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Dürer, Albrecht: The Large Turf (1503)

The Independent's Great Art series

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About the artist

Pictures single things out. It is the most basic way of picturing. You draw a cat on a blank sheet of paper. You draw a bison on a blank cave wall. You don't bother about background or surroundings. You just put down the thing, the tree, the house, the man, the flower, all by itself.

Odd: for nothing really exists in isolation. Everything is embedded in the endless universe. Still, this kind of pictorial singling-out seems perfectly OK and normal. It mirrors our minds, where things do exist in isolation. The world as we conceive it, and as we often picture it, is made up of distinct and detachable entities.

Pictures of objects, isolated in a void, are everywhere: heraldic emblems, children's books, instruction manuals, adverts, scientific illustrations. The opposite approach, a depiction that registers the infinite continuousness and inextricability of the visible world, is a crucial aspect of what we call "realism".

Albrecht Dürer's watercolour, The Large Turf, is a masterpiece of realism. This is partly a matter of the attentive accuracy with which he delineates each plant in a patch of wayside vegetation. A botanical eye can recognise several grasses, flowers and weeds – cock's-foot, creeping bent, smooth meadow grass, daisy, dandelion, germander speedwell, greater plantain, hound's-tongue and yarrow.

True, a botanical illustration might offer as much. But Dürer doesn't just draw sample specimens, he portrays individual variant members of these species, with each blade and stem and leaf and flower given a differentiated identity.

His realism is not only in the rendering of these particulars. It's in how they're arranged – or rather unarranged. Unlike a list of names, unlike the images in an ancient herbal or a modern textbook, The Large Turf doesn't visually isolate or distinguish its various plants. It presents them in a state of natural disarray, confused, interleaved, entangled. Though each growth is clearly identifiable, the picture is far from being a biological ID parade. It is a slice of living, chaotic undergrowth.

It doesn't single anything out. For example, you may be tempted to see the greenery itself as forming a kind of individual entity, a singular tuft or clump, a distinct item in the world. And the wonderful subtlety of Dürer's composition means that this is almost possible – but not quite. These weeds and grasses are on the point of gathering into a graspable clump, but just fail to do so.

The tall central grasses are the standards around which the encampment might coalesce. And if the vegetation thinned out on the left, as it does on the right, perhaps you would have a definite bunch here, a sort of floral display. But no, on the left, any potential clump disperses, trails away out of view. You have only an ungraspable, continuous, thriving mass of nature.

Yet clearly that isn't the whole story. There is a limit to Dürer's realism. It is interrupted by overt artifice. Teeming, tangled undergrowth may fill the foreground, and spread off at the picture's edges. It doesn't fill the whole picture. About a foot in from the front, nature suddenly stops. And behind it: nothing, no background, no further world, only blank paper. On the right- hand side you can even glimpse the level "horizon" at which this little piece of land comes to its abrupt, unnatural end. Above that level, the plant-forms lie sharply outlined on the empty page, just as in a botanical illustration.

The Large Turf is a contradictory image. It combines two opposite types of depiction. In his recreation of the green world, Dürer utterly resists the sort of picturing that isolates individual entities against a void. He presents nature as continuous and inextricable. And then the old blank-page trick comes up from behind. In the end, something is singled out: not an individual plant, not an individual clump, but a whole mass of vegetation. It's cut off by its empty background, and made into a separated entity.

The effect is to put brackets or inverted commas around this pocket of wild nature. It makes you feel that, for all its disorder and lack of boundaries, it is also a "something", contained and defined. A random stretch of undergrowth is made into a distinct and singular thing, as if it were an individual organism or a mysterious symbol.

The artist

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is northern Europe's answer to the Renaissance man. In the range of his intellectual interests and pictorial accomplishments, this artist from Nuremberg has been set beside Leonardo da Vinci, and made the artistic mascot of German nationalism.

He was a child prodigy, and seems to have had a walleye. He pioneered the self-portrait, picturing himself naked and like Jesus, and was the first great artist of Protestantism. His powers of observation have never been equalled. He delighted in mystical symbolism, and as well as painting, he was, above all, a printmaker.