Austria, and Austria belongs to us.” Once the war was over, the drawings were restituted to the heirs of the Polish prince, who then decided to sell them. Robert Lehman seems to have gotten first choice; he bought the self portrait—indisputably the best drawing from the group—and two others. All three came to the Met in 1975 with the Lehman bequest.

A&A: The show includes nature studies by Hans Hoffmann, who was associated with the Dürer Renaissance—a movement that began practically as soon as Dürer died. What was the background to this?

SPIRA: Dürer was very well known during his lifetime, and his work was so avidly collected that there wasn’t enough of it to satisfy the market after his death. Just as Dürer created sumptuous watercolors of landscapes and animals, Hoffmann found a niche producing similar items for patrons who were interested in having something like a Dürer even if it wasn’t by Dürer himself.

A&A: Nature and landscape played an important role in the work of many artists from Dürer’s generation. The exhibition includes Albrecht Altdorfer’s Samson and Delilah (1506), a narrative scene in which the landscape seems almost alive.

SPIRA: Altdorfer was one of the founders of the Danube School, which propelled landscape forward, making it a subject in its own right. Samson and Delilah is an early work, where you still get fairly large-scale figures in the foreground, but there’s also a great interest in the crags of the hill and a barren tree that seems to encroach on the narrative subject matter.

A&A: The natural world also threatens to take over in the anonymous south German drawing The King’s Sons Shooting at Their Father’s Corpse (1529). What’s going on in this scene?

SPIRA: It’s a traditional tale from the Gesta Romanorum (Deeds of the Romans) about a marksmanship contest deciding the line of succession in the kingdom. The son whose arrow comes closest to the dead king’s heart is supposed to inherit the throne, but the winner turns out to be the faithful son—shown kneeling before the judges at right—who refuses to desecrate his father’s body. One of the reasons we wanted to include this was to integrate an anonymous artist working in the finely drawn style of Altdorfer, which was widely influential.

A&A: Folkloric themes seem to come up a lot.

SPIRA: There was a strong tradition of embracing an earlier Germanic culture—Germania before the Romans—so wild men or satyrs living in the forest, for instance, were common motifs. The Wild Man (1649), by Zurich artist Conrad Meyer, could be seen as a symbol of archaism and freedom, a protector of civilization who was nonetheless sufficiently brutal and untamed to keep out foreign invaders.

A&A: There was a constant threat of war between the various electorates, duchies and principalities of central Europe throughout this period. How was that reflected in the art?

SPIRA: Standard bearers and mercenaries—Landsknechte—became a common theme in Swiss and south German imagery of the early 16th century. Bearer of the Banner of the Canton Glarus (1521) by the Swiss artist Urs Graf—who was a mercenary soldier himself—shows a beautifully costumed bearer holding aloft a Julius II banner, which was awarded to the Cantons of Switzerland after they defended the Pope against a French invasion. And in Germany, Hans Schäufelein produced a large series of drawings and woodcuts celebrating the attitudes and demeanor of the Landsknechte, essentially ennobling them.

A&A: One thing that surprised me about the exhibition was how playful and amusing some of the images are, for instance Peter Flötner’s A Little Boy and Girl Playing Skittles (circa 1530–40).

SPIRA: It’s bawdy.

A&A: Is it?

ALSTEENS: Yes. Flötner was a very quirky artist who worked in Nuremberg, a flourishing center of humanism. This drawing and another in Dessau refer quite clearly to sex. Here it’s a boy and girl, and in the Dessau drawing it’s just boys. So this seems to involve heterosexual and homosexual games. It’s a bit frustrating that we can’t say more than just general things about the very sophisticated context in which a drawing like this should be seen. But there’s no reason to think that people at the time were less interested in such subjects than we are today.

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: August 2012

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