Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist review – Is the classic blockbuster exhibition in its death throes?

There are some brilliant works in this show, but they’re not all by Dürer. Has the high cost and concern about jetting works across the planet put an end to marquee exhibitions about a single genius, asks Mark Hudson

Mark Hudson
Friday 19 November 2021 06:30
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<p>‘Christ among the Doctors’ by Albrecht Dürer, 1506</p>

‘Christ among the Doctors’ by Albrecht Dürer, 1506

Albrecht Dürer rivals Michelangelo for belligerent megalomania, Leonardo for quasi-scientific curiosity and Raphael for near super-human powers of observation. Yet he never quite gets his due as one of the great Renaissance men. And that’s largely because he was German. Beside our clichéd, but still pervasive idea of the Renaissance as an intrinsically Italian phenomenon, bound up with life-enhancing Mediterranean sunlight and posh holidays in Tuscany, the so-called Northern Renaissance, exemplified by Dürer, tends to feel dour, dark and super-serious.

This show, however, wants to cut past the centuries of cultural stereotyping and get us “closer to the man himself”, following in his footsteps as he heads to Italy, taking in the Low Countries and more far-flung parts of Germany. If these journeys were first and foremost business trips, Dürer observed everything, met some of the great figures of his time, fell into rivalrous confrontations with many of them and recorded it all in voluminous notebooks.

If Dürer’s records of these journeys were, arguably, the first appearance in western art of “travel” as a means of personal discovery, rather than just an inconvenient, and likely dangerous necessity, there’s little sign of his exuberant first-person vision in the first few rooms. The impression is of a fairly standard, and pretty dry monograph exhibition; though two substantial works offer us German Renaissance painting at its best – and worst – right at the start of the show.

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