Dana Cowen Guest Curator
The Life of the Virgin: The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin 1510. Woodcut; 29 x 20.6 cm. Dudley P. Allen Fund 1959.99.19
In addition to his work as a painter and draftsman, German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) was an exceptionally gifted and prolific printmaker. He achieved an astonishing degree of naturalism in a medium that relied on the manipulation of black lines rather than color to achieve light, shadow, and three-dimensional form. During his lifetime, fellow artists, patrons, and collectors celebrated Dürer’s technical skill as well as the creativity he imparted in both common and esoteric subject matter.
The Cleveland Museum of Art has a remarkable collection of more than 200 prints by Dürer, with a quality and breadth that ranks it among the greatest in North America. The exhibition Dürer’s Women: Images of Devotion & Desire presents a focused survey of over 50 of Dürer’s popular and less well-known engravings, woodcuts, and etchings produced over the course of his career.
The Promenade c. 1497. Engraving; 19.4 x 12 cm. John L. Severance Fund 1953.139
Although he succeeded as a painter, Dürer derived fame and financial stability from his prints. A shrewd businessman, he capitalized on the profitability and versatility of printmaking. Costs for materials such as paper and ink were cheaper than for painting, and the time required to produce a print was also considerably shorter. Furthermore, prints allowed for a greater degree of artistic freedom as Dürer could work without the provisions or restrictions stipulated by a patron. These advantages allowed him to create a multitude of devotional and secular prints for a broad socioeconomic audience that ranged from religious-minded individuals to humanists interested in classical and literary-based subjects.
Some of Dürer’s most widely recognized and captivating prints feature women. While images of the Virgin and female saints provide the viewer with relatively straightforward iconography (the symbols that aid in the interpretation of a work of art), Dürer’s prints of secular women, such as mythological goddesses, lovers, and ordinary housewives, tend to be more complex and nuanced. In several instances, the identities of the women he depicted as well as the specific meanings of these works remain ambiguous.
All of the images in this exhibition feature women with varying degrees of feminine power and authority. For Dürer, the Virgin Mary represented the principal figure among these women. Venerated by medieval Christians for giving birth to Jesus and for her role as an intermediary between the faithful and God, Dürer engaged with the image of the Virgin throughout his life, devoting approximately 30 prints, 20 paintings, and more than 70 drawings to her. In addition to singular prints representing the Virgin and Child, Dürer published an entire woodcut series in 1511 dedicated to her life. Comprised of 20 prints, the Life of the Virgin presents significant events ranging from the circumstances of the Virgin’s birth and her holy life with Jesus to her death and assumption into heaven. In all of his prints featuring the Madonna, Dürer emphasized her holiness, purity, and chastity, but perhaps most importantly, her maternal warmth and humanity.
In contrast to the Virgin’s beneficent female authority, in Dürer’s work the broader concept of feminine power often carried more negative connotations. Both secular and religious literature from the period warned of a woman’s ability to influence and even dominate men with her beauty and sexuality. Many of Dürer’s contemporaries explored a traditional theme in the visual arts known as the “Power of Women,” which typically represented scenes from the Bible or antiquity wherein men were shown undone by womanly wiles. Although Dürer depicted women in other popular traditional themes having to do with love, morality, and the fleeting nature of life as seen in his Promenade of around 1497, it is important to note that Dürer refrained from portraying such canonical depictions of biblical and classical women in his prints, instead choosing imaginative and often avant-garde ways to communicate concepts associated with the theme of feminine power.
Four Naked Women 1497. Engraving; 19 x 13.1 cm. Gift of Howard E. Wise in memory of his parents, Samuel D. and May W. Wise, by exchange 1990.85
Dürer’s interest in Italian Renaissance humanism, a cultural movement that emphasized the study of classical arts and literature as well as individualism and critical thought, inspired him to explore mythological and allegorical subject matter of a more enigmatic nature. The artist’s prints in this group, especially those featuring female nudity, are particularly equivocal, inspiring varied interpretations among scholars. For instance, the imagery of Dürer’s Four Naked Women of 1497 has been associated with, among others, Venus and the Graces and the personification of the four seasons. While the figures’ classical stances suggest such associations, the inclusion of a demon in the doorway to the left of the women as well as the skull and bone at their feet conveys a more sinister subject, namely witchcraft. As the devil induces the women to perform a mysterious ritual, they in turn, through their fleshy nakedness and provocative poses, elicit carnal temptation from the presumably male viewer. For Dürer, the nontraditional subject matter provided an opportunity to publicly depict the nude female form while the conflation of classical imagery with cryptic iconography offered a thought-provoking conversation piece for his humanist circle.
The Communication of Ideas
Dürer’s progressive printmaking skills and his inventive original subject matter quickly distinguished him from both his predecessors and contemporaries. As such, the images in Dürer’s Women cannot be read as mere social commentary on the characteristic roles of women during the period. Rather, Dürer’s depictions of various feminine archetypes serve as vehicles for theological, moral, philosophical, and intellectual discourse. Through representations of the female figure Dürer explored the complex intersection of faith and secular life. In other words, the female body acts not only as a devotional object that compels veneration as in The Virgin and Child Seated by the Wall, but also as an object of worldly desire that calls forth the perils of love, temptation, and the loss of self-control. The universality of such religious and profane subjects carries on, making Dürer’s commentary on the human condition just as relevant today as it was in the 16th century.
The Virgin and Child Seated by the Wall 1514. Engraving; 15 x 10.2 cm. Gift of The Print Club of Cleveland by exchange, and purchase from the Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund 1977.20
Cleveland Art, July/August 2014