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Indepth Arts News:

2000-09-09 until 2000-12-03
Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard
Cambridge, MA, USA United States of America

The Harvard University Art Museums will present a landmark exhibition exploring Albrecht Dürer’s (1471–1528) graphic versions of the Passion of Christ. Durer’s Passions focuses on the narrative of Christ’s last days on earth as drawn and printed by Dürer in six series throughout his career. His preoccupation with the Passion of Christ was linked to his constant self-investigation, both creative and spiritual, and reflects his response to the social and religious evolution of his era. Duerer’s Passions will present each series side-by-side to allow a new visual reading of the works in order to provide a new understanding and appreciation of an artist who has been scrutinized by critics and the public alike since he began working.

Encompassing nearly 100 works, Dürer’s Passions will include works from the Fogg Art Museum’s collections as well as extremely rare works loaned by the British Museum; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and German collections in Frankfurt, Berlin, and Bremen. Organized by Jordan Kantor, doctoral candidate in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture, the exhibition will be on view September 6 through December 3, 2000, in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, its only venue.

The organization of Dürer’s Passions is the result of an important collaboration between Kantor and Marjorie B. Cohn, the Fogg Art Museum’s Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints. As a teaching institution, we are dedicated to supporting the research and scholarship of students and providing a platform for new scholarly voices to emerge, said James Cuno, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums. The Fogg Art Museum’s print collection is one of the foremost in the country. To complement the works from the Fogg’s far-reaching holdings of works by Dürer and to fully examine the exhibition’s curatorial premise, loans of extremely rare works from European collections were necessary. The special appeal for loans for Dürer’s Passions elicited a positive response among major institutions and private collections, and these loans were granted because the particular spiritual and intellectual rationale of the exhibition will provide new understanding and appreciation of Dürer as well as of this pivotal moment in Western social, political, and religious history.

The working life of Albrecht Dürer, who was the greatest artistic figure in Germany before the modern era, spanned the Gothic, Renaissance, and Reformation periods. Trained as a painter and printmaker, in his early twenties Dürer became interested in making prints. Although Dürer traveled to Italy and constantly worked to integrate Renaissance humanist concepts such as perspective, the primacy of antiquity, and the study of the nude into his art, he was principally a religious artist. Dürer worked on the subject of Christ’s Passion throughout his career, and because these images span his entire working life, they also provide a window onto his artistic development as a whole.

Dürer’s lifelong focus on scenes of Christ’s Passion, from his earliest activity as a journeyman traveling through a still-Gothic Northern Europe until the last years of his life, when the Protestant Reformation was engulfing Germany, provide insight on his own religious temperament, noted Cohn. That he identified with Christ is explicit in his self-portrait drawing as the Man of Sorrows, and this is further revealed through his repeated rendering of the Passion in multiple series. Dürer’s Passions will explore artistic genius and spirituality as it developed over the course of one lifetime spent at the historic European crossroads of art and religion.

Dürer’s preoccupation with the Passion of Christ was a personal quest for the source of his creativity, and it was also a personal response to the cultural and theological transformation of his society. In the early 16th century, most European art was linked to religion, and the Passion was a primary subject. Dürer’s insistent revisitation of the subject reveals the special attention and importance he accorded the Passion; however, neither the Renaissance nor the Reformation is sufficient to explain his accomplishment, and Dürer’s Passions reveals how the individual soul and the larger world nourish each other.

Over the course of his career, printmaking became as important a medium for him as painting and drawing, and he set new technical and emotive standards for both woodcuts and engravings, infusing traditional subjects like Christ’s Passion with a new relevance and immediacy. Working in formats larger than the traditional prints of his era, Dürer was able to work in greater detail and ultimately develop a new pictoral vocabulary for the medium, added Kantor.

Dürer’s Passions will be installed to provide a close visual reading of all of the series. Traditionally, when matted in frames, prints and drawings are considered in isolation. Dürer’s Passions will present the prints mounted side by side on the walls like cartoon-strips, to heighten understanding of the intricate linkages of linear rendering, pose, expression, and iconographic detail that convey meaning and set mood from one frame to the next. Because many of his prints were conceived of for daily prayers, Dürer paid great attention to how they would work together in sequence, and this presentation will also allow viewers to see more clearly the overall narrative style within each series. As these six cycles have not previously been shown together, this arrangement also provides an important, new way to look at an artist who has been scrutinized by critics and the public alike since he began his artistic output.

Also on view will be examples of Dürer’s Passion series bound as books, their original format, from the Fogg as well as Harvard’s Houghton Library and other special collections. In addition, drawings that provide insight into his development of the series will be exhibited, including seven versions of The Agony in the Garden (Christ on the Mount of Olives). Prints of The Crucifixion will be complemented by Dürer’s astounding life-sized, close-up charcoal drawing of Christ’s head in his death agony, from the collection of the British Museum, which has never before been lent to any exhibition, outside Great Britain.

To accompany the exhibition, a scholarly catalogue will be published; its main essay, by Kantor, will provide new scholarship for the field through an exploration of Dürer’s aesthetic, spiritual, and stylistic development and how the artist was integrally linked to a major moment of his era. Dürer simultaneously grew along with the dramatic changes engulfing society during his lifetime and contributed to its development. A public lecture by Elizabeth Guenther, an authority on Dürer’s narrative style, will be given in mid-October in conjunction with the exhibition.

Christ in Limbo (Harrowing of Hell),
Woodcut; 39.6 x 28.4
Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop

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